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The Art of Self-Control

While I often hear people wishing their dog would “chill out”, mastering self-control is a two way street.  Dogs are opportunistic by nature.  Without training most will “throw themselves” at stuff they want.  This can lead to door barging, jumping on people, counter-surfing, etc.  However, humans are often guilty of poor self-control around dogs as well.  Commonly there are the “dog lovers” who are so focused on what they want from the dog (affection, attention) that they engage in excessive greeting (talking and petting) without regard to the dog’s behavior.  Another camp gets easily frustrated by the dog’s boisterousness or failure to respond promptly to a cue.  This frustration comes though in their voice and body language.  Both types of human behavior tend to whip dogs into more of a frenzy.   How can both dogs and humans learn to “get a grip”?


Just because we love dogs doesn’t mean we get to to interact with them at will without regard to how they feel about the interaction.  Like any relationship, there are two sides to it.  We need to take a moment to (at least mentally) ask the dog “how is this for you?”  Remember that dogs do what “works” for them.  So if jumping, grabbing, bolting, stealing, etc. gets you up and moving and interacting with them, in some way the dog is rewarded for these behaviors and will continue doing them.  You may love dogs, but the attention you give may be working at cross purposes to your desires for good behavior.  Take a moment to consider what you want your dog TO DO.  What behaviors are you “paying for” with your attention?  Are those behaviors you like?  If so, great.  Keep up the good work!  However, if you aren’t thrilled about the behaviors you have been rewarding, stop paying the dog for them.  I’ve mastered the “can’t see you, can’t hear you” approach to poor dog behavior.  Stand up, fold your arms, lift your chin and wait for the dog to collect himself.  In some cases, you may have to leave the room and enter more calmly only when the dog has calmed.  As long as the dog remains calm you may look, touch, and talk, but do so in a way that promotes calmness - slow movements, soft voice, calm demeanor.  The instant the dog “loses it”, remove your attention only to return it when the dog has calmed.  Be patient if the dog is working out the problem of how to get your attention.


Smooch 3mo
Smooch 3mo

They usually love us as much as we love them, but all that excitement, coupled with a human that attends to it, can really whip a dog up.  Remember, their behavior is often a reflection of what YOU do.  Practice specific self-control exercises with your dog.  “Wait” is one of my favorite.  It’s just a moment, but I ask for “wait” to exit the kennel, leave the house or car, and to eat meals.   You can also incorporate “wait” into the games you play and things like “getting dressed” in a harness and leash.  I use “wait” to mean “don’t move forward”.  The dog doesn’t have to “sit” first, but many find it easier to wait when sitting.  Gradually expand the difficulty of your “wait” exercises as your dog learns that showing self-restraint is the fastest way to get stuff he wants.  Other self-control exercises include the eye contact game and “leave it” games like Doggie Zen and It's Your Choice.  You can ask for a small amount of restraint before giving the dog anything of value (access to a dog friend, walk, car ride, ball game, etc.)  The more consistent you are with your “works”/”doesn’t work” feedback to the dog, the faster he will learn self-control.  As part of self-control exercises it is important that your dog has a release word - a cue that tells him when he is free to “go for it” and “be a dog”.  Many people say “okay”, but I prefer "ding" or "break" as they are less common in our normal usage.  Choose what works for you.

When you mindfully reward behavior you like and refrain from inadvertently rewarding undesirable behaviors, both you and your dog will be happier and calmer.  This leads to more harmony, gentleness, and clear communication.

