Supplements – An Overview (Golden Rescue Newsletter February 2015)

January 23rd, 2015

Supplements can literally be life savers. Over the past several weeks I’ve seen two ‘friend of the family’ dogs live considerably longer than expected simply due to supplements (and both dogs were terminal due to diseases caused by medical treatments prescribed for non-fatal diseases). My own dog recovered from spinal surgery at an astonishing rate, a rate the vets had never seen, simply due to a healthy home prepared diet and a good regiment of supplements. Compare this to the mantra of many traditional medical practitioners, that supplements simply make “expensive urine”, and the decision to use them can become a complex and confusing one. How do you know which ones to choose? Where can we get more information about supplements? What supplements match which diseases?

Supplements can be used both as preventative (preferred) or as an active treatment for disease. My favourite source of information on supplements, aside from a holistic veterinarian, is Dogs Naturally Magazine. Their vets and writing staff put together helpful information about a whole range of supplements, including brand recommendations and dosage requirements. Their site is set up in such a way that you can easily search articles by supplement type or disease. Another site that works in this way is Healthy Pets by Mercola, hosted by the amazing Dr. Karen Becker. She provides both written and video tutorials about making natural choices to manage or cure a whole host of health conditions.

The most important decision you can make when choosing a supplement is ensuring it’s quality. Using a poor quality supplement is literally creating expensive urine and doing nothing for your dog. In the case of supplements, you really do get what you pay for. Unfortunately, most of the supplements you find in pharmacies, grocery stores (though the organic sections have improved quality supplements lately) and sometimes even vet clinics are not of the highest grade, and some studies have even found them to be completely lacking in the ingredient touted by the brand to be what will save you or your dog. That’s right – I’m even talking about human grade supplements you can give to your dog. More often than not, supplements made just for dogs but by human product manufacturers are waste product of the human product manufacturing, and don’t come close to meeting the standards set in the human supplement world. There are a few exceptions, and Omega Alpha is one of them! I am in love with this company – I can call them anytime and ask questions, a real person picks up the phone and gives me immediate answers, and if they can’t, they find out. They provide an above-grade series of products for a whole range of health issues, they’re reasonably priced, and they are a North American brand (with head offices in Scarborough, Ontario). A few other companies that make great products for both humans and dogs include Purica (Recovery), Ascenta (oils), and Burt’s Bees. Be sure to do some research, such as on the sites I mentioned above, and get some references before you choose a supplement. Remember, dogs don’t know what a placebo is, so the supplement will either work or it won’t – there’s no lying in the dog world! Another great test is to take your dog off the supplement for a couple of weeks and see if you notice a difference – if you do, the supplement is working. If you don’t, it’s time to find a new brand.

Here’s a list of my favourite supplements (and companies) and what they are used for:

Probiotic 8 Plus Omega Alpha Gut health and allergy management
Recovery Purica Joint health and pain management
Milk Thistle Omega Alpha or Naka Liver health (should always be given in conjunction with medications that affect the liver)
Apple Cider Vinegar Braggs or Omega Nutrition Alkalinizing the body, treating yeast
Turmeric Simply Organic, Frontier, Mountain Rose Herbs Pain management, general health and well being, cancer treatment
Green Lipped Muscle Dr. Peter Dobias Joint health
Bio-Calm Centaur Vet Anxiety

Supplements don’t always have to come in a pill form. A supplement is anything natural that’s added to the diet to improve or promote health. Even adding pureed veggies to a kibble or home prepared diet can function as a supplement, and often not only improves vigor, but also improves stool quality and general health. Turmeric is a great example as to why the quality of the supplement matters. Used properly, it is probably one of the most powerful food supplements in the world, managing everything from general malaise and joint pain to being an effective treatment for many types of cancer (especially skin cancers). However, it is often stripped of it’s medicinal ingredient, curcumin, for the purpose of making supplements. Unfortunately, the pill form of turmeric/curcumin is dangerous for dogs as the unnatural amount of curcumin (95% in pills, versus 5% in nature) can be damaging to their kidneys. Choosing an organic powdered turmeric, where the curcumin has not been stripped, is crucial to it’s effectiveness. Another important aspect to feeding turmeric is that it is fat soluble, meaning that if it’s not fed alongside a fat source (like coconut oil or fish oil), it simply won’t be absorbed. Mixed with a little (fresh only) ground black pepper, it can work magic. But it goes to show how important the quality, and mix (with fat and pepper) are to it’s effectiveness on the body. This is a great example about why one brand of supplement may not work at all for your dog, when another brand of the same supplement could save his/her life.

As I mentioned earlier, my own dog had major surgery on his cervical spine in November of 2013. He was in an incredible amount of pain, but within just one week he was able to come off the heavy pain meds, replaced with turmeric, Recovery, Egg Shell Membrane (Natural Factors brand), Probiotic 8 Plus (gut health is an important component in bone and joint health), and a chinese herb called Body Sore prescribed by his Traditional Chinese Medicine veterinarian. These supplements, combined with a healthy diet and physiotherapy, got him off the harmful drugs fast, and if you were to see him today you’d never know that he has spinal issues. In my opinion, they literally saved him from a life of pain and discomfort, or even worse, a loss of life.

Did you know that humans are the only species on earth that cannot generate it’s own Vitamin C? It’s an essential vitamin for us, meaning we can only obtain it through food or supplements. But it’s also a great example of why it’s important not to supplement on a whim. Vitamin C is a popular supplement in the dog sports community, but in my opinion, it’s not always a safe supplement (I’d prefer to offer it in a whole food source, like raspberries, where it occurs and metabolizes in natural balance with other vitamins). Creating abnormally high levels of vitamins and minerals (Vitamin D, Calcium and Magnesium are other good examples) can create havoc on your dog’s system, and end up doing more harm than good. If unsure, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, even if you love your traditional vet there is no harm in seeking complimentary services from a holistic vet who can advise you accordingly. Personally (for myself, my family and my dog) and professionally, I’m a big fan of choosing supplements in place of pharmaceuticals wherever possible, but I also know that dosage, quality and type need to be carefully considered and researched before being tested on your dog.


Toby’s Letter to Santa Paws 2014

November 28th, 2014

Dear Santa Paws,

This year, I gotta admit, I already gots most of the things I wanted. I’ve been really amazingly good (just don’t check that with my Mum, ok? Just in case she denies it cuz she’s in a bad mood or something – I promises you can believe me!), and Mum always says I should just be thankful that I haves a home that loves me so much. But there’s a few things that might make me even more thankful.

First of all, I got my AMAZING sleeping bag from Blue Willow Dog Coats, and we took it camping on Thanksgiving and I didn’t even wanna get out of bed it was sooo warm and cozy! She did an awesome job hand-stitching the whole thing, and it’s got this super soft fleece on the inside and a fabric on the outside that’s magic at catching all my own heat. I was really warm and comfy, and I think I’d like to use my sleeping bag even at home! It’s even more amazing than the ultra-warm coat I got from the same place last year! She’s one of my favourite ladies now!!

Instead of using my sleeping bag at home, though, I’m using my new Sealy Dog Bed. It’s got this amazing multi-layer system with an orthopedic layer, a memory foam layer, and even a top cooling layer so I don’t overheat on it. Considering that I had to get a bionic neck last year (ok, ya, it was cervical spine surgery, but my way sounds cooler), I need special beds to keep my spine straight and supported, and it’s way super comfortable too, so I love it. Mum got it at

Also, I gots this really stylish sweater from (Mum had to order it through Amazon though cuz they don’t ship to Canada). It’s knitted and has a nice pattern and a turtleneck and it keeps me warm but the best part is all the ladies stop and stare at me in it. I’m warm AND I look cool – wow eh?

So my Mum has been telling me about all the dogs she sees at the shelter. I feel kinda bad (but not too bad, cuz you know, I’m Toby, I deserve it) about all the cool stuff I have that they don’t have, especially a Mum like mine, so I think this year I’d like for everybody to either A) just go adopt all the dogs at the shelter and bring them home, or B) buy some toys and beds and coats and give them to those dogs, cuz they don’t have anything that’s just theirs. I heard they won’t even get Christmas dinner!!! That’s terrible. So, please Santa Paws, bring them something good. Mum loves the dogs at, or you could give something to

Lastly, like usual I love toys from GoDog or Huggley Hounds, I love treats from or anything that’s single ingredient, like the HUUUGGEE bag of beef lung from Nothing Added that you could get at Costco (do they make that at the North Pole Santa Paws?).

And, I’d really, really, really like an iPawd. Please!!!

Thanks Santa Paws!!! Sorry about the cookie incident last year!! Hopes you still loves me!!!

