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Leash Skills Series #5: What’s wrong with a tight leash?

Are we walking a dog or flying a kite?

Some dogs walk with their owners on a taut leash with the leash as their guide.  This continues because these dogs are used to their humans following them on a taut leash.  They typically don’t drag on the leash and they do respond to changes in direction as they feel pressure changes.  It’s a little like flying a kite: a certain level of tautness in the line keeps the kite floating on the air, and the human has some influence on the position of the kite. If the kite comes down, the human can get to it by following the string.

What will you do if a problem occurs?

If the dog knows where the human wants to go and he has experience with this taut-leash technique, it works pretty well – until something untoward happens.  The dog is out in front of the human and if he meets another human with an out-of-control dog, he may drag the owner toward it. What will the human do if the dog encounters something on the ground, impulsively eating it? Any control the human has will come from pulling hard on the leash. The resulting tension on the dog’s neck or body will be an unpleasant experience. The dog can easily develop leash reactivity toward other dogs or make other negative associations with whatever the situation brings. The human would have much more control if the dog was at his or her side with a loose leash and checking in periodically.

This technique may not extend to the same human walking with their next dog.  The next dog won’t have the history with this human that allows this system of taut-leash walking to work. That next dog may become aroused and stressed as she pulls mightily on the leash and the human won’t be prepared to do anything to help. This is a human who is not developing his or her leash management skills. He or she is limited to a single technique in a consistent environment and any unusual circumstances will throw a wrench into the walking process. 

A vision of a better way to walk together

I believe in life-long learning, especially when it benefits our beloved pets. Striving toward excellence opens doors to a better future. Leash walking can better a partnership between a human and a dog when it’s done well. Making choices along with our dogs helps us enjoy our time together. Consistent skill training creates a strong bond that allows us to control the situation, keeping our walks with our dogs safe. Communication and a mutual desire to spend time together in the great outdoors make walks enjoyable for humans and dogs alike.  Great leash skills prepare humans to adjust our behavior and use our skills to walk with any dog that comes along. In turn, practice with every dog that comes along helps us maintain our skills.  People are really into fostering rescue dogs these days; consistent practice of leash skills helps all the dogs in our lives.

These students, with their dogs on loose leashes, are pretending to shop for items in a training game in our advanced class.

Good leash skills give you opportunities

You and your dog can have so many opportunities when you have good leash skills! Many dog-friendly stores available to polite, mannerly dogs and their owners these days. Lots of hardware stores, nurseries, even some sporting goods stores and hobby stores happily allow dogs inside. Some patio restaurants invite dogs to join their owners for a meal or snack. A few companies even observe “Take Your Dog to Work Day.”* These businesses are likely to continue to do so as long as the dogs and owners are well-behaved and polite, with good leash skills. Of course, there’s always the possibility that someone will use poor judgment and bring a nervous, reactive, or poorly trained dog in and ruin the opportunity for others. Don’t be that person – you and your dog can have great leash skills that keep you physically and behaviorally safe, creating good associations so you look forward to your next walk or trip to a dog-friendly store. And don’t let your dog be that confused, stressed-out dog who shouldn’t be in that situation with no skills to manage himself. Good leash skills create opportunities for everyone.

* As I write this, we’re well into the COVID-19 pandemic, and everything is different now! I’m holding onto memories of some of the good things in the “way things used to be” times. Working at home is a little like “Take Your Dog to Work Day,” every day! What a great time to practice leash skills, giving your dog a fun activity and a way to earn treats during work breaks!

Good leash skills reduce stress and prevent arousal

If you foster rescue dogs or work as a volunteer with a shelter or rescue group, you need leash skills. Good leash skills help you take dogs into a variety of situations, where they can learn good manners without being stressed out. Read dogs’ behavior and respond to them in a way that helps them offer behaviors you like. 

