Category Archives: Behavior Tips

Bribe vs. Reward

Scenario #1:

Your beloved canine friend really loves his food. He really loves his toys and chewies. He really loves the treat bag that he has just stolen from the kitchen counter. He really loves his bed or resting place. When the idea is presented that any of these things might be taken away from him he responds with a stare, a growl and maybe even a snap. These things are not to be tampered with by you or anyone else. They are his, and he intends to keep it that way.

You have offered a special treat to entice your dog to give up the thing he so covets. You hold the treat out in hopes that the dog will decide to let you take it. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It really depends on how much the dog wants the object of his (and now your) desire. You are powerless, because the dog is making that important decision.


Scenario #2:

You are a diligent owner. You take your dog out for his daily walk. It is a time that you both enjoy together. Suddenly your dog sees another person walking their dog and flies into a tantrum. Your dog barks and growls, wanting to get to that dog badly enough that he lunges and barks wildly. You hold him back on his leash and offer him a special treat that you had previously stashed in your pocket. Your dog wants no part of you or anything that you have to offer. He just wants to get at that other dog…


Scenario #3:

You are in the process of teaching your dog a new command. You started out by showing the dog a treat in your hand. He does the new command quite nicely after being enticed by the treat. The dog now gets the treat. GOOD DOG! Later, you give the dog the same command when your hands and pockets are empty. The dog gives you a blank stare and wonders away.

Treats can be a wonderful way to motivate a dog to do a desired behavior. When teaching a dog a new concept, treats can keep them interested and let them know when they give us the behaviors that we desire. Treats are a wonderful teaching tool. But at some point early on in the teaching of a new concept, a dog needs to be weaned off of the food dangling in front of his face every time something is asked of him. We must then teach the dog to do the same action as before with the treat now out of view. The food now appears from seeming nowhere after the dog completes the task that was requested.


If we continually hold treats out as we give commands like sit, down, leave it, come, etc, we produce a dog that performs because of the treat. This creates unreliability in your dog’s actions because most of us don’t spend every moment of our lives with dog treats in our hands. No treat, no compliance.

Often when a dog is engaging in a poor behavior like guarding food, lunging at other dogs on walks etc. they will ignore that piece of cheese we have dangling in front of their face. We wonder why we can’t distract them from that current object of their desire. It is because we are giving them a choice. My dogs are not permitted to make choices like that. I correct behaviors that I dislike by distracting them with my body language and energy. Then I reward the dog  for listening and complying by producing a previously hidden treat. The food reward comes only after the dog makes the decision to ignore the other dog on the walk or relinquish the food or toy to me. So what he is really being rewarded for is the good decision that he just made.

A simple way to look at it is this:

Bribe: a dog performs for a treat

Reward: a dog performs for you.

Tricks For Treats

I am a big believer in nurturing a dog’s mind as well as his body.  Having lived with border collies for the past two decades, I have seen the value and even the necessity of giving a canine mind something more to think about than just eating, peeing and laying around the house.   All dogs need and love to have something fun to wrap their minds around regardless of their breed.  We in the Midwest often have weather that is not conducive to being outdoors for long periods of time.  Although I am a HUGE proponent of long walks for every dog, I am aware that when it is pouring outside, or the sidewalks are covered in ice or snow, this is not always practical.  So our dogs stay cooped up with nothing to do.  Some dogs become destructive from boredom.   Others may become more aggressive.   How can we still meet their needs when the weather turns bad or when we have other things that force themselves on our time?

Many people are surprised to learn that mental exercise can wear a dog out as much or more than physical exercise can.   Over the years I have taught each of my dogs a wide variety of tricks.  These tricks stretch both their minds and bodies.  Each dog that I’ve had has learned a different set of these tricks.  “Trick time” is a special time of bonding and fun.  My dogs love this time more than any other that we spend together.