Toby ‘the lemon’ Garven
(Mum says not to post my address on the interweb so hopefully you know where to find me! If not, contact me on my Facebook page at


Allergies – The Whole Story

September 27th, 2014

As some of you may have noticed, I’m on a bit of a sabbatical from training and nutrition as I deal with a temporary but long term illness. This has resulted in some serious doggy withdrawal, so I’m helping out friends and family with free advice where I can. Many people have been asking me about allergies, so I thought “Hey, why not just put it all out there for everyone to learn!”. This blog will give you all the information you need to deal with allergies, without the cost of a consult! One key component to my allergy services is following the dog for one year – it’s crucial to remember that food changes need time to work, and that holistic remedies are gentle on the body, so they won’t cause symptom reduction overnight. But if you stick to the plan, I promise you’ll see results! When I adopted Toby, he add nearly 50 allergens that caused a response in him – 6 years later, he has only 7. This kind of allergy protocol will not only help eliminate the symptoms, but it will also help to heal the immune system, and teach their body not to react to the things they previously did.

Dogs can suffer from both food and environmental allergies, typically characterized by chronic ear infections, itchy and stained paws, hot spots, red staining on the face or belly, an itchy body and gastric upset. First and foremost, it’s important that your vet confirms that your dog’s chronic issues do stem from allergies, and not another, potentially more threatening health issue. When everything else is ruled out, managing allergies can be challenging, but not impossible. While environmental allergies can be difficult to avoid, food allergies can be dealt with easily by eliminating the food that the dog is having a reaction to. Pervasive allergic responses can also result in your dog developing allergies to other things; an allergy prompts an immune response, and when the immune system is constantly reacting to something, it can sometimes start to react to things it never did in the past, so food allergies can lead to environmental allergies, and vice versa.

Food Allergies
Addressing a food allergy is best done through an elimination diet. Until recently, allergy testing was unreliable and costly, often resulting in frustration for the owner when results were inconclusive. Dr. Jean Dodds, the world’s leading researcher on thyroid function, nutrigenomics, and now allergies, has developed a wonderfully easy and comprehensive testing system that will provide you with a lengthy list of foods that your dog may or may not be allergic to. By visiting her site,, you can complete the online application, pay the fee ($285), and they’ll send you a simple kit to collect saliva from your dog which you’ll send back, followed by the test results within a few short weeks. So far, next to elimination diets, this has been the most reliable test for food allergies, and can reduce the time of figuring out what the food allergies are by, in some cases, years. For many, though, the cost can be prohibitive. An elimination diet is more economical as the only associated costs are the foods you choose to use, and for many, it is still the only real way to know what your dog can tolerate. We begin this process by simplifying the diet as much as possible, usually with only one protein and one carb (i.e. Fish and Sweet Potato), and then build the diet from there (for kibble feeders, the best kibble for this is the series of Limited Ingredient diets from Natural Balance, or for commercial raw feeders, a new veterinary line of whole food, lightly processed food called Rayne is also available). The most common mistake we make in elimination diets is time – an allergy can stay in the body for up to 12 weeks, and when we’re making changes after just a couple of days or weeks, we may not be seeing the true results of the food test. For example, if your dog is allergic to chicken, and you switch to a salmon based diet, you’ll need to stay on the salmon diet (unless of course the condition worsens) for 12 weeks before you’ll know if your dog is reacting to something in the new diet. Once you’ve passed the 12 week point, and your dog is showing improvements, begin adding one new ingredient (even if in the form of a topper or a treat) every two weeks, provided there are no additional allergic reactions. Remember though, if you add a food that causes a reaction, you’ll be back into that 12 week cycle. The idea being that eventually, you’ll have built a list of foods that your dog tolerates well, and be able to expand their diet options. Be sure that everyone who has access to your dog understands his strict diet limitations – one little tidbit fed from a friend can result in 12 weeks of waiting! Also be cautious of treats (staying within your approved ingredient list) and access to other dogs’ food in multi-dog households.
TIP: most dogs will react to a food that they’ve had in abundance throughout their life, and for many that begins with grains and chicken. A good starting point for those new to elimination diets is to cut out grain (not just gluten-free) and chicken first, and see how your dog improves.

Environmental (Outdoor) Allergies
Environmental allergies are typically things like pollen, grasses, trees, and other outdoor stimulants. If you believe your dog has both forms of allergy, keep in mind that an elimination diet can be very challenging to conduct when your dog may also be reacting to pollens. For those of us with dogs who have both types, elimination diets are really only reliable when done during the colder months so that you can easily differentiate between the food causing the response versus the outdoors causing the response. For many, medications like Benadryl or steroids seem to be the only option to stave off symptoms of outdoor allergies, and sometimes, they are necessary. While I’m a big fan of using as many holistic options as I can, medications have their place. If despite all your efforts, your dog’s allergy symptoms are causing secondary health issues like chronic loose stool, gastric upset, chewing of their paws or skin to the point of bleeding, or even aural hematomas from chronic ear infections, you may need to medicate your dog. Risk of skin infections, pain from self-harm, and even repeated surgery to deal with hematomas are all detrimental to your dog’s health, and often a compromise must be made to weigh the damage from medications versus the damage from these health issues. However, options are available to not only protect your dog’s body from medications, but also to reduce or eliminate the need for them. (More details available on the following supplements in the Supplements section of this article) Milk Thistle is a wonderful supplement to protect the liver, as is Turmeric, which can also help to balance the immune system. Fish oil acts to not only promote a healthy coat, but also contains anti-inflammatory properties to help manage allergy response. Probiotics are probably the most important addition to a dog’s diet when dealing with the yeast that develops in an allergy dog – and it should be provided in the form of either powder or tablet – yogurt just doesn’t have enough probiotic in it to provide the relief you’re looking for without feeding so much dairy it upsets your dog’s stomach. Raw, local honey is also a gentle way to desensitize your dog to pollens, and if used long term, can have considerable effects. Lastly, topical treatments like Apple Cider Vinegar, Colloidal Silver, Coconut Oil, and Oil of Oregano are all great products for destroying yeast build up, conditioning the skin and relieving itch.

Supplements are under less strict guidelines than pharmaceutical drugs, so the quality of the supplement can vary considerably from manufacturer to manufacturer. Always purchase supplements from a reliable source, such as an independent and integrity driven pet store, human health food store, or online from manufacturers such as the ones outlined below. Purchasing supplements in most big box stores, pharmacies, grocery stores (non-organic sections) etc. will often result in a supplement that, when tested, does not meet the levels that the label may say it does, and they, for the most part, contain entirely synthetic ingredients. This results in an ineffective supplement that can even go as far as increasing your dog’s toxin load. Supplements can be an incredible source of relief and immune support for your dog, and spending a few extra dollars on them can actually save you money in veterinary costs in the long run. If you’re concerned about dosage, function or interaction, check out, where Dr. Karen Becker has an answer to almost every popular supplement given to our animals.
Note: I will indicate below when a supplement should be purchased in the ‘human supplement’ form. Many supplements marketed to dogs are simply waste product from the supplements made for humans. If the product for humans isn’t high in quality, the waste product for our dog certainly won’t be. In many cases, there simply isn’t a company who can make both human and pet products and maintain the quality needed, with the exception of Canadian based Omega Alpha, and a handful of other very small manufacturers. I’ll indicate below for each supplement whether you should be looking for a human product or a dog product.

Milk Thistle (human): Milk Thistle is an herb with the primary function of protecting and rebuilding the liver. It should contain at least 80% Sylmarin, and my favourite brands are Omega Alpha or Naka. It’s a daily supplement that should always be given to dogs who are on pharmaceutical drugs that degrade the liver, but has a function with dogs who don’t take medication as well. In the Tips section below, I describe some of the things that can contribute to a dog’s ‘Toxic Load’, and since the liver is responsible for removing toxin from the body, keeping it healthy and functioning well is crucial for all dogs.

Turmeric (human): If you’re interested in feeding turmeric, I’d first recommend a Facebook Group known as TUG (Turmeric User Group) – it’s full of wonderful stories about the human and animal lives it has changed, cancers it has removed, and the incredible improvements it’s made in very sick individuals. It is moderated in part by one of the world’s leading veterinary researchers of turmeric, so the advice given in the Files section has considerable scientific backing. Turmeric is fat soluble, and should always be fed with some form of fat, and it’s absorption is increased by 2000% if fresh (not pre-ground) black pepper is added in a small amount. Turmeric supplements/capsules for dogs are not recommended – they contain too much of the active ingredient ‘curcumin’ which can deplete kidney function when fed in such concentrated amounts. The spice contains nature’s ideal balance of curcumin, which has huge benefits for liver function, inflammation, gastro issues, and even cardiovascular health. It improves energy, sleep function, and helps to cleanse the system. It’s another supplement that even dogs without health issues can reap the benefit of.

