Saying No With Positive Reinforcement

Saying “no” with positive reinforcement sounds like an oxymoron. I find there are two main instances when people reach for that “no!”. One situation is when they want to respond if an animal does something “wrong”. The other situation (I find is even more of an issue with horse people), is how to convey that the animal must never do a particular behavior. 


“what do I do when my dog steals food off the counter?”

I need to teach my horse never to go over the top of me”

In this post, I will address the the first situation, in which people think they can’t let the animal get away with something. They are often upset or angry at what has happened- something has been chewed up or eaten or peed on. They want to DO something in response. In a post on my  Bookends Farm blog, I address the second situation. 

The first thing to examine is that “no” is not an action. It doesn’t give any information. If, as you were reading this, I walked up to you and said “no!”…what would your reaction be?  Take a minute to think about this.

think, think, think. OK, got your response?

If it happened to me, I would think, “no what?” Am I doing something wrong? If “no!” has been previously paired with punishment, I would also be fearful. I would certainly stop reading on the computer, if just to look at the naysayer. Depending on past punishment, I might back away or even run away.  That might or might not stop what you didn’t like, but it wouldn’t help me understand what it was that you were saying “no” to.  Was it the reading? Was it specifically what I was reading? Was it touching the computer (are my hands dirty)? Was it sitting?  Was it sitting in a particular chair? Was it the room I was in? Was it something else I was doing (biting my nails, chewing my lip, wiggling a foot, crossing my legs, the glass I had put water in?)?

So you’ve just said “no”, and there is a good possibility that I’ve stopped doing what you didn’t like because I froze when you said it…but I have learned nothing. There is also a good possibility that I’ve become more fearful of you, your presence, or your proximity and will stay further away from YOU in the near future (after all, everything was fine until you walked in the room). Remember, punishment has unintended consequences. You may think that because you stopped me, I won’t do it again, but since I have no idea what your concern was, I may or may not do it again. If this seems farfetched, try this scenario: a dog is half asleep and chewing an itch when a person walks in and says “no!”.  What is the person saying “no” to?

Is it sleeping? Chewing? Where the dog is (on the couch, on the owner’s favorite sweater, in a specific room), the timing? (dog just came in and is wet or muddy)…etc!  

Instead of saying “no”, I give my animals something To Do instead. I give them a solution to my problem (remember, it’s not a problem for them or they wouldn’t be doing it). To use the couch example, my dogs are not allowed on couches unless they are invited onto the couch with someone. I chose this parameter because it means I can assess when and in what conditions they are allowed on the couch. If they are muddy, I don’t invite them on! If they are a bit damp, I can cover the couch first. In this very short clip, we have all been out in a misty rain so that my pants are as damp as the dogs.  I spread an afghan out on the couch before I sit down, and then pat my legs twice which is the invitation to have the dogs jump up and join me. 

I have a clear method for encouraging dogs to stay on the floor, which I won’t go into here, but then the question is, what do I do if they get on the couch without me? After all, if they spend time on the couch with me, they will discover it’s a lovely place to nap and will understandably want to do it at other times.

I have to decide what it is that I want them TO DO when I find them on the couch. Well, I want them to get off the couch. So I need to train that.  Before I need it. So the dogs clearly understand what I mean. I train “off” to mean, “jump down off whatever you are on”. Often I train this in the barn, using a hay bale. If you don’t ever want your dog on the couch, you don’t want to use the couch as a training tool because you’ll be encouraging them up there where you don’t ever want to see them.  Even if I allow them up sometimes, I prefer to train the “off” elsewhere. In this video, Eloise demonstrates that she clearly understands the “off” behavior. 

You can train this with a hand target or with just tossing treats. In this final video, Wilder is learning to jump off the Klimb platform which he has been heavily reinforced for being on recently. I give the cue and immediately toss a treat. Before turning the camera on, the first couple times he actually ignored the tossed treat. I encouraged him off so he could get it and then was happy to jump off the next time. By preceding the toss with the cue “off”, he will start to figure out that when I say “off!”, a treat will be tossed. In the last couple reps you can see him start to look for the toss when I say “off!” even before I move.  That’s the first step.