If you learn only one thing about leash skills, let it be that you have the power to keep the leash loose.  Loose leashes reduce stress, anxiety, and arousal and facilitate dogs solving the problem of how to walk with you as a partner.  Let your body language, voice, and treats do the work of getting dogs to walk with you. As a result, the leash will simply be an extra safety device in an emergency situation.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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Leash Skills Series #4: Starting Leash Training

Make a plan to train

Stand in the living room with your treat bag on and a leash in your hand. Decide which side you want your dog to walk on, and make your commitment to sticking to the rules you’re creating for your leash walks.  Do this while your dog is occupied somewhere else, or at least lying down chewing a bone. Get your skills organized before you bring your dog into the picture. Experiment with ways to hold the leash and how you’ll give treats to your dog as you walk.  Decide on a home-base position for your hands when you’re not using them. This will help you be deliberate in giving your dog treats for reinforcement as you walk, without causing the treats to be a distraction for him.

A fun and eye-opening exercise is to get another human to hold the snap end of the leash and walk with you, holding a hand out to receive treats. Then trade places, walk as though you’re the dog, and see just how much you’re asking of your dog when you expect him to stay right with you as you walk!

You have so many options:  two hands to choose from for each job, and you can switch hands as needed. You really have to practice without a dog, because this is likely a new skill set and it will feel awkward at first.  Get yourself some good habits before you try to get your dog to fall into the routine. This is the point where you create your vision of a wonderful a walk with your dog. Then you’ll break it down into the individual behaviors your dog needs to learn.

Try it once! Then adjust what you’re doing.

Treats are the best training devices.  Put on a treat bag containing so many treats you won’t run out.  Set the leash aside for now.  Set a timer for 30 seconds and simply give your dog a treat every time he’s at your side as defined in your plan.  Feed him treats while standing still.  Take one step, encouraging him to come along, and feed him as he takes a step to remain at your side. This is the beginning.

Be quick!  Feed him immediately!  If you don’t, you’re likely to miss him “getting it right.”  Each treat he gets increases how often he’ll make the choice to be in that position, and you may need 100 “correct choices” for your dog to get the idea that this is a valuable behavior to practice. 

Start strong, give a treat for every correct choice, and you’re on the road to success.  One of the behaviors you’ll be building, whether you realize it or not, is your dog looking at you, which helps build the behavior of “checking in.”  If your dog “checks in” with you regularly, it will be easy to get his attention if you need it at some point along your walk. this will help you keep the two of you safe.

Be consistent

I know, you’re heard this phrase so many times! But your consistent behavior is essential for your dog to learn quickly and retain the skills you’re teaching. You really have to commit to your leash goals because your dog probably doesn’t care.  It’s likely he’s happy to pull like crazy.  Your dog won’t understand what’s expected of him unless you do it every single time the leash is on, and a lot of the time when the leash is off. 

Trust the process. Whenever you’re ready to start going for short walks, remember they are “training walks”!  In fact, every walk is a training walk. You just want to make sure you have a say in what your dog is learning.  Invest your time and effort in creating the leash behaviors you want and enjoy the results as they develop.  The training will get simpler as you progress, until the whole process is easy and smooth for you and your dog.

Build the behaviors you want

The process of training is different from your vision of the final behavior you want, but BOTH are important.  Picture how you want things to be. Use your training sessions to reinforce tiny bits of behavior that look like they lead into that vision. 

Begin with the end in mind.” – Stephen Covey

If a child draws a straight line, it’s the beginning of writing an “A” and it leads to the vision of writing, reading, and succeeding in life.  If a dog chooses to take a step at your side rather than walking away from you, it’s the beginning of many long walks in partnership.  Continually increase your standards as the dog learns to offer you the behaviors you like – the ones you give him treats for, the ones that make you move forward so he can see and smell more new things. 

Be creative in how you set up short training sessions, making sure the dog succeeds most of the time.  He’s not ready to learn from failure at this point.  Right now, he has to learn just how beneficial it is to do what you want.

Keep practicing, and in our next piece in our Leash Skills series, we’ll talk about the opportunities a loose leash gives you and your dog.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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Leash Skills Series #3: Dog & Handler as a Team

Both the human and the dog need leash skills for walks to be enjoyable.  Train the necessary skills by breaking them down into simple, specific behaviors. Make your daily walks fun for both of you! 