The Great Training Divide

Dogs - we love them! We invite them into our homes and even our beds. We spend billions of dollars a year on them. We buy, adopt, rescue, breed them. We just can’t get enough of dogs. Everyone that’s ever had a dog can tell you stories about those dogs and likely has an opinion about training dogs. If you have a dog with issues, you’re likely to get training advice from a guy at the dog park, your grocery clerk, and your mechanic. People will tell you, “I’ve had dogs all my life…” as some measure of their expertise. Well, I’ve had teeth most of my life, but that doesn’t make me a dentist! It’s likely that you will receive a lot of conflicting advice as well. To make matters worse, there are trainers on TV, a slew of training books, and many websites and on-line resources that offer different training approaches and advice. How do you choose? How do you know what is right for your dog? At their core, training philosophies boil down to a choice between correction based training or reward based training. Let’s look at the evolution of this choice. Our history with dogs is long and complex. We share many characteristics that make us natural companions. I like to think people enjoyed the company of dogs even when practicality required that the dog serve a purpose and function. In many cases, human survival was aided by a dog doing a job - primarily herding, hunting, retrieving, and guarding. I’m sure there was some training involved, but for the most part the dogs were doing what came naturally to them, and what they were specifically bred for. A natural balance existed. World War II changed everything. It changed the way people earned a living, where we lived, how we ate, and changed the lives of our dogs as well. War rationing of food gave us grain-based kibble to feed our dogs. Urbanization left many formerly working dogs unemployed. And the dog training method employed by the military found its way into our homes through the works of people like Bill Koehler and Blanche Saunders.

This is also about the time when the “dominance theory” came into vogue. It was based upon a study of wolves in captivity and claimed that wolves formed packs with an alpha male and female and that the alpha wolves maintained this position of dominance by forcing the other wolves into submission. This theory was then extrapolated to our pet dogs and we were told to use techniques like the “alpha roll”, “scruff shake”, and “chin clip” (made popular by the Monks of New Skete) to “dominate” our dogs. We were indoctrinated in the belief that we must always “be the alpha” when dealing with our dogs. This attitude fit quite nicely with the punitive methods of military style training.

The military style of training (now commonly referred to as traditional training) relies heavily upon the use of the “training collar” - a choke chain, pinch/prong collar, or even shock collar - and a six foot leather lead. Dogs were sent to obedience school when they were six months old - strong enough to withstand the “corrections” used in training. Handlers were taught to give “commands” that the dog must obey to avoid receiving a “correction”. These traditional training methods could be quite harsh and there were many dogs that “failed” obedience school. These were dogs that couldn’t handle the stress and physical punishment. Their responses to training were to either “fall apart” - urinating, cowering, crying, freezing up - or to “fight back” - growling, biting, attacking their handlers. The dogs that fought back were often subjected to even harsher training as the humans were told they must “win” and “dominate” these dogs. Not only were the methods hard on the dogs, they were hard on the humans as well; requiring some brute strength and physical confrontations with the dogs, which sometimes led to owners being bitten and dogs dying.

A new era dawns

Further research has debunked the dominance theory ( Modern studies shows that wild wolf “packs” are actually family units. Submissive type behaviors are offered rather than demanded and there is little violence between family members. While there are still many similarities between dogs and wolves (as there are between humans and apes), dogs are not wolves. We must be cautious in applying our wolf theories to dogs and we would be wise not to put ourselves in positions of physical confrontation with dogs. They have mouths full of razor knives and they are generally stronger and way lots faster that we are. Even with young and small dogs, just because we can physically overpower them, doesn’t mean we should.

Fortunately, for us and for our dogs, modern science prevailed and brought us out of the dark ages of dog training. In the 1970’s and 80‘s marine mammal trainers started going public with what they had learned. They had quickly realized you could not put a choke chain on a killer whale and any sort of “correction” could result in an injury to the trainer or the animal just leaving. They had to find another approach to achieve their goals. Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot The Dog, published in 1984, revolutionized our understanding of the science of learning - and applied to “anything with a brainstem”. Enter the positive training movement. A complete change in attitude came along with the new science. Dogs were now given cues instead of commands and the primary “correction”, if one existed, was loss of the opportunity to earn a reward. If a person could teach a killer whale to do a back flip with only a whistle and a bucket of sardines, then surely our pet dogs could be taught basic manners without the use of a training collar. And basic manners were just the beginning of what dogs have been taught with positive methods.

The Science of Learning

In it’s simplest terms, traditional, military style, training focuses on “correcting” undesirable behaviors: The dog remains standing when told to sit so the leash is “popped” to “correct” the dog for the mistake. Modern, positive, training focuses primarily on rewarding desirable behaviors: The dog sits when asked and is then given a treat and/or praise as a reward for compliance. Both methods can be effective, so lets look at the pros and cons of each.

Correction Based Training


Generally fast results if effective, basically simple concept if applied correctly.


