Why you should take your urban puppy to socials after just one set of shots

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

(Note from March 31:  Bark Magazine just published this article in the Spring 2015 issues of their awesome magazine.  Click here to view it on their site.)

A few months back I attended a “Dangerous Dog Conference” at the University of California/Davis, during which Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, highlighted a study on the risk of partially-vaccinated puppies contracting parvovirus at indoor puppy socials. The result?

Puppies with just the first set of shots attending puppy socials are at no greater risk of parvovirus infection than those not attending socials. During the study of 1,012 puppies:

  • None of the 15 puppies that contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials
  • None of the puppies that attended socials contracted parvovirus

This UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine study dovetails perfectly with the standard of care recommended by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally encourages puppies to begin socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age and seven days after the first set of vaccines.

It is important to note that structured puppy socials, run by a variety of training and daycare facilities and other pet-related businesses, take place indoors on non-porous surfaces with immediate cleansing of any “accidents” with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as soil, sand and, in particular, dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination!

Some veterinarians, shelters and breeders continue to unwisely advise new owners to wait until after the final set of shots to allow their puppy to interact with others, by which time the socialization period has closed, precluding their best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills. Such under-socialization can result in behavior problems, fear and aggression, which are the primary reasons for relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs.

I do not take lightly that I may be asking you to reject your particular veterinarian’s counsel, but the recommendation that puppies begin socials before full vaccination is supported by the AVSAB as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA and other dog health and behavior experts.


Puppy socials build lifelong skills

Puppy socialization classes do not guarantee that any given dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life and neither are all under-socialized puppies antisocial. In utero experiences, early nutrition and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles in behavior and disposition. But there is no dispute that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves the odds of a raising a balanced, confident dog.

Why is the socialization window so short?
At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human baby counterparts: Puppies walk beautifully at three weeks; babies not so well until after a year. This acceleration affects cognitive function as well, which develops rapidly during a short socialization period that forms the framework for the puppy’s future social functioning. A strong foundation built from a rich set of early experiences gives the puppy more context in which to evaluate and react to future stimuli in the environment, including people and other dogs.

The true socialization period for puppies—during which they readily incorporate new experiences into their developing worldviews that directly effect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Since most puppies remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (that’s a whole other blog post), this means new owners have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunity to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.

Think of your puppy’s brain during these 28 days as a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period”, the first having been the prior seven weeks with the mother and siblings. This is absolutely the most profoundly important period in your dog’s life. Her brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than any subsequent period, and she learns not only to accept being around people and other dogs, but also to enjoy and seek out these experiences.

Learning a new language
While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s openness to learning socials skills is similar to the way young children learn new languages effortlessly. Studies have shown that children younger than seven years old easily pick up new languages because their brains are wired to readily incorporate the words, grammar and structure of multiple languages. Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven years old, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. You can place a 6-year old child in a Mandarin immersion class for a year and she will come out fluent in the language but if I were to attend the same class, I would likely still be struggling with the basics.

The analogy continues in that my Mandarin would improve over time as I became more familiar and comfortable with the language, but I would never be as fluent as my toddler counterpart. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it will take a great deal more time and effort and have a lower chance of success.

For dogs, being comfortable with and understanding our manmade world is a life-long process but the critical socialization period only comes along once.

Socialization…but to what?
The reason I titled this article “why you must take your urban puppy to socials after one set of shots” is that if your puppy is not destined for an urban life but rather, say, the life of a farm dog, socialization to lots of people and dogs is not as important. If your pup’s life will be devoted to managing livestock, this second socialization period would be the ideal time for him to hang out a bit with sheep, goats, cows, tractors, turbines and the like.

But 80% of Americans live in urban areas rather than farms, and since more of us have dogs in our homes than ever before, it behooves us to structure our puppy’s socialization period to take this into account. Our sheepherder probably doesn’t need to learn how to cope with city parks bursting at the seams with dogs. But if you live in an urban area and plan to take your (fully vaccinated) dog to parks, beaches and other dog-friendly areas, you’d best start teaching him early that there are lots of dogs of all sorts in this world. To do this, indoor puppy socials before 16 weeks of age are your best bet.

Puppy socials are just one part of a well thought out socialization plan (I recommend 7-10 socials at three distinct locations from weeks 8 – 16) but they form the cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations are complete per the aforementioned recommendations of the ASVAB. In addition to the socials, a widely-accepted goal is for a puppy to meet 100 people during these same four weeks, including babies, children, elderly folks, men, women, all races, sizes and shapes.  (Make sure a few bearded men in baseball hats gently approach and give your pup a treat!)

One caveat here is that these puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming and not too scary. The actual ASVAB statement reads:

The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.

So while you are your pup’s guardian in these situations and must avoid overly frightening situations (an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance) you must also allow your puppy to venture forth into the mayhem at their own pace. Sometimes a shy puppy will hang back for the first few events, and then become the social butterfly.