Al sits patiently while I attach his leash, using just one hand.

Dog Leash Skills

A dog should love his collar, harness, and leash

  • If the equipment itself causes a dog to back away or be cautious, it’s not a good start to a pleasant walk.  This applies to leash, collar, harness, and any other equipment you choose to put on your dog.  Follow the training guidelines for leash skills here and you will be able to walk your dog with minimal equipment of the gentlest kind, because skills supercede equipment.

Your dog can do his part on your walks together

  • The dog’s job in any situation is yours define and train.  If the human doesn’t know what we expect, how can a dog know what he’s supposed to do?  A dog’s job can be as simple as walking at the handler’s left or right side as trained, keeping the leash loose, moving when handler moves, stopping when handler stops, taking a break to go smell something when the handler indicates it’s time, and coming back to handler’s side when asked.  Dogs are thrilled to do their jobs when they understand what’s expected and the paycheck is good! 

Your dog can learn to look to you for guidance

  • The handler’s voice, body language and rewards constantly communicate what works for the dog.  A squirrel, fire hydrant, or the front door isn’t what the dog should respond to. He should check with the human at the other end of the leash if he wants access to something.

Human Leash Skills


  • Set specific goals. Define a position for yourself and the dog, know what’s likely to distract your dog from his job, and make plans to help him get through that situation.  Training requires planning, too. Know what you’ll do with your other dog and the kids while you train this one. Manage other household situations while you give your dog the training time he needs.


  • Resist “going for a walk” until you and the dog have the skills you need.  If the dog can’t keep the leash loose as you approach the front door, how can he keep the leash loose after you go out? What is likely to happen farther down the block, or heaven forbid, at the park? Train indoors first, then work up to going out the door. It will be fun!

Practicing your skills

  • Create good habits of holding the leash, walking in a straight line with a dog next to you, paying attention to your dog’s needs, and feeding treats to the dog. It seems easy to give treats, but it’s different to give them as you’re moving. You want to reinforce moving with you because that’s what leash walks are all about. If you are confident in your own skills, training your dog will be simple!

Training the dog

  • Dogs don’t come with leash skills; they need you to train them.  Training itself requires a few skills. You need to observe and respond to behavior you like. You’ll need to set up situations in which correct behavior will occur so you can reinforce it. Learning to set a timer for training will help you stop before you lose focus or get frustrated. Make training easy for yourself and see results more quickly. Work on each individual skill in a location and at a level where the dog can do it right and earn lots of treat rewards.

Managing the leash

  • The leash can be a tripping hazard for humans and dogs. It takes learning and practice to handle it so it’s loose and yet your dog doesn’t get tangled in it. You have to choose the path for the two of you; you both need to walk on the same side of any tree and pole you pass. Your dog will learn to make these choices on his own with your consistent practice. You have to choose when and how to give the dog a little more room to go sniff, and you have to manage the length of the leash when he does.

Performing an emergency u-turn

  • Being good at u-turns will prepare you and the dog for getting out of a situation when necessary.  Practicing off-leash in a safe area, like in your kitchen, will help you and the dog hone your skills.  Here’s a video of the finished product; I’d be giving the dog a treat for every step if we were just getting started training this!

Getting your dog’s attention quickly

  • Giving treats to reinforce the good leash behaviors you want will give your dog great reasons to check in with you. Walking forward when your dog is paying attention will build the joy of walking together as a team. As a result, you’ll be able to get your dog to quickly respond when you need him to as you explore the world together. This skill will allow the two of you opportunities to go more places together!

