It’s Alarming- more stories from 20 years of dog training

"Somebody get me an axe"

The early years of my dog training career were filled with activity. I was extremely careful with my furry charges, and opted for state-of-the-art burglar and fire alarms. I lived about five blocks away and figured I could sprint there in an emergency in case my car failed me. There was a tenant in the building on the other side, upstairs, but he was of questionable character (a friend of my landlord’s, also of questionable character) and was definitely not on my speed dial list. In case of fire, he would probably be at fault.

The place was an old concrete bunker of a building, where paint was once manufactured and canned. Giant stirring devices had been removed, but the turning gears remained above. A stand-up furnace stood along the wall. A large exposed pipe with vents served to heat the room during the frigid Chicago winters.

Surprisingly, this hideous machine worked well despite a distinct quirk. When it fired up, it made a ‘BOOM’ sound and a flame shot out of the front of the vent. Alarming, I know, but we had all manner of experts in to examine it, clean it, massage it and otherwise pronounce it normal. Still, we gave it a respectful distance. Every spring I sighed with relief that the beast had made it through another winter and blessed my alarms for keeping vigil. My alarms were never tested in ten years of business there, until one day when they were nearly destroyed by the ready axes of our local firemen.

It was mid-morning on a pleasant spring Sunday. I was training a boisterous lab puppy when the piercing ‘WHOOOP, WHOOOP, WHOOOP of the fire alarm went off. I looked around for flames, ninjas, smoke or other interlopers but found no trouble. The phone call to the service was made, but I was told the firemen would be there soon.

“Can’t you stop them?” I asked. The answer was an emphatic, “No” and I heard the approaching sirens as I hung up.

They pulled up with enough manpower and hoses to quench the Great Chicago Fire. I held up my hand.

“I’m so sorry, I think it’s a false alarm.” Axes drooped and their disappointment was obvious. They stomped through anyway in their huge boots looking for any sign of smoke as the dogs barked as these odd-looking men.

“No problem, ma’am,” said the captain with impeccable politeness. I batted my eyes as they filed out and promised to look into it with the alarm company.

About five minutes later, the ‘WHOOOP, WHOOOP’ was wailing again. I cursed and ran to the phone, but the alarm was on override. I waited outside for the full brigade to return. They pulled up in force as a small crowd looked on.

“I’m really sorry; the alarm company said it would be Monday before they can come look at it.”

“OK, ma’am”, but the captain’s smile was strained.

I looked at the alarm box and puzzled the problem. As I shrugged and walked away, it began to scream again. Most of the dogs plastered their ears to their heads to shut out the worst of it, but two huskies and a beagle began to accompany the noise, their noses pointed straight up as if at the moon. The brigade pulled up, same guys, and this time, no smiles.

“MA’AM, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE A LOOK AT THAT BOX,” he shouted over the din. We opened the box together. The captain pressed the Cancel button. Nothing. He pressed it and held it. The ‘WHOOOP, WHOOOP’ continued to laugh at us. Now we had about six dogs howling for all they were worth. He pushed the button harder. Finally, the noise stopped but the howling continued.

“CAN’T YOU…” I took a breath. The howling subsided and I lowered my voice in the now hushed room.

“Can’t you ignore it if it happens again?” I pleaded.

“The law says we have to respond” said the captain wearily. His manners won out, but he clearly wanted to strangle me.

Two more times this nightmare was played out. Axes were raised and the beefiest of the bunch promised to “shut the thing up for good”. I was tempted to let him, but caution prevailed and they shuffled out.

Mercifully, the stupid thing finally did shut up. I glared at the furnace, thinking that somehow it was at fault, but it sat there benignly.

The next day was Monday, and the alarm man came. The culprit was a spider in the smoke detector, spinning a web that caused the detector to trip the alarm. The alarm stopped when the web was completed and the spider took a nap. I insisted the spider be spared and we took it outside in a Styrofoam cup.

Something had to be done about the firemen. I knew the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and had no desire to be thought of as “that nut over by the dog place”. The local bakery made a large sheet cake for me, hand-decorated with a fire engine and Dalmation dog. The baker had depicted me as a cartoon figure in the engine next to the dog, smiling, no less. I could have done without that, but at least the cake would be delicious.