High probability of “fallout” - dog becomes fearful or aggressive, physically taxing on dog and handler, handler must be physically able to make corrections, requires special collar, easy for humans to become “correction happy” and jerk the dog often and for no reason, may permanently damage dog-human relationship, damage to the dog’s neck/throat is common, ineffective and abusive if done with poor timing or technique.

Reward Based Training


Much of it can be done “hands-free”, can be done by anyone (children, adults, elderly, etc.), long lasting effects, fosters cooperation and respect, does not require special equipment (except perhaps a clicker), little risk if done with poor timing or technique, is generally fun and pleasant for dog and handler.


May take longer to accomplish some goals, requires handler to be patient and precise for best effect, requires handler to learn more about dog behavior and training.

When you consider this data, the choice between correction based training and reward based training seems perfectly clear. Modern science shows us that dogs can easily learn without force, fear, pain, or intimidation; that force-free training is safer, kinder, and has more long lasting effects than traditional methods, and that we can have more trusting and cooperative relationships with our dogs when we use force-free methods. Why then do we persist in “correcting” our dogs? Why are traditional obedience classes still common? Why is the public fascinated by TV trainers who advocate correction methods based on the dominance theory? After 30 years, why aren’t we getting it?

The Positive Paradigm

A commitment to reward based training requires a paradigm shift. Whether, like me, you see dogs as spiritual beings in dog bodies, or you view them as “just dogs”, these creatures share this planet with us and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. There is no reason to use pain, fear, force, or intimidation when less invasive and less aversive methods will work just as well and with fewer risks. But it takes effort to break old habits, to see things in a new light, to let go of “tradition”, and to open ourselves up to seeing the world from another’s point of view, especially when that “other” is another species. Examining ourselves, our history, our motives, and our desires can be taxing. It’s just easier to keep doing it the old way, without thinking.

We are a culture that defends our freedoms vehemently, including our right to own dogs. We also recognize the need to protect those that can’t protect themselves. Every state in the country has laws defining and prohibiting animal cruelty and abuse. Yet little abuses happen daily right under our noses and we overlook them by calling it “training”. Training collars, including those that produce an electric shock, are available for sale everywhere and could easily be considered tools of abuse, yet we condone their use in the name of “training”. Funny thing is, those that advocate the use of these items have developed a wide range of euphemisms to describe them - slip chain, power steering, nick, tap, buzz, tickle. If they are so safe and effective, why do they need to hide behind these obfuscations? Let’s tell it like it is and stop the madness!

Hopefully, by now I have convinced you to throw away your “training collars”. But then what? Those were your primary means of communication and control of your dog. As a necessary step in the paradigm shift, you may now feel powerless to control or train your dog in any way. Good! That will prompt you to look for new ideas and options. When I first made the switch away from traditional training, it took me a full year of having my dogs not wear collars at home to break myself of the habit of grabbing those collars any time I felt the need to reposition or stop my dog. That feeling of helplessness was instrumental in my learning to communicate with them better and to actually teach them words for the things I needed from them - inside, outside, wait, touch my hand, move out of my way, etc.

Learn to listen to your dog

Dogs do what works for them. If barking at the door gets you to let them out, then they will keep barking at the door. But if barking at the door never gets your attention or gets you to go to the door, eventually your dog will give up barking at the door in favor of a more rewarding behavior. Behavior that is rewarded tends to increase. Behavior that is not rewarded tends to fade away. You can’t really teach a dog what NOT to do. You can only teach what TO do. Make a point to notice what your dog is doing right - resting at your feet, playing quietly, waiting patiently, following you. These are behaviors we want to reward. Your dog will tell you if your training efforts are on track and working.

To be clear, positive training is not passive or permissive. It takes a great deal of attention and discipline to be consistent, active, and creative when it comes to raising our dogs with positive methods. It’s easy, and perhaps reflexive, to just say “No!” It takes knowledge and practice to be proactive and patient.

Where knowledge ends, violence begins. This could not be truer than in dog training. Every time a person yells at a dog, yanks a collar, or swats a rump it is a clear indication of the limits of their knowledge. When we don’t know what to do to accomplish our goals or solve a problem we get frustrated and upset. So the obvious solution to most, if not all, of our dog problems is educating ourselves. The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller are great places to start. We must learn how dogs “work” and to apply the science of learning effectively if we want to live in harmony with them and treat them humanely. Our society continues to shift away from corporal punishment and authoritarian methods with our children, so the day is sure to come when those methods are no longer accepted or tolerated with dogs. And that can’t happen soon enough if you ask me.



