The Humane Hierarchy of Dog Training

People sometimes ask me if it is ever appropriate to punish dogs to change their behavior, and if so, how do you know when it is appropriate? To answer just this question, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), issued an official position statement that the “Humane Hierarchy be used when making decisions regarding training protocols and behavior interventions”. To see the official position statement, visit and click on About Us/Public Policies/Position Statements. So what is the Humane Hierarchy? It is a hierarchy of behavior change procedures with the most positive and supportive, least intrusive and aversive methods at the top, and the most aversive and intrusive methods at the bottom. When attempting to change a dog’s behavior, the methods at the top should be used first and most often, and the methods at the bottom should be used last and least often.

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 6.35.44 AMThe top level in the hierarchy consists of ensuring that a dog’s basic nutritional, medical, mental/emotional, and physical environment needs are met. Simply addressing a medical problem, changing a diet, providing more space, alleviating boredom, or building a better bond with the owner can reduce or eliminate an undesired behavior.

The second level consists of managing and changing the environment. This could mean simply removing temptations (e.g., secure the trash) or behavior triggers (close the blinds so the dog doesn’t see people passing by and bark at them), or fencing the yard so the dog can’t get into the neighbor’s yard.

The third level consists of using positive reinforcement to reward the behaviors you want, making behaviors you don’t want less likely. For example, reward your dog for sitting when guests arrive and he will be less likely to jump on them.

In most cases, the top three levels can be used to effectively change behavior. The fourth level is more complex and includes approaches that are more unpleasant and intrusive. The behavioral science terms for those approaches are negative punishment, negative reinforcement, and extinction. Negative punishment means taking something good away when the dog behaves inappropriately, for example, if the dog growls at the cat when the dog is chewing on a bone and the cat walks by, take the bone away from the dog. Negative reinforcement means doing something unpleasant to the dog until the dog does what you want, then stopping the unpleasant thing. An example of this is the old school method of training dogs to retrieve by pinching their ear until they opened their mouth and held a dumbbell in it. When the dog held on to the dumbbell, the ear was released. Extinction is probably the least aversive method in this category and should be the first choice if behavior cannot be changed using the top three categories. Extinction means removing all reward for an undesired behavior, for example, ignoring and giving your dog the cold shoulder when he jumps on you. Extinction, if paired with rewarding an alternative, acceptable behavior, can be quite effective. If not paired with rewarding an alternative behavior, extinction can be confusing and frustrating to a dog.

The lowest category is positive punishment, which means doing something unpleasant to your dog when he behaves inappropriately, to stop the behavior, like a shock or prong collar, or other physical types of punishment, including shouting and scaring your dog. Punishment should be the last resort and used only when all methods in higher categories have been exhausted. One caveat here is that shouting at your dog in an emergency to stop a behavior, for example your dog is running into a busy street, is not the same as using punishment as a training method. If I as a trainer resort to punishment (and on a few rare occasions I have), it probably means that I am not as good a trainer as I could be, and need to learn how to use all the other categories more effectively. Resorting to punishment means I am not good enough. It does not mean my dog is not good enough.



Why Doesn’t My Dog Come When Called?

There are a number of reasons why your dog may not come when called:

o There is no good reason for your dog to come to you.

Either what you are offering is of no interest to your dog, or what you are offering is of lesser interest than what he is currently doing. If you want your dog to come to you reliably when called, you have to make the reward for coming immensely valuable. When you are first teaching your dog to come when called, use really high value treats combined with enthusiastic praise. Never take coming when called for granted. Dogs have minds of their own and when they choose to come to you, you should always reward them, even if it is only highly enthusiastic praise. The reward should be especially high when your dog chooses to leave something highly interesting to come to you. There will be times when nothing you can offer will top what your dog is currently doing. In that case just calmly walk over to your dog and put his leash on.

o There is a good reason not to come to you.

Dogs are smart and learn quickly. If your dog ignores you, then finally comes to you, and you punish or scold him, you have just reduced the likelihood that he will come the next time you call. Do that few times and he will probably never come when called again. Another way to ruin your dog’s come when called response is to repeatedly make it the end of fun. If you call your dog and then pop him in the crate right away and leave for work, you’ve just taught your dog that coming when called means the fun ends. Fortunately for us, dogs have a very short time frame for making associations. If you can make the fun last for about three minutes or so after he comes to you, he is not likely to associate coming when called with the end of fun.

o He doesn’t hear you.

