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

Barking Up The Right Tree – Choosing The Right Breed

If there is one thing I hear a lot from owners is “I didn’t know what I was getting into!”

There are several wonderful dog breeds out there; but some breeds require more work than others.  A German Shepherd has different mental and physical requirements than a Pug.  It’s wonderful that there is a breed of dog that you admire but you have to ask yourself if that dog breed fits your lifestyle or if you can provide the dog with everything that it requires.  Another statement I hear a lot is “Our family had one when I was a child, I thought I could handle it.”  Many owners forget that when they were children, they weren’t tasked with caring for the dog.

Picking the right breed can be difficult.  There are many breeds out there that I love (for instance, Australian Shepherds), but I won’t get them because I know that I will not provide them with the physical and mental stimulation that they require.  When you’re ready to get a dog, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

1.) What breed do I like? 

It’s okay to want to pick a breed that you admire.  Personally, I don’t like pugs.  I would never get a pug for myself.  Of course, until the last few years, I didn’t like poodles, yet I own a wonderful toy poodle and I have come to really love that breed.  Pick a dog you will like! However…

2.) What do I really know about the breeds I’m choosing from?

What are the exercise requirements? What are the grooming requirements? How big will the dog get (or how small will it stay)? What health issues is the breed prone to? Is the breed known for being good with families? Is the breed a working breed? These are all important questions to ask to help you determine if a breed is a good fit for you.  There is a wealth of information about every possible dog breed available to you.  Countless books, Facebook pages, web sites and magazines are dedicated to dog breeds.  Many of these sources are operated and maintained by fans of a particular breed.  Thoroughly research each breed, speak to a certified dog trainer, and your veterinarian before making a decision.  And finally, keep in mind…

3.) Is now the right time to get a dog?

This is perhaps the most important question of all! Many owners I’ve encountered simply weren’t ready for the additional burden of a dog.  If you’re considering getting a puppy, you need to be prepared for vaccines, preventatives, deworming, and possibly spaying or neutering.  You need to take into account the cost of food, preventatives, gear, housing/crating, veterinary care, and finally time.  Puppies in particular take a lot of time! Have a newborn or a new family member coming into the picture? Now may not be the best time for a new dog.  Will any current pets be affected by the addition of a new dog? Take your time and think about every aspect of bringing in a new dog.

And one last thing, when you do decide that it’s time to add a dog to your family, please consider adopting a pet, either from a local shelter or a dedicated rescue group.  There are thousands of great dogs out there who need homes!  If you are considering getting a dog and have questions, please feel free to contact me.

Happy tails!


-Ben the Dog Trainer

In The Dog House – Turning a Failure into a Win

Failure is going to happen.  For a dog trainer, it happens every day.  In each of my classes, my clients fail at instructing their dog.  The failure is usually something small, a mistimed cue or a ill-timed distraction can take the wind of out of an owners sails.  At that point, it’s my job to offer encouragement, a little more instruction, and try to keep them moving forward.

I deal with failure with my own dogs all the time.  What’s funny is that everyone expects my dog to behave perfectly all of the time.  The truth is I have to work just as hard as every other owner.  I actually have to work harder than most owners, since I have to be nearly perfect when I’m teaching other people.  But I do experience failure.  I recently experienced the ultimate failure.  I had to help a client say goodbye to their dog.  We exhausted every avenue of behavior modification and chemical therapy before we made the decision.  I knew, on a cold logical level, that incidents like this could and would occur.  In all honesty, however, this particular case took me back to the line.  For the next two days, I questioned EVERYTHING that I was doing.  I had to make a decision to accept it, learn from it, own it, and move on.

When your dog doesn’t do what you’re asking it to do, most of the time the problem is on our end of the leash.  Late or confusing cues, late rewarding, lack of practice, or not practicing in places that provide some form of mild distraction can all contribute to failure.  When you make a mistake in my class, I’ll correct you on what you’re doing.  My classes are not to teach to your dog, but rather you the owner.  But I’m only with you for around 45 minutes once a week.  You’re going to practice without me and you’re going to make mistakes on your own.

How should handle I failures? Well first, decide if now is the time to address the failure.  Sometimes, I will let an owner make a few mistakes and then when they do something right, I’ll point that out.  Sometimes, I won’t even address the failure because it could be just a single mistake.  If it looks like it’s going to be a repetitive problem, then I’ll address when I see it again.

