Author: Caryn Liles

I can’t believe we’re mid-way through August. Five months ago, we closed our brick and mortar doors and watched the news with fingernails chewed down…

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A white and brown spotted dog laying on the floor looking up at someone point at the dog and scolding the dog.

Picture this: you’re walking your dog on a typical day and everything is going just fine. Suddenly they spot a trigger and the explosion can be heard three blocks in every direction. The lunging, barking, snapping, thrashing about – it draws attention from passers-by who watch in horror or walk away quickly, avoiding eye contact. You feel a surge of heat as your blood starts to boil and you tighten your grip on the leash.

Our first instinct as humans, is to punish what we don’t like. Make it stop, and make it stop fast. We yank the leash, we holler at our dog to “stop it”, we force them into a sitting position by pushing down on their bum and pulling up on the leash, we try to force them to look at us to see that we’re serious. It’s all about control.

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A dog wearing a green bandana around it's neck.

When we talk about reactive dog behaviour, we often think about the stuff that happens when they’re on leash, at the park, or when they’re fence-fighting. We don’t often think about the reactive behaviour that happens at home as being connected to the outside behaviour.

With a reactive dog, we must remember that these dogs are often chronically stressed (experiencing outbursts towards their triggers on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times daily) and we have to find ways to reduce their stress in general, rather than trying to “fix the problem”. It’s all part and parcel. You cannot “fix” reactivity on leash if the dog is barking at dogs and people all day in the front window. One behaviour fuels the other.

Let’s explore some tools that are really helpful in reducing your dog’s general stress level or situational anxiety:

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A pink plastic spray bottle.

Most dogs have some annoying habits. We humans want them to stop as quickly as possible.

Some humans have a little handheld tool they use to stop behaviours they don’t like: a squirt bottle. A sharp spray of water in the dog’s face should stop jumping/chewing/nipping/barking pretty efficiently, right? Plus the gadget is cheap, easy to get and shouldn’t really hurt the dog, right? Well, not in my opinion.

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food dispensing toys

Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers so why are we still feeding out of a bowl? All animals need environmental enrichment, so let’s look at the simplest way to do that. Kongs are one of my favourite food dispensing toys in the world and I just happen to have over a dozen of them in my freezer at all times. West Paw also makes fantastic stuffable toys!

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black kong

Dogs are natural hunters and scavengers – they’re problem-solvers! When we bring dogs into our homes and feed them out of bowls, we’re asking them to do something that goes against what they are programmed to do…they need an enriched environment!

Food is a valuable resource – sure, it sustains life, but it can also enrich environments, create positive associations, reinforce desired behaviours, and be the source of a lot of fun. Every kibble in a bowl is the tragic loss of an opportunity for one of these things above.

Get rid of that food bowl and start enriching your dog’s environment! Give them something to DO. A mentally stimulated dog is a good dog.

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A small dog sticking its head out of a car window.

Riding in the car can create anxiety and/or motion sickness in dogs and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. In fact, often times, one can cause the other, so it becomes a question of “chicken vs egg”.

Let’s look at some products that can make car rides a little easier, depending on your dog’s issue.

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nail clippers

What are the best nail clippers for dogs? Is the dremel a better tool for dog nails? How can I make my dog’s nails less sharp? What if I cut my dog’s nail too short and it bleeds? All these questions are answered in this post about the best tools for dog nail care.

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Puppy Start Right book cover

There is so much information out there on raising a puppy right and let me tell you…so much of it is bogus! I’ve put together a list of recommended books that are specific to puppies, plus a few extras about dogs in general.

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puppy looking away

So you’re bringing home a new puppy! This is such an exciting time and there is so much to prepare.

I want to make it easier for you to be ready for anything, so here is my shopping list for you. It’s long; beware… But you know that you’ve got lots of prep to do to set you puppy up for success!

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dog looking at a puppy

Your Chihuahua may love Boxers and your Rottie mix may adore Dachshunds. But when little and big play together, keep close watch. Big dogs can unintentionally harm small dogs—and on the rare occasions when friendly play escalates into a scuffle, the smaller dog is at risk for serious injury or death. If you let your dog play with very differently sized dogs, supervise vigilantly.

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dog looking at food dispensing toy

When training our dogs, it’s crucial to consider their currency. What does that mean? How does your dog like to get paid? What do they find most reinforcing?

When we go to work, we get paid in the form of money – paycheques and monetary bonuses. If the paycheque stopped suddenly, we would question and likely stop working. Imagine if your boss sent you an envelope with Monopoly money in it on payday in place of your regular cheque!