So we’ve decided that we want to get started.   How do we figure out what tricks we want to teach our specific dogs?  There are books on this very subject.  A web search will give you some ideas of what books are available on trick training.  After all, a trick first starts with an idea.


What I do when coming up with a trick idea is look at some of the natural behaviors that my dogs already have a tendency towards doing.  For example, my Sheltie loved to run in circles (many Shelties do this as a lingering behavior from their herding heritage).   He also loved to jump. He was a major “boing” dog.  So I taught him to jump over my extended arm while I was sitting on the floor.   After he learned that, I then extended my other arm out 180 degrees from my first one.  He would circle me and jump each arm as he came to it, going around and around.  Later I took the same concept and stood up.  I bent over and made a circle or “hoop” with my two arms.  My Sheltie would circle me and jump through my hoop arms.  I later could walk and spin around and my Sheltie would move with me and jump through the “hoop” in a wide variety of patterns.  This was such fun for him and was based on tendencies that he already had.

Many dogs love to give you a paw.  You can teach the dog to give you this paw and create a “wave” out of it.  Or you can teach the dog to give you both the right and left paw as you ask for it.  Before long you have a dog that will “march” in place for you or play “Patty Cake” with you.   My border collies best like tricks that involve high action.   So they have been taught to back up fast and stop on command, come forward fast and stop on command, and twirl around in place (I call this “Tornado Dog”).   They weave through my legs as I walk, which is a spin-off of Agility weave poles.   They must listen to commands that come at them fast.  They must think fast and move fast.  Treats and toys come at them fast.  A lot of high octane breeds LOVE this kind of fun.  When you are finished with a fun trick session like this, the dog is mentally and physically exhausted.  You have created magic.


Naturally, these training sessions are nothing but FUN.  A dog can’t make a mistake.  This is a time to laugh with them.  This is a time to play with them.  We encourage behaviors that we are after by offering food rewards and praise after the dog completes the task as we desire it.  Toys are great in this kind of play.  A toy oriented dog can have a ball or favorite toy tossed to him as soon as the trick is completed to your satisfaction.  It is important to remember that your dog will learn tricks in small pieces.  So reward the small pieces as you see them successfully completed.  Then ask for a bit more and reward that behavior.  Tricks are built like houses…first a foundation is laid, then the structural framework is roughed in, then the plumbing is installed, then electrical, then drywall…you get the idea.


Each of my dogs know dozens of tricks.  This has been not only a fun bonding experience for us, but also a very useful tool when they get cabin fever and need something to do.  I highly recommend this for any owner who wants to nourish both the mind and body of their four legged friend.


Peeling Away the Layers

It is not uncommon for dogs who have been shuffled around from one home to another or from animal shelter to animal shelter to learn to emotionally encase themselves in “protective layers.”  Dogs in this situation are not ever given the opportunity to develop healthy relationships within a pack because the members of their pack are in a constant state of change.  This continual change of family be it canine or human, leaves the dog with nothing with which to stay grounded.  So the dog first adds for example, a layer of fear from the unknown, then covers it with a layer of frustration, and may top it off with a layer of emotional toughness or aggression.  This is not unlike the emotional shift made by many humans while doing hard time in our prison systems.


Many of these dogs enter into their new homes and bring these protective layers with them.  Why not? After all, how are they to know that this home is any more permanent than any of the others have been?

I recently had a consultation session with a dog who was very typical of one who has been “tossed around” a lot in her life.  She had been adopted out and returned to the shelter at least three times, maybe more, most likely for the same reasons.  God knows what her life consisted of before she entered the shelter in the first place.  She was actually a very gentle, sweet and loving dog with people.   She was eager to please. She was calm and quiet in the house.  Everything was wonderful in her life, that is… until she saw another dog.  ANY other dog.  Then she would fly into a frenzied rage.

This dog’s owners recognized the need to exercise their new dog.  But every time they would take her out a dramatic scene would unfold.  It was embarrassing and worrisome.  And several times the dog was somehow able to get away from her owners.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how dangerous this situation was for everyone involved.

