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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Poor, poor Pepe: Old-school housebreaking and why it often backfired

By Jeff Stallings

This post starts with a sad tale from my childhood in the suburbs of Atlanta with my family adopting a miniature poodle puppy we called Pepe, and ends with Pepe on the lam and ending up who-knows-where.  I was about 7 years old when Pepe came into our lives for what turned out to be a very short time.

Now, I don’t want to trash talk my parents because this was the 1960s and dog training was perhaps at its nadir.  (Plus my mom reads my blog so let me just say “Hey Mom! You’re of the hook!”)  Suffice it to say that, in retrospect, we did pretty much everything wrong even while following dog training standards of the day.


This is what I remember about how we “housebroke” Pepe:  When my mother or father would walk into the room to find a big pile of Pepe poo or a puddle of Pepe pee, there was hell to pay for that poor little dog.  Pepe would be grabbed by the scruff, his snout held into the offending substance, a rolled-up newspaper simultaneously swatting his butt as the punisher repeated a loud and scary “NO!”.

Poor Pepe indeed!  The intent was for him to somehow understand that eliminating in the house was not permitted.  What he learned instead was that every once in a while those two-legged beasts would grab him, shove his face into the dirty floor and yell at him in a very scary way.  Who can blame the poor guy from running away at the first opportunity?

There is so much wrong with this picture.  Let’s start with the term “housebreak”.  The “break” refers to breaking in the sense of breaking a horse, harkening back to old-school aversive methods for training horses.  So instead of speaking in terms of training, back then we spoke in terms of breaking, of tearing something down, presumably to build something else in its place.

Beyond that (and why such techniques so often failed) we assumed that the little puppy would somehow make a connection between the offending substance (feces, urine) and the punishment at hand.  What we now know is that you have to punish—or reward—a dog within one-half second of the behavior you are addressing for him to make the connection.  Whether 5 seconds or 5 minutes or 5 hours had passed between Pepe’s poop and the scolding was irrelevant.  Since the “correction” did not happen at the very instant of his eliminating, Pepe had no way to make the connection.  This tactic was not only woefully slow at teaching puppies where to eliminate, it was also a sure-fire tactic to create a fearful dog.  All wrong!

Sadly, I have had potential clients contact me exasperated because they’re attempting to “housebreak” their puppy with the nose-rubbed-in-poop method and cannot understand why he or she is not “getting it”.  First, I tell them to think in terms of potty training instead of housebreaking.  This is to say, reward your puppy for doing his business where you want him to (the backyard, the front sidewalk) and minimize the chances of him going where he should not—your living room floor, for instance.  How do you do that?

    • Giving your new puppy free range to the whole house is asking for all sorts of problems, from soiled carpets to torn furniture.  A puppy must be restricted to areas in which, should nature call, it’s okay.  The best set-up is a small crate—a comfy, den-like space only large enough for him to turn around in—inside of a small room or elongated playpen.  If you cannot watch your puppy continuously, he should be in this pen, water and crate on one end, newspapers or pee-pads on the other.  Dogs will always eliminate as far as possible from where they eat and sleep.
    • When you are at home and in a position to watch your puppy close enough to anticipate that he is about to “go”, take him to his outdoor spot and as he is going, say “Go potty!  Go potty!”, or whatever cue you want to eventually become the command for your dog to do his business pronto.  Keep a supply of treats close at hand, perhaps in a bowl by your exit, and the very instant (that one-half second rule applies here) he finishes, reward with a treat, a pat on the head and a happy “good puppy!”
    •  You must take your puppy outside to his “spot” many, many, MANY, times per day.  Tiny little digestive systems mean frequent calls of nature.  This includes waking your puppy in the middle of the night and taking him to the spot.  I think of this as a freebee because he or she will always go right after waking up, and will typically go right back to sleep if it’s dark out.
    •  Which brings up another point:  Puppies will usually eliminate immediately after a play session, after waking up, and right after a meal.  So get your rhythms in tune with your puppy’s rhythms.  Oh, and take the water bowl up by 6pm and be sure to take him out right before putting him in the crate for the night.
    •  If you slack up and catch your pup pooping or peeing outside of his pen, with no emotion on your part and without saying a word, CLAP your hands loudly once, scoop him up and take him to his “spot”.  If he finishes up, reward as usual.  Then roll up a wad of newspaper and use it to swat yourself on the butt:  This was entirely your fault.