Otis emerges on the world stage
My dog Otis was of this ilk as a young puppy, shy and unsure of herself. She had been fostered in a rural area of eastern California, so the sights and sounds of San Francisco were initially overwhelming. At her first puppy social, she hung out under my chair and observed the other puppies playing; I did not coddle or overprotect her. By her second social she was venturing forth, playing for a few minutes, then retreating to her safe place under my chair. By her third social, she was actively seeking out playmates and practicing adult communication behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of these events.

Since Otis was by nature somewhat fearful, I have no doubt that had she not had the chance to come out of her shell among other puppies and to learn and practice social skills, she would be a fearful dog today, potentially aggressively so. Instead she has superb communication skills and is particularly adept at enticing other dogs to play and chase her. She remains cautious around novel stimuli (a strange stack of wood on our street or a kite hitting the beach nearby), but she is most definitely not fearful. Puppy socials made all the difference.

Had I only taken Otis to that first puppy social (the one in which she hung out under my chair, overwhelmed and frightened) it almost certainly would have backfired. She would have learned that being around other dogs was an unpleasant experience to be avoided. She might have become aggressive in trying to keep them away, like the multitude of dogs that have learned to snarl, snap, lunge and bark to keep other dogs from approaching. Instead, by giving Otis numerous opportunities to slowly learn to how to play, she became a world-class communicator.

I bring this up primarily because I recently took a call from the owner of a 6-month old puppy whose veterinarian had advised to avoid all contact with other dogs until fully vaccinated. In this particular puppy’s case, this meant no contact until 17 weeks. With clearance from their veterinarian, the pup finally attended one social, now five weeks past the end of the second socialization period, and it did not go well. The puppy was terrified, so they never went back. Now this young dog’s single point of reference is that new dogs are scary. She trembles in fear whenever in the presence of other dogs, unsure of how to act or react. A desensitization/counter-condition program will take months or years and will never be as effective as if that puppy had been taken to numerous socials while her brain was configured to learn and cope.

Don’t let time pass you by
In the UC Davis study, none of the puppies taken to socials contracted parvo but 15 not taken did. This is not surprising: new owners who are conscientious enough to know about the advantages of early (and safe!) socialization are also knowledgeable enough to avoid taking under-vaccinated pups to dog parks, where the risk of contracting the virus is high.

Conversely, people unaware of puppy socials are more likely to take puppies to places they should not be until after full vaccination, including dog parks, beaches and other porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.

I hope this article sheds some light not only on the advantages of socialization, but also on how such a program can begin early enough to make a real difference in the lives of dogs. In part because the safety and benefits of early socialization are well documented, most urban and suburban areas of the country now have access to indoor puppy socials that require just the first set of shots. This bodes well for the heath and well being of future generations of man’s best friend.

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Head collars for loose leash walking

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Loose leash walking is part of most obedience classes, but it’s clear that many handler/dog pairs fail to master the art of the walk. Look around at folks struggling to walk dogs on leashes and you’re likely to find all sorts of gadgets intended to stop the pulling, including choke chains, prong collars, shock collars, front-clip harnesses and—the subject of this article—head collars, also known as head halters.

One of the biggest challenges to achieving anything close to a loose leash is the dogs’ opposition reflex. Technically, opposition reflex is a type of thigmotaxis, an innate response (pushing or pulling) against physical pressure. In learning theory terminology, your dog pulling on the leash is an unconditioned response in the same vein as his salivating when presented with food:  He does not have to be taught this.

Many aspects of dog training focus on teaching our dogs to not behave in ways that are natural and instinctual. For instance, dogs are social creatures, but we must teach them how to be alone to avoid separation anxiety. Likewise, it is completely normal for an animal to protect his resources, but we teach our dogs to not snarl and snap when we take their toys away to avoid excessive resource guarding.

Leash pulling is instinctual
And so it goes with pulling on the leash: Until he is trained otherwise, your dog is likely to exhibit the opposition reflex that prompts pulling against his leashed collar. (Sadly, mushers in the Iditarod use this innate response to their benefit; sled dogs will pull against pressure to utter exhaustion, even death.) Since we humans seem to have our own unconditional response to finding the quickest solution, many devices have been designed and marketed to combat pulling. But the most aversive gear —choke chains, prong and shock collars—do nothing to address the opposition reflex, instead relying on pain.

Conversely, both head collars and front-clip harnesses act by reducing opposition reflex. For most pulling issues I’ll usually start by introducing an Easy Walk or SENSE-ation front-clip harness and simultaneously teach loose leash walks using a combination of positive reinforcement (click/treat when the leash is loose) and negative punishment (forward motion stops when the leash is taught.)

When a dog is a world-class puller or is also reactive on leash to either people or to other dogs, a head collar is my tool of choice. British animal psychologist Dr. Roger Mugford developed the first head collar, the Halti, in 1986. Mugford scaled down the head halters that had been used for thousands of years on horses (bridles), cattle, camels and lamas, and then adjusted the construction to fit the dog’s facial anatomy. Other brands have since hit the market, including the Snoot Loop, Walk ‘n Train, and the most common brand in the United States, the Gentle Leader.