Let’s consider some variables – sometimes the US dollar is more reinforcing than the Canadian dollar (like right now) and other times it’s the reverse. Sometimes winning a trip to Hawaii is more exciting than the equivalent in a cash prize.

When it comes to dogs, there are so many options for reinforcement out there – all you have to do is get to know your dog!

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A lonely dog sitting on the street, waiting for its owner.

As I walk through the city of Toronto on a daily basis, I am still shocked to see how many people still tie their dogs up outside outside stores and leave them for a stretch of time. I’ll admit to doing it up until 2011 when we had a series of dog-nappings in the city and my eyes were opened to the dangers.

Dog-napping is not the only concern that is a reality when we tie our dogs up outside, but it’s a very real one. Dogs who are stolen are sold on Kijiji and Craigslist, sold for research (yes, that happens here in Ontario!), used as bait dogs in dog fighting rings, walked around the city for days/weeks/months/years on end by the homeless.

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A brown and white dog holding up a weighted dumbell.

If you think of the practice of dog sports as a competitive and fairly serious business, you’re only about 10 percent right. Just as in human athletic pursuits, the vast majority of dog sports enthusiasts are hobbyists; happy amateurs not much interested in ribbons or plaques. So what hooks people? The numerous benefits two- and four-legged sportsmen alike reap. For starters, a quick alphabetic inventory reveals something for every ability and temperament: agility, caniscross, disc dog, dock diving, earthdog, flyball, freestyle, herding, lure coursing, mushing, nose work, rally-o, tracking, treibball, and weight pulling. An exhaustive list would be much longer, of course, and still wouldn’t include the many fun, creative activity classes trainers, dog facilities, and dog groups might offer.

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A pink, broken piggy bank.

I often imagine the dog training experience as a series of banking transactions – the visual really helps me to measure our work but also to gauge where we may have a deficit or where the dog has a need.

When we bring home a puppy, we often make a series of assumptions that can be quite harmful – how many times do we trainers hear “oh my dog is fine with that. I can [manhandle, groom, pick up, travel with, etc…] him and he doesn’t care.”. Every. Single. Day.

The challenge is this – there is a HUGE difference between tolerance and enjoyment and most of us don’t actively seek out the difference in every moment we spend with our dogs.

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Old Dogs

Caryn Liles' rescue dog, Parker, sleeping with his head on the ground in front of a Christmas tree.

On Wednesday, Parker had been full of beans, bounding through the condo, whipping around corners and racing down the halls, prancing on his walks and uber-friendly and playful to every dog we met. I couldn’t stop laughing at his antics and really taking joy in this behaviour. It beats the “old man” gig we usually have – stumbling around, tripping up, standing and staring at nothing.

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A Bulldog looking up at a Veterinarian.

Today we lost another veterinarian to suicide.

Before anyone regurgitates the ol’ “they’re just in it for the money” or “they’re trying to rip us off”, I hope we can all take a moment to breathe, to think, to appreciate.

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A small dog eating on the ground.

For the past year and a half I have been doing a project at a hospital in Toronto (a collaborative project with researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax) which has been a dream come true in a sense: I have been able to combine my PhD education and 15+ years of experience as a researcher in cell biology and my love of training dogs. The project is in a relatively new and emerging field, biomedical scent detection research, the purpose of which is to investigate whether dogs’ sense of smell can be used to diagnose diseases. In my case the focus is on training dogs to detect a pathogenic micro-organism which is a major concern in healthcare facilities and certain communities. I still need to be cryptic here as the study is not published as we speak, but I want to share some observations and personal thoughts that have been on my mind regarding the training aspect of it.

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A Husky puppy guarding a bowl while licking its lips.

There are many behaviours that despite domestication, dogs still exhibit. “Resource guarding” is the first that comes to mind. While ball or food obsession seems harmless to many, it can be the start of a more dangerous behaviour down the road. Resource guarding is an evolutionarily advantageous behaviour – meaning it is necessary for survival.

If you think about it, humans do it too! We lock our homes when we leave, we set alarm systems, we even put passcodes on our smartphones and passwords on our online bank accounts. If anyone tried to bypass our system, we would leap into action to protect our valuables.

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A wet dog looking into the distance at the cottage.

Summertime is cottage time for many of us and that includes our four-legged friends. While we all dream of our summertime travels being relaxing, oftentimes a lack of preparation causes more stress than we bargained for.