Over time your pup will come to understand that eliminating outside brings manna from heaven and going inside does not.  As this concept becomes more ingrained in the little guy, you’ll be in a position to finally get rid of the play pen and start opening access to your house, one room at a time.  Rule of thumb:  Your dog is fully potty trained once he has not made a “mistake” in the house for a month.  How long this takes depends on your diligence and the nature of your dog.  In my experience toy breeds take longer, sometimes well over a year.  That said, my dog Otis was completely potty trained by eight months.  Mileage may vary.

Had we known all of this back in 1967, Pepe may well have become a cherished memory instead of the source of soul-searching and guilt.  But at least today’s puppies and their people have a leg up, so to speak, on their predecessors.  Behavior science has revealed how dogs develop and learn, and we can use this knowledge to make all of our lives—human and canine alike—a little more pleasant.

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Don’t leave me this way: A primer on canine separation anxiety

By Jeff Stallings

More than half of my clients bring dogs into their lives from shelters or other situations in which the dog’s history is unclear.  And a fairly large percentage of those have some sort of behavioral issue, such as fear-based aggression, barrier frustration (on leash or behind doors or gates) or, the subject of today’s post, separation anxiety.


Like humans, dogs are a social species. It is in part due to the human and dog social structures being so similar that the extraordinary relationship between our species came to exist at all.  Dogs want and need to be with humans, which is great—until it’s not.  When a dog becomes unduly upset when left alone, we call this “separation anxiety”.

However, just because after you leave for work your dog tears up furniture, soils the carpet, or barks all day, it does not automatically mean he’s suffering from separation anxiety; he could just be bored out of his mind or under-exercised.  You can never leave your dog alone for hours on end having not fully exercised his body and mind without expecting pushback.

With true separation anxiety the symptoms occur each and every time the dog is left alone; destruction occurs at exit points, typically where people leave the house; and continues unabated until they return.  There are many factors to consider in determining whether your dog has full-on separation anxiety or is just bored or otherwise improperly managed.

There are two flavors of this behavior.  The most common is “isolation distress” whereby the dog simply cannot bear to be alone.  The second type is “separation distress” in which the dog cannot bear to part with a particular individual even when left with other dogs or humans.  But since the symptoms and potential treatments are similar, we tend to lump these under the catchall diagnosis of “separation anxiety”.

So that’s what it is…now what do we do about it?  It is important to understand that there are no magic bullets but that in almost every case you can work towards resolution. The key word there is “work”:  It takes time, commitment, creativity, and the patience of a saint.  Alleviating separation issues requires a combination of desensitization exercises—such as breaking your departure routine into tiny pieces and getting the dog comfortable with each, incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re gone; and management—finding ways for your dog to not be alone as you work on desensitization.

Other components of the program might include increasing exercise levels, expansion of obedience training, pressure wraps (such as the Thundershirt), and in some cases, medication. I have seen clients recoil at the very mention of medication, but sometimes it is the salve that allows all the other work to take hold.  Any such medication should never be used unless combined with a comprehensive behavior modification program.  Medications alone will never fix the problem.

If you believe your dog has separation issues, consider hiring a professional dog trainer to help diagnose the true nature of your dog’s symptoms and to establish a program to address the problem.  I also recommend an excellent book on the subject by Nichole Wilde called “Don’t Leave Me:  Step-by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety”.

Have faith in your dog and yourself.  The situation is far from hopeless!