This could be for physical or mental reasons. If your dog is upwind from you on a windy day and you have a small little voice like mine, odds are he really doesn’t hear you. Try training him to come to a loud whistle or duck call. Even if your dog hears you, the sound may not be making it to his conscious brain. In dogs that have been bred for highly focused sensory attention, like scenting or sighting, the brain may actually shut down input from the other senses. For example, when a beagle scents a rabbit and starts tracking it, his brain puts all of its resources into following that scent. Although the sound waves of your voice may enter his ears, the brain may not receive or process the signals.

o You are expecting too much too soon from your dog.

Just because your dog comes when called in the house and the yard, doesn’t mean you can turn him loose in the park and expect him to come when called. Dogs aren’t very good at generalizing. Unless we teach them a skill in many different settings, they simply may not recognize that “Fido, come!” in the park means the same thing as it does in the back yard. Dogs, like humans, need to slowly build their skills through gradually increasing levels of distraction and pressure. Just because your four year old can recite their ABC’s at home with you, doesn’t mean you can stop them in the middle of preschool recess and have them successfully recite them.

A dog running to its owner with enthusiasm is a beautiful sight. If you build his skills gradually, make sure he hears you, give him a good reason to come to you, and avoid ruining the come cue, you can enjoy that beautiful sight for the life of your dog.

Faking a Service Dog – It May Not be Illegal But It is Certainly Unethical

mathiesen_service_dogI recently heard a story about someone who registered her pet dog as a service dog so he could fly in the cabin with her for free. That person did not have a disability, nor had the dog been specially trained to perform some task to assist with a disability. I wondered not only how someone could be so unethical, irresponsible, and dishonest, but how they could legally get away with it.

After a few hours of Internet research, I had an answer. Basically, there are no national requirements for service dog certification, licensing, training, or identification. Most states have laws about the rights of people with service dogs to take their dogs into public places and on public transportation. No states require any type of registration, certification, or identification of service dogs. A handful of states (not Maryland) have legal penalties for falsely claiming a dog is a service dog. If someone takes a dog into a pubic establishment and claims it is a service dog, the only questions the owner or employees can legally ask that person is whether or not they have a disability (they may not ask what that disability is), and what service the dog has been trained to provide. A person faking a service dog is only likely to be caught if the dog creates a problem and police or legal actions are involved. In that case the faker may be asked to swear under oath that they have a disability and that the dog has been specially trained to perform a service to assist with that disability.Lying under oath is felony perjury, usually punishable by jail time. If the faker admits to lying, and some type of monetary gain was achieved by lying (like a free ride on a plane for the dog), fraud charges of some type may be brought against them.

Spurred on by the lack of standard certification and identification requirements, and by the glaring legal loopholes, a whole unethical internet industry selling fake service dog credentials has sprung up, supported by an unethical base of customers. Yes, I would love to have my dog ride on trains, planes, and buses with me, and go into stores with me, but I would never lie to achieve that. Doing so might undermine the public perception and acceptance of valid service dogs and the disabled persons who truly need those dogs to assist them.

Many thousands of hours and dollars are spent training real service dogs, to achieve a dog with reliable and impeccable public behavior. Even the best-trained pet dogs are likely to fall far short of service dog behavior standards. People with real service dogs know that there are no identification or registration requirements. If you see someone flaunting a certificate or ID to prove their dog is a service dog, odds are they are faking it. People who lie about their dog being a service dog are worse than non-handicapped people who park in handicapped spots to get a good space and save a few steps.


New Year’s Resolutions for the Dog Owner

dog-happy-new-yearI will never physically punish my dog because I know it will cause him to fear and distrust me, and does not teach him a better behavior.

I will feed my dog a good quality diet with real meat (or fish) as the first ingredient – no by-products or meal, because I know that what he eats effects his health and behavior.

I will brush my dog’s teeth at least three times a week so that he will not suffer from dental disease. By the way, February is National Pet Dental Month when many veterinarians offer discounts on pet dental cleanings.

I know that overweight dogs have more health problems and shorter lives so I will keep my dog at a healthy weight with diet and exercise.

When my dog does something I don’t like, instead of scolding him I will re-direct him to a behavior I like and reward him for doing that behavior.

I will do my best to never leave my dog home alone for more than eight hours a day. If I must be away longer than eight hours I will hire a dog walker.

I will spend at least two hours a day with my dog, walking, training, or playing with him, or just being together and giving him attention and affection.

I will learn to recognize when my dog is afraid or stressed and remove him from situations that make him feel that way.

I will remember that my dog has the emotional and cognitive abilities of a human toddler and is incapable of spite, vengeance, and guilt.

I will remember that dogs get bored when there is nothing to do, just like humans. I will provide him with interactive toys to occupy his mind when he is home alone.

