Dogs Have Teeth

It was a beautiful fall day and a 3 year old little girl asked her aunt if she could go out to swing on the swing set. Her aunt told her yes and reminded her to put on a jacket. The little girl was so excited, she hastily threw on her jacket, flung open the storm door, jumped down onto the stoop, and landed directly on the tail of the family’s Labrador Retriever.

Jake awoke surprised and in pain, turned lightning quick to defend himself, and grabbed the little girl by the throat. When he realized who it was he released her, lowered his head to the side and gave a low tail wag, but the damage was already done.

The little girl went running back into the house crying that Jake had bitten her. Her aunt called on her way to the kitchen from the other room, “Honey, Jake would never bite you, he loves you!” Then she saw the blood pouring down the girl’s neck. The little girl was taken to the emergency room for stitches, Jake was taken out in the woods and shot.

Things I know to be true 28 years after the incident:

1. That girl still feels her heart stutter any time she meets a black Lab.

2. Despite being bitten, she grew up to work with, and love, dogs.

3. There is not a time that I think of this incident and don’t feel responsible and so very guilty for Jake’s death.

When my mother spoke with the E.R. doctor that stitched me up he told her that he saw more bites by Labs than German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans, etc. And my mom’s response was, but I thought they were good family dogs? (We’ll come back to this.)

Dogs have teeth. All dogs bite. They may not bite people, but they bite other things, they bite food, they bite toys, treats, and sticks. They explore their world by mouthing things as puppies. If raised properly they learn what is acceptable to put their mouths on, and what is not.

Sadly for dogs, people forget this. They form prejudices against certain breeds of dogs. When I got my first German Shepherd my parents were horrified. “Take her back, she’s going to bite people,” and “She’ll turn on you,” were things I heard, not just from them, but from a few other people I knew. Anyone who knew my Heidi would laugh at this now. She was one of the sweetest, most gentle dogs to ever walk the earth.

Now it seems the “pit bulls” are the target breed to hate. I often hear, “You can’t trust them, they’ll turn on you,” sound familiar? The fact is that there is no “pit bull,”  the dogs often misidentified as such can be American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, American Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, and many mixes that are unrelated. (Click here to see if you can identify the breeds correctly: findtheAPBT)

Many people who try to prove that “pit bulls” are inherently dangerous will site, an anti-pit bull propaganda website. The site if full of misinformation and hatred. If you want scientifically accurate research on dog aggression, you can read a thorough study here:

Here’s a tidbit from the study if you don’t want to read the whole thing:  Breeds with the greatest percentage of dogs exhibiting serious aggression (bites or bite attempts) toward humans included Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers (toward strangers and owners)…

Why don’t we hear stories in the news about vicious attacks from these breeds? They often go unreported, and because of the size of the dogs, do considerably less damage than a larger dog would do.

Want more evidence from a reputable source? Check out the official position statement  on breed specific legislation from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

The CDC doesn’t even keep track of the breeds of dogs that bite anymore because of the problems correctly identifying breeds, they are instead more interested in what caused the dog to bite. Which is what everyone should be interested in!

Many dog bites come from dogs who are chained, under-socialized, and/or in pain/ill. Many more come from dogs who are unsupervised.

Which brings me back to “But I thought they were good family dogs?” Any dog, no matter how good, how loving, how sweet, how tolerant, can only take so much.

Let’s say you let me sit on you, you don’t enjoy it, because I’m kind of heavy, but you tolerate it because you like me. How many times would you let me pull your hair and poke you in the eye before you slapped my hand away? You’re already uncomfortable, and now I’m hurting you, so I think chances are, you won’t allow me many pokes. A dog can’t slap the toddler’s hand away, so he may growl, or snarl, if the parent and the little one don’t heed those warnings, the dog may feel his only option left is to bite. Whose fault is it? The toddler shouldn’t poke the dog, certainly, but why didn’t the parent intervene? Dogs and children should never be left unsupervised. EVER. And being in the same room doesn’t always count as supervision. If a dog seems stressed (panting when it isn’t warm, excessive yawning, lip licking, ears back) they should be removed from the situation to a quiet place where they can feel safe.

