Sniffing Out The Source – Counter-conditioning and Positive Association

So, continuing our talk about anxiety and reactivity, you can help your dog become more tolerant of certain things through counter-conditioning and learning to make positive associations with scary things.

Counter-conditioning is a technique employed in animal training, and in the treatment of phobias and similar conditions in humans, in which behavior incompatible with a habitual undesirable pattern is induced.  Counter-conditioning is a sometimes lengthy process, depending on the nature and severity of the reactivity.

For example, let’s discuss Milo, a pit bull that I worked with for fearful reactivity towards new people.  As soon as another person ventured into Milo’s field of vision, he would begin to react in an aggressive yet fearful manner towards them.  His owners were concerned that he was going to hurt himself, or someone else, during these reactive episodes.  But Milo had one big motivation: treats.  Milo would do almost ANYTHING for a treat.  I remember my first encounter with Milo very clearly.  He lunged across the room at me as soon as I opened the door.  But slowly, he began calming down and his owners and I would look for moments (some lasting as short as a few seconds) when he was calm and reward that behavior.  Soon, he could tolerate my presence comfortably.  But what about new people? We had to do the same thing with new people, and soon he began to offer new behaviors (incompatible with reactive behaviors) to his owners whenever he met someone he wasn’t comfortable with.  He also began to get excited in a good way whenever new people were around, because that meant that a treat was soon to appear.

Milo is a success story.  Several cases don’t make such good progress, or any progress at all; and whatever progress is gained is usually aided by chemical therapy, basket muzzles, etc.

Fearful reactivity, or any type of reactivity, is a product of over-stimulation.  The dog has gotten too close to some form of stimulus that the dog doesn’t like.  Not all reactivity is aggressive or fearful in nature.  Reactivity can also be in the form of being too playful, barking, destructiveness and so on.  The trick to successful counter-conditioning is teaching an incompatible  behavior.  Does your dog jump when he becomes excited? Teach your dog to lie down whenever he’s around something that excites him.  Does your dog growl at new people? Teach your dog to turn around and touch your palm with his nose instead of growling.

Next time, we’re going to discuss separation anxiety and body language!

Happy Tails!

-Ben The Dog Trainer

Barking Up The Right Tree – A Good Vet For A Good Dog

Finding the right vet can be difficult.  You need to find a vet who is nearby, whose prices fit your budget, and takes not only your feelings, but the feelings of your dog into consideration as well.

I’m lucky that I started as a kennel tech and then a vet tech for an animal hospital.  It gave me a great understanding of what happens when the vet takes your dog to give it vaccines.  A majority of the time, it’s pretty easy for everyone is involved.  Someone (like me) is usually restraining the dog in a safe but comfortable manner (for the dog), someone else is distracting it by petting it’s head, and a third person is administering vaccines or drawing blood.  One of the reasons I love working for the Armani’s at Navy Blvd and Airport Animal Hospital is because they are as minimally invasive as possible and avoid excessive restraint wherever they can.  They always have the animals physical and emotional comfort in mind.

Even a good dog can have a bad vet visit (in a different post, I’m going to discuss techniques to help desensitize your dog to the vet), but a good vet can make it a good or tolerable visit.  The first thing I look for in a veterinarian is how they approach my dog.  A good vet, like the Armani’s, will take the time to properly introduce themselves to the dog and not immediately grab the dog and begin the exam.

A good vet also takes the time to talk to you, the owner, about what kind of treatment they are recommending, answers your questions about preventatives, the vaccines being administered, etc.  A good vet is always compassionate to you and your pet, and will listen to any concerns you have.  A good vet is always learning and advancing their knowledge and understanding.

I see these qualities in the doctors I work with, and I find it very comforting that when I bring my pets in for a visit, that they are getting the absolute best quality of care.  You should feel this way about your vet as well.  And if you don’t…well…I do know a few good veterinarians.

Happy tails everyone!

-Ben The Dog Trainer

In The Dog House – When Lassie doesn’t know who to listen to?

I am too young to have seen Lassie when it first aired on T.V., but I remember as a child watching some of the episodes in syndication.  It amazed me that Lassie always knew who exactly she needed to bark at to fix whatever problem had happened.  If it involved little Timmy, then she always barked at Dad and never at Mom.  If Timmy wasn’t stuck in…anything really, she would bark at him.  Lassie clearly preferred the male family members.  Why didn’t she ever go get Mom, though?

Something I see this a lot with families is “The dog always listen to…” and they will name a family member.  Most of the time it’s the husband, but occasionally it’s the wife, or the kids, or someone else.  For whatever reason, it seems like the dog is more obedient for one or two family members versus the entire family.  Why is that?

My house is a behavior nightmare in a lot of ways.  I have a hard time getting everyone in our home to stay on the same page when it comes to the dogs.  It’s a real sore point between me, my wife and our family members.  We have certain rules regarding our dogs, and our other family members often seem content with ignoring them.  But we also ask different things of our dogs, and our dogs respond to my wife and I differently than they do to the other family members.  My wife and I are more strict with their behavior, we ask them to do certain things at certain times and they respond.  Not everyone who deals with them does that, though.  Would we prefer it if they did? Of course.  But realistically, that isn’t going to happen.