I will help my dog be good by preventing problem situations. I will keep the trash inaccessible, not leave food on the table or counters, not leave my socks on the floor, and try my best to not otherwise set him up for failure with temptation.

I know my dog’s life is so short compared to mine, and I will do my best to make those short years as fulfilling as possible.

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Ten Reasons NOT to Give a Dog as a Christmas Present

o Presents are by definition a surprise and a dog should never be a surprise. Before adopting a dog a family should spend lots of time thinking about and researching the type of dog that is best for the family and their lifestyle. Everyone in the family should meet the dog beforehand and agree that it is the right dog for the family.

o A new dog should come into a calm household with minimal visitors for the first week or so. Christmas is a notoriously hectic time of year with lots visitors and traveling.

o A house should be dog proofed prior to bringing home a new dog, so that there are minimal opportunities for the dog to fail by chewing or breaking prized possessions. All the decorations that come out at Christmas time are a doggie disaster waiting to happen.

o When you are trying to house train that new dog, the last thing you want is a tree in your family room.

o House training a dog means the humans in the household have to spend a lot of time outdoors, supervising and rewarding the dog for peeing and pooping outdoors, and taking the dog outside first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Not too many people fancy popping outdoors for ten minutes in their jammies in January.

o Christmas is prime season for cookies, chocolate, and other potentially dog-toxic or harmful goodies to be left out on tables and countertops.

o Once your new dog has had a week or two to acclimate to his new home, you’ll want to give him lots of opportunities to meet people and other dogs on long walks around town. Spring, summer, and fall, with lots festivals and farmers’ markets, are a much better time of year for that than January.

o Dogs tend to respond in kind to our moods. When you bring a new dog home, you and your family should be at your emotional and mental best. Christmas can be a stressful and/or depressing time of year for many people. You don’t want your Christmas time emotional baggage to jeopardize your new dog’s chances for success.

o Christmas is meaningless to dogs. Shelter dogs don’t have Christmas wishes for a new home. That cute shelter dog would be just as happy to be adopted in November or January, and its chances of success in a new home would be much higher.

o Santa already has his hands full without a bunch of squirming, barking puppies in his toy sack.

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Know When Your Dog Says “No”

Imagine you are a four-year old child and a complete stranger comes up to you and grabs you and hugs you. You most likely would be terrified and would scream and struggle. Your parents would never let that happen to you. Even if it were someone they knew, if they saw you were frightened they would stop it immediately.

Now imagine the world from your dog’s perspective. You are in the park and a complete stranger comes up to you, bends over you, puts their arms around your neck and squeezes you, and keeps hitting you on the top of your head. You are afraid and have no idea what is happening. You can’t scream like a child but you try to say you are afraid by body language and then by growling. Your human family is oblivious to your signals. Finally you struggle and snap at the scary person to get them away from you. The scary person backs away, but now your human family is yelling at you and jerking you away.

Sometimes it is even unpleasant to be hugged by people we know. I remember as a child being squeezed and suffocated by hugs from my very large, matronly aunts. It was unpleasant but I tolerated it because my parents assured me it was okay. Again, imagine the world from your dog’s perspective. As a dog, if someone familiar hugs you in a way that is uncomfortable or scary, you don’t know it is okay because you don’t understand human language. If you are frightened enough and no one pays attention to your signals telling them you are scared, you just might snap or bite to protect yourself.

Our parents recognized when we were frightened and intervened to remove us from those situations. As dog owners, we have an obligation to recognize when our dog is telling us they want an interaction to stop because it is scary or unpleasant. Dogs say “No” and say, “I don’t like this” through body language signals. If you or someone else is interacting with your dog and he does one or more of the following, odds are he is saying “No!” by the following actions:
• Looks away or moves away
• Puts his ears back
• Shows the whites of his eyes
• Yawns, scratches, or licks his lips

A good way to tell if your dog is enjoying an interaction is to do a consent test. In the consent test, you stop the interaction. If your dog tries to re-initiate the interaction, he or she  is saying “Yes.” If your dog simply sits there, looks away, or moves away, he or she is saying, “No.”The consent test is nicely illustrated in a video by

I believe dogs have a right to say “No” to interactions they find scary or uncomfortable. We humans should recognize when they are saying “No,” and respect it by intervening on their behalf. There was a time when women did not have the right to say no, but most of the world progressed. Perhaps it is time to progress a bit more.