Probiotics (human or dog): Probiotics are groups of healthy, helpful bacteria that live in the gut. For most dogs, those probiotics have been stripped, and we need to supplements them. There are multiple strains of probiotic bacteria (such as acidophilus) and the more strains a probiotic supplement contains, the more beneficial it will be. They can also be supplemented with Digestive Enzymes, which are the enzymes responsible for breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, fats and sugars. A healthy gut is the starting point of a healthy immune system, and healthy bacteria is very helpful in fighting bad bacteria such as yeast overgrowth so common in allergy dogs. My favourite brand is Omega Alpha’s Probiotic 8 Plus, or Kazooticals. My favourite human brands to be used on dog’s are Renew Life’s Flora Smart, or Natural Factors Multi-Probiotic.

Raw/Unpasteurized Honey:
The key component to honey’s benefits is to buy local honey, from within approx. 200 kms from your home. The idea behind raw honey is that the pollens haven’t been destroyed by pasteurization, and that those pollens are the same pollens that your dog is exposed to at home. Feeding honey year round helps to desensitize your dog to very small amounts of the allergy, allowing your dog’s immune system to recognize that pollen but not react to it. Therefore, when pollen begins outside, your dog’s body has learned to tolerate it. Honey also has wonderful benefits for skin health, and immune balancing.

Topical Treatments:
As I mentioned earlier, holistic treatments take time to work, so when you first begin you may still see things like itchy ears, itchy paws and hot spots. The topical treatments I mentioned will help to address those issues. Apple Cider Vinegar is a product you can include both in your dog’s food or water, as well as topically provided there are no scratches or lesions (it can sting). It should always be purchased as an organic product ‘with mother’ (it will say on the bottle), such as Bragg’s brand, which is available in most grocery stores. Products that don’t say organic and ‘with mother’ will not be effective. Colloidal Silver is another product that can be applied topically or in food, though if given internally it will interfere with probiotic function as it acts as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal solution. I’ll often treat itchy ears or paws with Colloidal Silver followed by Coconut Oil, both internally and topically (always organic and cold pressed), as Coconut Oil can actually destroy the nucleus of yeast. Finally, a few other tinctures I love are Oil of Oregano for ear health, Vet’s Best two-part ear cleaner, and Espree Natural Spray bandage on sore and itchy paws.

Gastric Support:
If your dog experiences gastric issues, my all time favourite supplement to use is from Prescribed Animal Wellness, called Gastro Herbal Blend. It contains herbs like Slippery Elm, Burdock Root and Marshmallow Root to protect and heal the colon and bowel, and help to firm up stool and make for a healthier gastric system. It is available from


- Because allergies are the result of the immune system’s over reaction, limiting your dog’s exposure to toxins is a great way of preventing or reducing allergies. If the immune system is always being challenged by toxin, it never has a chance to ‘relax’ and function normally. Consider eliminating scent diffusers and plug-ins in your home, avoid fabric sprays that your dog will walk/lie on and then consume through licking themselves, and switch to natural cleaning products.
- The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has recently changed it’s vaccination protocols for core vaccines to once every three years. Do some research on the science available about vaccines, and speak to your vet (and perhaps get a second opinion from a holistic vet) about minimal vaccine protocols. The science available to us about canine immunology and vaccinations is far different from that which is available about humans and children, and well worth the investigation on your part
- Keep a journal of what your dog eats, what changes you make, the season, and how your dog is seeming to feel. Working with allergies is a long-term commitment, and we can easily forget what works and what doesn’t. Tracking your progress (or lack thereof) can make life much easier, and avoid duplication of trial and error


My Dog just doesn’t listen to me!

April 12th, 2014

“My dog just doesn’t listen to me” must be the most commonly used phrase in the history of dog ownership. We all go through it – in fact, even I’m going through it right now with my dog, who’s in need of a little spring training catch up. Typically, there are only a few reasons why this is occurring, and I can assure you it has nothing to do with who is alpha (a theory long since debunked by scientific evidence).

First and foremost, dogs will ‘not listen’ because they just don’t know the rules. I usually see this in the form of a dog who’s owner doesn’t necessarily attribute it to the dog not responding to cues, but to the dog just not knowing all on his own what he is and is not allowed to do. For example, the dog who climbs up in the lap of the visiting trainer; obviously, I like dogs, and their close proximity to me doesn’t bother me in the least, nor does their climbing up on me lead me to believe that they have an inherent behaviour problem as a result. But, I always ask the owner if the dog is allowed to do this, and more often than not, the answer is a shrug or hands up in the air in defeat, followed by “I wish he wouldn’t, but he does it anyway”. If you have very few visitors, or if all your visitors love your dog and you’re ok with him climbing up on them, then it’s ok if he climbs up on them. If you have a lot of visitors, some of whom may not like this, or any other reasons why you don’t want your dog climbing up on visitors, that’s ok too. But you need to decide what the rule is, because if you don’t know, how can your dog know? Whenever I consult in situations where the main complaint is general obedience, I always ask the whole family to get together and make a list of rules for the dog, which everyone is expected to follow, and which are clear and final. Dogs are highly intelligent, sentient beings who are certainly capable of understanding complexities in rules, but if we don’t understand those rules ourselves, our dog won’t either, and the end result is frustration on both parts.

The list is also helpful in identifying what your dog’s vocabulary is. Knowing his name and the word ‘no’ isn’t enough to adequately communicate to your dog what you want him to do in the moment. Imagine this scenario: Your name is Suzie, and you are sitting on the couch in your living room quietly reading a book. Your husband Dave walks in and suddenly starts repeating your name, growing in emphasis with each repetition. Eventually you’re going say “What?”, and he simply responds with “No. Suzie, no. Suuuzzziiieee, NO!!! SUZIE!!!”. Unfortunately, you have no idea what he wants, until you start doing things to see if it stops the pestering. Is it the book you’re reading? Is it the expression on your face? Is it the fact you’re in the living room? Finally, Dave blurts out “you’re sitting on my suit jacket and getting it all wrinkled!”. Had he walked in and told you this in the outset, all the confusion and strange interaction, and eventual frustration for both parties could have been solved. The same thing happens to your dog when you are repeating his name, saying no, and so on, without any clear communication as to what exactly he’s doing wrong and what you want him to do about it. So, the next time your dog jumps on the counter to lick the night’s roast beef dinner, you can use words such as “Max, Leave it! Off! Good boy!!”, and he will understand, follow through, and no one will end up frustrated.

On occasion, though, you can say these words to your dog and absolutely nothing happens. One of the reasons for this is that your dog doesn’t know the word to begin with. As a species so heavily reliant on verbal communication, we tend to forget that our dogs don’t speak any English, and cannot immediately understand the meaning of a word that they’ve never been taught before. Imagine someone instructing you over the phone on how to prepare a meal you’ve never made in your life without using a single word in English (assuming your only language is English) – it would impossible. This is how dogs feel when we speak words at them without any prior training on what physical response we expect the dog to perform. Most dogs will begin offering behaviours in hopes that your ever increasing volume and proximity to them will stop if they hit the right movement, and every once in a while they guess right. However, most of the time, they need to be taught the meaning of the word with a more basic, step by step approach (think about how you taught your puppy to lie down for the first time). Once you’ve made your list of words you think your dog knows, test them. Set him up in such a way that you need to use the word, such as Leave it: Stand at the kitchen counter pretending to prepare food while your dog looks on. Accidentally drop an appropriate and small piece of food on the floor (like a piece of cheese or meat) and if your dog approaches it, say Leave it. If he does, have a treat ready and praise him!!! If he doesn’t, it’s possible that he doesn’t understand the words, or that he hasn’t been trained that level of advancement. This doesn’t mean your dog is purposefully disobedient, it just means he doesn’t understand, and that you need to go back to some training basics.

Notice how I said to reward the dog if he Leaves it? This is the final reason why many dogs appear not to listen – because their behaviours have no positive consequences. This is also why many households will say that one spouse can get a response from a dog while the other cannot. I see this most commonly with busy mothers, and this has nothing to do with being the fairer sex, having a higher voice, being smaller, being nicer etc. The dog’s insubordination has to do with the fact that busy Mom normally has her attention in more than one place, and will ask the dog to do something, but before he does it or before she can praise him for doing it, she’s off to break up the fight over the Barbie that the twins are having in the living room. Compare that to the spouse who may not be required to attend to many things at one time within the home, and can give a cue, see it performed, and reward it. In this case, the dog will begin to ignore Mom because there is never a reason to pay attention to her. This is my issue with my own dog, as the spring season is so incredibly busy that when we’re together, if I ask him to do something and he doesn’t do it, I’m rarely following through. Spring training will simply involve taking a couple of extra seconds to ask him to perform a behaviour, waiting to be sure he does it, and then offering a food reward (they are fastest and most effective in his case) immediately, at which point I can go back to my other tasks. Within a few days, I’ll see my regular, responsive Toby back again, and won’t be frustrated with his return to Toby the Terror!