Which brings up my point, dogs can differentiate enough to know which behavior will be rewarded by what person.  My wife and I don’t like it when our dogs beg for food and get near our plates.  Other family members are not always so strict, and with those family members, our dogs display begging behaviors.  At some point in their life, this begging behavior was reinforced by this person.  That makes the behavior more likely to be offered again.  

It would be best for the dogs if everyone in the family were on the same page.  It would be best if the dogs knew to not beg for food from anyone, not just mom and dad.  But that isn’t likely to happen.  Unfortunately, you can’t really change how other people behave.  But you can make sure that you are not reinforcing bad behavior in your dog yourself.  And you should always communicate your concerns with other individuals who will be dealing with your dog.  After all, you only want what’s best and it is your dog.


Happy Tails!

-Ben the Dog Trainer

Barking Up The Right Tree – Finding Good Trainers and Training Information

There is a lot of information out there.  Period.  In an age where practically all of human knowledge is easily accessed through a small device we keep in our pockets, it’s easy to get bad information.  That’s because with all of the knowledge comes all of the opinions, personal experiences, colloquial beliefs and conventional wisdom, and flat out lies of everyone in the world.  Digging through all of this information and finding out what works and what doesn’t is tough.

I’m not going to call out any one person or training method here.  It doesn’t benefit you, as an owner, to tell you my opinions on different training methods.  What I will tell you, however, is how I train, what trainers I emulate, and what methods I find that work the best.

Countless studies over the last decade have shown us that using positive reinforcement strengthens behavior modification.  This is true in all animals, even us.  If you’re still having doubts about if you should positive reinforcement on your dog, consider this example: You go to work, do your assigned tasks, and you get paid for your effort.  But instead of getting paid, let’s say that your boss instead zaps you with a cattle prod for not doing your work fast enough.  Your paycheck is a form of positive reinforcement.  It’s a widely accepted method of getting someone or something to do what you want.

Also, you’ll never hear me use words like “dominant”, “alpha dog”, or “pack leader” in my classes.  I’m only going to touch briefly on dominance theory, but at it’s core, dominance theory was based on observations made on captive wolves in zoos, who were from different packs and family groups.  The problem is that in the wild, a pack is usually a family – a mated pair (alphas), their older offspring or perhaps their owner siblings (betas), and then their younger offspring, perhaps a few adopted family members, and so on.  A wild wolf pack is not a cutthroat environment, but rather a set of parents trying to keep their kids safe in the wild.  When wolves from different packs or family groups are mixed together, the first few encounters are usually violent, as the wolves try to find some semblance of the order they were accustomed to.

But dogs aren’t wolves.  In fact, recent archaeological evidence points to the theory that they were never wolves to begin with.  So, studying wolves does us really no good.  And even if dogs WERE wolves, they have spent the last 20,000+ years NOT being wolves.  Dogs today are no more wolves than we are cave dwellers.

Finally always consider the source.  Be careful of breed “specialists”.  A dog breed is a physical conformity, and breed has very little to do with behavior (although it can have a small influence in regards to energy level).  You want to look at certified trainers, behaviorists, and veterinary behaviorists for information.  A personal favorite of mine is Sophia Yin (check out Cattle Dog Publishing).  You want to get your information from someone who bases their training methods in science, not conventional wisdom.

I’ll elaborate more on all of this in the next few weeks.  Thanks for reading!

Happy Tails!

-Ben the Dog Trainer

Sniffing Out The Source – Recognizing the difference between Aggression and Aggressive Reactivity

Our greatest disadvantage regarding dogs is that we simply cannot fully understand canine cognition.  A complete understanding of the dog mind will most likely forever elude us, because dogs cannot speak and communicate in a way to help us understand everything that happens in their head.  Comparatively speaking, we still do not fully understand the human mind; so, we are just scratching the surface of canine brain.

We have a pretty good understanding of how they learn though, and we mostly understand the way they communicate with both other canines and non-canines.  We are not completely helpless when it comes to understanding the dog’s thought process.  However, helplessness is what many owners feel when they are dealing with a serious, or potentially dangerous, behavior problem.  Many owners also do not fully understand what their dog is experiencing, they just know that either their dog is frightened, or perhaps their dog is frightening them.  But once you understand a few things about dog behavior, you can begin to sniff out the source of the problem.

True aggression (defined as “aggressive displays that are not caused by fear or accompanied by fearful/anxious behavior”) is rare in dogs.  There are some nervous conditions and illnesses, usually attributed to genetics and inbreeding, that cause true aggression.  The first and most important step in determining the type of aggression is a vet visit.  Now, if you own what has been labeled as an aggressive dog, this can cause a mild panic attack for you.  But in order to understand the root of the aggressive behavior, we have to rule out a few things first.