Watching this dog while in the rage stage was a bit sad to me.  There was so much pent up energy behind the tantrums.   Because of a lack of consistent leadership in her life, and poor socialization with other dogs, she went straight into charge and kill mode.  Naturally we didn’t allow this, which only added to her frustration.  She was quite dramatic and VERY loud.  If I said that she “made a scene” I would be grossly understating the situation.

A dog like this takes more time to rehabilitate, because there are multiple layers that need to be peeled away and they each must be removed one at a time.  Often when we finally get that first layer removed, we reveal another layer of undesirable behaviors that lies just beneath.  The analogy I use for this situation is the removal of wallpaper in a room.  We buy a house.  We like the house very much but severely dislike the cabbage rose wallpaper in the bedroom.  So we scrape and scrape, slowly revealing ugly purple striped wallpaper beneath it.   We scrape and scrape away the purple stripes only to find a “lovely” orange paisley.   Finally under the final layer lies the actual wall.  And this wall can now be painted any new color that we want.  Remember that each layer of wallpaper was applied by a person at some point in the house’s history.  So each layer must also be removed by a person with a better vision of what that room can be.

My own rescue border collie Kip was much like this when he first came to us.  I knew that time and correct practice were on my side.  And sure enough, with each layer that I was able to peel away on Kip, more trouble was there to greet me.   Finally when the last of Kip’s protective layers had been carefully removed, a softer, sweeter dog was just underneath.  The emotional shell was finally gone.  I had unveiled a wonderful, sweet natured little dog that is who Kip was really born to be. But….it took time, and a whole lot of wallpaper scraping!


An owner who is blessed with the virtues of tenacity and patience is best going to achieve the results they desire when dealing with dogs who are encased in protective layers.  But the rewards are great for those who see it through.

Follow The Leader

It is safe to say that most of the canine clients I see have one thing in common.   Their well meaning owners have somehow overlooked their dog’s need for clear leadership, often confusing “love” with leniency.  This has left their dogs in a frustrated, confused state.   A frustrated and confused dog can become anxious or aggressive, and can even become a dog with poor self esteem.

When I mention the concept of leadership to owners, they often know that this is what is missing.  But they are reluctant to apply leadership to the relationship with their dog because they have the wrong idea of what leading a dog is all about.   In the minds of many, leadership has a negative connotation attached to it.   I’m not sure how this idea has come to be so misunderstood.


If you think about it, we all have leaders in our lives.   And it starts from the bottom up.   Each household has a leader.   It is ideal if this leader is an adult (although this is not always the case).   From there, we go to work where we often report to a boss.   He or she then reports to a boss and so on.    Even corporate CEO’s have leaders that they must submit to.    That is what our legal system is all about.   Our legal system is in place to keep order. And there is a hierarchy involved there too.

Good leadership is essential to keeping order in any group of social animals.   Many people practice this when it comes to their kids and co-workers, but somehow derail when it comes to their dog.   Why would we allow our dogs to do things that are not in their best interest if we don’t allow it for our children?

If you think about leaders that you have had in your own life, you can quickly see that some are more effective than others.   A boss who nervously hovers is a headache to work for and can cause low confidence levels in those who report to them.   A boss who is short tempered is uncomfortable to be around and can be difficult to trust.   It is the boss who possesses a calm confidence that inspires the people who report to them to aspire to greater things.   This is what most of us would choose to deal with every day.    Strong, flexible, upbeat, fair, positive and fully committed are all characteristics that most of us respond best to in our leaders.

So how can we take this idea and apply it to our dogs?