In our next article in the Leash Skills series, we’ll help you get started with some exercises to build great leash skills for you and your dog.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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Leash Skills Series #2: Defining Leash Training

Behavior science has shown us how dogs learn.  When we use positive reinforcement to teach leash skills, we get a dog who curiously looks for what to do to gain rewards, paying attention to the human at the end of the leash. When we use equipment that limits their ability to move, tightens up or zaps them when they pull on the leash, we get a dog who makes decisions based on avoiding pain or fear, and sometimes a dog who simply gives in to the drag on the leash in a situation termed “learned helplessness.”  Why should he think or try, when he doesn’t even know what it might feel like to have a loose leash?  If the leash is always tight and pulling, why would the dog ever pay attention to his handler?  He can just lean on the leash and move in the direction with the least resistance; he can even have some control over the direction.  If the handler pulls harder than the dog, the dog will give in to the pressure – but the handler might need an ice pack for his arm when they get home!

“Begin with the end in mind.” – Stephen Covey

You need a vision of what you want. Define it. Training begins inside your brain. One of the procedures Olympic athletes and other high-level performers use is visualization. They actually “practice” their routines and techniques in their minds before starting to do anything physical. Try it, and then practice walking as though you’re with your dog, holding the end of a loose leash, when it’s just you. Create your own habits first, before bringing the dog into the picture. Let the vision of what you want guide you. Create the training plan you need to teach the dog the individual behaviors that lead to that result.

Dogs don’t “come with” leash skills.  It’s not innate, and in fact, it’s quite foreign to them.  Consider what it might be like to have a line attached to you and someone pulling you around with it when you have your own ideas of where you’d like to go.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be invited to come along, instead? Training is required, for humans and dogs.    

“You can’t expect an animal to reliably perform a behavior you haven’t gone through a teaching process to train the animal to do.”                                                                                                     –  Alexandra Kurland

Training a dog to walk with you as a partner involves learning to communicate effectively with your dog, teaching him to do his part to keep the leash between you loose, and doing your part to scope out a pathway for the two of you that works for both. Start training indoors, somewhere you and the dog can focus solely on the skills you’re working on, with these goals in mind. Our next installment in the leash skills series will help you get started on turning your walks into joyful experiences for you and your dog.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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Leash Skills Series #1: What do we want from a walk with a dog?

One joyous vision of having a dog is going for long walks in the beauty of the outdoors with a beloved canine companion, enjoying the sights and smells of the world, and becoming more closely bonded as partners.  This can occur only if both human and dog have the skills necessary to the task. 

We humans commonly have abominable leash skills, mostly because we assume we have control of the dog simply because a leash is attached.  We tend to depend on the leash, and we just don’t try very hard, hence all the discussion online about what type of equipment to put on the dog to “make” it walk nicely. 

We allow ourselves to be distracted from our job of paying attention to the dog, being his partner, enjoying teamwork with our beloved dog, and most importantly, doing the required training to help a dog succeed.  Try to imagine from a dog’s perspective what it might be like to get excited about going outside for a walk with no real guidance from the human on the other end of the leash: 

“I always run to the end of the leash, pulling with all my might, nose out and stretching my legs to get to the next exciting thing along the path.  My human is coming behind, but so slowly!  I pull harder.  I don’t feel any pain from my collar or harness pulling – I think they call it being “desensitized.”  My human sometimes makes noises or offers treats, but I’m so excited about the sights and smells I can barely hear her, and the outdoors has completely captured my brain anyway!  This is how our walks always go; my beloved human just can’t seem to keep up, but I’ll just go on my own.  Partnership?  What’s that? – Bowser, a dog

One big problem with this scenario is that the human has very little control over the dog.  If anything untoward happens, another dog comes around the corner or a squirrel or cat crosses the path, the handler will be lucky to be able to physically pull the dog out of danger by dragging on the leash.  If any of the equipment fails, they’re in big trouble. 

Consider two human friends out for a walk.  There are certain understandings between them, honed from childhood in the form of politeness and manners.  Walking along next to someone requires vigilance to ensure you don’t bump, trip, or step in front of them.  When you reach a fork in the path, you use some form of communication as to which way the two of you will turn, whether it’s a simple pointing gesture or nod of the head, or actual words:  “Why don’t we go this way?”  We certainly don’t grab a human companion and pull.

Partners walking together!

How can we make a walk with a dog look more like two companions walking together than like a rodeo, or like someone leading a hostage? 