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Otis gets her bona fides: The Canine Good Citizen test

Last Friday my dog Otis aced her AKC Canine Good Citizen test at the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society. While her passing was in my mind never in doubt, it does feel good to have Otis recognized for her obedience skills and all-around good manners. I encourage people who are committed to their dog’s welfare to work towards achieving this level of basic obedience, to take the test when their dog is ready—and then to celebrate with a victory lap and a hotdog or two.

Canine Good Citizen

As a lover of mutts, I am encouraged by the American Kennel Club’s continued recognition of non-pure bred dogs in their Agility, Obedience, Tracking, Hunting and other canine sporting events. We all think of AKC as being an advocate for breeds and lineages, so it’s heartening that they are now allowing mongrels in certain competitions.

The AKC Canine Good Citizen program was established in 1989 to reward any dog who has good manners at home and in the community.  As of January 1 of next year, any dog who passes or has passed the test, regardless of whether a pure breed or not, may use the title “CGC” after their names. More and more cities and states are recognizing the award and title by offering discounted dog licenses and off-leash access to certain park and other facilities.

As a dog trainer, I look forward to working with my clients to establish the skills to pass the following ten tests:

Test 1: Accepting a friendly stranger
This test demonstrates that the dog will allow a friendly stranger to approach and speak to the handler in a natural, everyday situation. The evaluator walks up to the dog and handler and greets the handler in a friendly manner, ignoring the dog. The evaluator and handler shake hands and exchange pleasantries. The dog must show no sign of resentment or shyness, and must not break position or try to go to the evaluator.

Test 2: Sitting politely for petting
This test demonstrates that the dog will allow a friendly stranger to touch it while out with its handler. With the dog sitting at the handler’s side, to begin the exercise, the evaluator pets the dog on the head and body. The handler may talk to his or her dog throughout the exercise. The dog may stand in place as it is petted. The dog must not show shyness or resentment.

Test 3: Appearance and grooming
This practical test demonstrates that the dog will welcome being groomed and examined and will permit someone, such as a veterinarian, groomer or friend of the owner, to do so. The evaluator softly combs or brushes the dog, and in a natural manner, lightly examines the ears and gently picks up each front foot.

Test 4: Out for a walk (walking on a loose lead)
This test demonstrates that the handler is in control of the dog. The dog may be on either side of the handler. The dog’s position should leave no doubt that the dog is attentive to the handler and is responding to the handler’s movements and changes of direction. The dog need not be perfectly aligned with the handler and need not sit when the handler stops. The evaluator may use a pre-plotted course or may direct the handler/dog team by issuing instructions or commands. The handler may talk to the dog along the way, praise the dog, or give commands in a normal tone of voice.

Test 5: Walking through a crowd
This test demonstrates that the dog can move about politely in pedestrian traffic and is under control in public places. The dog and handler walk around and pass close to several people (at least three). The dog may show some interest in the strangers but should continue to walk with the handler, without evidence of over-exuberance, shyness or resentment. The dog should not jump on people in the crowd or strain on the leash.

Test 6: Sit and down on command and Staying in place
This test demonstrates that the dog will respond to the handler’s commands to sit and down and will remain in the place commanded by the handler (sit or down position, whichever the handler prefers). The dog must do sit AND down on command, then the owner chooses the position for leaving the dog in the stay. When instructed by the evaluator, the handler tells the dog to stay and walks forward the length of a 20-foot long line, turns and returns to the dog at a natural pace. The dog must remain in place until the evaluator instructs the handler to release the dog.

Test 7: Coming when called
This test demonstrates that the dog will come when called by the handler. The handler will walk 10 feet from the dog, turn to face the dog, and call the dog.

Test 8: Reaction to another dog
This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries, and continue on for about 10 feet. The dogs should show no more than casual interest in each other. Neither dog should go to the other dog or its handler.