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Travels with Fido – Tips on Traveling With Your Dog, Part 2

For my husband and I, our dogs are part of our family and we enjoy sharing our vacations with them whenever possible. They’ve traveled with us in cars, planes, sailboats, powerboats, and ferry boats. Our old dog had the honor of having peed in every state and province on the east coast of North America, except Rhode Island. We’ve learned a lot of lessons (some vicariously and some the hard way) about how to travel safely and happily with our dogs.

Here’s the second half of our list of top tips:

  •  Keep in mind that other countries and cultures have a different idea about what is an acceptable accommodation for a dog, and ask very specific questions about those accommodations. We once planned a trip that included three days on a mail boat poking in and out along the coast of Labrador. When I booked our passage, they assured me they had kennels for dogs. When we boarded the mail boat in Newfoundland, in 40-degree sleeting weather (and icebergs floating by offshore) we discovered that the “kennels” were wire crates lashed to the open back deck of the boat. That might have sufficed for a sled dog, but not our little terrier mix that had never spent a night outside in her life. So much for the mail boat trip.
  • Bring a sturdy, collapsible crate for your dog. You never know when you will need it. After the mail-boat fiasco we decided to fly from Newfoundland to Labrador and didn’t have a crate with us. The nearest store that carried dog crates was a half-day’s drive away. Luckily a kindly local, whose dog had died a few years back, came to our aid and gave us his old dog’s crate.
  •  If you plan to stay in pet friendly lodging, find out if only specific rooms allow pets and make sure you reserve one of them. We made reservations at a motel that said,”oh sure, we allow dogs,”  only to find out they only allowed dogs in one specific room and that room was taken.
  •  Teach your dog to wait for your signal before jumping out of the car. Make sure this skill is absolutely rock solid. If your dog needs an emergency poop stop on a busy highway, you absolutely need your dog to wait in the car until leashed and given the okay to jump out.
  •  If you are travelling by boat and using a dinghy to ferry your dog to land for potty breaks, teach your dog to absolutely wait in the dinghy until I say,” okay.”  I once witnessed a family coming ashore in an inflatable dinghy with the husband in the stern, wife in the bow, and two huge dogs in the middle. The wife got out, both dogs jumped out, and the dinghy flipped bow over stern, dumping the husband in the water.
  •  Pack a poop and puke clean up kit and keep it in the car. Sometimes there just isn’t any way to safely pull off the road for a poop emergency. Life will be much better if you are prepared to deal with the consequences.
  •  Teach your dog that uniformed people walking up to your vehicle is a good, fun thing, especially if you plan to do a border crossing. Your growling, snarling, barking dog just might put that tired police or customs officer over the edge.


Travels with Fido – Tips on Traveling With Your Dog, Part 1

For my husband and I, our dogs are part of our family and we enjoy sharing our vacations with them whenever possible.

They’ve traveled with us in cars, planes, sailboats, powerboats, and ferry boats. Our old dog had the honor of having peed in every state and province on the east coast of North America, except Rhode Island.

We’ve learned a lot of lessons (some vicariously and some the hard way) about how to travel safely and happily with our dogs.

Here’s the first half of our list of top tips:

  •  Before you leave home, make sure your dog is up-to-date on all shots and get a copy of his medical records, especially the rabies vaccine record. You’ll need the vaccine records if you plan to cross the border to Canada, or if you need to board your dog in a pinch. If your dog has a medical emergency away from home, having those medical records will help the veterinarian diagnose and treat your dog.
  • If your dog takes any prescription drugs, bring twice what you think you’ll need, split it into two bottles, and tuck one bottle safely away. While on a camping vacation, our dog’s special order prescription eye drops disappeared and we didn’t have a spare tucked away. Luckily we were only two days from home.
  • Get a list of veterinarians and emergency clinics along your expected route. Don’t count on your smart phone to help you find a local veterinarian. One of our dogs had a medical emergency while we were travelling through the Maine wilderness, with no cell phone signal for hours. After frantically searching through truck stop pay phone booths for a phone book, we finally found a clinic within a two-hour drive.
  • Purchase a really good pet first aid kit and book. Make sure the kit contains a muzzle that fits your dog. Also include a towel large enough to use as a wrap restraint.
  • Make sure you have enough funds (cash or credit card) to pay for an emergency veterinary bill. Unlike your hometown veterinarian, that clinic hundreds of miles from your home isn’t going to take a check or bill you later. We once racked up an $800 veterinarian bill, between two clinics in Maine and New Hampshire, diagnosing and treating our dog’s punctured, infected gum. Thank heaven for credit cards.
  • Make sure your dog is micro-chipped and has at least one other form of identification on him, such as your cell phone number (not your home phone) embroidered or embossed on his collar. And remember to bring a current photo of your dog.
  • Make sure you pack more than enough dog food for your entire trip. In some parts of the country, or in Canada or Mexico, your brand may not be available. Suddenly switching to a different food might cause digestive upset for your dog.