Notice the pressure on this dog’s neck, and his uncomfortable gait. A tight leash is not conducive to an enjoyable walk.

First, we have to know what’s possible.  If we’ve only ever walked a dog – er, had a dog walk us – on a tight leash, it’s hard to imagine a loose leash and partnership with a dog.  Believe it’s possible, that you have the power to make the choice, and you’re capable of learning it! 

Watch for the next installment in our series on Leash Skills!

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Science and Animal Training Series #4: Why does Science-based Training Matter?

There’s a big picture, and it involves how we treat animals and humans.  Positive reinforcement can help us get others to respond in ways we like.  It requires us to observe our own behavior and choose what we do so we can get the responses we want.  This is how we train flighty animals like chickens, carnivores like dogs and cats, herbivorous herd animals like goats, sheep, horses, and cows. We behave differently about each species we train, based on their niche in the world. We can train rodents, parrots, reptiles, fish, octopus, and more.  It’s about knowing something about those animals and using that to predict what they are likely to do in a given situation. Then we can set up the situation that works for what we want to start training, use our own behavior to facilitate the training process, and select the correct bits of behavior to reinforce and build into our final goal.

You may not have seen this way of learning modeled much in your life, or maybe you were one of the lucky ones who did.  Many of us grew up with the model of being spanked when we did something bad and the idea of “showing animals who is boss.”  When I first began to learn dog training skills, I was taught to look for the dog to do the wrong thing, then use one of the many available techniques to hurt the dog until he began to do the behavior correctly.  All this worked.  But I began to learn in 1990 that I could use a little more of my brain power, learn to observe when the dog did something that was a small part of the final behavior I wanted, reinforce that, and build my goal behavior much more rapidly than hurting the dog.  I could do this without any of the problems I was seeing in my obedience competition dogs I was using punishment to train.  Problems included slow speeds in the ring, dogs who would rather be farther away from me than close, and dogs who appeared to want to go home rather then to a competition.  These were very subtle issues. Many people might not have even noticed them, and I was conquering them and doing well in competition, but I wanted more.

I found what I wanted after attending a seminar with Dr. Ian Dunbar and then diving into study with Dr. Bob Bailey for nearly 20 years.  Dr. Dunbar showed me that looking for the positive would help me find it; observation skills can be learned.  Dr. Bailey taught me the specifics of shaping behavior, meticulous observation skills, and how to develop great timing.  These skills can also be learned. You have to want to learn them, and it’s a challenge to change what your brain has learned to focus on, just as it’s a challenge to change any habit that is no longer serving your needs. But now, I can train animals to do things I couldn’t even dream of before.  My goat learned to voluntarily lift his foot to have a hoof trimmed; the sheep learned to stand quietly for shearing. My dogs began to learn tricks and obedience behaviors so fast and with such precision, it made my head spin.  My cats learn tricks and husbandry behaviors just as well as my dogs. My teaching of students followed suit.  I learned to use positive reinforcement to help my students and to carefully shape their behavior, just like my mentor, Dr. Bailey, taught me.  Allowing students to explore helps them discover individual pieces of behavior they can change to get what they want. 

Observing people and animals, looking for what they’re doing right, and reinforcing selected behaviors that lead to the goal, is a way of being that gets results I like.  It’s a way of having the relationship I want to have with my dog. That’s why science-based training matters. It may help you get what you want from your life with your dog.

This concludes our series on Science and Animal Training, though the topic pervades everything we do at The Mannerly Dog!    

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Science and Animal Training #3: What is Behavior Science?

Here are the basic principles of behavior science:  Stimulation, Reinforcement, Extinction, Punishment, and Generalization.  Stimulation is a cue; it’s whatever causes the animal to do a particular behavior.  You may be thinking about saying “sit” and the dog sits; that’s one, but you’ll learn to observe that there are so many more stimuli that are in the picture!  For instance, your position is part of the cue – maybe your dog only sits if you’re standing in front of him when you say it. Give it a try while sitting in a chair. (If your dog doesn’t sit the first time you try this, it’s not because he’s wrong – it’s because you’ve never taught him that particular cue, in that position. We call this a “stimulus picture.”)