Make a list, check the list with your dog for accuracy in performance, and reinforce the behaviours on the list, and you’ll soon find a much more well behaved dog!


Eight Things All Dogs Owners Should Know About Dog Ownership!

April 1st, 2014

1. Puppy classes are mandatory!
I regularly receive emails from clients who want to do in-home training with their puppy, but I always decline. My professional ethics prohibit me from denying a puppy access to puppy classes, which while they teach the basics of training, aren’t necessarily a learning mecca for you as the owner – they are for the puppy, and his ability to develop normal social skills. Given that I specialize in aggression and anxiety in adolescent and adult dogs, I can assure you that skipping puppy class (even if you’ve raised ten dogs before this one) is one of the biggest mistakes you could make in raising your puppy. They need to learn body language, play styles, and especially bite inhibition, which teaches the puppy how much pressure they can apply with their mouths without causing harm to their counterparts. Learning this with puppy teeth, and with a wide variety of breeds of similar age, is much safer and easier than trying to teach this to an adult dog – particularly with other adult dogs who may respond aggressively if bitten too hard. Despite my strong feelings about nutrition, vaccines, force free training and rescue, if I could only ever shout one piece of advice from the rooftops, it would be “take your puppy to puppy class!”. My personal favourites in the GTA are Dealing with Dogs, Who’s Walking Who, Whatta Pup! and All About Dogs.

2. No is a bad word
Several years ago there was a survey done in the US that revealed that the majority of dogs think their name is “No”! Owning a dog of any age is bound to put you in positions to want to say ‘no’ often, I won’t deny you that! The problem with No is it’s inherent lack of direction – we’re asking a dog to stop…something…and do what instead? Picture this from the dog’s point of view: He’s lifting his body, extending his paws, landing on the counter, reaching his face forward to sniff the apple pie, and “No!” gets yelled across the kitchen by his owner. Now, is the No for being in the kitchen, for putting his paws on the counter, or for sniffing the pie? In our minds, No is for something the dog is about to do – eating the pie. But dogs can’t understand anticipatory commands, or “I know what you’re thinking and don’t you dare do it” commands. They’re also left to figure out what the No is applicable to, and for the most part, can’t figure it out, which is why in twenty minutes, they’re going to sniff that pie again! But if we give our dogs a vocabulary, and a redirection, we are communicating much more effectively with them. If we’ve taught them ‘Leave it’, (meaning “don’t put your mouth on that”), the dog understands that they are not to put their mouth on the pie, followed by “Off” (meaning “take your paws off whatever they are on”), followed by “Go play” (meaning “go get a toy and run around with it” or some version of that), we’ve effectively told our dogs exactly what we want from them, and given them an appropriate activity to do instead, which reinforces the likliehood that they’ll understand and follow through with the previous two cues again in the future if needed, and we’ve given them an activity that is counter-intuitive to jumping on the counter for the pie. This reduces so much frustration for both parties, and most importantly, leaves you with an intact and delicious apple pie!

3. An apple a day keeps the doctor away!
However, the apples in that pie really are good for your dog. They are packed with vitamins and fibre, and gently rub against the teeth when they chew them. Feeding your dog a healthy diet is an integral part of not only a balanced behaviour, but ensuring a long and healthy life. What to feed your dog should be a thoughtful, well researched decision that places more importance on quality of ingredients than cost, within the parameters of what you can afford of course. I say this because of things I’ve heard over the years that simply make me wonder why a person owns a dog if they consider him such a burden, such as this conversation overheard at a big box store: “Well, the Beneful isn’t on sale this week, so the dog will have to go on half rations until it’s on sale again. I’m not paying full price for this!”. Choosing a healthy diet does help to offset other costs of dog ownership, such as veterinary care, but primarily, it keeps the one you love with you longer, and quite frankly, they deserve the best!

4. It won’t just go away on it’s own
Addressing behaviour concerns is important, particularly if they involve dangerous aspects (such as food guarding), or if they consistently result in you being frustrated with your dog, which can damage your relationship with your dog, as well likely increase the number of frustration behaviours on the part of your dog because they just don’t understand what to do to please you. Statements such as: “He’s only a year old, he’ll grow out of chewing electrical cords”, or “She’s still young, she’ll stop biting the kids soon”, or “He’ll get used to the new baby eventually, he’s just jealous right now” can all lead to a dog who develops more serious behavioural issues, who eventually harms himself, or who eventually harms another person. Behaviours such as these do NOT get better without intervention, and the lack of intervention often results in the high percentage of re-homing of dogs between the ages of 1 and 2 years (the teenage phase). When you take on the responsibility of a dog, you take on the responsibility of making him safe, both to himself and his social circle & family, as well as doing all you can do to prevent problem behaviours from beginning or continuing so that you can both leave in harmony together.

5. Financial responsibility
We can do all we can to keep our dogs healthy and safe, but dogs are living beings, and health issues happen. Lots of owners spend tens of thousands of dollars on healthcare for their sick dogs – but most owners just can’t. In many circumstances, surgeries that cost thousands can’t be done due to the dog’s age, health condition, or the owner’s financial restraints, but these health issues can be managed and the dog made comfortable through medication and other therapies, often at a much more manageable cost. Pet care credit cards are now available, along with a plethora of pet insurance plans. For some, simply putting some money aside in a TFSA account for emergencies is a viable option. In any case, you are obliged by being this dog’s care giver to provide at least enough veterinary support that your dog doesn’t suffer, and however you spin it, that costs money. In unfortunate circumstances, some owners are forced to surrender their dogs to rescue in order to provide the care needed, and while it can be heartbreaking to give up your dog under duress, it can be the kindest thing you can do for your dog. Being prepared for such events is a consideration that must be made before buying or adopting a dog, and financial consideration is as important as knowing you can provide a roof over a dog’s head, have the time to train and exercise him, and be able to give him a safe and loving environment. It can be hard to hear, but being able to meet a minimum of care is an absolute requirement in dog ownership.

6. Keep him safe!
Acknowledging the safety concerns surrounding your dog is crucial; whether that’s keeping chocolate, medications, and other dangerous substances in high cupboards, or putting a seatbelt on him when he’s in a vehicle, dogs are like children in that they cannot make these decisions to keep themselves safe from harm, and they depend on us to be able to do this for them! Just yesterday, we walked through town with Toby, and passed a Beagle on the sidewalk. Just as we were passing, the Beagle, on a retractable leash, lunged out at Toby (who was continuing to walk past the dog), through my husband’s legs, growling and snapping and stopping just short of Toby’s legs. Thankfully, both Toby and I are experienced and capable of diffusing the situation quickly, but what if we hadn’t been? What if Toby was also reactive, and simply coming along well with training so long as he didn’t have to confront another dog? And now my 85lb dog is run up on by a clearly reactive little Beagle? This could quickly have gone very badly, and unfortunately, the Beagle’s owner did nothing to prevent or resolve the situation. What about the woman I witnessed running on the road last fall, going with traffic along a one way street at rush hour, with headphones on, texting on her phone, while her dog ran several feet from her on a retractable leash on the inside of the road, nearest traffic? He could easily have darted too much to the inside of the road, not seen the traffic coming behind him (and passing very close to him) and been hit by a car – all because his owner didn’t take into account any safety precautions on his behalf. Would it have been the dog’s fault if he’d been hit by a car? Or the person holding the ‘leash’? Taking responsibility for your dog’s safety is a matter of life or death, no matter how neurotic it may make you seem. People often comment to us in our building’s elevator about why we make Toby sit the whole time and not wiggle his way around the elevator saying hi to everyone – well, if you’ve seen the viral video about the dog who gets hung up on his leash when it gets caught in the elevator door, you’d know why. It’s because it keeps my dog safe, it keeps the old lady who gets on and doesn’t want to be jumped on, or the businessman who doesn’t want dog hair on his suit, safe and happy and tolerant of their canine neighbour. That’s my job, and I can’t expect my dog to do it when he doesn’t understand the dangers.