Recommended Head Collar
This is the head collar I recommend (updated January, 2021):

Conditioning the head collar
Regardless of which brand my client selects, I encourage them to slowly condition the dog to wearing the head collar for short periods before the appointment in which I demonstrate how to use it for leashed walks.  This is an excellent discussion on how to accomplish this:
How to get your dog comfortable in a head collar.

My clients are often amazed the first time we take their dog out with a head collar because, instead of pulling ahead on a tight leash, he’ll instead trot close in a heeled position for the first time ever—the opposition reflex is no longer in effect. If he does start pulling ahead, a quick, gentle tug-and-release will guide him back to the correct position, his head adjacent to your leg.

A note on corrections:  I am loath to use the term “correction” for the motion we make using the leash and head collar to communicate with the dog. Leash correction conjures up all sorts of images of angrily yanked collars. I don’t use choke, pinch or shock collars because they inflict pain, and I certainly do not advocate hurting dogs with harsh leash corrections. The communication via the leash is similar to that which happens between a horse and a rider using a bridle and reins.

The gentle tug-and-release should be accomplished with a wrist motion, or even just a flick of the pinky finger. When using a head collar, the leash should be loose 99.5% of the time. If you’re yanking too hard or the leash is taught for more than short instances, you’re using it incorrectly. I recommend hiring an experienced trainer to demonstrate the head collar the first time you use it following the desensitization period.

 Head collar no-no’s

    • NEVER use a retractable leash with a head collar because you’ll be sending very mixed, confusing messages to your dog, which could result in injury. The head collar is meant to keep your dog near you while the retractable leash tells him to go as far away as the leash will extend. I would actually expand on this to say, never use retractable leashes!
    • Do not run your dog using a head collar. A sudden stop could cause injury to your dog. Instead, use a flat buckle or front-clip harness for running.
  • Do not allow your dog to wear the head collar except during walks, especially not when he is playing with other dogs. It’s too easy for another dog to grab hold of the collar, a distinct disadvantage and potentially dangerous.

Temporary or permanent?
People often ask if their dog will wear the head collar for life, and the answer is (as is often the case):  it depends. A dog on a loose leash using a head collar is less likely to be aggressive/reactive for two reasons: (1) he is in a less aroused state when trotting next to you, leash loose, than when in front of you on a tight leash, and (2) the head collar can have a calming effect not unlike that achieved using a pressure wrap such as a Thundershirt. So if a dog is highly reactive, the head collar might be your best option for the long haul.

If your most pressing concern is pulling without leash aggression, I would recommend combining the head collar with positive reinforcement to teach heeled walks, then wean your dog off the head collar as his leash skills improve. Again, working with an experienced trainer is a great option.  I find that a dog learns heeled walks faster when training sessions incorporate many figure 8 patterns:  He has to pay more attention to you when you’re constantly turning. Regardless of where he is in relation to your leg, on the turn he will end up by your side at some point, and this is when you click/treat and introduce the verbal “heel” cue.

Head collars are deemed effective and humane by both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States.  A head collar is simply a tool, and like all tools it can be used correctly or incorrectly. Some dogs simply will not get used to wearing one, though this is relatively rare. Others will take to them instantly with no problem whatsoever. Regardless, be patient and compassionate with your dog and ever conscientious about building your relationship.

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How Often Should You Give Food Rewards During Dog Training?

By Jeff Stallings

My dog Otis loves to spend time in the backyard, lounging in the sun or engaging in secretive but very important dog rituals, tossing pinecones around and gnawing on sticks.  But if I call to her from the side door using my I-mean-it cue, “Otis, HERE!”, 100% of the time she drops whatever has her attention and comes tearing around the corner and up the stairs.  How did I achieve that level of response with her recalls?


Read my latest article in Baywoof Magazine to find out!



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Dog Training Guarantees

By Jeff Stallings

I grew up cringing at those comically annoying radio spots by Tom Shane (my friend in the diamond business!), who guaranteed that I would not, could not, find a better diamond at a lower price.  Likewise, in ubiquitous Men’s Wearhouse spots, company president George Zimmer sought to convince men across the country that they were going to like the way they looked—“I guarantee it”.

I began pondering guarantees recently when in the course of a single day I received separate emails from two dog owners, both describing complex and deep-seated behavioral problems, asking what sort of guarantees I offered.  Here’s what I told them:  Dogs are animals, multifaceted beings whose rich emotional and mental lives are affected by as many variables as are humans, and that while we’ve developed scientifically-sound methods for canine behavior modification, the only guarantees in life are death and taxes—and ostensibly diamonds and men’s suits.

guaranteeThere’s an old joke in the dog training world that the only thing two trainers can agree upon is that the third one is doing it wrong.  Which I bring up mainly to refute.  In fact, far more than ever before, dog trainers and behaviorists have common, clinically-proven techniques to effect real change in dog behavior.  We benefit from a boom in canine behavioral studies over the past several decades, with cognitive development far more fully understood than ever.  (For purposes of this discussion, I am referring to behavior modification for problem behaviors, as opposed to general obedience, sport and trick training.)