Test 9: Reaction to distraction
This test demonstrates that the dog is confident at all times when faced with common distracting situations. The evaluator selects and presents two distractions, such as a dropping chair or rolling a crate dolly past the dog. The dog may express natural interest and curiosity and/or may appear slightly startled but should not panic, try to run away, show aggressiveness, or bark.

Test 10: Supervised separation
This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with a trusted person, if necessary, and will maintain training and good manners. Evaluators are encouraged to say something like, “Would you like me to watch your dog?” and then take hold of the dog’s leash. The owner will go out of sight for three minutes. The dog does not have to stay in position but should not continually bark, whine, or pace unnecessarily, or show anything stronger than mild agitation or nervousness.

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Close encounters of the bovine kind

By Jeff Stallings

Yesterday I took Otis on a hike in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness area in the East Bay, in part to expand the section of my website dedicated to off-leash dog hikes in the Bay Area.  It was perhaps our last warm, sunny day for a while and I wanted to take full advantage.  I had no idea that Otis was in for a new and (for her) scary experience in the form of…cows.

I am not quite sure why this open space is deemed a “wilderness” because, while it is unpopulated by humans, it’s not far from farms, stables and subdivisions, and once you’ve hiked up high enough you can see all these things.  The Las Trampas brochure says that it is one of the least-visited public open spaces in the region—I did not see a single person on our 5-mile hike—but the plethora of horse hoof prints and bike tire tracks indicated to me that this park gets plenty of use, probably on weekends.

Training a dog to climb a tree

The beginning, lower elevations of our loop passed directly behind those stables, then up increasingly steep open fields interspersed with stunning groves of California Live Oaks.  We took advantage of low limbs on a massive old oak to work on Otis’s tree-climbing skills, and then proceeded towards the top of Rocky Ridge.  I was spacing out on the lovely views, with Otis was running a bit ahead of me, when I heard her loud warning barks.  I sped up to catch up with her, crested the top of the ridge and saw the object of her barking:  About 15 cows lazily grazing and gazing at my dog with no fear at all.

Now, Otis was by nature a fearful puppy.  We had implemented an intensive socialization program to quell her unfounded fears by exposing her to as much varied stimuli as possible, and while that included horses, until yesterday she had never experienced cows up-close and personal.  To us humans it might seem that a dog would correlate cows and horses since both are roughly the same size and shape.  But because dogs experience the world first and foremost through the sense of smell, and horses smell different than cows, to Otis these creatures were completely novel, reason enough to fear and avoid them.  But I was going to have none of her bovinophobia:  It was time for some remedial cow-based socialization.

At first I tried to coax Otis thought the small herd, but she held her ground and refused to budge.  Then I walked about 20 yards past the cows and called her to me.  Again, no movement on the part of my dog.  So I walked back and leashed her up, then without saying a word, lead her through the herd.  She was wary and somewhat reactive, but I ignored that, then turned around and walked back through the herd, again saying nothing.  We repeated this about six times, on each pass moving closer and closer to a mother and her calf.  Who could be afraid of such a sweet-looking baby?  Those eyes!  Finally, she stopped reacting and walked calmly through the herd, and then we continued on our hike.

Towards to end of the hike, we once again encountered a small herd of cattle.  I said nothing to Otis as we approached them, allowing her to surmise the threat.  Obviously our short bovine socialization session an hour earlier had done the trick:  She trotted through the middle of the cows, curious and alert, but showing no fear at all.  Which brings me to the moral of this story:  When your dog encounters something scary (to them), the last thing you should do is coddle the fear (“oh you poor baby!”), or pick her up, or even talk to her.  Your best bet is to set about desensitizing your dog by showing no emotion, saying nothing, and by your actions demonstrating that the fear is unfounded.

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The poop: Why dogs roll around in dung, carrion and other stinky stuff

By Jeff Stallings

Today we marked a milestone with our 21 month-old mongrel Otis, though one we hope to not repeat any time soon.