7. Give him things to do!
Boredom is probably the number one cause of annoyance or demand behaviours that I see. Dogs who dig, bark, pace, destroy things, never settle down, steal things, eat things – the list goes on – are normally just really bored! Dogs are sentient beings, and they are thinking, feeling, intelligent animals capable of detecting cancer in a single sniff, finding lost children in hundreds of miles of dense woods, telling a person when they are about to have a seizure, and helping a physically challenged person get through their day to day life. Yet many of our pet dogs spend months, if not years, never getting to really use their brains. Consider it this way; in an average day, a human gets to go to work, play a video game, watch tv, read a book, talk with friends, learn about a new subject, and make choices about when and how to do all of these things. Your dog gets to wait all day at home for you with nothing to do but watch out the window (“why does he bark at everything that goes by?”), has had the same toys since he was a puppy and now he’s 7 years old (“why is he chewing/eating/destroying my stuff when he has his own toys”), might get to go for a 30 minute leash walk around the same route he’s done for 7 years now (“why he is always sniffing every pole/pulling towards every dog/barking at everything?”), and then maybe lie down next to you and hope you decide to play with him (“why is he always pacing/barking at me/pawing at me/bringing me dead things?”), and for the lucky dogs, every couple of weeks they get to go to a leash free or a cottage and actually run/sniff/play like a dog. But where, in all of this, are they thinking? Where are they doing something new and interesting? Where are they learning, and entertaining themselves? If we don’t provide such enrichment for them, they seek it out themselves – and believe me, it’s rare that my goofy silly Boxer makes a mature decision about what to do to occupy his time! It’s my job to enrich his life, so we play games everyday, he gets a ton of work to release toys (like Kongs), he gets all kinds of different walks, both on and off leash, and I try to teach him a silly new trick each week, or at least put him through his known cues everyday for fun. I give him things to enrich his life so that he doesn’t have to find ways himself. In turn, he’s not inventing things to do on his own!

8. 2 pounds or 200 pounds – train your dog!
There is an age-old, rarely mentioned tension between big dog owners and small dog owners, which primarily stems from frustration by big dog owners that all have to manage the assumption that big dogs are inherently dangerous, and towards small dog owners that they don’t train their dogs – they just pick them up. The contention is that if a big dog behaved the way a small dog did, the assumptions about big dogs being dangerous would be true – we can’t just pick them up if they barking/lunging/growling, and we can’t just get a Barbie Band-Aid if they bite someone. In either sense, dogs need to be trained so that they can be safe, friendly, and mascots for their breed. Unfortunately for the small dog camp, picking up your dogs is a common ‘intervention’ when your dog is misbehaving, but it solves nothing. Unfortunately for the big dog camp, using aversive tools like prong collars or alpha theory simply moves to control the dog physically, but does nothing to change his behaviour in the future. In both cases, training is what creates a well-behaved dog, not just management, and it is incumbent upon all dog owners to train their dogs to be happy in social environments, to have manners, and to respond to the vocabulary we’ve given them. 2 pounds or 200 pounds, dogs are dogs, and they learn and think and feel the same ways, and are deserving of the same commitment to training.


Dogs, Mental Health, and The Prong Collar

February 23rd, 2014

Most of you probably think, by the title of this blog, that this is going to be a blog about how prong collars cause mental health issues in dogs. In fact, I believe that often they do, but that’s not what this is going to be about.

Recently, a blog has made the rounds on social media talking about the recent legislation introduced in Quebec that allows officials to fine owners found using a prong/pinch or shock/electronic collar on their dogs. To those of us in the force free training world, this is a huge step in the right direction for the welfare of dogs and the quality of the training they receive. For those who choose to use and train with prong and e-collars, it has been a call to action to ‘enlighten’ dog owners about why prong collars and e-collars are not harmful to a dog. Blogs like this one even go so far as to say that you can be well within the positive training realm and still use a prong collar. Advocates of such devices use a lot of common terms to achieve this goal; a mother’s bite, pressure, best used for high-drive dogs or red-zone dogs, only two or three corrections are ever necessary, and of course the ubiquitous “positive trainers can’t train aggressive dogs, they don’t do their homework on all options available to train a dog, and many dogs would die if not for the benefit of these devices”. A trainer who believes this kind of information is no more likely to be convinced that they are causing harm to a dog by using this equipment than I am to be convinced that they are not causing harm, or that they should form a useful part of my training equipment, so this blog is not to convince those trainers. This blog is intended to help those ‘on the fence’ about prongs and e-collars make a more informed decision, and to set the record straight on my own perspective on a topic I’m asked about almost daily.

Let’s start with those common ‘descriptions’ of the prong collar, such as the mother’s bite. This one is easy – in all my observations, I’ve never seen a mother bite her pup around the underside of the throat, a very sensitive area on a dog. If this were a true comparison, prongs would only be required to sit on either side of the muscled part of the neck. The word ‘pressure’, which I would say is the most common description used by trainers for both prong collars and shock collars, is in my opinion meant to say that the equipment merely causes the dog to feel some pressure on his neck, thereby causing him to realize he’s to stop whatever behaviour he’s doing. Pressure is another word for punisher, which is a more legitimate word when we consider operant conditioning and the learning quadrants. Pressure is what is known as a positive punishment, meaning we are adding something aversive to the dog or his environment meant to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future. Unfortunately, despite the number of ‘experts’ I’ve asked about this term, none have been able to explain to me why this pressure needs to be coupled with something that is in the very least irritating to the dog, if not actually painful. If these devices indeed cause only pressure, why not just use a flat collar? Why not just use a vibrating collar instead of a shock collar? What’s the difference? It seems to me that they are desperate to avoid the words ‘pain’ or ‘discomfort’ with these devices, when in fact if they weren’t causing pain or discomfort, quite frankly they wouldn’t work! Does a prong collar or a well-timed shock work in momentarily stopping a dog from performing an unwanted behaviour? Yes they do. But we can achieve the same results without causing the dog any discomfort, physically or mentally, so why we would choose not to? Leah Roberts, a highly respected trainer out of the US, sums it up beautifully: “I want to teach you something,” she explains. “Every time you do it wrong, I gently poke you in the shoulder. Doesn’t hurt, right? Poke, poke, poke, poke, poke… how long would it take before you were, first, so annoyed by the poke that you were ready to smack me, and second, you so dreaded the next poke that you no longer wanted to offer any behavior?” she asks. “Me? I’d probably be grabbing your finger somewhere around the sixth poke,” she adds. “Why choose this method when, instead, you can create a dog who is excited about offering behavior and invested in doing it ‘right’ to earn a valued resource? All while creating a relationship of trust that the teacher will never do anything to intimidate or upset you?” she asks.

High-drive is an interesting and, in my opinion, condescending way of saying ‘your dog can’t possibly be worked with in any other way than by using force’. Realistically, ‘drive’ in this context is just another way of saying ‘motivator’. Where we have a motivator, we have a fantastic learning opportunity with a real life reward. In other words, you have a dog with a high-drive for balls, for chasing squirrels, for performing in a sport, for the acquisition of food, or for the sheer need to control his/her environment (such as leash aggression). If anything, a dog with a ‘high-drive’ is easier to train with force free methods than the dog who is a couch potato and cares for very little in the world. To say force free trainers don’t or can’t work with highly motivated dogs is a serious misconception – we don’t just teach dog sports or train dogs for television – in fact, some of the world’s best veterinary behaviourists, animal ethologists, and force free trainers work exclusively and hands on with these so-called ‘red zone’ dogs (tv word, NOT a real diagnosis) every single day. Proclaiming that the handler may only need to deliver a few corrections on the collar in order for it be effective is also a misnomer – if this were the case, we’d rarely see dogs with prongs or e-collars, because they would only be needed for a lesson or two. More importantly, the reason we do see them so often, even on dogs who aren’t being repeatedly corrected, is because the dog ‘knows he’s wearing it, so he doesn’t act out’. To me, this means you’re threatening your dog, and essentially saying to him “that thing is on you, so if you step out of line, it’s gonna hurt”. Personally, I fail to see the ‘training’ component where the behaviour is conditional upon a piece of equipment, and the desired behaviour doesn’t occur when that equipment isn’t being worn.

If we consider that most trainers who use these devices also work, for the most part, with dogs who have behavioural issues, including serious aggression, then we need to address the mental health component of training. A behavioural issue such as leash aggression (considering we’re talking about leash related tools) is in fact a mental health issue. The dog is having a reaction to a stimulus because something in his mind is telling him that a ‘normal’ situation is not normal for him, and he needs to react to it. This is rarely (unless the dog has been purposely trained to be reactive) a case of a dog consciously deciding that he wants to carry on and bark and lunge and be crazy. He didn’t wake up that morning and decide he was going to ruin your day and get all the neighbours talking. It’s a sub-conscious response to a stimulus that his brain is telling him to react to inappropriately. The majority of the time, it’s a fear reaction. At the most basic level, it will never make sense to me why a person would choose to inflict pain upon an animal that is afraid, or how punishment could resolve the problem.

