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.

Posted in Dog Training | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Dog stories and information, Dog Training | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

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!

Video | Posted on by | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Dog Training | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Dog Training | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Dog Training | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Dog stories and information | Tagged , , | Leave a comment