Our toolkit includes positive reinforcement and clickers, desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC), and more behavior modification acronyms (BAT, CAT and LAT, to name but a few) than you can shake a stick at.  The good new is that, with a targeted, science-based plan, canine behavior issues can be addressed, managed and mitigated, and frequently entirely solved.  The not-so-good news is that, well, there are no guarantees.  While we know much about how to effect change, each and every dog is a singular individual, with unique genes and experiences, including in utero environment, early socialization (or the lack thereof), the timing of weaning and at what stage a puppy is separated from the mother, and countless other factors that influence behavior.

In our modern world we exert far more control over daily existence than ever before in human history, and we sometimes, understandably, desire the same level of control over our animal companions.  We download apps at the touch of a button to order dinner to be delivered just so.  We control the temperature in our homes with the turn of a knob, and access the enormity of human knowledge with the flick of a finger.  Unfortunately, perhaps it’s also easier than ever to give up too soon on a dog that does not behave exactly as we wish, and maybe this is one reason shelters from coast to coast are bursting at the seams:  We want what we want, guarantees and all.

I certainly understand the inclination to want guaranteed results, but remedying behavior problems, be they canine or human, is rarely as straightforward as we’d like.  Let’s say you’d really like your teenager to study more and spend less time playing video games.  Would you send your son to the school counselor and demand that she modify his psyche to flip his most basic motivators?  Hopefully not!  But you could use positive reinforcement to influence his behavior by, for example, allowing him one hour of gaming for every hour spent studying, then perhaps offering him a car in exchange for a senior year of straight As—what we refer to in the dog training world as a “jackpot”.

One heartwrenching frustration I share with my dog training colleagues is that many behavior problems could be avoided, or at least minimized, by early puppy socialization.  Those scientific advances I spoke of earlier have established clearly delineated stages of cognitive development, information we can use to directly affect life-long behaviors.  I often hear distraught owners explain their rescue dog’s aggression (towards men, crying babies, skateboards, buses, other dogs) as “obviously” being the result of abuse, when it is far more likely the result of neglect, including a lack of early exposure to the things he now finds scary.

While formulating a potential behavior modification program, I often secretly, silently wish for a time machine to take the dog back to 8-weeks old, to fully expose him to all the things that fire up his reactivity (a word I generally prefer over aggression.)  If he had been repeated exposed to the objects of his reactivity during the “fear impact/second socialization” period of cognitive development (8 – 18 weeks), you’d likely have an entirely different set of behaviors, rooted less in fear and more in tolerance and confidence.  With a time machine to puppy socials past, I might follow in the footsteps of Tom Shane and the Men’s Wearhouse and offer guaranteed results.  I would of course still be bound by the myriad other factors that affect behavior.

While there are no time machines on the horizon, we do have a path forward in most cases of behavior problems. Thousands of dogs and their owners have benefited from modern behavior modification methods.  We now know how to slowly desensitize a dog with separation anxiety to being alone, for example, and how to countercondition fears to thunderstorms, children, men with hats and countless other reactivity triggers. Potty training is now more of a science than an art, and we know how to make basic obedience training—sit, down, stay, come—fun and exciting for canines and their human handlers alike.

I have observed extraordinary transformation in dog behavior employing these techniques.  And yet, and yet…  I have otherwise encountered dogs so impaired by nature and nurture as to appear beyond rehabilitation.  These heartbreaking cases might thrive in a particular environment, for example, a rural home or farm with few interactions with people or other dogs, but might never achieve harmony in an urban location.  Such is the case sometimes with dogs rescued from shelters.  The new owners quickly discover alarming behaviors, and these folks are often the ones desperate for guaranteed fixes.  Thankfully these discouraging cases are relatively rare.

The intent of this article is not to discourage, but rather to provide perspective.  Dog owners with realistic expectations, perseverance and commitment, armed with the latest knowledge (and perhaps an experienced trainer) have a very good chance indeed of improving their lot and their dog’s alike.

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Littermate Syndrome: The risky downside to raising sibling puppies

[Please note that an update of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Bark Magazine.]

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Upon reading Patricia Leslie’s email, I knew I’d be replying with disappointing news. “We were planning to adopt one puppy, but the breeder said that raising two sisters would be easier.” Leslie had contacted me after reading my blog post about littermate syndrome, in which profoundly bonded siblings have difficulty relating to humans and other dogs.

“After we brought the mixed-breed girls home at nine weeks, their behavior grew completely out of control. My husband and I could not get their attention for more than a second or two, as if we weren’t even in the same room. And then they started displaying alarming fearfulness of people and other dogs.” I made an appointment to meet Patricia, her husband Karl and the puppies the next day at their Richmond, California home.

Many dog behaviorists, trainers, breeders and shelters discourage adopting siblings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that behavioral issues may arise during key development periods because the two puppies’ deep bond impedes their ability to absorb and grasp the nuances of human and canine communication. Since fear is the default reaction to odd or unfamiliar stimuli in dogs, this muddled understanding of the world around them can lead to impaired coping mechanisms later on. Many factors influence behavior and not all siblings raised together will exhibit signs: Littermate syndrome is a risk, not a foregone conclusion.