I hauled on a skirt and heels and combed my hair, and carefully drove the heavy cake to the fire station. I was welcomed by a young fireman in front, who grinned and brought me inside. I thought I would just drop it off for the captain and the guys, but was ushered downstairs into their lair. Coming down the steep stairs, I was glad my skirt wasn’t any shorter.

The young fireman announced me with,
“Hey, look at what we got here!” and a dozen heads turned. The captain parted the group, recognized me, and his entire face fell. He clearly associated me with failure, stress, and wasted time. Not so with the others, and I shoved the cake toward the rapidly approaching group of ridiculously handsome men. They cut into it, toasting me with their raised forks, and I apologized again to the captain. He relaxed and we chatted until I could make my exit, intimidated by the low ceiling and high testosterone, but I knew that if I ever needed help, they would make haste, axes at the ready.

Fortunately, the alarms never went off again.

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My Dog Training Genesis

This year marks my 20th as a full-time dog trainer. My total immersion began when I worked with a talented couple in Chicago. After just two weeks, I was already working with the growlers, snappers, and biters. Pit bulls? German Shepherds? Dobermans? Nope. The toughest was a Portuguese water dog, ala ‘Bo’ the white house dog.

Jim Morgan, the head trainer, was a charismatic and intimidating guy. He would storm through the kennel in his full cammos and boots and glower at his underlings through thick eyebrows. His classes consisted of 10 to 12 mostly female participants, raptly awaiting his next instruction, which was often given at full volume. “Forward!”, he’d bellow. “Right turn!” Feet shuffled and leashes snapped. “Left turn!” Any dyslexic tendencies were immediately exposed. “YOUR LEFT, YOUR MILITARY LEFT!” Frantic adjustments by the dog owners. The dogs adored him and saw right through his bluster. When class ended, instead of slinking off to their cars after the verbal lashing they had received, the women would gather around him and seek his further counsel while their husbands kept a respectful distance.

I worked with Elana Morgan often, a talented trainer and businesswoman in her own right. She wore clean white jeans every day and they were just as clean and white at 6PM, despite working with dogs of all sizes throughout the day. No dog even considered jumping up on this petite and pretty blonde; she gave off that much Alpha vibe. Elana was a pioneer in feeding natural foods, and using Chinese herbs and homeopathic remedies.

These two people gave me a great start and kept on helping me after I opened my own place in 1991. One late afternoon, a client dropped off two tiny Yorkshire terriers to board with me. I had not trained these two and had not seen them before their appointment. The owner left hurriedly in a cloud of perfume, and I bent to say ‘hello’ to my little charges, thinking, ‘how easy is this?’ Both dogs came at me in a rush, teeth clicking and saliva flying. I was surprised but not afraid; remember I had worked with the tough ones at the Morgan’s place. I merely picked up the leashes and said, “Let’s go!” and started to walk out to the yard with them. The smaller of the two slipped right out of the collar and ran into a corner. I rolled my eyes, after all this was a mere annoyance for a lion tamer like myself. I put the other dog in a large crate and went back for the itsy-bitsy one. The dog began to bounce up and down in the corner and barked so much she threw up bile. I felt bad for her and wanted to get her settled ASAP so she could relax. I tried throwing a light leash over her like a lasso, (slipped out like she was buttered) tossing a towel over her and scooping her up, (ouch, little teeth leave big holes) and even tried to herd her into a cardboard box like an escaped gerbil (no go, this thing was quick). I finally had to do it. I had to call my mentors for help, just five days into my independence. They assured me over the phone that it was no trouble, completely understandable, and that Yorkie bites could be very, very bad.

I felt better after hanging up and waited for their arrival. The small

"Bring it!"

menace in the corner glared at me while her friend in the crate yelped her displeasure. Minutes later there was a knock. I opened the door and could not decide whether to laugh, cry or crawl in a hole. There stood Elana and Jim, both in full cammo, Elana in a pith helmet (white) and carrying a snare pole like those used at zoos on reluctant lions. Jim wore hockey gloves so thick he could not have scratched his own nose without knocking himself out.

“Where is the little @#!%!” he roared.  Elana crept slowly around, snare-em pole at the ready. The Yorkie in the corner was very, very quiet.