For more (wonderful) information on dog and child safety, what to look for in the dog’s body language, and some great material for the kids too, check out

Working as a dog trainer, and volunteering with rescue, I have worked with a lot of dogs, hundreds of different breeds, many who showed aggressive behavior. When you work with “aggressive” dogs, you’re going to eventually receive a bite (or more). Not once have I been bitten by a pit bull type dog, not a Rottweiler, a Chow Chow, a German Shepherd, or an Akita. I have been bitten though, by 2 miniature Dachshunds, 2 Pomeranians, 1 Bichon Frise, 1 Maltese, 1 Chihuahua, 2 Beagles, a Great Dane/Shepherd mix, and had scary close calls with a mastiff mix, a Bernese Mountain Dog mix, and a Great Pyrenees. (I’ve had many more dogs snap at me, but these were the ones that made contact, or came close to it.) My point? Any dog can bite. ANY DOG CAN BITE. It’s our job as humans to prevent it from happening.


Invisible Dangers

I don’t like underground fencing for dogs for a myriad of reasons:

1. They work by hurting the dog. Yes, I understand that once the dog is trained to the boundaries it doesn’t get shocked unless it tries to cross them, but, as a dog trainer who has committed herself to not hurting dogs in the name of training, it just doesn’t sit well with me.

2. They can be outsmarted. I knew of a beagle that would stand in the warning zone so that his collar would emit the beep until the battery died, then he was free to roam without fear of being shocked.

3. Many dogs are willing to “take the hit” of electric shock to chase after something really enticing (a deer or rabbit) but are not willing to take the hit to get back into their yard. Now, not only is your dog loose, but he will be punished for trying to come home.

4. It can cause your dog to become aggressive. Each time your dog sees a person or another dog on the street and he wants to run and say hello he receives an electric shock. He may (and many dogs do) begin to associate the pain he receives with the new people/dogs. Now instead of running gleefully to meet them, he is barking aggressively to warn them off.

5. It’s terrifying for people walking their dogs to see your dog come barreling off leash, barking all the way toward their dog. I have seen this result in leash reactivity from dogs who previously had no issues with other dogs while on leash. Your neighbors will not be fans.

6. If your dog is friendly, a stranger can easily walk onto your property and steal your dog.

7. It does not stop strange dogs or wild animals from coming onto your property, and can prevent your dog from escaping from said strange animal. (I’m going to amend this one in a minute!)

I have been asked by many a client about invisible/underground/electric fences because they are less expensive to install than traditional fencing. I always list the reasons above as to why I don’t recommend them. Then I add, “If you decide to get one anyway, NEVER leave your dog unsupervised. If you are present with your dog you may be able to prevent a lot of the issues I have with them.”

One of my neighbors had asked me, after getting a puppy, what I recommended and I went through my reasoning, and they assured me that they would never leave him out unsupervised. It is extremely rare that I have seen this dog out with a human being in the 3 years that they have had him on the underground fence. He is nearly always out alone unless the boys are playing basketball. He has since developed barrier aggression, and comes charging and barking anytime he sees someone coming up the street. I’m sad about it, but you can’t always change people’s minds, despite your best efforts.

The other day while walking my own dogs I saw something that made my stomach drop. The house next door to this dog has recently come under new ownership and there are two toddlers now living there, they look to be around 4 and 2 years old. Both children went running into this dog’s yard; thankfully a parent came running in and scooped them back up and took them home, and thankfully the dog wasn’t out. The dog lives with children (although older than 8), but that doesn’t mean he would be friendly towards strange toddlers meandering through his yard, or if he was, that he would take kindly to an adult stranger running in and scooping them up. You can just imagine the horror of the situation: children physically and emotionally scarred for life, parents scarred for life, and the dog euthanized. The “beware of dog” signs in their garage window are pretty well useless in the scenario.

So amended:

7. It does not stop strange dogs, wild animals, or people, including small children who can’t read “beware of dog” signs, from coming onto your property, and can prevent your dog from escaping from said strange animal or cause you to be sued when your dog knocks down or bites said person.