Growling Dogs: It's Not Personal

Why is it that we humans so often feel insulted, disrespected, and devalued by information and feedback?  This information may come in the form of a grade on a school paper, a comment from a co-worker, or a growl from our dog.  Any little thing can trigger a cascade of emotions in us. We may feel angry, hurt, defiant, resentful, you name it.  It’s not a very useful response as it often clouds our judgment and limits our ability to respond rationally.  While it’s possible, though unlikely, that other humans may intend to hurt us or make us angry, that certainly isn’t the case with your dog.  He doesn’t lay awake at night dreaming of ways to make you crazy.  He doesn’t hate you or want to embarrass you in public to gratify his ego.

We really need to get over taking his behavior personally.  Rather than “How dare you growl at me.”, we would be wiser and more effective with “Wow, wonder what brought that on?  He must be really uncomfortable with something.”  Then we can use our rational brain to (1) find the source of his stress, (2) remove the stress, and (3) formulate a plan to overcome the stress.  Otherwise we’re just stuck feeling hurt, afraid, and angry, none of which are especially helpful in changing the situation and moving forward.

So next time your dogs does something you don’t like, stop and take a deep breath.  Do a mental “step back” and ask yourself, “How might this look from the dog’s point of view?  What can I learn from the feedback I just received?  What can I change to help us be more successful next time?”  Your dog will come to trust and respect you more if he knows he can give you feedback without you freaking out (that’s what he might think of your previous reactions).  You will keep the lines of communication open and allow room for growth if you learn that “it’s not personal”.  This also works well in our relationships with people.  Give it a try.

Should we get the kids a puppy for Christmas?


Let’s face it, it’s a beautiful fantasy - the kids in their pajamas opening the big box, and out pops a fuzzy puppy with a big red bow.  Awww, how adorable!  But, this isn’t Hollywood, and puppies aren’t props.  So let’s explore the idea from a more practical viewpoint and see if a Christmas puppy really makes sense for you and your kids.

