Thoughts on Dog Training

A Thoughtful Dogs Blog

An ongoing series of informative blurbs that occur whenever the hell I feel like it

Why You Suck at Holding the Leash

September 22, 2020

If I hand you a leash and your hand instinctively rises like the Statue of Liberty holding her torch, then your dog hates their leash. They may hop around, giddy and excited, when you go to clip it to their collar. But they do not like it. Worse, they think the leash means “time to ignore my human”.


The leash is your safety net. It is there to prevent your dog from wandering in to traffic, chasing rabbits to kingdom come, making a snack of skunks, attempting to sniff porcupine butts, or rushing up to unfriendly dogs. It is not a control device. It is not a shepherd’s crook or catch pole. With a perfectly trained dog, the leash is only there to get in the way.


When used to force, drag, or actively control a dog, the leash creates an adversarial relationship. It becomes that annoying tether that restricts them from interacting with their environment. They may capitulate. Usually after struggling. And of course they will. You, literally, have them by the neck. But that surrender comes at a cost.


Even if they learn not to fight you, they will also learn not to look at you. They don’t need to look at you. They know where you are. You’re at the other end of that annoying tether. They don’t want to look at you. You are the heavy-handed buzzkill that keeps controlling them by force. But a dog that won’t look at you won’t listen to you. And if they ever slip the leash, then good luck.


The good news? There’s a simple fix.


First, don’t be a Statue of Liberty. Do not preemptively pull back on your dog’s leash. Keep your hands waist-high and close in to your body; to your center of gravity.


Second, watch your dog. If you want them to pay attention to you, then you have to pay attention to them and reward them every time they check in with you on the other end of the leash.  

STOP Teaching "Drop-It!"

November 30, 2019

Imagine, if you will, that you are enjoying a stress-free Sunday at home. You pick up that book you’ve been meaning to finish. Curled up in the comfy chair. Lighting just right. Favorite beverage on the end-table. 


A beloved family member walks in the room.


They take one look at you and tense up. Eyes fixed on the book in your hand. Body leaned forward. Looming as they charge toward you. 


“What do you have!?” They command, “Drop it! Give it to me!” Their actions mirror their tone. They grab your wrist. The book is wrenched from your hand. To put it mildly, you are confused. You might feel intimidated or insulted. You definitely feel violated. To make matters worse, they never give the book back. They never even explain what the hell that was all about. 


This is how your dog feels when you command them to “drop it!”


In fairness, I am anthropomorphizing a little bit. But, only a little bit. Dogs, especially when they are puppies or newly adopted, do not know what is ‘off-limits’. They explore the world with their mouth. They have an instinctive urge to chew. They are opportunistic omnivores. They take great pleasure in scavenging. In other words, when your dog steals or chews on something they aren’t supposed to – they aren’t being jerks, they are just being dogs.


When our dogs make a mistake, we react poorly. Humans have big, powerful, amazing brains. Yet, when our dogs give us that ‘certain, sneaky look’ and slink out of the room, we turn in to grumpy apes. We chastise them. We steal from them. We trick them. We force them to comply. In other words, when our dogs are just being dogs, we respond by being jerks.


This is not a problem of bad manners. It is a problem of bad results. When we respond aggressively, impatiently, or manipulatively to our dogs just being dogs they are likely to:

  • Become possessive (growling, snapping, or biting)
  • Become evasive (secretive and sneaky; no longer giving us the opportunity to intervene)
  • Become compulsive (Immediately swallowing whatever they can snatch-up; expensive bowel-obstruction surgery will be required)

I firmly believe that trainers should stop teaching the “drop-it” cue. What should they do instead? That’s easy. Teach your dog to trade


Remember, the smartest dog in the world has the functional brain power of a 3-year-old child. It is not hard to create, reinforce, and benefit from certain expectations. One of which needs to be: when your dog hears you say “Can I have that?”, she doesn’t feel intimidated, insulted, or violated. When your dog hears “can I have that?” she feels excited. She thinks “Hell Yes!”. 


You have taught her; you have created the expectation; you made her eager to trade. The better she gets at trading, the less valuable your offering needs to be. But that is down the road. First things first – don’t be a jerk.


come when called, come, recall, command, cue

You MUST teach your dog this!

November, 16th 2019


Coming when called won’t stop your dog from jumping on you. It won’t stop them 

from counter-surfing. It won’t teach them leash manners. But it might save their life. There are a number of scenarios where a reliable recall can keep your dog safe. Let’s just look at one. Fido gets loose. Maybe his collar breaks. Maybe he barged through an open door. Maybe Fido’s overconfident pet-parent (I’m looking at you, doggy dads) just trusted him to stay close. Whatever the precursor, Fido is loose and he sees a squirrel. The canine code requires action. In the blink of an eye your loyal pooch is in hot pursuit of the dastardly rodent. Unfortunately, they are headed straight towards the road. Doing his dogly duty has put your pup on a collision course with on-coming traffic.

You call out frantically, “Fido Come!”


His body reacts first. A conditioned response that supersedes everything. Muscle memory immediately orients his body toward you and, conveniently, away from the danger. His mind then catches up with his body. He has a choice, run after the squirrel or run to my human. He is still oblivious to the danger presented by the speeding cars. They do not deter the chase. Yet, he chooses right.


He runs to you.


You’ve practiced this. You’ve prepared for this. You have trained Fido well and stacked the deck heavily in your favor. 


Fido hears “come!” and he does. Immediately. Consistently. Not because he has to. He comes because he wants to. You taught him that “Fido come!” is an invitation to a reward. Never a precursor to a punishment, no matter what! You practiced in different situations, with ever-increasing distraction. You made a habit of asking once, maybe twice, and no more. Instead of taking the third strike, you decreased the distance and increased the incentive so that Fido knows the cue really matters. You use your entire body to teach and entice the desired response. As a result, Fido is safe.


Many of the methods behind such a reliable recall can be learned in Pat Miller’s, The Power of Positive Dog Training. Focused, hands-on recall instruction can be found in Heritage Humane Society Group Classes or through 1-on-1 instruction from Thoughtful Dogs.

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