So in closing, please invest in a physical fence. I know it’s expensive (believe me, I know!*) If you really just can’t afford traditional fencing, keep your dog on leash and/or get a long line or a long piece of rope from a hardware store to let him run around on. And please, regardless of what type of fencing you have or do not have, never EVER leave your dog unsupervised!!! I’ve seen so many dogs stolen, lost, or injured and it breaks my heart.


I currently have chain link fencing around my back yard. It was here when we moved in, but we had to replace a 50 foot section to keep the dogs out of the vegetable garden. It was somewhere around $500 and we did the installation ourselves!

You’re only as old as you feel…

I’ve recently added another senior to my family. Bruce (formerly Kane) is an 11 year old Cane Corso Mastiff. He was abandoned by his family at a high-kill shelter because he peed in the house and they couldn’t afford to take him to a vet. He was going to be euthanized on Friday, February 14th (Valentines day), after only a week at the shelter. I saw his picture (a friend had shared it on Facebook!) and read his evaluation, and I just couldn’t let him die alone. I called Linda Kane over at Orange County Barkers and told her I would foster him if she would pull him out of the shelter.

This is the photo a friend shared on Facebook. It saved his life!

This is the photo a friend shared on Facebook. It saved his life!

Bruce made his way into my home on Monday afternoon. I introduced him to my dogs one at a time out in the yard and even my Peanut, who can be choosy about her doggy friends, loved him immediately and invited him to play with a lovely bow. I was blown away.

I had read in his evaluation from the shelter that he had lived with children, but that they recommend he not go with kids because he was a resource guarder. I had my twins sit still on the couch and I brought him in on a leash. When he approached the kids I had them give him little bits of hotdog. He wagged his nubby tail and gave them each a kiss in turn.

He showed some interest in the cats, but backed away when they swatted him, and loved my husband on sight when he got home from work. I kept him on a drag line for the first few days just in case, and for the first 2-2 1/2 weeks I was separating him for feedings because of what I had read in the temperament evaluation. The first time I attempted to feed him in the kitchen with the girls I realized that I needn’t have worried!


Bloo and Broccoli decided he should share, I shooed them away after the picture!(Excuse his splatters on the dishwasher!)

He’s so gentle with my children, and protective of our home already. He’s only had one accident in the house (and it was my fault!!!), and he’s been such a gentleman when we have to draw blood and do other unpleasant things at the vet. He likes to run with the girls in the back yard, and snuggle up in the dog beds (if I won’t let him up on the couch). He certainly doesn’t act like an 11 year old large breed dog! My husband recently said, “It feels like he’s always been here, like we’ve had him his whole life.”

Bruce is a little pushy around food, a lot pushy if it’s pizza, but we’re working on that. He is starting to learn where he is allowed to be in the kitchen when I’m cooking, and is starting to figure out that the only way I share is if he’s lying down not looking at me.

They aren't allowed past the stove when I'm cooking, Bruce is getting there!

They aren’t allowed past the stove when I’m cooking, Bruce is getting there!

He has really shown that an old dog can learn new tricks! He has also shown me how much love you can have for someone you haven’t known for long, and for someone you probably won’t get to know for as long as you might like. Bruce has a spot of cancer in his lungs, may have a mass near his prostate, and his kidneys aren’t functioning properly. We’re treating him the best we can, and will give him the best life possible for as long as we can.

Hopefully in the coming weeks I can get some good video of our work around food! In the mean time, if you were considering adding another member to your family, don’t dismiss that gray face. They can still learn new things, they are still full of the joy that dogs seem to just exude, they still have so much love to give, and all of those things far outweigh the pain that you will feel when they are gone. I know, whether Bruce is here for one month or one year, it will all be worth it.

Come, Spot, Come!

Coming when called can save your dog’s life. It is one of the most important cues you can teach, but many of us have ruined it for our dogs. How? Think of all the times you call your dog to come. We call them to come and then put them in their crates while we go to work, we call them to come and then give them a bath, we call them to come and then take them to the vet office to have their nails trimmed, we call them to come when we’re ready to leave the dog park.

Come cartoon


When unpleasant things happen each time they come to us, what incentive do they have to respond when we call “come?”