  1. How old are your kids?  Young puppies and young children are not always a match made in heaven.  Kids squeal and run.  Puppies bite and jump.  Completely normal behavior for both, but it can be a challenge to meet the needs of both human and canine babies in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy.  I believe it is best to wait until children are at least 6 years old before trying to raise a young puppy.  Despite your best intentions and efforts, some dogs are not really fond of small children; even a puppy raised with kids may not enjoy them.  So what is a reasonable compromise solution?  Find an adult dog that is accustomed to and loves younger children - a smart choice with a better chance for harmonious success.
  2. What is your house like during the holidays?  Do you have lots of visitors, parties, and excitement?  Will you still have the time and inclination to  focus on caring for the puppy, or will your other activities completely fill your day?  In most cases, it’s better to plan to bring a new puppy home in January after the excitement of the holidays has passed.  This time is more like your “normal life”, and generally better suited to raising a puppy.  You can still provide an exciting Christmas for the kids by giving gifts associated with caring for the puppy – a crate, leash and flat collar, some toys, books about dogs, like Puppy Training for Kids by Sarah Whitehead – and a “gift certificate” for the puppy.  Anticipation is exciting for kids, and you can channel that enthusiasm by getting your kids actively involved in choosing the puppy, which will ultimately increase your chances of a successful adoption.
  3. Owning a dog is expensive! The purchase price is often the smallest cost.  Before adding a dog to your family, consider the annual (and lifetime!) cost of food, grooming, veterinary care, training, and supplies for the puppy.  Choosing an inexpensive or “free” puppy without knowing any history can end up costing you far more in the long run, as it may have health and behavior problems of which you were unaware. There is a reason why puppy mills have a bad reputation, when their concern is breeding and selling puppies regardless of genetic or other underlying health concerns.  And what do you know about the dog that “accidentally” had a litter of pups by some unknown male?  Ask yourself, if there are problems (and even if there aren’t), can I realistically afford to own a dog for the next 10-15 years?
  4. Young puppies are a LOT of work.  It’s very much like bringing home a new baby.  They require a dozen or more potty trips outside each day.  They need to be fed three times a day.  They explore the world with their mouths, so there is lots to do to teach them what are, and are not, appropriate chew items, including how to keep their teeth off humans.  Raising a puppy requires patience and consistency, and in most cases, you’ll be sleep deprived while doing it.  So it’s important to make an honest assessment of your home, family, and lifestyle before committing to raising a puppy.  In many cases, you may be better off adopting an older puppy, young adult, or even a senior dog.  As cute as puppies are, getting through the first year of their life can challenge even experienced dog lovers.  And let’s be honest; if you’re not up to the task, who ultimately is the one who suffers most?  That’s right, it’s the dog.  Plus, a failed adoption will negatively impact your kids as well.
  5. Regardless of the season, choosing a puppy for your family should involve some mature decision-making and preparation on your part.  Do your homework!  Everyone in the family should have a chance to express their thoughts and desires and then, as a group, come to a decision about the type of dog that would best fit your family.  Admittedly, this does not make for a good surprise, but you’re about to take on a big responsibility.  This is not a sweater you’re getting, which if you don’t like the color, you can simply go and exchange for something else.  You’ll want to consider factors like adult size, exercise requirements, grooming needs, activity level, and basic breed characteristics.  If you, your children, or frequent visitors have allergies you'll also want to consider what type of hair the pup has. Many dogs are re-homed every year due to unexpected allergies. Websites such as Breed Match and PetNet can identify and recommend suitable breeds based on your answers to key questions you may not think of on your own.
  6. If you have never owned a dog before, it's wise to educate yourself beforehand so that you may care for your puppy properly, thus increasing your chances of having the puppy become a happy, well-mannered addition to your family.  As a starting point, please download your free copy of Ian Dunbar’s fantastic book Before You Get Your Puppy.
  7. Another honesty check… who is going to be the primary caregiver for that new puppy?  Who will walk the dog 3-4 times a day once puppyhood is over? Many kids promise they will “take care of it,” but school work, sports and other activities often take precedence.  Even with older, very responsible kids, the bulk of the dog care is likely to fall on mom.  Dads work hard too, but moms, typically being the nurturers, can’t avoid picking up any slack.  So it’s important for mom to have a special say in whether or not the time is right to add a puppy to the family!

If you’ve made it through all of this and can honestly say that the time is right and you are ready, willing, and able to give a puppy a loving, forever home, then go on to Choosing A Puppy.

Written by Cricket Mara, The Pawsitive Dog, LLC

Where is your dog sleeping tonight?

I've heard many answers to this question... In the garage, in his dog house, in the laundry room, on the couch, in my bed, in a crate, on a dog bed, and even anywhere he wants.  What's the best answer?  Near his human :-) Dogs are social animals and they like the feeling of belonging to a group and having companionship.  Many, given the choice, will follow their humans from room to room all day.  So it only makes sense that they would want to be near us when we sleep.  There is safety in numbers for them so sleeping near their "leader(s)" helps them feel safe so they can rest more easily.  When they sleep alone they are often alert to subtle shifts and sounds, needing to be aware of potential dangers.  Some dogs are, by nature, very vigilant.  So being able to really go "off duty" and get a good night's sleep is important for them.  Puppies that sleep near their people usually sleep through the night (and without potty accidents) sooner than pups confined away from their humans.  Also, having your dog sleep near you enhances bonding... even while you're sound asleep.

Now this doesn't mean the dog has to be in bed with you, although some people enjoy that degree of closeness.  If you enjoy having your dog in bed with you, just make certain of a few things:  Your dog will wait for permission to get on the bed, will get off the bed without a fuss if you ask, and settles down to sleep instead of thinking the bed is for games.  If your dog can do all those things then you have a perfect sleeping partner.  If not, I suggest keeping the dog off the bed until he masters those skills.  For some dogs, sleeping on the human bed can be part of a lack of leadership issue in the house.

You could also use a dog bed or crate in the bedroom.  Many young dogs still need the crate to prevent them from getting into mischief in the night.  It helps create good habits.  Most can eventually be transitioned to sleeping on a bed, but some still prefer the coziness and security of their crate.  My dog started in a crate but now sleeps on a dog bed right next to my side of the bed.