If you and your dog are at home with your family, the familiar environment is part of the stimulus picture in which you say “sit” and your dog sits.  If you’re at the park and there are lots of people, dogs, nature smells, and more, you may say “sit” and your dog may act like he has no idea you’re there.  He may be overwhelmed by the number of stimuli around him and unable to respond to the specific verbal cue you gave him, until you have gone through a teaching process to train him to respond the way you want in that particular situation.  This is similar to changing the stimulus picture, as we talked about in the previous paragraph. But the principle of Generalization is what’s going on here, as it means the dog can learn to generalize his response in a variety of different situations; thus, he can “sit” on different surfaces, when different people say the cue, and with different distracting stimuli going on around him.  He can learn to do the behavior in any situation, but you have to go through a teaching process to help him learn in each of those settings so it’s easy for him to get it right.

When the dog gets the behavior right, we reinforce. Reinforcement is perhaps the most fun, because it’s where you get to give your dog a treat or allow him some privilege he enjoys after he does a behavior you like, planning for that behavior to show up more often and become stronger.  This is the Positive Reinforcement upon which all our training is founded, and that you hear so much about in the dog training world these days.

Extinction is figuring out what reinforcement a dog may be getting for a behavior you don’t like, and taking control to stop that from happening.  Why does he jump up on people?  To get attention?  Removing all instances of the dog getting attention by jumping up on people allows that behavior to extinguish.  (Even yelling and pushing a dog off of you may be reinforcing the behavior of jumping up; even telling the dog to get “down” or “off” may be reinforcing it. Take a look at what’s really going on – analyze it with an open mind and change something.) It works, though it usually requires the help of prevention tactics by the dog’s owner.  Extinction is a challenge to use, because we humans have a lot going on and we find it challenging to be observant of our dogs at all times in order to accomplish extinction.  But we find it useful in training, nonetheless – especially when accompanied by teaching the dog another behavior, like automatically sitting when he greets someone in this case – if he’s sitting, he’s not jumping up, and you have a behavior you can reinforce and build.

Punishment is often given by the environment, in the form of a wasp sting after a dog noses around a nest. Sometimes being sprayed by a skunk after a dog attempts to prey on one is a punishment, though some dogs seem to get sprayed by skunks repeatedly, meaning the punishment isn’t working very well.  That’s one problem with using punishment:  the definition is “something given after a behavior that diminishes (hopefully eliminates) that behavior in the future.”  Often, people apply something they think is a punisher for a behavior and find that behavior still occurs, but now their dog is afraid of them, or afraid of the room where they did whatever they did, and now they have to focus their training on building the dog’s confidence and helping him get over his fear.  The good news is that management of the dog, prevention of behaviors you don’t want, and reinforcement of behaviors you like is better for training than using punishment is, even for high level behaviors like service dog work, operative and working dogs, performance training, and more.

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!

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Science and Animal Training #2: Do I have to be a science geek to train my dog?

You can be whomever you want!  There’s an advantage to enjoying reading about the topic of behavior science.  You don’t have to read the cold, dry language of scientific studies, but it’s helpful to choose books and articles that include references you can check.  You have to be objective and you have to ask questions, but you don’t have to be a science geek. 

You need to know the basics of how operant and classical conditioning work – and those are pretty easy:  Pairing something good with something new to a dog makes the new thing “good”, and the animal “happy” when that thing comes along.  That’s classical conditioning, association, Pavlovian conditioning – all names for the same thing.  It’s when you smell your favorite food and suddenly realize you’re hungry and anticipate eating that wonderful food.  Following a behavior with a reinforcer (think “treat” for the sake of simplicity) builds that behavior.  That’s operant conditioning, a.k.a. “Catch them getting it right,” and it’s powerful.  It’s helpful to understand the implications of using punishment, because you don’t need it.  That’s right: though punishment is a behavior principle, Skinner saw the problems with using it to teach animals and humans.  The animal trainers who followed him learned that punishment creates an environment of avoidance, sometimes fear or aggression, resulting in decreased learning of the task we’re trying to teach due to emotional impacts.  Hey, here we are back with association or classical conditioning, which works in creating bad associations too.  All the more reason to practice your reinforcement skills and get good at applying the principle of positive reinforcement to develop the behaviors you want! 