I think that many people underestimate what wonderful things their dogs are capable of.   I am often amazed at the array of bad behaviors that are accepted by their owners.   I am disappointed to say that for the average pet owner the high bar is set amazingly low.   It is my belief that almost any dog can be a well mannered member of our society.   Now, I did say “almost any” in that last statement.   Each person reading this is wondering if their own poorly behaved pet would qualify in that “almost any” category.   I can tell you here, that this is likely not the case.   The “almost any ” sector of the dog population are those unfortunate animals who posses chemical imbalances which are often genetic.   These dogs are the exception.

Before we can create changes in our dog’s behaviors we first must be able to visualize what kind of dog we would like our four legged friend to be.   It is important to set goals and to be sure that these goals are realistic for your specific dog.   For example, will your timid dog, who was totally unsocialized  as a puppy and was once nearly feral, ever run enthusiastically up to every human they greet?    Will your severely dog aggressive dog ever want to be best friends with every other dog they meet?   Perhaps these goals are a bit lofty.  But there is no reason that a timid dog can’t become comfortable in the presence of other people, and there is no reason that a severely dog aggressive dog can’t be calm and under control while other dogs are around him. If we can’t visualize it, and BELIEVE it, than we almost certainly can’t create it.   But these things are not achievable without good leadership.

As humans, emotions often control our words and actions.   Unfortunately, our emotions only impede progress when dealing with our dogs.   An effective pack leader uses good common sense and a pragmatic approach when trouble arises.    They give their dog structure and guidance.  They expect certain good behaviors and are willing to teach the dog not only what these behaviors are but how to achieve them.  They also teach the dog that this way of being is in the dog’s best interest… and is non-optional.

How does your dog perceive you?   Are you a leader or a follower?   Do you expect enough from your dog?    Do you have appropriate expectations of what your dog is capable of?   Are you consistent in your expectations?   Are you fair in achieving them?   These are all things to think about when trying to achieve leadership with your canine friend.

In One Ear and Out the Other

Some of the most common comments that I hear from clients are “My dog only listens to me when he wants to.”    Or “My dog has selective hearing. Or even “My dog doesn’t listen, he has a really bad stubborn streak…”


It may surprise you to know that the reason most dogs don’t listen to their owners is because the owners have actually inadvertently taught their dogs to not listen to them. How does this happen?

First we have to understand that humans communicate with spoken language. Dogs do not. Dogs naturally communicate with each other using different body postures and energy. When is the last time you have seen two dogs chit-chatting with each other in spoken English? If you have ever seen this, then perhaps it is time for a visit to a mental health specialist!

So now that we’ve established that dogs and humans speak in two different languages, it is logical that translation of language must me made to bridge that gap.

It is important to remember that our dogs can’t help what they don’t know. So anger or inappropriate corrections on a dog who doesn’t listen is not only unfair, but cruel. If we expect a dog to respond to our spoken words, It is our responsibility to first teach them our language. Just because WE know what “sit” means doesn’t mean that a dog does.

Each word (command) needs to be taught separately. Dogs learn best when things are kept simple. It is a matter of association from spoken word to action. In other words, when you say “sit”, gently put the dog into a sitting position. Once the dog is in that position, give him LOTS of praise and a special treat. Now, this is really basic stuff. Most dog owners generally know how to teach the beginnings of commands like this (sit, down, stay, come etc).

So why does a dog who has been taught these basic commands still not listen? The answer is simple. Because the owner has continually given commands and not backed them up with consistent action.


Many people report that their dogs only come to them “when the dog wants to.” These owners instruct their dogs to come while off a leash. The dog doesn’t respond because he does not have a firm understanding of the what the word “come” actually means. So the owner calls him again thinking that the dog is just ignoring him or being stubborn. Still the dog doesn’t come. After calling the dog over and over, the owner becomes frustrated and angry. Now negative emotions impact the situation and the dog has no desire to approach that mad, frustrated person over there. And the person is powerless to see the action through because the dog is in a situation where he will not be caught. A person who repeats a command over and over in a situation where the dog does not have to respond to them soon becomes background noise. Dogs simply don’t listen to background noise. To be fair, neither do we!