Littermate Syndrome

Common Signs
Signs include fearfulness of unfamiliar people, dogs and other novel stimuli (neophobia); intense anxiety when separated even briefly; and difficulty learning basic obedience skills. In some cases the two dogs fight incessantly. Over lunch recently, veterinarian and dog behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar and I discussed raising sibling dogs. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen for the littermates because they don’t get socialized to other dogs or people, let alone to their owners,” he said. Many owners assume their interacting with each other is adequate, “but when the puppies are five or six months old and meet an unfamiliar dog in a novel setting, they absolutely freak out.”

Dunbar points out that raising littermates necessitates training two puppies—particularly challenging when they essentially wear blinders to all but each other. “It’s more than twice the work; it’s exponential. The two combine to produce levels of energy that we can barely measure. Tension develops in training and compliance as they squeeze the owner out of the relationship. They’re always living with an enormous distraction—each other.”

The Tie That Binds
Cohabitating siblings may become so emotionally dependent on each other that even short separations provoke extreme distress. Behavior specialist and author Nicole Wilde recalls a case in which two nine-year-old sibling Huskies attended her group class. “They were so bonded to each other that I literally could not take one and walk a few feet away to practice loose leash skills because the other would scream.”

Wilde believes the problems are rooted in hyper-attachment, leading to hindered social development and communication issues. “People assume that having two same-age pups that play together and interact constantly covers their dog-dog socialization needs, but they in fact don’t learn how other breeds play and have no idea about social skills with other puppies, adolescents or adult dogs. Perhaps one puppy is a bit of a bully, which his littermate puts up with, but his rude behavior might not be tolerated by a new dog in a new setting.”

During my appointment with Leslie, we determined that the best course was to re-home one of her twelve-week-old siblings. Dunbar agrees that it’s often best to separate littermates, especially if symptoms appear early, so that each has a chance to develop normally as an individual. This is obviously a burdensome decision for the overwhelmed owner to make, a sort of canine Sophie’s Choice, so he recommends that the new owner meet both puppies and determine which to take home.

Together Forever
Owners committed to raising a pair should ensure the puppies spend significant portions of every day apart so that each learns how to be alone—a key lesson in any well thought-out puppy program. This means feeding, walking and training separately, with individual crates in different parts of the home. Even trips to puppy socials and the vet should be separate so that both learn to incorporate these episodes into their psyches without being overly dependent on their littermate.

This separate-but-equal arrangement is time-consuming, exhausting and seems to defeat the original intent of acquiring siblings. Wilde notes that planned separations must begin immediately. “I’ve been called into homes where four-month-old siblings have been sleeping in the same crate for eight weeks and not purposefully separated by the owners, who had the best intentions but were unaware of littermate issues. Even getting the puppies to sleep in separate crates right next to each other is traumatic for them.”

Dunbar, too, is adamant that a key lesson for a puppy to master is how to be content with being alone, all but impossible with two siblings. “Once we’ve done that, yes, he can live with other dogs and have free run of the house. But if you don’t teach puppies early on how to be alone, and especially with siblings who have always been together, it will be catastrophic when one dies.” Dunbar encourages multiple dog households—“I always like having three dogs”—but the timing, temperament and age that each enters the home is paramount.

Most people contacting me through my blog never heard of littermate syndrome before finding the post while researching symptoms observed in their dogs. Increasingly, trainers and behavior professionals recognize that the cons of adopting siblings far outweigh the pros. “The only advantage I can think of is a short-term gain of the puppies being less lonely in the first month of life”, says Dunbar. “Everything else is a loss.”

Exceptions and Hope
While the majority of comments to my blog corroborate struggles in raising siblings—including the ongoing aggression and fighting often seen between same-gendered littermates—others write of well-adjusted cohabitating pairs. A common thread seems to be that littermates are more likely to thrive when introduced into a household with an older dog, who perhaps acts as an arbiter and stabilizing influence.

Myriad factors affect dog behavior, including genetics, early life experiences and owner engagement. As University of California/Davis veterinary behaviorist Dr. Melissa Bain points out, “two fearful littermates very well may be genetically predisposed to fear.” Bain is less inclined to apply the term syndrome to the set of symptoms: “It makes you think all littermates have problems, which is not the case.” She also emphasizes that the level of owner involvement is key, saying “the symptoms escalate when the owners treat them as one dog with eight legs.” When conflict ensues within the pair, Bain believes it’s due to the dogs being too similar in size, age and gender. “This uniformity makes it difficult for the siblings to delineate a hierarchy,” she said.

After Leslie’s second sibling had been re-homed, her remaining puppy began to thrive under a remedial socialization program. “Dora has blossomed in the last three months into a delightful household companion and she continues to improve. She now approaches people out of curiosity. We know she would still be fearful had we not separated the two before it got any worse. Dora has become more confident with all kinds of dogs and successfully completed a group obedience class.”