But what happens if I notice the failure and I don’t know what to do from there? The best thing to do is to stop training.  Sometimes you can skip right over a failure and keep going.  But most of the time, it trips you up.  That’s usually my cue to take a break, refocus myself and give my mind a break.  Once I’ve calmed down, then I can go back and analyze what happened and where I went wrong.

What if failure happened because I didn’t have control of the situation? Lack of control over the environment isn’t a true failure, at least not in the context we’re discussing today.  However, it should give you pause to consider how effective your training is and perhaps reconsider how and where you train.  When you can’t control the environment and something goes awry, it’s time to get out of that environment.  Training only works when you can keep your dogs attention and you can stay calm and focused.  So, when you’re practicing out in the world, have an exit strategy planned and ready to implement.

Failure is going to happen, be prepared for that.  But every failure is an opportunity to find weaknesses and strengthen them.  Keep working, keep trying, keep failing, and you will succeed.

Happy tails everyone!

-Ben the Dog Trainer


In The Dog House – The Two Dog Debate

Each week, I’m going to have two or three different blog posts (oh, I have a blog now! Yay!) about different aspects of training.  This post is called In The Dog House, and it’s going to be about my personal experience both as a trainer and owner.  This week’s post is about the Two Dog Debate – what is it like when you have a multiple dog household?

You see a lot of pictures of Flynn.  You also see a lot of videos of Flynn.  If you’ve taken a class with me, you may have met Flynn a time or two.  Flynn is my work dog.  When I first got Flynn, I was looking for a puppy specifically for work.  Flynn came along at the age of 6 weeks, and as a new trainer, I jumped at the opportunity to raise and shape a dog from the beginning.  For his part, Flynn is an excellent companion.  He is fiercely loyal, and obedient to a fault.  As a trainer, he made teaching obedience easy, although he did provide a few unique challenges along the way.  But I have a second dog, one that you don’t meet as often.


Phillip (sometimes called Prince Phillip) is our toy poodle, and he is the dog that got me into obedience work.  Phillip is a tough nut when it comes to obedience and behavior.  He doesn’t really love other dogs, but he does alright with them at home.  He’s attention motivated, which means that any attention he receives is a positive reinforcer.  He lacks a lot of motivation, so getting him to do anything he doesn’t want to at the moment can be difficult.  Also, he bites.  A lot.  He’s gotten much better, but he is still a biter.  Mess with his ears, you’re probably going to be bit.  Mess with his teeth, feet, tail, certain areas while grooming, you’re probably going to get bit.  If he doesn’t want to get up and go outside to go potty, and you try to force him, he’s going to get bit. Figuring out Phillip’s quirks is why I became a trainer. And as my skills as a trainer have improved, so has Phillip’s personality.  Don’t be misled, Phillip is a very affectionate dog too.  He loves to cuddle.  He loves to play and he is the epitome of a lap dog.  He’s got his quirks, but he’s a wonderful dog.  So why don’t you see Phillip more?

A few reasons, most of which I just named.  But Phillip’s attitude is a little more unpredictable, and given his more anti-social nature, he isn’t a good choice to bring to class with me.  Nor is he a good dog to demonstrate behaviors because he lacks a lot motivation to do most things.  Flynn has so much more energy, drive and desire to please that I can get him to try almost anything.  Does this mean Phillip is a bad dog? No, of course not.  Does this mean I love Flynn more? Definitely not.  The good thing about Phillip is I just can accept him the way he is.  A lack of drive in the obedience area translates into a lack of drive for getting in trouble.  I don’t have to manage Phillip as much as I do with Flynn.  But I love both of my boys dearly.  They are both very unique dogs and I couldn’t be happier with them.

Many owners with multiple dogs face this problem: am I treating both dogs equally? Does one dog think I love one of them more than the other? I want to put your mind to ease.  It’s okay to treat your dogs a little differently.  When you have multiple dogs in your home, you’re going to treat each dog differently, because they are each different creatures with sometimes vastly different personalities.  I spend more time with Flynn because Flynn needs more time.  I also expect a lot out of Flynn, so I have to spend time working with him and keeping him sharp.  Phillip is my lazy day dog.  He doesn’t need or want all of the extra time spent working.  He wants to flake out in my lap while I watch Netflix.  You have different relationships with different people and the same can be said of your dogs.  Your dog will let you know if the relationship needs work.  Don’t neglect your pets, but accept that each dog will set their own boundaries and develop their own unique relationship with you.

Take some time every day and give each dog what they want.  Spend time with them doing what they like to do and really enjoy the unique bond you have with each dog in your home.  Tell me a little bit about your dogs at home? What kind of relationships do you have with them?

Until next week, happy tails!