The most important thing in teaching a dog to listen to you is to be absolutely certain that you are not background noise to him. Give commands only when you are able to see them through with action. Most dogs who don’t come to their owners off leash, don’t come reliably ON leash. While on a leash, will your dog come to you on a dime every time you call him even when there are huge distractions nearby? Will he come on leash when called as a squirrel runs by? How about a deer? What if a little kid rides by on his bicycle with a big juicy hamburger in his hand? It is not a fair expectation to think your dog will come to you reliably off leash until he has learned to ignore all of the interesting things going on around him and come to you every time when called on leash. All of these distractions need to be taught to the dog while you have complete control of his actions. Not only do we need to teach a dog what our words mean, but also that our words always mean something.

I have a saying when it comes to training dogs to be responsive…”Say what you mean. Mean what you say.” It really is as simple as that.

A Matter of Give and Take

Our dogs give so much to us. They help to lower our blood pressure as we relax and stroke their furry heads. They listen empathetically to our endless chatter.   They calm us by simply being there for us during the assorted moods we experience throughout the day. There is little doubt that creating the domestic dog is one of the best things that man has ever done.


I could go on and on here about the virtues of our great friend the dog. But what about us? What kind of friend are we to them? We do obvious things like feed them. We give them shelter and in most cases love and kindness. We pet their soft fur. Some of us even walk them…at least once in awhile…

Many of us live very hectic lifestyles.     We go to work in the mornings and come home in the early evening.    We may run a few essential errands on the way home.    We are tired and strung out from a stressful day.   We then prepare a meal for the family. When the meal is done and the dishes are cleaned up we collapse onto the couch with a good book or a TV remote. We are exhausted. …Sound like you…?

Meanwhile, our dogs have waited patiently all day for our arrival home. They have seen only the walls inside of our house or the inner lining of the fence to their yard. They have gone nowhere. They have done nothing. When we finally arrive home they are happy to simply receive the pat we give them on the head or the rub behind their ears. But is this really a fair exchange?

It is against the natural heritage of a dog to be sedentary. It is also unnatural for them to be stationary. Dogs who are left to become feral find other dogs in the same situation and form packs. These packs move all about, often traveling several miles during a single day. They may develop a kind of “home territory” but this area is very large and the pack members explore it constantly. Wolves travel dozens of miles in a day in search of food. This activity stimulates their minds and tires their bodies. This is nature. This is the reality of what is necessary for all of the canine species to be well adjusted and stable.

So how do we work the natural needs of our dogs into our busy lives? Below I will list some ideas that are fun for both dog and owner and are achievable even by busy people.

Walking. All dogs need this kind of exercise. It is a common misconception that only big dogs need exercise. Chihuahuas, Yorkies, Maltese, small terriers, etc. come from the same natural heritage as big dogs. Regular long walks are essential for all dogs to maintain a stable state of mind. A good walk not only gives the dog much needed exercise, but gives him a change of scenery as well.   And let’s face it…it is good for us too.


Fetch. Many dogs love toys. Most have a natural chase instinct but the majority don’t have a natural instinct to return the toy for another throw. Of the many dogs I’ve had over the years, only one had a “natural retrieve”, that is a natural inclination to return the toy to me. The rest of my dogs were taught to return the toy. This game is a fast paced way of burning excess energy in the dog. “Fetch” is a wonderful activity for the couch potato owner, but is not a substitute for a good long walk.


Dog Agility. This activity is exploding in popularity. Agility classes are springing up everywhere. A dog must be somewhat sociable with other dogs to take part in a class situation. Agility is especially effective for hyper active dogs who need something to do. It can also boost the confidence of shy dogs. It is important when seeking out an agility class to do some research. Only classes with instructors who use positive training methods should be considered.


Agility includes fun activities for your dog such as jumping over obstacles, running through tunnels and climbing on assorted objects.  It is fast paced and FUN!