If you have experience with chained behaviors, you may be asking why my dogs don’t jump onto the couch just to be told “off!” and get a treat. The answer is that once I have a solid “off” behavior trained elsewhere (my dogs always respond immediately to the cue), then they don’t get a treat for jumping off the couch. We practice on hay bales and the Klimb platform and stone walls and tree stumps. They get treats for jumping off them so that the response is immediately and automatic. When they hear it from the couch, they respond the same way. But they don’t get a treat. If I put it into words, their thinking could be: 

every time I get on the couch, she tells me to get off before I can even get comfortable and I don’t get anything for it. I might as well just stay on the floor.

Remember, training is a process. I would not give the dog access to the couch (using ex-pens, baby gates, crates or other management tools) until I have a clear set of behaviors to deal with it. They need to get heavy reinforcement for staying on the floor and know the “off” cue for any time they make a mistake.

To get back to “no”, I don’t use the word. Instead, I am proactive about training skills that will get me out of problem situations and I train those with positive reinforcement. 


Friends and Family: Introducing a New Dog

I have said for quite some time that I feel like it takes a full year for a new animal to settle in to our lives. As I gain more experience in working with behavior, I am making more conscious choices in how I help them to settle in so that when that year is up, we have better results.

I took the photo above this morning when I sat up in bed and looked over at Eloise’s dog bed.  Usually I see Eloise curled up there. Today she had company. It was a sight that gave me warm fuzzy feelings for more reasons than one. It was a landmark in Wilder’s life here with us.

Wilder arrived a little less than nine months ago. History unknown, he was a mixed up combination of bold and fearful. The combination resulted in a fair amount of resource guarding and panicky behaviors. If I reached for him, he would shrink back and act hard to catch.  Once he was in your arms, he was as snuggly as could be.  He loved to stretch out next to someone on the couch, on his back, limp as a dishrag, but with as much of his body in contact with us as possible. But he had an obvious concern about people reaching toward him.

He inhaled food or anything he thought might be food. He dove for things on the ground to grab them before anyone else, human or canine, could get them.  In the first few days, I got snarled and snapped at once or twice until I learned to be less casual about interactions.

Resource guarding is not something which can be covered in a blog post.  Helping a dog recover from feeling the need to guard things can be a long and slow process requiring careful management and training, as well as the involvement of someone who is educated in the process. What I want to mention briefly here is that I see this photo as evidence resulting from a recent project I’ve been working on with the dogs.  If you follow Bookends Farm on Instagram or Facebook, you’ve seen that I’m doing a #100daysofdogtraining challenge and I’ve chosen to work on foot handling and accompanying behaviors. By the time I started this, we had worked through most of the resource guarding so that I could ask Wilder to give me things he’d found which he shouldn’t have (a pen I’d dropped for instance) and I could hand Eloise a treat without Wilder grabbing for it but instead patiently waiting for his.

In most of the videos of foot handling, I have had both dogs together on a mat or platform. In their enthusiasm for the training, they squeezed in tight together.  I’d started with two mats side by side, but they quickly chose to share a mat and I transitioned to just putting one down. I haven’t counted how many days I’m up to, but it’s apparent that all those training times snuggled up together have produced a couple dogs who are happy to share a space.

My inspiration for these thoughts comes from listening to Ken Ramirez over the years, most recently in my time spent learning from him at the Deep Dive Advanced Training course, where he discussed introducing two dogs.  He then wrote about it here.

Another introduction was with our big Border Collie Case.  He is also a bold individual, and didn’t have the fear component.  I was concerned from the outset about how this brash little terrier was going to get along with this brash big Border Collie. I took a more benign neglect approach with them by keeping them away from each other for months. By this I simply mean that they were never able to have contact with each other. Case’s crate is in the mudroom, which I went through four or more times a day with the terriers (we went through the mudroom, not the crate). While I was putting my boots on, I would frequently drop treats into Case’s crate.  My intention was: puppy arrival in the room = treats being dropped in your crate.  They had months to smell and see each other and get treats at the same time.