Increased Awareness
Recognition of the risks appears to be spreading, with many breeders and shelters declining to place siblings together. Shelley Smith, adoption center manager at Pets Unlimited in San Francisco, said her shelter stopped placing siblings together after a particularly disturbing case. “A dachshund mix named Thelma was returned to the shelter because her sibling repeatedly attacked her and she had multiple injuries by the time the heartbroken family returned her to us. Thankfully we were able to re-home Thelma, but it’s almost certain the fighting and anxiety could have been avoided had the two littermates not been placed together. We now separate siblings and inform adopters about the rationale for our policy.”

While siblings blessed with extraordinary genes and socialization-forward owners may deflect littermate syndrome, the consensus among canine professionals is that it’s not worth the risk. Most would encourage new owners to adopt a single puppy that suits their lifestyle and to focus on the training and socialization that strengthens the interspecies bond unique to humans and dogs. Once your puppy is a dog, by all means, get a second since the two will be at completely different stages, and the older one may very well emerge as a great life teacher to the younger.

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My article in the July issue of Bay Woof: Your Dog Needs a Job

Most evenings as we settle down to read or watch TV, Jim or I give Otis something to chew. She has many favorites from what I call the “carnage aisle” of the pet store, such as beef kneecaps, bully sticks, and marrowbones.

But before Otis gets hever r nightly chew treat, I always have her perform one or two of her many tricks, such as rolling oor weaving figure 8s between my legs. I then have her sit/stay while I hide the chew treat and release her to sniff it out. Otis finds all of this oh so fun and engaging. She then lies happily at my feet, gnawing away at the item of the evening.

Click here to continue reading on the Bay Woof website.

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Nature vs. Nurture: Dog breeds, temperament and training

By Jeff Stallings

Recently, an exasperated dog owner contacted me about her out-of-control, “aggressive” Labrador retriever. She was trying to understand why her 2-year-old dog actively challenges other dogs, men and children with growls, snaps and threatening postures. During our phone conversation she reminded me several times that “everyone knows” Labs are sweet and gentle creatures that love all people and all dogs (just like her last one did.)

On the contrary, it is impossible to generalize about canine temperament based on breed alone. Researchers Kenth Svartberg (Stockholm University) and Björn Forkman (University of Denmark) analyzed a huge dataset that included over 15,000 dogs from 164 breeds in an attempt to better understand dog personality. Using a series of behavior tests, the researchers categorized each individual dog in regards to:

  • Playfulness
  • Curiosity/fearlessness
  • Chase proneness
  • Shyness/boldness
  • Sociability (Does the dog get along with other dogs?)
  • Calmness (Is the dog coolheaded under stressful situations?)
  • Trainability (Does the dog learn quickly?)
  • Aggressiveness

The researchers demonstrated conclusively that there is a very high degree of behavior variation within each dog breed. There are many facets in addition to genes that go into constructing the temperament of any given dog, including maternal nutrition during gestation, the birth process, interaction with siblings (or a lack of siblings), and events early in life. The problem with my caller’s assertion about the ever-gentle Lab is that not all Labs are the same any more than all people are the same.

angry_labThis is not to say that behavior cannot be inherited. On the contrary, certain characteristics of the dog’s wolf ancestors have been intentionally amplified in certain working breeds, such as circling prey (herding) in Border Collies and endlessly chasing vermin (ratting) in Yorkshire terriers. But, as researchers John Paul Scott and John Fuller—who in the 1940s performed a smaller-scale study similar to the one mentioned above—noted, “After emphasizing the differences between the breeds, we wish to caution the reader against accepting the idea of a breed stereotype.

Early intentional breeding by humans focused on function—hunting or ratting, for example—rather than the visible ascetics that are the focus of today’s breed standards (often to deleterious effect.) Dogs are not machines but rather animals with all the variability and chance inherent in, well, heredity.

So while we can’t backpedal the “nature” aspect of any given puppy, we can have a profound impact on future behavior by making sure we get the “nurture” part right. Anyone who has kept up with my blog posts in recent years knows that I am a huge advocate of comprehensive socialization during puppyhood, commencing immediately upon administering the first set of shots and intensively continuing through six months of age. This includes meeting 100 people before 12 weeks; numerous puppy socials between 10 and 20 weeks; and safely exposing him to as many types of animals, people, machines, buses, etc. as possible (without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.)

Is a dog that is well-socialized and trained never going to perform actions that to us look aggressive? Unfortunately, no. Even having been as diligent as possible in socializing your puppy—and irrespective of breed—your dog may still have temperament issues that result in less-than-desirable behavior, including fearfulness and reactivity. But even these issues must be considered in regards to (1) normal canine communication and (2) the effects of on-going training and management. To elaborate:

Normal canine communication often appears to humans to be “aggressive” when in fact the apparent ferocity may simply be a dog clearly making her point, like a human couple having a heated argument. My mutt Otis, for instance, is by no means naturally aggressive. In fact, as a young puppy she was quite timid and submissive. But if we’re playing on the beach and another dog tries to take her ball, she will growl and bark and chase them away. Someone who does not understand dog language might say that Otis is being “aggressive”. I would counter that she is clearly telling the other dog to leave her resource (the ball) alone. If the dog has been well-socialized, he will understand her point, leave the ball and mind his business; if not, he might misunderstand her communication, persist in his rudeness and escalate the encounter. These sorts of misunderstandings are the type that can usually (but not always!) be avoided by early socialization to other puppies, when the nuances of dog “language” are practiced and mastered.