Pain, especially joint pain and arthritis, can cause aggressive behavior.  Some other internal problems, such as thyroid issues, kidney and liver issues, and hormonal imbalance can cause aggressive displays.  Simply put, if you don’t feel good and healthy, you’re not going to act good and healthy.  Blood work, x-rays, ultrasounds and other tests can rule this out.  Some dogs simply need to treat a health problem, like a thyroid issue, to stop displaying aggressive behavior.

However, most cases of aggression are reactive aggression.  Aggressive reactivity is where the dog has learned to respond in an aggressive manner to an unpleasant or frightening stimulus.  For example, your recently adopted shelter dog is becomes aggressive when he sees other dogs. Perhaps he wasn’t socialized properly, or maybe he was attacked by another dog when he was young.  He is reacting to a stimulus or trigger in an aggressive way. 

This doesn’t mean that your dog is aggressive.  It means that your dog is frightened of something, so frightened of it in fact, that they are trying to defend themselves, and sometimes you, from it.  To give you an example using people, I’m going to refer to my own family.  My parents are terrified of snakes.  I mean, crawling up the walls-beating down doors-breaking out of windows terrified of snakes.  It’s almost comical.  My parents are so afraid of snakes in fact that they will kill a wild snake on sight if they can.  My parents have an aggressive reaction to snakes.

But why aggressive? Why not try getting away from the thing that is frightening your dog? They can’t. Your dog is either trapped in a house or stuck on a leash, and literally cannot get away.  And if they are on leash, and you aren’t moving them away from it (either at all or not fast enough), then they simply don’t have a choice.  Fight or Flight has taken over, and they have learned Flight isn’t an option.

Aggressive reactivity is also a learned behavior, the dog is getting rewarded for acting in an aggressive manner towards a trigger.  To explain, imagine this scenario: Your dog is frightened of men.  One day, while out on a walk, you walk past a man and your dog suddenly becomes aggressively reactive.  Either you beat a hasty retreat or the strange man quickens his pace and walks away.  The dog has been rewarded since the trigger (the strange man) is now gone because the dog reacted in an aggressive way.  This behavior has been reinforced through the use of negative reinforcement – the dog saw the frightening man (aversive stimulus), reacted in an aggressive display, and the strange man was removed from the situation (the trigger has been subtracted from the situation).

But there is hope! Your dog can learn to not have aggressive reactions!

Next week, I’ll discuss counter-conditioning and positive associations in dog training.


Happy Tails!

-Ben The Dog Trainer


Dogged Pursuit – Four Paws and an Engine: Channeling Your Dogs Drive Into Something Fun

What to do with the dog that won’t quit? We’ve all known a dog that put the dog into dogged! Several working and hunting breeds have drive and motivation that can last for days.  Even some non-working, companion breeds can have a lot of energy! And if you aren’t careful, your dog will drive you crazy as it searches desperately for something to do!

I’m fond of saying that a lot of dogs need a job, and if you don’t give them one, they will find one themselves.  My favorite reference (based on an actual case) is when I tell people your dog might decide that it’s job is to be a couch de-stuffer, and it will be the BEST couch de-stuffer EVER!

Many breeds we deal with today were meant to perform some sort of task.  Only in the last century or so have we started bringing Fido from the field and putting him in the living room.  The problem is that for several centuries before this, we were shaping and molding Fido to work in the field! Some breeds can trace their lineage back to Antiquity, and you can’t change that kind of thing over night.  It’s not fair that we take a dog that needs to work and not give it something to do.  What can we do, you ask?

Dog Sports!

Before you grab the football helmet or baseball bat, you need to understand what dog sports are.  Dog sports are physical and mental stimulation for your dog, meant to mimic the behaviors they were born and bred to perform.  Today, we’re going to be talking specifically about agility, but I’ll be covering other types of sports later on.

Dog agility requires your dog to run an obstacle course in a certain order, the dog with the fastest time wins the competition.  There are few other rules, depending on where and what level your dog is competing on.  But the idea is the same.  Running through tunnels, over teetertotters, jumping over bars and weaving through poles, all of these obstacles mimic running through the wild and having fun.

Your dog does need some obedience training in order to compete, as basic obedience is employed throughout.  Also, there is a fair amount of conditioning involved.  Surprisingly, very few dogs have developed the muscles and coordination to be successful at agility.  Finally, you the owner are also running the course with them; and while you won’t be jumping or climbing, you will be directing your dog on the fly to hit each obstacle in the correct order.  So, you might have to do a little conditioning yourself!

There are countless agility clubs across the country, all of which will help you train and condition both you and your dog for the course.  There are more than a few groups who organize competitions and offer prizes for agility!

Dog sports are a great way to engage your dog, and have fun doing it.  It builds a tight bond with you and Fido, as you both learn how to communicate and move more effectively.  If you’re interested in learning dog agility, I’ll be offering dog agility classes in September (I’m learning too!) and will be more than happy to help you and your dog learn this wonderful passtime!

For more information, check out the United States Dog Agility Association –

Happy tails everyone!

-Ben the Dog Trainer