It takes some time to adjust to sharing your sleeping space... with a dog or another human.  So don't be discouraged if neither of you sleep too well for a few nights.  You may have to get used to the dog standing up and circling to change positions.  You dog may have to get used to your snoring ;-)  If you have some real limitations that make sharing a room impractical, at least move the dog as close as possible... like in the hall outside your door or into one of the kids rooms.  If your dog is in the garage or outside, try moving him one step closer to being with you.  I don't recommend letting the dog sleep "wherever he wants".  That can be another facet in a lack of leadership issue.  Most dogs thrive on having some boundaries and expectations of behavior.  It may be okay during the day but at night decide where you want him to sleep and help him adjust to the new routine.

Take into consideration your dog's physical comfort and needs.  Some young puppies need to sleep "bare" so they don't soil or chew their bedding, but once past that stage most dogs prefer something soft to sleep on.  If you keep your room quite cool you may want to provide a bed or blanket the dog can snuggle up in.  Avoid having your dog in a draft or where it's too warm either.  My dog used to be quite warm all the time but as he has aged he now prefers being covered with a blanket on cool nights.

Sweet dreams!!

Dog Parks - Be Safe and Sane

The dog park can be a great thing for your dog(s).  But it can also be very risky.  Here are some tips on getting the most out of the dog park and minimizing the risks. 1 - Know your dog!  If your dog is afraid of other dogs and/or people, the dog park is not the place to take him to "get over it".  Hire a trainer to help you with his issues and evaluate when and if he's ready for the dog park.  The same goes double for dogs that are aggressive with other dogs.  It's unfair to the other park users to let your "bully" rule the park.  Not to mention the risks you face should your dog hurt another dog or person.

Also, what type of play style does your dog have?  Is he a wrestler, a chaser, or more of cocktail party mingler?  Help your dog find dogs that have compatible styles.  You might even try to schedule your visits when you know those dogs will be there... and avoid going when incompatible dogs frequent the park.

2 - Pay attention to your dog!  The dog park is primarily so your dog can socialize, not so you can.  It's fine to be polite and chat with other owners, but your dog should always be your first priority.  You should know where he is and what he is doing at all times... and be ready to intervene or help him out should the situation warrant it.  Do not chat on your phone, read your e-mail, or check your text messages in the dog park.  You will lose focus and forget to watch your dog.

3 - Do not bring small children into the dog park.  I see so many people make this mistake.  The dog park is for dogs.  Dogs run and jump and play rough at times.  Small children are likely to get knocked over by playing dogs.  There are also lots of dogs that are pretty nervous about young kids and that could lead to nipping or other fearful behavior.

If you have older kids, they can enter the park, but you must now watch the kids and the dog.  The kids have to understand how to act around dogs so as to not threaten or harass them.  They also need to be prepared to avoid running dogs and rough play.  They can't assume that all the dogs are friendly and there for the kids to play with.  The dog park is for dogs, not for kids so the needs of the dogs take priority.  If in doubt, have the kids sit outside the fence and watch.

4 - Pick up after your dog!  This seems like a no-brainer to me, but every day people don't even see their dogs pooping because they aren't paying attention to their dogs.  Or they just act irresponsibly and don't bother.  Aside from the obvious grossness of stepping in poop, many dog diseases are transmitted in feces so picking up poop helps keep the park clean and disease free.  It also makes it more pleasant for the dogs and their humans.  Most dog parks have baggies and trash cans available, so there is no excuse not to clean up.  By the way, the excitement and exercise of the park may lead your dog to poop again even if he went at home before you came to the park.  So always be prepared.

5 - Learn about dog body language.  This can help you prevent a fight and ease the stress and tension that may happen.  Recently I saw a fellow entering the park with his dog.  There was a large dog standing at the gate and this fellow's dog started sniffing the ground and avoiding coming to the gate.  What the guy didn't realize is that his dog was feeling anxious about the big dog "guarding" the gate and was doing her best to avoid or calm the situation.  Had he persisted in pushing his dog to proceed, it's possible a fight may have resulted.  This guy was "saved" by a silly, young dog that enetered behind him and distracted the big dog away from the gate.

I highly recommend that every dog owner read On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas to better understand how dogs communicate.  Then you will be better able to actually listen to what your dog is saying.