As for effects of on-going training and management, many behavior issues can be improved with training that is consistent and fair. If your dog is leash-reactive towards other dogs, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate this issue. The same goes for separation distress, leash pulling and the like. But if, for instance, your dog never met a child until he was a year old and shows fearful aggression toward the first one he meets, you will probably never be able fully relax around small children.

So, a pit bull can be the goofiest, sweetest dog you ever met, and a Golden Retriever might be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.  My job as a trainer is to guide people through behavior modification programs when they have a good chance of success. But I also look to provide context and tools for management when training alone cannot ensure the safety of all affiliated people and dogs. Regardless, whether through responsible breeding, socialization, training or management, the goal is a happy, healthy dog who understands how to best get along with humans and other beasts in this man-made world we share.

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Treat/Retreat: a strategy for introducing your reactive dog to houseguests

By Jeff Stallings

Folks sometimes hire me to help with dogs who feel threatened or frightened by strangers entering their homes. These dogs bark, growl, snap or otherwise display signs of fear-based aggression on encountering new people. Owners sometimes attempt to have guests hand the dog a treat, but find that this earnest attempt at establishing a human/canine friendship backfires. Why is that, and what’s a better alternative?

Dogs are emotion-driven animals with a highly developed aptitude for complex communication with humans and with other dogs. Because they are a social species that live in groups, this communication helps to maintain peace and defuse volatile situations. Over millennia, the dog’s capacity to read and react to humans has evolved well beyond the abilities of any other species on earth.

However, this capacity must be fully exercised in early puppyhood for dogs to feel entirely comfortable in our presence. Puppies who are intensively socialized will almost always learn the ins and outs of communication. But puppies who do not spend lots of quality time early on with a variety of humans can sometimes become fearful later on.

Dogs use gestures to clearly communicate when they are feeling threatened or stressed—ones they sometimes employ when strangers enter your home. If your dog barks, growls, snaps or otherwise shows stress via raised hackles, a lowered head, flattened ears or a slow tail wag, the last thing you want to do is further stress him by having your friend directly offer food. The problem with this strategy is that it forces an already-stressed animal to go outside his “safety zone” to retrieve the treat, increasing his internal conflict rather than decreasing his stress about the presence of this new person.


This dog is showing many stress signals, including hugely dilated pupils, whites of the eyes (whale eye), crouched posture, flattened ears, and closed mouth.

An alternative I often employ was developed either by veterinarian Dr. Ian Dunbar or renowned dog trainer Suzanne Clothier, both of whom employ the technique (but both of whom attribute its discovery to the other.) Regardless, the method relies on clearly communicating to a stressed, potentially reactive dog that he is free to NOT move closer to or meet the new guest. And I have seen it succeed spectacularly as part of a comprehensive strategy for in-home introductions. Here’s how it works:

Ideally, have the person and dog meet outside of your home, on a short walk, and have them toss the dog some treats, with no eye contact or other gestures.  When the new person enters your home (let’s call him “Bob”), have him squat or kneed sideways to the dog, ignore your dog entirely; direct eye contact is threatening to dogs. With no fanfare, have Bob toss a small treat PAST your dog (“Sybil”) so that she has to retreat to eat it. Repeat five to eight times, making sure that Bob’s body movements tossing the treat are subtle and non-threatening. You can verbally and in real-time coach your friend through this casual performance.

Once Sybil is getting into the swing of the game, have Bob toss an even better treat between he and the dog, so that she has to move forward to retrieve it, followed by another (just okay) treat tossed past Sybil. Over time, drop the better treats closer to Bob (still no direct eye contact!) until either Sybil approaches directly, or she makes it clear where her comfort zone ends. If the dog finally approaches your guest, he can stroke under her chin or on her chest, still with soft movements, quiet voice and little eye contact. If your dog does not willingly approach, end the game and have your guest leave.

This treat/retreat game is typically part of a guest-in-home protocol that might also include meeting outside on a walk; crating the dog until she calms down; and other strategies. I recommend that you work with a professional dog trainer who can help you customize a protocol for your specific situation and guide you through this process the first time.

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Clicker Training: Better, Faster, More

By Jeff Stallings

My favorite dog training story of recent vintage concerns three shelter dogs being taught to drive a car.  That’s right, the New Zealand SPCA undertook canine drivers ed to demonstrate that rescue dogs are smart, trainable and indubitably adoptable.  Heck, if a dog can learn to drive a car, any trick is possible, including fetching the paper, sitting quietly when guests arrive, and doing your taxes.  (Okay, maybe not your taxes.)

Dog driving car

Dogs learning to drive in New Zealand

(Unfortunately , the video of these dogs has been taken down after three years. See the video at the end of this article of a gun dog being taught to retrieve; the kikopup YouTube channel has tons of videos for clicker training a wide range of commands.)