Stay tuned in two weeks for Tips on Traveling With Your Dog, Part 2

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Distance, Duration, and Distraction – Understanding the 3D’s of Dog Training

Understanding how to introduce and change distance, duration, and distraction can make all the difference between a frustrating and a successful dog training experience. Distance is how far you are from your dog while your dog performs a cued behavior. With the stay and come cues, you might be right next to your dog or 20 feet away. Duration is how long you expect your dog to perform a behavior. Distraction is the amount and intensity of other stimuli in the environment. A quiet empty room with no interesting smells and nothing happening nearby is a low distraction environment. A crowded dog park is a high distraction environment.

For some behaviors only two of the 3D’s may apply. For example, it makes sense to talk about distance and distraction with the come cue, but not duration, since you want your dog to come to you as fast as possible. With heeling, duration and distraction apply but not distance, since heeling means your dog is walking right next to you.

When teaching your dog a new behavior start with all three variables at a minimum. With stay, for example, begin by asking your dog to stay for two seconds, with you right next to your dog, with minimal distraction. Increase the 3D’s gradually, one at a time, beginning with duration. When your dog can stay consistently for two seconds, increase the duration by two seconds. If you increase the duration and your dog stops being successful, you have increased the duration too much too quickly. When building duration I like to count the seconds loud enough for my dog to hear me so he knows I haven’t forgotten about him and should continue the behavior. Counting also helps me systematically increase duration. When your dog can consistently stay for 20 or more seconds, you can start increasing distance.

When you add distance, initially decrease duration. For example, if your dog can stay for 20 seconds, go back to back to 5 or 10 seconds when you increase distance. When your dog can stay for 5 or 10 seconds with you a few feet away, work back up to 20 seconds before adding more distance. When your dog can stay for 20 seconds at 20 feet, you are ready to introduce distraction. Introduce distraction the same as distance by initially decreasing distance and duration, and only increasing distraction when your dog can stay for 20 seconds at 20 feet through the increased level of distraction.

Keep in mind that your dog defines distraction. A quiet backyard might not seem distracting to you, but your dog may be flooded with sounds, smells, and movements you are oblivious to. Following this strategy of gradually introducing distance, duration, and distraction, in that order and one at a time, will set your dog up for success.

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Dig Up Your Reading Specs for Seven Short But Good Books on Dog Training and Behavior

Want to learn more about positive reinforcement dog training, why dogs behave as they do, and how to fix specific dog behavior problems? Here is a list of seven books under 120 pages, written in plain English for the layperson. The authors are highly respected trainers and behaviorists and their books are readily available from popular online booksellers.

The Cautious Canine by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.
This 30-page booklet provides a step-by-step guide to changing fear based behavior problems in dogs. Although based on the science of behavior, the book is written such that anyone can understand and follow the steps.

Family Friendly Dog Training by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.
This entertaining and user-friendly 108-page book outlines a six-week program of humane, fun, and compassionate training to turn your puppy or adopted adult dog into a well-mannered family member, using science based positive reinforcement training methods.

Feisty Fido by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.
Does your otherwise sweet dog turn into a snarling, lunging demon during on-leash encounters with other dogs? If so, you need this 63-page book to help you understand and change your leash reactive dog.

Fight! by Jean Donaldson
This 116-page book is a down-to-earth, practical guide to understanding why dogs are aggressive to other dogs, how to prevent puppies from becoming dog-aggressive, and how to reform dog-aggressive dogs.

I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.
Another information packed booklet by Patricia McConnell, this 37-page booklet defines and explains separation anxiety and provides a clear, concise, step-by-step guide to help your dog overcome separation anxiety.

Mine! by Jean Donaldson
Dogs who growl, snarl, and snap when people or other dogs approach their food, bone, spot on the sofa, or other prized possessions have an all too common behavior problem known as resource guarding. This comprehensive and practical 102-page book will help you recognize and treat resource-guarding behavior.

Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Puppy by Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. and Daniel Q. Estep, Ph.D.
This 111-page book provides a comprehensive five-step positive proactive plan for raising a happy, well-mannered, behaviorally healthy puppy.

The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior by Roger Abrantes
Imagine a big thick scientific textbook condensed into 80 easy-to-read and understand pages defining specific canine behaviors and explaining their evolution. Roger Abrantes has managed to do just that in this amazing little book.

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