Come needs to be the most fun and wonderful thing in the world. If you even think you may have done something unpleasant after calling your dog to “come” you should replace it with a new word. I use “here!” for my dogs that have had the word “come” tainted. This new word will only be used when you absolutely need your dog to come to you, and will always be followed by the most wonderful treats. No milk bones, no biscuits, the most wonderful thing in the world to your dog. For most dogs, this is fresh meat, for some it may be a favorite toy; your dog will only get this special thing when he comes to you from now on, making it extra special. If you need to do something unpleasant (in your dog’s eyes) do not use the new word, either go to your dog and retrieve him, or shake the cookie jar.

To start teaching the new word, start in a low distraction environment (like your family room), say your new word, and drop the special treat at your feet. After a couple successful repetitions hand the special treat to your dog and touch his collar. This gets him used to you grabbing hold of him for the future. Keep your training sessions short, 2 minutes tops.

Once your dog is responding well in the living room, take him on leash out to the yard and practice. Even if your yard is fenced you should have him on leash, that way you can prevent him from self-rewarding if he doesn’t respond to your cue. You can increase the distance your dog is coming by using a long line, or a length of rope. As you make it harder for your dog, try to only increase either the distance, or amount of distractions, not both at once.

Remember to keep it fun, switch up treats if you need to, and take a break and go back a step if you become frustrated. If you take the time to teach it properly, your dog should be running joyfully to you each time you call for him!

You Can Train Anything!

Positive reinforcement has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for trainers. Using marker-reward* training whales and hyenas are being trained to willingly give blood samples without being tranquilized, Guinea pigs and rats are being trained to find land mines, and Dolphins to detect underwater mines (just to name a few!)

*Marker-reward refers to using a noise to “mark” the behavior you want to encourage. For sea mammals a whistle is most often used, for other animals a “clicker” is usually the tool of choice. In classes, for those who don’t want to juggle the clicker, leash, and treats, I have people say the word “yes” to mark the behavior.

I haven’t used clicker as much as I would like, but have recently been using it to train a kitten that I was fostering. I chose to do this for two reasons. 1. Because cats are considered by the general public to be “un-trainable.” 2. Because my brother sent me a video of a cat trained to do agility and asked me why I hadn’t done it yet.

Through clicker training I have taught the kitten, named Lord Broccoli by my son, to: come, sit, sit-up, targeting/touch, and play dead.

Come and Sit:

Sit up:


Play dead:

The possibilities are endless! Aside from upkeep on what he already knows, his training is on hiatus until Train Your Dog Month is over, then we’ll begin teaching more tricks and skills. Is there anything you would like to see Broccoli do? Let me know in the comments!






Train Your Dog Month

January is Train Your Dog Month! As we make resolutions in an attempt to better ourselves, we can also make a resolution to better our dogs’ behavior.

To celebrate “Train Your Dog Month” I will be holding a train-along. Anyone can participate, the more the merrier! Pick a skill that is either new to your dog, or that she still needs work on. Each week I want you to take a video of your progress and share it with me! At the end of January a panel of judges will choose a couple of pups to win prizes (one for most improvement, and one for best new skill/trick!)

To get in on the fun, and since I’m always talking about her but never bringing her to class, I’m going to be working with my dog Peanut. Peanut had so many issues when I first got her, that I trained her just until she was “good enough.” So for this month, I will be working on training her to walk without pulling on leash, even in the face of distractions.


Peanut-Bad-Dog, the 10 year old puppy!

Feel free to share this so your friends can participate too, and most importantly, remember to have fun with it!


A Bad Reaction

A lot of people are throwing out the term “reactive” for any dog that barks on leash, I’m guilty of it myself, but it’s a pretty vague term. Your dog quietly looking at you as you walk by another dog is technically a reaction. I like calling a dog “reactive” better than saying “she’s aggressive” because a lot of dogs that bark and lunge on leash are not aggressive, some are merely excited, and most that I’ve dealt with are fearful and putting on a big display to scare off potential threats.

