Category: Training & Behaviour

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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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 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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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 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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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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Finn and Molly in front of a Christmas tree.

We love sharing success stories with you! Let’s take a look at Finn – a potcake who came to us in 2015 after being adopted by two active, fantastic humans. Finn is a rescue dog who was showing signs of reactivity toward people and some dogs. We worked together for seven private lessons where we used good ol’ science to change his emotional response.

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