“OK, guys, I deserve this,” I laughed. Jim walked up to the dog, looked down at it for just a second or two, and the little monster wagged her tail and rolled onto one side. Jim scooped her up and snapped the leash back on, and then did some walking exercises with her as she bounced along happily at his side. From that day on, I used confidence as a training tool. Dogs are such good readers of body language and attitude, and they do want to follow a leader. I also instituted a new policy. Any new dogs had to come by for a brief visit before staying to board.  And, I ordered a snare pole.

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Dead? Nope, just sleeping

Twenty years ago I took in my first boarder at my training school in Chicago after being officially open for only one day. ‘Max’ was a young German Shepherd, all teeth and tail and floppy paws. My place was gleaming with new paint and pristine crates. I had called friends and family to bring their

My first trainee, 'Max'

dogs over so we’d have some warm bodies to show new customers, but that night, the puppy was to be the first to stay over.

I fretted to my husband, “Should we take him home with us?”

“No”, he said, predictably. “Where do we draw the line? He’ll be fine here”.

We had fire and burglar alarms, soft music, night lights, and regular patrols from friendly cops. I made sure the pup was fully exercised and fed, and locked the door at 9:00PM. I tossed and turned that night and woke early, loading my Rottweiler, Maura, into the car and making the 4-block drive to my training school. I opened the door with the key and deactivated alarms, expecting to see ‘Max’ up and prancing in his crate. Massive amounts of adrenalin (the bad kind, not the “gee isn’t this roller coaster a blast” kind) surged hard through me when I saw his recumbent little body in the crate. Laid over on his side, he looked as if the air had been sucked from him. In a word, he looked dead.

“Max!” I half-shrieked, half-sobbed at the unmoving puppy. My dog was instantly by my side. She barked once and Max slowly opened one red eye, stood up gradually like an old basset hound, and stretched lazily.

“Morning already?” he seemed to think. “Is there coffee?”

I hauled him out of his crate and gave him a greeting similar to what Lassie got after pulling Timmy out of yet another well.

The two dogs romped in our big play yard as I tried to regulate my heart rate. I got their food ready and took a couple of phone calls. ‘Max’ was my first paying client and I intended to train him well. I certainly had the time, but that was about to change. Within a month I was full almost every day, and loving the job despite the long hours. My furry charges depended on me and I intended to live up to their trust and their owner’s expectations. The dogs taught me how to have fun in the process.

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On 20 Years of Dog Training

On 20 years of dog training

Do what you love, love what you do. This marks my 20th year as a full-time professional dog trainer, which makes me a lucky girl.

Top ten list of things I have learned in approximately 140 dog-years of training:

1. Each dog is different and deserves to be treated as an individual. Whether in a private home setting or in class, a good trainer must make the dog and owner feel they are special.

2. Trainers must be creative with solutions to problems. If waving a treat in front of the dog isn’t working, try something else. While you are evaluating the dog, the owner is evaluating you. Impress them with your ability to adapt.

3. Dogs cannot be put into a box, such as ‘Dog A responds to stimuli thusly, so use solution B to modify behavior’. This sounds like you read it in a book, which the owner can get for free at the library.

4. Dogs are fantastic observers of body language. If you don’t care for a certain breed, or small dogs, or hairy dogs, or dogs with big ears, or dogs that bark, you’d better find something you love about that particular dog, or the dog won’t respond to your training cues.

5. Compliment the dog owner, sincerely, on their efforts to improve their relationship with the dog through training. They have hired a trainer to enhance this relationship and expect to reap some benefits from it. Telling the owner “Herding breeds are going to chase and nip your kids, it’s just how it is” will not cut it. Seriously.

6. Dog owners can shape good behavior and encourage good traits through training. This doesn’t have to start with puppies; you can do this with adult dogs. Pick a situation that comes up often, and rehearse what you want the dog to do. For example, someone comes to your door and rings the bell. Dog goes crazy. Now, give him something else to do, like the ‘Come’ command with a tasty treat at the end of this rainbow. Congrats all around.

7. Dog owners can also shape bad behavior by reacting inappropriately to their dog’s bad habits. Example: dog jumps up on the owner’s leg. Owner looks down and touches dog. Dog is inadvertently rewarded for jumping up. Instead, encourage the owner to use a command like “Back up” and then “Sit”, before touching the dog. Dog develops new and better habit. Congrats all around.

8. Observe the family dynamic and work within it. You won’t fundamentally change the habits of a freewheeling household with four rowdy kids, so don’t try. Besides, you’ll look like a Debbie Downer. Instead, help parents with redirecting techniques (see number 6). Counsel parents to give the dog a peaceful place, like a bed under a table or crate to go to when a doggie time-out is in order.