The “bad reaction” I want to talk about today, is not so much from our dogs, but how a lot of people handle it. I was working with a client recently who’s foster dog, Minnie, barks and lunges at other dogs when out on a walk. Minnie is very sweet towards people, but becomes over-stimulated when she sees another dog. As we were walking down the street together I noticed how tight her leash was being held, and a few collar pops were given in an attempt to get Minnie to stop her behavior. I told her handler to loosen up on the leash a bit and her handler said that this is what she did to get her to walk past other dogs. I replied, “But that hasn’t really been working, has it?” She admitted that it hasn’t, but she didn’t know what else to do.

It made me sad to hear that, but I hear it often when it comes to dog training. Especially when the most popular dog trainer on t.v. uses harsh methods to suppress behavior instead of using scientific methods to change the dog’s emotional response.

Instead of saying, “some dogs just need a heavier hand,” which is silly to me, think of it this way: Instead of a dog, you have a child that acts out in public. Not just a temper tantrum, but full on screaming fits where they may harm others or themselves. What would you do? Would your first reaction be to smack the child until he quiets, never take him out in public, or seek help? I would hope most people would seek help for the child. The child is then diagnosed with a form of autism, and now you must find ways to help them cope with a world they don’t understand.

I’m not saying your dog has autism, but that your dog may not have been given the socialization skills she needs to deal with the world. Instead of you responding to her “reactivity” with a bad reaction of your own (punishing her for the behavior she is displaying) we need to teach her what we want from her, what is acceptable to us, and give her ways to deal with what is happening. This isn’t as flashy and easy as that 5 minute “fix” on television, it’s a long process, but instead of having a ticking time bomb in the form of a dog that is trying to suppress an ingrained feeling, you will have a dog that can handle what life throws at her. It’s ok if you don’t know how to fix the problem, but please, seek help for your dog in the form of a professional dog trainer, both of you will have a better life for it!

The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a trainer search at

The Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers also has a trainer search at

You Get What You Give

I often hear in class, or out and about with my dogs, “Your dogs are so good, I wish my dog was like that!” I assure you, my dogs didn’t come this way. Peanut was a fear biter and a resource guarder, Sally chewed things when left alone and would pee on the floor if you didn’t realize she was waiting by the back door to go out, Tilly used to get over-aroused anytime she saw people or dogs out on walks and bark and lunge like a maniac, and Pixie used to jump up and knock her food bowl out of my hands and try to steal the other dogs’ food as well. I put a lot of time and training into each dog to get them to where they are today! They still need work here and there, training/learning is an ongoing process, we’re never quite done!

Imagine your dog not pushing you out of the way to go in and out the door, waiting politely for their food to be set down, getting into and standing still in the bath tub, waiting to get out of the car while you attach/grasp their leash. All of these things are possible with a little bit of practice.

Practice does not make perfect, but it will make life easier. When I tell students to practice the skills we’ve learned, I don’t mean for them to spend an hour, or even a half hour drilling their dogs; I want it worked into everyday life. Not only will it help the skills stick for your dog, it will make your life so much easier!

Playing a game of fetch with your pup? Have him sit before you throw the ball. If he’s more advanced, have him stay while you throw the ball, then release him to go and get it.

You feed your dog every day, most people feed their dogs more than once a day, that gives you a chance (or multiple chances) to practice a “sit-stay,” or “wait,” while you put down the food bowl.

Have him stay as you clip his leash on, if he gets up in excitement, pull the leash away and put him back in position,  only clip the leash on if he is sitting and calm! Have him “wait” as you go out the door for your walks. Practice “focus/watch” before you start your walk down the street and each time you see another person/animal. Walks are a great time to practice “leave-it” as well!

Use your down time snuggling on the couch to practice handling, getting your dog used to you touching him everywhere. It will become a relaxing routine for you both, and will help you to check your dogs for ticks, lumps, bumps, and small injuries.

Working practice in everyday will not only make your life easier, it will make life less confusing for your dog, because he’ll know what you expect from him. If you find yourself losing patience, do something “easy,” something you know he can be successful with and end the training session. Working training into your routine will also strengthen the bond and relationship between you and your dog, making a happy dog who will be willing to work hard to make you happy too!