My husband, as some of you may know, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2012 at the age of 32. As a result, I do a fair amount of reading on the subject in the hopes that I can better understand his thought processes, improve our communication, and be more supportive of the challenges and gains it brings him. Today, I was reading “Look Me In The Eye” by John Elder Robison, and came across this quote, which describes his thoughts shortly after his own diagnosis in adulthood: “I knew that I did not look at people in the eye when I talked to them. Hell, I had been beaten up and criticized for that all through my childhood. But until I read that book I had never realized my behaviour was unusual. I had never understood why people treated me the way they did. It had always seemed so mean, so unfair. It had never occurred to me that other people might find what I did (or did not do) naturally disconverting.””I had spent most of my life listening to people tell me how I was arrogant, aloof, or unfriendly. Now I read that people with Asperger’s display inappropriate facial expressions. Well, I certainly knew about that. When I was a child, I was told my aunt had died, and I grinned even though I was sad. And I got smacked.”

Consider this quote, and the fact that John was a child when he, inadvertently, made an inappropriate facial gesture in response to bad news – despite how he actually felt about the news. How did his Aunt smacking him change his behaviour going forward? If she were training him within the parameters of behaviour modification and learning theory, the action she chose should have affected John’s future choices in how he responded to a family member’s death, or similar news. However, because John had an underlying condition, essentially a brain which is not flawed, but wired differently, he was not able to understand why he smiled, nor was he able to change that about himself in the future. By smacking him, his Aunt actually compounded the situation by teaching John that, when receiving bad news, the situation has potential to be even more uncomfortable should he choose the wrong response. His comment about never understanding why people treated him the way they did is rather sad, and even more so for many people when they consider he was just a child when he started feeling this way. Until his diagnosis, my husband faced similar social frustrations, including the two of us trying to come to agreements on how to communicate with one another early in our relationship, and my own frustrations with him seemingly not understanding my broadest of gestures. I can assure you, though, yelling and otherwise punishing him for these misunderstandings would not have made future gestures, conversations, and other methods of communication any better. In fact, they would have become more tense, and more frustrating for us both.

Dogs can’t sit quietly and type out an email pouring out their heart and telling you how they feel when they face the situations in which they act out the most. But if they could, they’d surely tell you that adding painful or even irritating devices in situations where they are already uncomfortable does not make them feel any MORE comfortable, and in fact it adds a level of confusion and frustration because, like John and my husband, the choices they are making in uncomfortable situations are often subconscious, at a level where they can’t really understand why they are choosing that method of communication. So instead, wouldn’t it be better to teach them that the situation is not one in which they should be uncomfortable, therefore changing the way they deal with that situation? And, if your dog wears these devices because he’s overjoyed about going to do something fun and pulling you down the street, or jumping on his absolute favourite new person ever that they’ve never met before, is killing the joy of the experience something you want to do to them? Wouldn’t it be better if we simply provided clear options for how to behave appropriately in social situations, so that they can confidently make better choices, AND stay happy, in future?

Reaching a goal as a team - with trust, teamwork and joy

One of my pet peeves is a blog that lays out all the things NOT to do with your dog, but doesn’t then tell you what TO do. So, if you are trying to figure out how to manage some of the issues I talk about in this blog, I invite you to read about them more specifically here:

On leash aggression

On pulling on leash

On jumping up on guests (Boxer specific, but the methods and techniques apply to most excitable dogs)


How to teach your dog just about anything!

January 26th, 2014

I wish I had a dollar for every time an owner said at the end of a training session “Wow! That was so easy! How did I not figure that out myself?” Training dogs, outside of serious behaviour issues like fear, aggression and anxiety, is generally a pretty easy task, if you go about it the right way. If you consider how dogs learn, what the common mistakes are, and you are consistent with your teaching habits, you’ll find you can teach your dog to do just about anything!

Dogs primarily learn by making associations between their owner’s request for a behaviour, and the consequence for performing the behaviour. Let’s consider the cue for sit; the owner will normally teach to a dog at a young age, and let’s face it, when you ask an 8 week old puppy to sit and he does it, it’s pretty darn cute! We’re very likely to be happy that the puppy sat upon our request, and we’ll reinforce it with either sheer joy on our face, or with a treat or a toy. Then we show off to everyone else – and each time, the puppy gets a great reward. The dog quickly learns that the sound we make by saying the word “Sit”, followed by the action of placing their bum on the floor with their forelegs remaining straight, results in life being momentarily fabulous. The dog is very likely to perform the behaviour again and again, because it is a clear cue with a high predictability of reward. Let’s also consider the accidental training we do; the crinkle of the food bag calling the dog for dinner, the ever increasing amount of barking that we immediately respond to in some way, or the excitability at the door because we’re just so happy to see our dogs when we get home after a long day. Dogs also learn to ignore a large part of their environment because they know it has no impact on their life – such as the neighbour pulling into their driveway, or the can opener that only produces food for the cat, or the incredible number of sounds that emanate from the television. It really comes down to basic survival – what cues from the owner or environment have a consequence for the dog, and which ones have no impact at all.

Common Mistakes in Simple Training:
1. Teaching hand signals and verbal cues at the same time! This usually starts in puppy school, when the trainer will have you hold a treat in your hand and raise your hand in a sweeping upward motion, while saying “Sit”. Dogs primarily communicate through body language, so it’s really much easier for them to understand hand signals versus verbal cues. In the case where the hand signal (hand sweeping upwards) is offered at the same time as the verbal cue (saying “Sit”), the dog will ignore the verbal cue because the hand signal is easier to understand, and the dog has learned to ignore irrelevant stimuli. If we want the dog to learn both, we must say the verbal cue first, and then follow with a hand signal, as opposed to asking for both at the same time.

2. Dogs don’t speak English! Dogs communicate through body language, not verbally, so in essence by using almost entirely verbal platforms to communicate with our dogs, we are making learning more challenging. Where this becomes problematic is when we begin asking for a behaviour (let’s use “Rollover”) and become frustrated when the dog doesn’t do as they are asked. The dog doesn’t know what the word “Rollover” means – he’s not born understanding a pre-defined set of common dog tricks. A good trainer will teach a dog the physical behaviour, ensure it has been repeated many times and highly rewarded each time, and then they will begin saying the cue word before asking the dog for the behaviour. In the case of Rollover, we’ll use food to lure the dog into rolling his body over, sometimes broken into smaller steps, and repeat many times until the dog ‘gets it’. By doing so, we’ve both generated a hand signal (usually a semi-circle near the dog’s nose), and demonstrated to the dog that this seemingly benign behaviour has positive consequences for him. Once he understands that, we can start saying “Rollover” before presenting the hand signal, and the dog can figure out that the word will predict the action and the reward.

3. Not teaching the dog how to generalize a behaviour! This is the dog who behaves wonderfully in obedience class, but not at home, or who is great at home but not out in public. A good example is the person who teaches their dog to run an agility course that has been set up in the back yard. The dog could literally be a backyard agility champion, but when he gets to an actual competition scenario, it’s as though he’s never seen a set of weave poles in his life. If we teach a dog to perform a certain behaviour in one place all the time, he’s been learning what cues from both you and the environment form a part of the request. For example, if we use the structure in parts 1 and 2, but only do so in the living room, the dog is factoring the environment into the equation when he’s trying to figure out what exactly you’re asking him to do, so he comes to believe it forms a part of the cue. Even if he can properly execute the behaviour 100 times over in the living room, if you take him outside in the yard where the environment is considerably different (and where, perhaps, you now ask for this behaivour while you’re standing up, whereas in the living room you may have been sitting on the floor), many of the factors he believed were part of the cue have changed, and he needs to re-learn the behaviour in this new environment. Most dogs will pick up simple cues in new environments fairly quickly, so you’re not starting from scratch, but these changes are not to be ignored when teaching your dog something new.