9. Body language. Use it! Observe dogs at a dog park or in a daycare situation. Or, if you have more than one dog, watch them compete for your attention. You’ll see body blocks, leaning, pushing, deference, assertion, etc. Humans can successfully use some of these cues to get respect from the dog without being harsh. Think of when you open the front door to take the dog out. Does he dart out in front of you? Would he do that to another dog he respected? Conversely, think of the shy dog. Will he enjoy your bending directly over him for an eye-to-eye greeting? Hardly. Instead, turn sideways and bend down without looking at him. Talk sweetly when he sniffs you.

10. Quit while you are ahead. After a couple of successful repetitions at one thing, do something else. This keeps the dog and owner from getting bored and burned out. Change the venue, add new challenges, and always come back to something easy before the lesson ends. Congrats all around.

Next post: best stories from 20 years of training

Year one of dog training. A tough job.

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What’s the rush?

Adding a new dog to your existing pack? Whether you have one mellow oldster or three trouble-seeking missiles, bringing a new dog into your fold should be done with care and patience.

Just before Christmas, I worked with a sharp lady, career-savvy and independent. The kind of fun lady you like to include in your ‘wine nights’. She recently opened her home to a neglected and thin female Beauceron (french shepherd; a herding dog). Assured by the former owner that the dog was friendly with other pups, she still took the precaution of having her two established dogs meet the new one on leash and on neutral territory, per my advice and research she had done on her own. The Beauceron did not read my emails, however, and  growled fiercely when approached by her other two mixed breed dogs.

Undaunted, this lady sought help and we began a counter-conditioning and redirecting process. This is a wordy way of saying we would attempt to change the new dog’s mind about how to react to the other dogs.

The Beauceron’s obedience was decent, despite seven years spent outdoors with a doghouse and a dominant Doberman for company. In order to have influence over her behavior toward the other dogs, we had to convince the new dog (and the established dogs) to let the humans lead, and canines should follow. (Often people will think it’s best to ‘let the dogs work it out’. Not so, unless you like expensive vet bills.) We trained the Beauceron low-tech; a tennis ball and basic commands to establish leadership and reduce her energy level. Next: back inside to set up our ‘can’t we all just get along?’ area. This consisted of a baby gate in a doorway with her two established dogs on one side, and the Beauceron on the other. With tasty treats in hand,  we now had a means of getting the dogs in close proximity safely, but attentive to us. We wanted the dogs to briefly acknowledge one another and then look away, and receive a reward for that.

At first, we used the ‘watch’ command to ask for canine-human eye contact, followed by treats for compliance. Then, we did nothing for a moment. Without specific direction, the dogs would glance at each other, maybe sneak a quick sniff through the gate, then they would turn away and look back at us, the folks holding the treats. We watched the canine body language carefully. Mouth open, slight pant, face angled looked good to us. Mouth shut tight, eyes riveted and ears pricked, not so good.  When the Beauceron growled, we just used the ‘come’ command or ‘watch’ to get her to turn away and look back at us, effectively redirecting her energy and changing her mind about what her reaction to the others should be. We were counter-conditioning; changing the dog’s response to a stimulus.

Wisely, the lady suggested she would keep them separate and continue this exercise, and only take leash walks with all three when she had the extra hands to do so.

Visitors arrived at her house over the holidays, and mistakes happened when doors were left open and the dogs got together. As dogs will do, they surprised everyone with friendly greetings and face licking, and then turned their attention to the humans. As good as this was, the lady knew that she still had to manage them, a lot, before they could all sleep in a pile together. Setbacks were bound to occur, but now she had the tools to improve their relationship with each other, and with her.

So, what’s the rush? Take time to do your homework and the tension level in your home will decrease dramatically. The dogs will respect your ‘take charge’ attitude and begin to do what dogs

Who called for a herding dog?

do best: follow the leader.

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Holiday Manners: Is Your Dog Ready for the Social Whirl?

I love holiday parties!

We are all more socially active this time of year. If you are expecting guests this season, or if they just show up without so much as a warning bark, will your dog’s manners get you compliments, or complaints?