*Update! Coming to class every week is awesome! BUT, if you don’t train at home and out and about other places with your dog, training at class won’t do much good. All you need to do is practice for just 2 minutes a few times a day, (That’s only 6 minutes a day, less than an hour a week!!!), and you will see more improvement than just coming to class! Class is to learn the skills you need to teach your pup what you want her to do, put it into practice when you leave and you’ll end up with the dog you want!


Scary Monsters

Halloween will be here all too soon and we’ll be dealing with all sorts of ghosts and goblins, but for now, I want to talk a bit about things that you might not think are scary: new things. Your dog can be terrified of anything new. If it’s new, it’s not known, it could be dangerous, and sometimes will be treated as such!

I’m a huge proponent of early puppy socialization for this very reason. The more things your puppy experiences before he is 15 weeks of age*, the less likely he is to be afraid of new things. But you can’t socialize him as a puppy and then keep him at home, taking him out for an occasional walk or out to the vet and expect him to not be afraid of the little old lady with a cane, or that guy with a beard and mustache! Socialization is a lifelong endeavor. They must be continually exposed to new things in good ways to keep fearfulness at bay.

I failed Mathilde a bit after the babies were born. Tilly came into the house in December as a foster and I decided to keep her (known in the rescue world as a “foster failure”). I found out I was pregnant with twins in January. Any sane person would have decided to un-fail her, but I was attached, and I knew that she needed to be a working dog. I was afraid of where she would end up if she wasn’t with me, so I kept her, and took her everywhere with me. From about 7-8 months pregnant to about 6 months post birth, I was stuck at home 24/7. It was a chore for me to go out with the twins, let alone drag a 70 lb, 1 year old German Shepherd puppy along. Her training/socialization, which had been going so well, was put on the back burner.

About 1 year from my having to stop work I was offered a new dog training job. Hooray for me, I’m out of the house again! And my well trained (in our home and yard) German Shepherd would come along as my demonstration dog. Poor Tilly; she was so terrified the first classes I brought her to. She would play with the other dogs, but would back up barking if someone tried to pet her. She wouldn’t let someone get closer than 4-5 feet of her, and she couldn’t concentrate on me at all.

Anyone that knows her knows that Mathilde isn’t really food motivated. I’ve trained her to find treats rewarding now, but she would still much rather have her tennis ball. When I trained other dogs who were fearful of people, I had strangers toss them treats. What could I do for Tilly who would ignore the food on the floor, regardless of what it was? If people would want to pet her, I would have them throw the ball for her a few times until she was comfortable enough to approach them. At first she would bring the ball back to me and I would have to hand it to them. Then she would bring it back and drop it so that it rolled toward them, then eventually she would be willing to drop it between their feet. It was always a huge deal if she stood there and let them pet her.

It took 2 years to get her back to being nearly friendly towards people. A lot of it has to do with her natural temperament, she’ll never make a good visiting therapy dog, but she can now approach people and sniff them, and sometimes allow them to pet her without throwing the ball first. If she decides they need to throw the ball before they can touch her, it usually only takes one throw now.

With Tilly it was ALL new people that were scary. Some dogs pick out something in particular, or are only afraid when they are on leash or in a fenced area. Many dogs don’t like people in hats or sunglasses or beards, because it hides their faces. Many other dogs are nervous about people in uniform, or people with a funny walk. Some dogs are afraid of people of a different skin color than what they are used to seeing every day. Some dogs might be afraid of another dog, or a flag on someone’s home. Dogs are afraid of what they don’t know, it’s our job to help them to feel safe.

Try not to feel ashamed if your dog is afraid of someone and starts barking. If you can, walk in the opposite direction, or find a quiet spot off to the side until you can safely work on the issue by changing your dog’s association with the thing/person that frightens her. If your dog is doing any of the following: barking excessively, growling, lunging, urinating, and/or slipping the lead, please contact a professional trainer immediately to help you with the problem. Scolding or yelling at your dog, or giving her a collar correction can make the problem worse, find a trainer who will help you to change your dogs mental association with the scary thing without causing her more discomfort.