Whether you’re heading to the cottage or a pet-friendly hotel or resort, or even simply to visit family and friends, this list of tools and tips will help you prepare for the worst and hopefully in turn give you the peaceful and enjoyable vacation you imagine.

Summertime is cottage time for many of us and that includes our four-legged friends. While we all dream of our summertime travels being relaxing, oftentimes a lack of preparation causes more stress than we bargained for.

Whether you’re heading to the cottage or a pet-friendly hotel or resort, or even simply to visit family and friends, this list of tools and tips will help you prepare for the worst and hopefully in turn give you the peaceful and enjoyable vacation you imagine.

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A woman in a yellow shirt petting a dog at the dog park.

We dog trainers have what we call a negative conditioned emotional response to a few things in the dog world. The terms “alpha”, “pack leader”, “stubborn” and (human) behaviours like alpha rolling, or the use of positive punishment (leash corrections, shock collars, physical reprimands).

A common one comes to mind this week after three separate clients came to me and stated “this week I tried [XYZ] because there was a dog trainer in the dog park and (s)he said that it’s very effective.”

It’s hard to bite my tongue in those moments because [XYZ] is generally well-meaning but poor or dangerous advice from someone who may be a hobby dog trainer, but has little to no education in the field. More often than not I have to undo the damage there and explain why pinning the dog on the ground after he barked at the dog who was relentlessly humping him [or insert some other normal dog behaviour here] is not only ineffective but dangerous and considered inhumane..

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A reactive German Shepherd dog growling on a grassy field.

Regressions are normal. You’ve likely heard this before and you’ll hear it again.

When changing behaviour, there are no guarantees. Nothing is written in stone, nothing is 100% predictable. You might change one behaviour and another one pops up, like a game of whack-a-mole at the carnival.

It’s discouraging, no doubt. We trainers are used to it and we’ve even come to expect it.

We run multiple reactive dog classes every week, and even more private cases focusing on modifying reactivity. Every trainer we have on staff has (or has had in the past) a reactive dog. We feel your pain more than you can imagine. We have been in your shoes so many times.

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Shocking.

A Boston terrier dog wearing a shock collar.

It is not acceptable to use a shock collar on a dog and call it “training”. It is beyond insulting to me, my colleagues, my mentors, my industry. It infuriates me to see it time and again. How anyone can think that sending an electric current through a dog’s neck or genitals is an acceptable way to teach another sentient being how to “behave” is beyond me. It’s the person holding the remote who needs to learn how to behave appropriately, as far as I’m concerned.

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A sad, brown dog looking at the camera.

Years ago I met a couple in my condo building with two lovely beagles (we’ll call them Denver and Georgia). They were about a year and a half old, litter mates and had been living with the couple since 8 weeks of age. When we saw them in the lobby or elevator, the dogs would sit silently staring at the door and completely avoiding all eye contact with me and with Parker. If any dog moved toward them, they would swiftly move in another direction as if they hadn’t noticed them. I always thought it was odd that they were so anti-social and even then when I wasn’t a trainer, I noticed their blunt affect.

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Cara Gerstein, Pat Miller Certified Trainer, PMCT, Wildflower trainer walking a dog by the beach.

A client recently told me she had previously worked with another dog trainer who guaranteed to “fix” her dog’s issues for life. She felt disappointed when that promise didn’t come true. I felt her pain. I’ve experienced that heartbreak before in own my life. How many times have I searched for and chased “the guarantee”, the easy fix, the escape from reality? The promise of something better with minimal effort on my part. How many times have I walked up to another human and said “X is causing me problems, fix it. I don’t like how this is working. I want something better, shinier, brighter, less complicated, less work. And I want a guarantee it will be fixed pronto”. The crazy thing is I’m not talking about getting my dishwasher fixed. I’m referring to internal stuff. Big messy stuff. Career struggles. Relationship struggles. Sentient being struggles. The turmoil that comes from deep within and manifests in my own behaviours that I haven’t always liked.

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A puppy wearing a red safety hat and goggles holding up a safety first sign.

Puppies – such delicate little creatures! We speak often in our Primary School classes about just how delicate they are. Between 6 and 16 weeks (approximately), puppies go through a critical period where learning is optimal. I like to imagine their skulls wide open and their brains are beautiful sponges encased in a thin layer of webbed glass. They’re open to learning and absorbing an incredible amount of information, but any kind of trauma can easily cause damage.

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