6 - Use good judgment about how often you visit the dog park and how long you stay.  Many dogs just can't handle an hour a day at the dog park.  It can be overly stressful and/or overly stimulating.  So when you get home does your dog seem relaxed and happy or physically and mentally exhausted?  Can you tell the difference?  If he is relaxed and happy you're on the right track.  But if he's exhausted, chances are you are going too often and/or staying too long.  Adjust your schedule to find the right balance.

7 - Reward calm and polite behavior.  Your trip to the park starts before you even get in the car.  If your dog is "over the top" on the way to the park, then you are rewarding that out of control behavior by proceeding to the park.  Ideally you want a dog that is calm, relaxed, and under control for the whole trip to, in, and from the park.  He can be animated and happy - that's a good thing - but not out of control.  He should respond to your voice cues and come when you call him.  If he isn't at that level yet, contact a positive trainer to help you reach your goals.

When in the park be sure to praise your dog for wise choices and polite behavior with the other dogs.  He needs to know when he's doing a good job.  Be very careful about using food in the park as it might trigger some competition and aggression.

8 - Safety first!  Remove any collar that could get caught during play before entering the park.  Even flat collars can get snagged on a tooth and choke a dog, but be sure to remove any type of slip, chain, or prong collars (not that I advise using them in the first place!) as these could be serious dangers to your dog.  I would carry your leash and collar with you in the park, just in case you need to calmly remove your dog.  Leaving them at the gate leaves you empty handed, literally.

9 - One last thing... Have your dog on leash and under control while approaching and leaving the park.  At a local dog park I was amazed to see people pull into the parking lot and just open the door and let their dog(s) out.  There are so many things that could go wrong in that situation.  Fortunately, nothing did, but the longer they practice that behavior, the greater the chances are that something will go wrong... dog running in street, knocking over the toddler at the next car, getting into a fight with an on-leash dog, etc.  So play it safe and smart and make sure you have your dog under control at all times.

Then have FUN!  I get the biggest kick out of watching dogs be dogs.  They get along amazingly well despite all their differences and getting a regular chance to practice their social skills reduces the risks of aggression and is a good outlet for them.

How to choose a "Positive" trainer

I consider myself to be a positive trainer, but these days it seems like a lot of people who aren't still say they are.  The term came about as an alternative to the "traditional" or military style training, which relied upon force and "corrections" as a major component.  At the time, positive trainers were shifting away from the use of force and focusing on rewarding "good" behavior instead of punishing "bad" behavior.  But I guess no one wanted to refer to themselves as a "negative trainer" :-)  Reminds me of my husband's comments about political candidates.  They all say they are "tough on crime" because no one would vote for someone who said they were soft on crime, now would they?  Traditional trainers that use food and toy rewards may call themselves "positive".  Some call themselves "motivational" trainers.  These days there are folks that refer to themselves as "balanced" trainers.  But what does all this mean to you, a pet owner, when trying to choose the best trainer for your dog? I think you have to look deeper than the labels and the sales pitch and examine your own beliefs and philosphies and look for a good match.  You, like me, may feel very strongly about using only techniques that do no physical, mental, or emotional harm to the dog.  But even that can become a moral quagmire for some.  Does swatting your dog on the nose or rump constitute harm or abuse?  What about the sting of a shock collar?  Do you spank your kids?  See how complicated this can be?

My biggest problem with the labels that some trainers use to describe themselves is that they are misleading to the public and rely upon euphemisms rather than telling it like it is.  I recently viewed a trainer's website that was attractive, well organized, and she claimed to be a positive trainer.  However the site also included the words discipline and "X-factor".  While something about the site gave me a leery feeling, I thought it best to ask, so I talked to the trainer and was told she used "remote collar training".  That's the modern, nice term for a shock collar.  Granted the collar technology has improved over the years, but the basic premise is the same - the dog does something you don't want and it receives a shock, aka correction, "tap", pulse, etc.  If these collar trainers are so convinced that they are using a safe, humane, dog friendly device, why are they tap dancing around the truth?   Why hide behind pretty prose and gentle sounding words?