*For more information on the importance of puppy socialization, or to clarify things you may have heard about the dangers of doing so, please read this statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior:

Cats and Dogs

Many of us who have dogs also have a cat or two (or more!) Sometimes the cat has lived with us before we add a dog, sometimes the dog was there before the cat, and usually the introductions are fairly uneventful, especially if you have a “dog savvy” cat (one who doesn’t run at the drop of a hat!)

Other times we have a cat who maybe has never lived with a dog, or who is just naturally skittish. Or the dog we have is a new puppy or a dog that hasn’t been around cats who just wants to investigate or play, or a herding breed who feels the need to corral any animals in the vicinity! I’ve had a few people asking me what to do to fix this, and even worked with a client recently to solve this problem.

I have two “herders” at home, Tilly, my German Shepherd, and Pixie, my Miniature Australian Shepherd. They both came into the house as puppies (and became “foster failures”) so they’ve always been around cats, but because of their breeding, they feel the need to chase the cats and nip at their heels. Needless to say the cats do not appreciate this.

I will be the first to admit that I did everything wrong with my own dogs. That’s right, I took the lazy way out, and my poor cats suffer for it. Instead of doing what I do with my private clients, I taught Tilly and Pixie a solid “leave it” cue and we left it at that. Now the sequence in my home is: Cat walks through, dogs chase, I say “leave it,” dogs come over and sit in front of me. It seems alright, but my cats would prefer if the dogs didn’t chase them at all!

With my client, Misty, I took a much different (much better) approach. Misty, a one year old lab mix, was recently adopted by nice family with two 11 year old cats who had never been around dogs before.  The female cat was willing to stand her ground when Misty became inquisitive, but the male was afraid and would run. The running excited Misty and she would give chase. It became a fun game to her so she began to bark to get the cats to run from her. Her new family was afraid that she was becoming aggressive toward the cats and that they wouldn’t be able to keep her*.

The first thing I had them do was to put Misty on a drag line. A drag line is an old leash, or a piece of rope with a few knots in it that allows you to control the dog by just reaching down and grabbing it, or by stepping on it to prevent the dog from chasing. This step is keyYou must prevent the behavior so that your dog cannot practice it. The more she can practice chasing the cats, the better she’ll get at it, the more she’ll like it, the harder it will be to fix. (This applies to any behavior, if your dog finds it rewarding, they’re going to keep doing it!)

Next we introduced the clicker. The clicker marks a behavior we like, and is immediately followed with a treat which lets the dog know, “That’s what I want you to do!”

First we taught Misty to sit, and to lie down with the cats no where in sight. Then we brought in the female cat, since she was the least likely to run.  With Misty (on leash) and the cat about 12 feet away from each other I had the family click and treat Misty each time she looked at the cat, but remained quiet and calm. If she got excited they were to walk her away from the cat and have her sit or down. She was only allowed to walk toward the cat if she remained calm. We kept the sessions short to reduce stress on the cat, and within 2 weeks we were able to have Misty sniff the female cat without barking or attempting to chase her.

The male cat was a bit more of a challenge, as he would try to run as soon as he saw Misty, regardless of the distance between them. I had the family place him in a crate and we clicked for calm behaviors around him in the crate. Although this seems like it would be easy, Misty had had so much success getting him to run in the past that she put in a good effort barking and pawing at the crate trying to get him to run. After about 2 weeks Misty could lie quietly around the crate. We then started the same process as we did with the female cat, but at a distance of 30 feet (with a set of stairs in between.) It took another few weeks, but Misty can now be in the same room with both cats and remain quietly lying on the floor. She will still jump up if one of the cats bolts for one reason or another, but does not give chase.

Why is it different for Misty than for my own naughty dogs? Because we changed Misty’s association with the cats. My dogs are self-rewarding by chasing, Misty has been rewarded for remaining calm, so while my dogs think chasing is fun stuff, Misty knows that she will more likely receive a reward for remaining calm.

So I’ve temporarily failed my dogs, but I’m working on teaching them what I would rather them do. Tilly has had more “practice” so she’s (not surprisingly!) a bit harder to fix. Pixie though, is making great strides with the click to calm!

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*If you are afraid that your dog is being aggressive towards your cats, please contact a professional trainer!