On our weekly hike at one of the more challenging off-leash trails in Marin County, the Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve, Otis reappeared after a quick detour up the incredibly steep hill, covered in a smell most foul. For the first time ever, Otis had rolled in some sort of crap, the origins of which were unclear. Coyote shit? Mountain lion scat? God forbid, that of the human variety? Regardless, when she reappeared happy as a pig in shit, to us she had suddenly reverted from awesomely well-trained canine companion to icky-smelling beast most foul.

After washing her off in a muddy puddle as best we could (the lesser of two evils at the time), I recounted to Jim how my very first dog Trixie had had a habit of digging up putrid fish heads and entrails from the backyard of the old fisherman who lived behind us. My mother had finally relented and got Trixie for me after a (child’s) lifetime of nagging, and everyone in the family had fallen in love with her. But … after a roll in rancid, rotting fish parts, I was always duly reminded that Trixie was my dog, and so we trotted off to the bathtub, my nose held shut, hers down in anticipation of a bath that could never, ever come close to measuring up to the joys of wallowing in death and decay.

So why do dogs do this? One theory is that dogs (and their genetic near-twins, wolves) roll in the rotting remains of dead animals to get the attention of their pack so that they can all return to feast thereon. Another is that dogs are not so much trying to pick up the rank scent as to deposit their own in the pile of whatever-it-is.

But the explanation that makes the most evolutionary and adaptive sense is that this ritual is an attempt at disguising the dog’s own scent, a leftover behavior from when our domestic dogs were still wild and hunted for a living. If, for instance, an antelope smelled the scent of a wild dog, jackal or wolf, it would likely bolt and run for safety. But prey animals are quite used to the smell of their own droppings, so canines learned to roll in antelope dung or carrion to mask their scent and thereby increase the likelihood of a successful hunt.

Of course knowing that did not make the odiferous drive home more enjoyable. But it kept me from getting upset at Otis for doing something that could not be more deeply rooted in the genes driving her behavior. It is always counter-productive to show anger towards your dog, so if yours rolls in something ripe and smelly, calmly take her home and give her a bath, then vow to watch her more closely next time to avoid a rancid repeat performance.

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Leaving Cincinnati: Thoughts on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference

Dog training conference in Cincinnati

By Jeff Stallings

I write this en route back to San Francisco from Cincinnati, having attended the 19th annual education conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.  It’s going to take time pouring over my notes to wrap my head around this astounding exchange of knowledge and ideas.  This conference is an incomparable opportunity to meet and listen to talks from the most accomplished dog trainers and behaviorists from around the globe.  Some highlights:

  • Both talks by Steve White, master trainer for the Washington State Police Canine Association.  Steve has been training law enforcement dogs for over three decades and early on switched from coercive training methods to a more positive-focused approach.  His overview of how clicker-centric marine mammal training blazed the trail for today’s dog trainers was superb, as was his view on implementing the Hippocratic model (“Do no harm”).  I was particularly grateful for his thoughts about drawing from many techniques in addressing specific issues, even when such tools fall outside of realm of pure positive reinforcement.
  • Dr. Laura Sharkey’s seminar, “Stop Talking and Start Training” about how training becomes more effective the less we talk to our dogs.
  • Dr. Clive Wynne’s talk entitled “The Lost History of the Dog” about his research on the origins of Canis lupus familiaris.  Dr. Wynne’s work has taken him to Novosibirsk, Russia, home of the now-famous experiment started in 1948 to domesticate Silver foxes.  In this experiment the least aggressive and most human-friendly pups from each generation were bred, which over the course of 60+ years has resulted in foxes with physical and behavioral traits much like modern dogs. This unique experiment provides insight into how a species can become domesticated, or as is more likely the case with dogs, domesticate themselves.
  • Katenna Jones’ talk about clicker training for cats (yes, cats!) which I attended in preparation for work I will soon begin with a cat owner in San Francisco.

Next October’s conference is in Spokane, Washington. I will definitely be there, perhaps combining it with a road trip through the Pacific Northwest.  I can hardly wait!

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