4. Dropping the reinforcer too soon! You’ve probably picked up on the pattern evolving here that dogs do things that are beneficial to them – not to make you happy, or because you have attained some kind of alpha or pack leader ‘status’ with them. For example, if a dog is asking to go outside, and begins by standing near the door, and you ignore them (or can’t see them), they’ll choose another method of asking. This can escalate to sitting in front of you and staring at you, and if you don’t respond, could turn into a barking request (also known as a demand behaviour). Most owners will focus on the annoying demand behaviour and respond in one way or another, but the issue lies in the fact that we ignored a perfectly reasonable request in the first place – standing quietly by the door. The dog stopped performing the reasonable behaviour because it didn’t produce the desired effect – someone letting him outside. So, if by ignoring behaviours they will disappear (or in scientific terms, ‘extinguish’), we can also claim that by rewarding behaviours they will increase. When trying to teach a new behaviour, we’re pretty reliable for providing positive feedback (treat, play, ‘good boy’ etc), but once we assume the dog ‘knows what to do’, we stop rewarding them. Once we stop rewarding, the cycle above begins, and the dog will begin ignoring requests for the behaviour because it doesn’t produce desired results for the dog. Try to think about it this way; when we first start going to the gym, we’re excited to be on a new regime and go quite frequently, and feel as though we’re accomplishing something. But after a few weeks, we realize we’re not seeing the results we had hoped to, and the visits begin to dwindle. At the same time, we may begin ‘cheating’ on our diet, and eating more and more of the things we promised we wouldn’t. Imagine if you could go to the gym and immediately lose 2 or 3 pounds after each workout, or if we immediately gained 2 or 3 pounds within minutes of eating a donut – the immediate feedback would have a huge impact on what decisions we made about exercising and eating in the future. Because neither has such immediate reward or punishment, it’s much more difficult to stick to the plan.

Things to Remember:
1. Know what your dog will work for! Most dogs are motivated by food, some are motivated by toys, and a few are motivated by praise. The vast majority of dogs enjoy all three, but won’t necessarily work a new behaviour for just praise. Food is the most common method of reinforcing a dog, and it’s important to consider a few things when using it; if you dog refuses the treat he would normally otherwise take, there is something in the training process that is creating too much stress. Secondly, it’s important to consider your dog’s weight and when training a new behaviour you may need to adjust meal size to compensate for added calories in treats. Lastly, you should develop a tier structure of foods that your dog likes from least valuable (usually kibble) to most valuable (like cheese, bacon or hot dogs). Reserve your highest value treats for more difficult training, or the beginning of training a new cue.

2. Capture the behaviours you like! Dogs will quite often perform behaviours that are appropriate all on their own. We often fail to reinforce these behaviours because they don’t capture our attention – such as a dog who lies down on his bed at meal time, or who grabs a toy when a new person comes in the home instead of jumping on them. If we notice these nice behaviours and reward them, the dog will be more likely to keep doing them. Even more complex behaviours, such as the ones you may see in movies (i.e. dogs who ‘talk’) are taught simply by capturing the behaviour, rewarding it, and then assigning a verbal cue to it.

3. Training should be fun! We all have bad days, including dogs, and sometimes either the handler, the dog, or both are just not up for the task. When I’m tired, I tend to get ‘foggy’ and forget the word I want to use, or am slow to reward the behaviour the dog performs. This can result in confusion for my dog. Sometimes, it’s my dog who is tired, or just having an off day, and he’s reluctant to engage in a training session. On those days, we just don’t train! We stick with a few easy behaviours so that the session ends on a good note, but don’t venture into unknown territory. It’s also important to note whether or not your dog enjoys what you’re trying to teach them – I’ve recently been trying to teach my Boxer to play with a flirt pole (basically a fishing pole, with a rope hanging off and a toy attached) and he has, on each occasion we’ve tried it, become flustered with it and ends up spending more time trying to avoid it than play with it, no matter how much I change up the method of teaching. This is likely just going to be something my dog doesn’t enjoy doing, and after several short (3-5 minutes) sessions, I’ve determined that we will likely not proceed with this option. If it’s not fun for both of us, we end up frustrated, and we can inadvertently teach our dog an aversion to that behaviour (can often happen when we use force, such as pushing, pinching or pulling, to teach a behaviour).

Training new cues and tricks can be a wonderful bonding experience between handler and dog, and is a wonderful way to mentally stimulate your dog. It can also build your dog’s vocabulary, and make it much easier for you to give your dog direction as to what you want him to do. By following these guidelines, you can be successful in teaching almost anything to your dog!


Boxer Central – Loose Leash Walking

January 19th, 2014

Most people know that an effective reward in training is food – and while it certainly is for training most dogs most behaviours and cues, we can also use environmental reinforcers. A reinforcer is anything the dog (not the person) deems valuable enough for her to repeat the behaviour again, and if she does not increase the frequency or intensity of the behaviour, we know she didn’t deem the reinforcer we chose to be valuable. An environmental reinforcer is something in the environment that the dog wants, and it could be permission to chase a squirrel, going to say hi to their best friend, or even just exploring the world around them. When teaching leash walking, the reinforcer is simple; it’s moving forward!

Personally, I’m a not an obedience trainer in the traditional sense of the word, and I sometimes watch obedience trainers and competitors teach a ‘heel’ and in seeing the dog walk right up against the handlers leg without straying at all, I often think “gosh, that must be annoying”! For the average dog owner, we don’t want our dogs to walk right up against our legs without looking at anything but us for the entire walk; what we want is for our dogs to walk on a loose leash and not drag us down the block! This is pretty easy to teach, if you’re consistent, and provided your dog doesn’t have extraneous issues like leash aggression (in which case, you should seek out advice from a positive, professional trainer). Loose leash walking is most easily taught to a puppy, who has no prior habits formed, but in reality, we often aren’t concerned with teaching it until our dog is large enough to become problematic when he pulls on leash, and end up resorting to various types of equipment (choke collars, pinch/prong collars, harnesses etc.) and training ideas. What we fail to recognize is that our dogs are constantly learning, and we ignore what they’ve learned about leash walking already; typically, that they are supposed to be walking on a tight leash. We teach this inadvertently by trying to avoid pulling and keeping the leash wrapped around our hands or body and not allowing any kind of slack. The theory is proven when you do provide your dog some slack, and she immediately moves forward until the leash is tight again. Why does the dog think this is what we want from them? Because we’ve reinforced it by giving the dog what they want while the leash is tight – moving forward!

There are plenty of theories on how to teach loose leash walking, and today I’ll share my method. With larger breeds, like Boxers, I’ll begin by using a front leading harness to provide the handler some control and safety from being dragged, and prefer either the Sensation Harness by Soft Touch Concepts, or the No Pull Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design. Front leading harnesses have the leash clipped at the sternum, and are effective because if the dog does pull, as soon as tension is applied to the leash she will, by the laws of physics, be turned around to face you, and you can then communicate with her what you actually want. This also avoids pressure on the trachea, particularly resulting from collars that sit high on the throat, and are much less likely to cause damage to the dog physically as a result of pulling.

If we know that a dog’s motivation on a walk is to move forward, and that each step forward is a reinforcer, then we also know that if we do NOT move forward and remain stationary, this would be a form of punishment for the dog. Therefore, the best method for training a dog to walk on a loose leash is to provide the dog with enough leash slack to move around you, though not enough that they have the leverage to really yank on the leash. I like to allow enough leash that my dog could reasonably put his nose on the ground to sniff next to me, but no longer than that. The amount of leash I allow is always the same, so that my dog can predict how far he can move around me while walking. We begin this process as soon as the leash is clipped, and only move forward when the leash is slack. If the dog tightens the leash, we immediately stop moving. We don’t talk, instruct the dog, move him backwards with the leash, or ask for a sit – we simply let the dog think about why we’ve stopped, and what he’ll need to do to get us to move forward. In other words, the dog needs to solve his own problem by performing a behaviour that gets him what he wants. The key to this method being effective is timing – we stop the exact moment the leash is tightened, and move forward the exact moment the leash becomes slack (usually, when the dog turns towards you, with a look of ‘what on earth are we stopped for?’). The more precise our timing of stopping and going is, the faster the dog can figure out exactly why we’ve stopped, and exactly how he can get you to move forward again. It is a clear, simple, and highly effective way to communicate to your dog that you want him to walk on a loose leash. By incorporating leash jerks/tugs, asking for another behaviour (like sit), using words the dog probably doesn’t understand, or employing corrective measures with harsh collars, we are more often than not just confusing the dog, and he never really learns what it is that you’re asking for. When owners are consistent with the stop/go method (also known as the “red light green light” method), even when just walking down the driveway, going to the car, or using a leash in a store or vet’s office, dogs can learn within a week or two what is expected of them when attached to a leash. Yes, your first two or three walks may seem tedious, and you’ll feel as though you’re stopping and starting every few steps, but keep it up, and a couple of steps will turn into 6 or 7, then a couple of blocks, and then will become a constant and reliable behaviour. Note: when confronted with something on a walk that your dog really wants to get to, like another friendly dog, consider the reinforcer (greeting a friend) and that if you then allow your dog to pull towards the oncoming dog, he’ll learn that it’s ok to pull in those situations. If you practice red light green light with this type of powerful reinforcer, you’ll not only teach your dog a more solid loose leash walking behaviour, but he’ll also learn that patience is highly rewarded.