Off Leash Parks: These are places where dogs can be let off leash to run with other dogs. These areas are often fenced. Again, only dogs with good social skills should attend such places.

Cycling: For very active dogs this can be a fun activity. A dog needs to be trained where to position himself in relation to the bicycle. Keep in mind while cycling with your dog that he is exerting more energy than you, the cyclist. One should be constantly aware of the dogs basic body temperature and energy level while taking part in this activity.


Roller Blading: Big, fast dogs love this. It is important to have control over the dog in public before this can be done safely. Control is achieved in training during the walk.

Swimming: For those with a lake, pond  or private pool nearby, swimming can be the ultimate way to expend energy in your dog. I especially like this one because my black long-coated border collies over heat so easily in warm weather. Cool water prevents this and allows the exercise to continue on long after other forms of activity have to be stopped. A dog who has just spent time in the water is a tired and happy dog afterward! Even dogs who don’t like to swim often enjoy wading in the shallows.


It is important to realize that a change in scenery is an important factor in any form of exercise. The more places you take your dog, the bigger his world will be. Dogs who are exposed to a wide variety of situations are often more well adjusted animals than those who are continually left at home. So do right by your canine buddy and get out there….and have some FUN with him!     Make this a regular part of your lives together.

The Predator Within

As we look at our cuddly dogs who shower us with kisses in the morning, fling themselves upside down for tummy rubs and contently curl up at our feet as we tap away at our computer key boards, it can be difficult to imagine them as “cold blooded killers”. But we often don’t have to look very far to see the heritage of predator in them. Just throw a toy, walk your dog by a squirrel, or have a cat quickly run past and the “animal” inside of Fido will quickly appear.


Like all carnivores, the eyes of a dog are positioned on the front of his head. This is very different from prey animals like deer, rabbits, squirrels and even birds, which have eyes on the sides of their heads so they can see not only what is in front of them, but also what is following behind. A predator must see only what is in front of him, and be able to lock focus and follow quick movement which is what leads him in a chase. People too, are social predators and are very effected by movement. Just look out a window at any scene. It will be the moving objects that attract your eye.

In some dogs this predatory legacy is more prominent than in others. Certain breeds were created upon the very fundamentals of this principle for the benefit of man. Terrier breeds were bred to hunt quick moving vermin that live under ground. It is very difficult to encourage a Jack Russel Terrier to ignore that mouse in the house! Some of the hound breeds too, are especially attracted to movement for this same reason. Herding breeds are bred to notice even the slightest muscle twitch on a cow or sheep so they can control that movement. So a car zooming by on a road or a pet cat running through a house is to them quite “chase worthy”. Guard breeds are bred to notice the slightest movements of human strangers, so they can be at the ready when trouble arises.

It is important when adopting a new dog to take a close look at the other animals you may already have in your house. Not all dogs have strong prey drive. And some dogs just like a good chase. It is the dog who is in true predator mode that can be dangerous to the small animals who already reside in your home. These are also the dogs that are typically the most difficult to rehabilitate. Finding an appropriate balance between your animals during adoption can save a lot of heartache for you later on.


The good news is that many dogs can be trained to leave your other furry little pets alone. Dogs who like to chase movement, but are not wanting to kill as the end product can be most easily modified. This starts with good leadership by you, the pack leader. It is imperative that your dog first views you as Commander and Chief if you are to be successful in modifying this behavior. We can often distract a “chase oriented” dog away from the family cat with a toy or food reward that is better or more fun than chasing that cat.. We can redirect his attention onto something more to our liking by controlling the situation with the dog on a leash. It is important to give a special “reward” for a dog who is learning to ignore the fast movement of the “prey” animal.

It is our responsibility as humans to manage our animals correctly and ensure safety for everyone under our care. In most cases, it is when defined leadership within a home is in question that chaos occurs.