At first, you have to trust your teacher, because you may have limited knowledge of the behavior principles used in training.  But you have to choose a teacher worth trusting, one who can answer your questions.  Go ahead and ask:  “What do you suggest I do if the dog does the wrong thing?”  (Dogs make mistakes, just like people.)* 

Once you’ve delved into becoming as much or as little of a “science geek” as you want to, and you’ve chosen someone you can trust to work with you to train your dog, you start with that and develop your skills so you are conducting great conversations about your training goals with your teacher, who should take on your goals as her/his own and help you accomplish them, using behavior science.  

*Oh, and the answer to that question?  (What should I do if the dog does the wrong thing?)  Well, you try again, using a different way of getting him to do the behavior; do what it takes to get what you want from the dog.  A good teacher can help you with ideas, but you can think of them, too.  Don’t keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Acknowledge that you and your dog are likely to make mistakes.  Stop training, re-group, and make a new plan.  It’s not your fault, nor the dog’s – but you have the power to set things up so you get the behavior you need to achieve your goal.  Your dog is just trying to figure out what works, and you can learn to communicate with him quickly and effectively.  That’s science-based training.    

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!

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Science and Animal Training Series #1: What is Science-based Training?

“Training” most often refers to changing the behavior of an organism.  The organism may be your dog or cat, horse or parrot, fish, lizard, or a human family member.  The behavior may be your dog learning to retrieve a ball, a lizard going to a certain area of his cage, or your nephew learning to put his backpack away after coming home from school every day. Changing behavior is sometimes referred to as behavior modification, which is used extensively to teach developmentally delayed children, people with mental illnesses who need to learn new approaches to the problems they encounter, and people who need to overcome addictions or who want to prepare themselves for a new career.  It’s a proven way of learning, and we can use it in educating children, training animals, and even in teaching typical adult humans new skills. Yes, behavior modification is just another word for training. Other words include conditioning, as in operant conditioning discovered by B.F. Skinner and classical conditioning discovered by Ivan Pavlov.  Academic folks call it Behavior Analysis or an element of Psychology.

All these words to say that training your dog follows the same scientific principles that have been studied extensively over the last century in many species, many different situations.  There is a huge body of knowledge that tells us that the science of behavior, encompassing operant conditioning and classical conditioning, both of which rely on positive reinforcement, are the best way to produce the behavior changes we want without undesirable side effects like fear, anxiety, frustration, and aggression, in the animals we train.

“Science-based” means training techniques that are supported by the research studies mentioned above.  Science-based training does not include special techniques “invented” by an individual trainer; it includes techniques and protocols that have been developed based on the sound scientific principles that have been researched and shown to be effective.  Trainers stand on the shoulders of those who came before, continually developing a technology that began with the discoveries of Skinner and Pavlov.  When I develop a protocol for training a behavior, I check the science and make sure the system holds true to the foundations of behaviors science, and I’m happy to help my students research the topic and check the connections themselves.

What does that mean to you, the pet owner?  Here’s what we know:  Positive reinforcement is tightly defined as our input into behavior in the form of something given to the animal after a desirable behavior is performed that increases the probability of that behavior in the future.  When you use reinforcement well, you don’t need punishment to train your animal or the human you’re teaching.  You can simply count how many times the behavior is performed and measure the strength of the behavior to see whether it’s getting more prominent in the animal’s repertoire. 

Is it easy?  No – but it is simple.  It’s a simple, straightforward process that you can learn, and one that your animal will most definitely respond to.  You can learn to use specific procedures to quickly change an animal’s behavior.  Learning new things can be challenging, but what better way to enhance your life than through learning something that opens up a world of possibilities for you and your pet?