Boxer Central – Greeting People at the Door

January 12th, 2014

This week’s most popular question on Boxer Central’s ‘Ask Erica’ segment has been about jumping at guests when they arrive at the front door. Boxers are nothing if not exuberant, and the vast majority are very friendly and highly sociable with people. In fact, a new study was released recently showing us that dogs in general actually prefer the company of people versus dogs! Assuming your dog is friendly with people who visit your home (and if he’s not, please contact a professional, positive trainer), it typically doesn’t matter what kind of ‘punishment’ you use to dissuade excitable greetings; pulling them by the collar, kneeing them in the chest, yelling ‘no’ – all common attempts, none of which are generally very effective, either in the moment or on an ongoing basis. The scientific definition of a punisher is that the punishment is effective to reduce the frequency or intensity of the behaviour going forward, with the goal being that eventually, the behaviour stops altogether. Most owners will tell you that no matter what they do at the door, the dog is just as excited and gung-ho every time someone arrives at the door, which means that no matter what you’ve been doing, it’s not working. Typically, the joy of seeing a new person is just so powerful, there’s very little you can do to squash your dog’s sense of joy – but what if we gave them a behaviour that was acceptable, and instead of punishing it, we rewarded it?

One of the most common mistakes dog owners make is asking a dog to stop an activity, but not replacing it with a new one. The phrase I always drill into all my clients’ heads is “Don’t do that, do this instead” when they are talking to their dogs. In other words, ask your dog do stop doing the inappropriate behaviour, and ask him to do something appropriate – without leaving him to make his own choices about what is right (it never is!). Some dogs (and I’m not mentioning names here Pearson!) are just great dogs, who are responsive and relaxed and can easily master a Sit and Wait at the door until the person is ready to say hello. Most are not, and end up looking like they’re sitting on a washer on the spin cycle until the person goes to say hello and then they explode with energy and you wonder what the point of having them sit was. So, in cases where a dog is so excited, but that excitement becomes jumping and bumping and nose kisses, I teach the dog an incompatible behaviour that still allows them to be excited. In other words, I ask them to do something that lets them wiggle around, but also means they can’t do the new behaviour and jump on the person at the same time.

For most Boxers, toys, especially squeaky tuggy toys, are one of the greatest things on earth. Try setting aside one of their favourites (something that makes a sound, and that is long enough that the dog can grab it without jumping, while you are still standing and holding it – like a Kong Wubba), and when a person comes to the door, squeak the toy to get your dog’s attention, and encourage him to play a little gentle tug with you while the person comes inside and settles in (if he tugs too hard, just let go – he’ll be right back again nudging you to grab it and won’t tug so hard next time because he wants you to keep playing). Once the person is settled in, let your dog have the toy on his own, or go and say hello. The alternative can be, for dogs less toy motivated, getting handfuls of small treats and tossing them backwards into your house when the person is coming in the door, luring your dog away from the door and keeping him busy at the same time. Your dog will enjoy this game, and it will soon come to be expected – my own Boxer Toby’s first response when people arrive is to go and get his toy, which he shows off to me and my guest.

Whenever you teach a new skill, it’s very important to set your dog up for success, and train the new behaviour in easy situations first. Begin by starting this when no one is actually at the door, but knocking the door yourself (or using a smart phone app that makes a doorbell sound), then going through the new routine. Then start by having anyone who lives in the home knock or ring the doorbell when they get home from work or school – this is more true to real life, but if you make mistakes, they’ll be more forgiving, and frankly they are actually less exciting for the dog than a person who is new, or that the dog doesn’t see very often. If jumping remains a real issue in the house even long after the initial greeting, teach your dog that jumping up gets them the opposite of what they want – distance from the person they are jumping on. Dogs typically jump for social reasons, and because they want to smell your face and see what you’ve been eating (like dogs who know each other well and lick each others faces), so you can throw out the window any ideas that this is related to dominance. The well known idea of turning away from a jumping dog is partly correct, but I find the dog learns faster if you turn around AND walk away, even if just for a few seconds. When the dog does approach and doesn’t jump, give him plenty of love and affection. If done consistently (without the person pushing the dog, yelling, kneeing etc), the dog will quickly learn that jumping leaves him standing alone, but that all fours on the floor get him love and attention!

Start easy, be consistent, keep it simple, and ALWAYS reward good behaviour (which we usually miss, because they are finally quiet and gentle!)!


Boxer Central – The Hungry Dog

January 5th, 2014

Boxer Central is a Facebook page dedicated to all things Boxer. My followers know that my own dog, Toby, is a rescued Boxer, and that over the years I have dedicated a great deal of my time and resources to working with rescued Boxers in Ontario. I am proud to have been invited to contribute to Boxer Central’s awesome page, in the format of ‘Ask Erica’, where followers will ask me questions, and each week I’ll answer one of them in my blog!

This week’s question comes from Maria Gauvin, who asked “Our 2 male Boxers are 2.5 years. Recently it seems as thought their appetite is never satisfied. Getting on top of counters etc. They eat 4 cups of food per day each. They eat Nutrience for adult dogs. Should I change their food? Give more? Any thoughts?”

This is a two part answer; one being the issue of weight control, and the other being the issue of food seeking. Let’s start with a common concern of dog owners – weight control. Maria doesn’t mention specifically a weight issue, but I’m guessing it’s on her mind if she’s concerned about how much her dogs should be eating, and of course assuming her dogs are otherwise healthy. A rule of thumb in raw feeding is to feed between 4% and 7% of a dog’s ideal body weight per day. The larger the dog, the lower the percentage of food to be fed, as a large breed dog will generally expend less energy in a day than a small dog (think about a Great Dane getting on the couch, versus a Chihuahua!). When feeding kibble, the company will describe the feeding guidelines on the product, and it should be fed based on your dog’s ideal weight. It’s important to keep in mind that firstly, each dog is different and will require a different amount of food per day to maintain a healthy weight. Secondly, when switching from a lower grade food to a higher grade food, you’ll often end up feeding less of a higher grade food because the ingredients contain higher levels of nutrition, and therefore your dog can consume less food for the same amount of caloric value.

Grains are often the first elimination that should be made in weight control. Dogs do not biologically require grains in their diet, and the vast majority of dogs don’t get the amount of exercise needed every day to burn the grains (dogs who do are often competition sport dogs, or dogs who work all day herding sheep, for example). Grains that are unused in the body become a substance called glycogen, which will become fat. They also cause the blood sugar to rise and fall throughout the day, causing a dog to have sudden bursts of hunger, and to have a malfunctioning metabolism. In cases where, for whatever reason, the dog cannot be transitioned to a higher quality and/or grain free food, I’ll often suggest a veggie puree (which can be made monthly, and stored in freezer containers) with spinach, kale, dark berries, and any other leafy green, blended with sweet potato (mashed into the puree or mashed separately). The greens help to improve metabolism, the berries are an excellent source of fibre and also a wonderful source of anti-oxidants to fight off cancer, and sweet potato helps to balance the blood sugar. I’d also add a healthy source of fat, such as coconut oil, to help the dog feel full. This way, we reduce and dilute the kibble fed, and offset with healthier options.

Something to consider in a dog who is healthy, adequately fed, but always seems hungry is the behavioural component. Have you ever seen a child after Halloween, with a full stock of candy, who happens to be ‘hungry’ all the time? We seem to know that it’s not appropriate to allow a child to eat as much candy as they like, yet when it comes to our dogs, we’re much more likely to give in! Often, requests (including counter surfing) for food are offered simply because they are effective – not only in gaining something to eat, but also in getting some interaction from the owner. Requests for food that are ignored (not denied – ignored meaning the owner does not acknowledge the dog’s request at all) will eventually extinguish (the behaviour of asking for food isn’t effective for the dog, so he stops asking), but we need to provide the dog something else to do in place of this request.

For kibble fed dogs, the best, and in my opinion the only way to feed a dog is through treat dispensing toys. Measure out your dog’s food rations for the day, and instead of feeding in a bowl, instead purchase products like classic Kongs, Kong Wobblers, Busy Buddy toys and any other toy that releases food. This causes the dog to work for his food in a way that appeals to his natural seeking instincts, extends the amount of time it takes for the dog to eat, and is also mentally stimulating. Even well exercised dogs exhibit boredom behaviours if they are not challenged mentally, and research shows us that mental stimulation can have a profound effect on behavioural balance, stress management, and even the dog’s general level of happiness. Asking the dog to work for food they would otherwise get for ‘free’ in a food bowl is an excellent way of fulfilling their daily need to ‘think’!

Don’t forget that if you’re feeding additional treats throughout the day as a part of training or added stimulation exercises, reduce the amount of kibble or other food you’re feeding to maintain your dog’s healthy weight.