Maybe you're okay with using electricity to teach dogs.  I'm not.  I believe the risks are far too great and that we owe it to our dogs do better than to shock them if they make a mistake.  How would you feel if your teacher shocked you, even just a little, every time you made a mistake in class?  Would you like the teacher?  The class?  The subject?  Didn't think so.  Why should it be any different for your dog?  There are so many better methods available, they just may require that you give more of yourself than a slight depression of your thumb :-)

Now there are also some positive trainers out there that are giving good positive trainers a bad name.  That's because they have focused so much on the food and rewards that they have forgotten to set limits for the dog.  They remind me of the parents and teachers that want all the kids to win and have fun without creating boundaries and teaching self-control.  The end result can be a bunch of bratty kids and dogs.  Positive training is NOT passive or permissive.  It really takes some knowledge AND skill to balance rewarding desirable behaviors with creating boundaries so that undesirable behaviors aren't also rewarded.

A good positive trainer knows how to use food rewards effectively without creating a dog that only listens when he sees the treat.  A good positive trainer always looks for the least invasive solution to any problem.  Positive trainers do NOT use "correction style" collars like slip chains (choke collars), prong/pinch collars, or electronic collars (excpet for vibration only collars for deaf dogs).  They will not hit, grab, shock, pin down, cuff, collar jerk or yell at your dog.  True positive training is "force free" - it does not rely upon your ability to out muscle your dog.  You don't have to be bigger, better or faster.  However, it may rely upon your ability to out-think your dog :-)

I'm not perfect, yet <g>.  I get frustrated with my dog sometime.  I still lose my cool now and then and raise my voice.  I'm working on it.  But my goal is to communicate clearly with my dog in a way that leaves us both feeling good.  I gain respect by giving respect.  I don't expect him to be more perfect than I am, but I do expect cooperation if he is to have the things he wants in life.  My philosophy is pretty simple: Reward behaviors you like and ignore or prevent behaviors you don't.  That's because behavior that is rewarded tends to increase and behavior that isn't rewarded tends to disappear.  No punishment needed.  I quit calling myself a positive trainer.  I found it meaningless in todays world.  Instead I call myself a Canine-Human Relationship Consultant and describe my methods as "force-free".  Is that a perfect, consise description that will tell you if I'm a good match for you and your dog?  Hard to say.  But I'm always willing to explain why I do what I do and give clear details about it.  I have nothing to hide when it comes to my work with dogs.  I hope your trainer is the same.

Master leadership for dogs... but not Cesar Millan's way!

I confess, I'm not a Cesar Millan fan.  I get tired of explaining why I'm not a "dog whisperer" and generally prefer to avoid the topic.  But when I heard an ad for Cesar's new "Mastering Leadership" DVD on my favorite radio station I felt my blood pressure rise.  The thought that thousands of people will be using his methods on their dogs made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  Does this mean I don't think "leadership" is important?  Absolutely not!  It's just how we get there that makes a big difference to me.Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the man personally.  In fact, I think he's witty, entertaining, and has done an excellent job of marketing himself and his program.  And, he actually has some pretty valid points about the failings of the average human when it comes to understanding and interacting with dogs.  Unfortunately, he also says some things that are completely false, or at best, inaccurate and many of his techniques are NOT dog-friendly.  The big problem is that the average pet owner can't tell the difference between the "good" and the "bad" in what he says and does.  They get swayed by his confidence and buy into the whole package, often to the detriment of themselves and their dogs. As appealing as a "quick and easy solution to all your dog problems" may be, I feel we owe it to our dogs to get to know them personally rather than imposing a "one size fits all" solution on them and hoping for the best.  We need to be able to observe and "listen" to the feedback our dogs give us.  That's really the only way we have of knowing we are on the right track.  There are many ways to suppress behavior ("make my dog stop barking") and most of them are not very kind to the dogs.  If we shift our focus away from stopping the bad behavior and instead focus on creating the behaviors we want, we will become better leaders and have happier dogs.  You see, leaders lead.  They don't follow behind and correct the mistakes we make or punish us for making mistakes.

If you're having trouble with your dog and think Cesar Millan may have the answer you've been looking for, I urge you to use the money you would have spent on his products to instead consult with a positive trainer in your area.  Get some one-on-one time with someone who can evaluate your dog and your situation and help you learn to lead in a positive way.  You and your dog will both be much happier in the long run.

It has been said that great leaders are not defined by their skills or their knowledge, but by their ability to promote feelings of confidence and security in others.