Watch for the next installment in our series on Science and Animal Training!

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Shy/Fearful Dogs

When working with shy/fearful dogs, remember:

  1. Dogs respond well to having the choice to interact or not.
    1. “Approaching” dogs is a misnomer: dogs should always be invited to approach us, particularly shy ones.
    2. Don’t pet or handle a dog who doesn’t want to be petted or handled unless it’s an emergency.
    3. When a fearful dog chooses to approach, reinforce with the freedom to walk away.
  2. Choices, coupled with positive reinforcement, build confidence for future interactions.
  3. Positive reinforcement must be evaluated from the dog’s point of view. Petting a dog who does not want to be petted is NOT positive reinforcement.


  1. Show your side to the dog; don’t face him with your body or face.
  2. Squat down, still turned to the side. You can even turn your back while squatting down and still keep eyes on the dog. Move away and see if he’ll follow. This minimal freedom of choice allows the dog room to make a different choice next time.
  3. DO NOT reach your hand out to the dog’s nose. Keep all body parts close; keep your head turned away but your eyes on the dog. Give him some time if he remains nearby; let him decide whether he wants to approach. If he doesn’t, or if he walks away, don’t pressure him by begging and cajoling. Accept his answer of “no” and change techniques or try again later.
  4. Toss a treat on the floor in front of the dog. Taking it out of your hand after approaching may be too much for him. Don’t try to lure him over by providing a trail of treats leading to you; he may want the treats, end up really close to you, and be startled. Better to have him move away after mustering the courage to take a step toward you. Be consistent in your responses to his experimental behaviors. Toss a treat on the floor between the two of you, so he takes one step toward you to eat it; then toss another behind him so he moves away from you. If he’s into this game, do it again! Play the game as long as he’s curious and eating. Remember, this dog’s desire is to have more distance from you. Don’t take it personally; make a trade: “If you come a step closer, you can go back to your safe distance.” Help him predict how to get the treat and still feel safe.
  5. Approaching is one choice; it doesn’t mean the dog wants to be petted. ONLY offer petting if he shows solicitous behaviors like turning to the side, moving really close to you, rubbing on your leg, offering soft, low, slow tail wags, turning his head as though to give you better access to his neck, etc. If he solicits interaction, break it down: (A) extend your hand near him; see how he feels about that. (B) If he still wants it, pet only on the sides of the face and neck, under the chin, or on his side – ribs and shoulders. NEVER reach over his head or back to pet – this is likely to appear threatening. (C) Pet VERY briefly – no more than 3 seconds, then stop and see if the dog moves away or “asks” for more. Give him the choice; just because he wanted a little petting doesn’t mean he wants it for a long time! If at any time you notice the dog become still or stiff, even in a minimal way, immediately stop and allow him to walk away. This DOES NOT mean you’re his best friend now; you are probably still a “scary monster.” But this is big – you can build on it! This is conditioning. Never take your eyes off the dog: observe his body language to acquaint yourself with his needs and desires. Fearful dogs can help you develop the best handling skills. Minimize errors; avoid scaring him.
  6. Fearful dogs need your protection from intrusions they are not ready for. Pay attention. Predict what will frighten the dog and be bold in asking people to give him space, or make a U-turn and walk away. Petting from strangers is not required!
  7. If the dog trusts you but not other people, practice using the techniques in the following articles to help him learn to check in with you when a new person approaches; this will keep him from being in a situation in which he feels pressured or trapped.

Teaching Reactive Dogs a New Habit, Parts 1 and 2

Note that both articles focus on techniques for changing reactive responses in dogs, most often defined as barking, lunging, and other behaviors dogs use to increase distance between themselves and something they don’t like. However, fearful dogs are “reactive” in that they back away from what they don’t like, cower, growl, show wide eyes, stiff bodies, tucked tails and ears, and more. The same techniques that create calm, tolerant behaviors for barkers/lungers can create confident behaviors for fearful dogs and security in the face of scary things.