It’s really all about the initial greeting. Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and personalities, and so do their greetings. You’ve got jumpers, barkers, herders, circlers, whiners, etc. All these behaviors reflect a state of high excitement. Because of this state of excitement, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ask your dog to sit and stay as people enter your home. Besides, a wagging tail means the back end is in motion. Our first instinct as embarrassed owners may be to yell “No!” or “Down!” or any one of a dozen ineffectual volleys at our leaping dog. This reaction serves only to make our guests uncomfortable, and causes them to think they have caused some trouble for the dog, which can be a real wet blanket on your evening.

An excited dog is already moving, so we ‘ll use a command that requires action to improve the dog’s greeting manners. Instead of asking your dog to ‘stay’, try the ‘come’ command. The ‘come’ command interrupts the undesirable behavior, the jumping, circling and barking, and brings the dog right back to you. Your dog can still say, ‘hello’, but he has to come back to you right away when asked. Your job is to make it worth his while with a great treat or new toy. Of course, it is wise to practice this command well before the doorbell rings and guests arrive. Ask an understanding friend or neighbor to be your trial guest, and have them knock while you practice redirecting your dog with the ‘come’ command. Once you open the door and your helper comes in, allow your dog to greet briefly, and then call him back to you. Results will come faster if you rehearse exactly what you want your dog to do in a specific situation. Soon your dog will expect the ‘come’ command when he greets a guest, and he will turn and come back to you when asked. Then, bask in the compliments you receive on your well-behaved dog.

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Will my dog be good with the baby? Part 2

this mom has control

 Now is a good time to re-establish the bond between you and your dog, well before the baby’s arrival. Bonding isn’t all cuddling on the couch. Instead, think in terms of gaining your dog’s respect and attention through commands and high-quality interaction. Too many couples give up their pets in advance of a baby’s arrival, because of fear of the unknown. Part two of this post gives tips on getting control so you can stay sane, and your dog can remain an intregal part of the family unit.

1.     Who’s training who?- Dogs are master manipulators. Think about the signals your dog gives you every day. For example, when you are sitting on the couch resting that sore back of yours, and your dog comes and pokes his head into your hand, do you automatically pet him? Don’t fall into the trap of your dog training you. This single thing can take away much of the respect you’ve earned. Instead, when your dog comes over and demands attention with the head-poke, ignore him (no matter how cute it is,) and say, “Go lie down”. Don’t touch him or look his way. Once he gives up and goes away, (often with a big, dramatic sigh,) wait a few minutes and call him to you. Ask your dog to sit and then pet him briefly. Now you have his respect and his attention, on your terms. Your dog gets what he wants, but not if he’s pushy.

2.    Let’s go see the baby! Once the baby arrives, you’ll have lots of visits from family and friends.  Show your dog an alternative to jumping up on your houseguests by rehearsing good behavior at the front door now, before the baby arrives and your doorbell is ringing nonstop. Go to the entry in your house with your dog. Grab some treats and ask him to sit, then encourage him to “Watch” by showing him a treat in your hand, then bring that hand up and point to your nose. When he looks up at you, praise him and give him the treat. Now that he’s interested, knock on the door from the inside. Let him bark a couple of times, then show him the treat and say, “Watch”. Praise him again when he looks and is quiet. When you and your dog become proficient at this, add the Sit command after Watch. You are rehearsing an alternative to his usual over-the-top reaction to doorbells and guests, by re-directing his attention back to you. Now you are ready to ask an understanding neighbor or friend to help you with the real thing. If he is polite, he can say Hello. Re-direct him back to you when he’s too exuberant.

3. Open door policy: Avoid shutting out the dog when you are working with the baby. Pushing him away when you are busy with the baby only worries the dog and he may think the baby is to blame for his lack of attention. Allow your dog to follow you into the baby’s room or poke his nose in the tub at bath time. Many dogs have alerted parents to the baby’s needs due to their superior hearing and noses. Your dog provides you with a built-in alarm system, letting you know when someone is at the door or a family member is coming home from work or school.

Assert your leadership now so the dog will respect your wishes after the baby is born. Your dog is an excellent reader of body language, so be confident and upbeat. Show him what you want and praise him for good behavior. Your dog will reward you with love and loyalty, and your child will know the joy of growing up in a home with a cold-nosed companion.  The benefits of keeping your family dog at home far outweigh the temporary relief and potential guilt of giving him up to an uncertain future.

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