Pioneered in the 1960’s by marine mammal trainers, clicker training solved the problem of how to clearly communicate desired behaviors from a distance. For obvious reasons it’s challenging to reward a dolphin when he’s in the water and the trainer is not. Animal behaviorists Keller and Marian Breland solved this problem over 50 years ago by designing an auditory marker, in this case a whistle, which would signal precisely the instant a dolphin hit her mark.

In 1984 behavioral biologist Karen Pryor published “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, a book that has since revolutionized the dog training world, in which she extrapolated the work with marine mammals to apply to virtually any animal.  Pryor was an early adopter of reward-based positive reinforcement, with clicker training an integral element. Today most animal trainers are using marker training because it teaches new behaviors about 50% faster than older methods.  Pretty much any animal actor you’ve seen in recent years has been (quickly) clicker trained for their starring roles, including the pigs and sheep in the film “Babe” and, more recently, Uggie the Jack Russell Terrier, who stole his every scene in “The Artist”.


Canine superstar Uggie in “The Artist”

Why Clicker Training Works
Dogs (and dolphins) live in the here and now and unlike humans do not dwell in the past or future.  For a dog to mentally link an action with a reward, the reward must be delivered within one-half second of the behavior you want him to learn and repeat.  Given a food reward five seconds late, in the dog’s mind there is no longer a connection between the action and the reward; he’s simply getting some food.

At the start of clicker training we “marry” a distinct sound to a food reward, allowing us to thereafter mark/reward a behavior in real-time, well within that half-second period.  The click comes to mean two things to the dog:  (1) “what I was just doing when I heard the click is something I should do more of because” (2) “a treat reliably follows.

The Starting Point:  Conditioning Exercises
The initial “conditioning” exercises—which pairs the clicking sound with a food reward—takes about four days, with several two-to-three minutes sessions per day.  Using a small inexpensive ($3) plastic and metal noisemaker, all you do is click the instant your dog receives a tiny morsel of valuable food.  That’s it.  During each short conditioning exercise, the click/treat is repeated 15-20 times in quick succession.

Now you’re ready to pinpoint behaviors in a way that your dog clearly understands.  From here on out there is a lag between the click—marking the desired behavior—and the treat.  Every single click is always followed by a treat, even if it takes a few seconds to deliver.  In fact, the period between the click and the treat is a highly enjoyable time for your dog.  Like a kid before Christmas, anticipation is half the fun!  Think of the sequence as click-then-treat.

Nothing Lasts Forever
Folks are sometimes wary of clicker training at first.  Who wants to carry a clicker around forever?   Ah, but you don’t have to carry it around at all, let alone forever:  the clicker is used only during short (5 minute) training sessions to teach brand new behaviors.  Once your dog is reliably performing an action on cue—a visual signal and/or a verbal command—the clicker is taken out of the picture, and then food rewards are faded.

For simple behaviors, you might just use the clicker for a day or two.  To teach more a complex (and highly useful) “chain” of behaviors, such as having your dog retrieve a beer from the refrigerator, the clicker is used to mark each step in the sequence.  Either way, by marking precisely the desired action in real time, your dog will learn twice as fast.  And once a step becomes second nature—he opens the refrigerator door just because it’s fun and pleases you—the clicker is retired.

One further point on the use of clickers:  I encourage my clients to give it a try.  If it feels like too much to juggle, they’re free to use food rewards alone. You can pick it back up anytime, say, when your puppy is a dog and you’re ready to teach tricks.  Dogs with clicker training under their, um, collars will remember and immediately respond.

Many Mini Steps on the Way to Perfection
In clicker training we often mark a behavior in a short form to develop one far more complex. Early actions are mini versions of larger behaviors, the clicker used as a scalpel to hone and refine.  For instance, a dog lifting a paw to touch a cone is the beginning of a wave; a dog sinking its shoulders to lie down is the beginning of a bow; a paw touching an object is the opening to push, roll, flick, pick up, or rotate that object.

Referring back to the dog driving video, about 3 minutes in you’ll see the trainers “shaping” the behavior that will eventually become the dog putting the real car in gear.  A mock-up of the gearshift is set on the floor.  At first the dog is clicked for simply touching the ball at the end of a stick.  But over the course of multiple training sessions they up the ante, only clicking/treating when his paw stays on top of the ball/gearshift.  (The dog also gains a great deal of information from not hearing a click.)

You can find instructions and videos on the web for using clicker training to teach pretty much anything you can think of.  But the sky truly is the limit:  Anything your dog can (safely) physically accomplish can be taught via tiny increments, progress distinctly marked with the clicker, the ante upped until the end result is achieved.

Finally, the following is a video of Donna Hill clicker training to perfection a bird dog retrieving to hand.  This is significant because old-school training of gun dogs was particularly brutal.  This shows expert use of the clicker as a tool to shape a complex behavior, one gentle step at a time.

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Otis and I do the weave at Ocean Beach

I encourage my dog training clients to continue to teach their dogs new cues and tricks because it strengthens the bonds between human and dog. Plus, dogs really like having to think and “work”. This is one that anyone can teach their dog in a day or two, especially using clicker (marker) training. Otis loves doing the weave, as you can see, in slow motion no less!

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