Their first meeting was not planned. One day last winter, after about two and a half months of this shared space, they happened to come upon each other. Thankfully they were outside with freedom to move and retreat as desired. Surprisingly, there was a stick involved and they were ok together.  I let them play for a couple minutes and then separated them with a huge sigh of relief. First meeting was a success. After that we gradually allowed them more time together and they now spend plenty of semi-supervised time together.  By that I mean that we are always around, but can be focused on other things while they play around us. When I saw how Wilder behaved with Case, I felt an evil little happiness because Case had his own mosquito.  Case was an insatiably active puppy and remains an insatiably active dog.  He pestered us constantly and now he has someone pestering him. It’s hard to video two whirling dervishes so I apologize if you get dizzy.

Training is never done and relationships constantly evolve.  The more we observe and learn, the better we are able to improve both.

Farm Dog

At some point in the past year, I learned that the AKC had introduced a new “Farm Dog Certified test”. I’ll confess that I was immediately skeptical and looking into it further, well, I’m not quite sure what adjective to use. Most offensive to me (and to many others) is the notion embodied in the following quote:

the goal is to assess his aptitude as a working farm dog by exhibiting self-control, confidence and trust with you or his handler.

Nothing about this test assesses the dog to be a “working” farm dog. Working farm dogs work- they herd, they guard, they hunt. This test examines none of that.

Frightening to me are the website photos and text which demonstrate lack of knowledge about farms and dogs. Just a couple frightening examples: the test includes tying a dog near stock which puts dog and stock at risk if either gets loose (pretending that won’t happen is naive at best). While the text states that the stock be in dog proof enclosures, photos show the opposite. Photos also show body language in stock indicating alarm/stress. I don’t see anywhere in the test which asks the handlers to assess how  the livestock feels about any of this. Stressed livestock can get sick, can get hurt and can hurt others. It’s important to have the same compassion for other animals as you do for your own.

Really frightening to me is that pet owners will enroll in and/or pass this test and think that gives them the right to take their dogs near or on a farm. Farms are not public property.  They are not dog parks or hiking trails. They are private property, they are places of 16 or more hours of work each day and they contain valuable and sensitive live animals which can be negatively affected by unknown dogs, regardless of how well behaved they may be on leash. Many wish that you just keep your dogs away from other people’s farms.

There are twelve test elements. Just for fun, I’m going to go through them with examples of what our genuine working dogs would do in these situations. Other farmers will have different experiences and desires of their dogs.  Truly working with a dog invites and requires a personal molding of job description and requirements. My goal is to point out the perils of this test due to its contrived layout.

  1. GREET JUDGE “The dog may stand, sit or down at the handler’s side on a loose lead while the Judge performs introduction.”
    • Border Collie- Greetings won’t be on a lead. Depending on what else is going on, he/she may or may not notice the person. Introduction may include flopping on the ground, jumping on you with muddy feet, or barking at you. We’re sorry, sort of, but the dog has work to do and greeting strangers isn’t part of the job description
    • Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD)- oh they’ll notice you. And if you are anywhere near their stock, they will bark and rush at you. If you make the mistake of being too close to their stock, heaven help you. Standing, sitting, lying down and being on a leash are not part of their job descriptions.
    • Jack Russell Terriers- they know how to sit, lie down and be on a loose leash but they aren’t on leash on the farm so after they jump on you with muddy feet, they’ll go back to hunting.
  2. PERFORM A WALKING PATTERN AROUND FARM ENVIRONMENT / PASSIVE STRANGER “The handler walks the dog on a loose lead through a prescribed pattern (minimum of 200 feet) around a number of objects. As the facility permits – the marked path should guide the handler and the dog safely around farm equipment, through barn aisles, by stacks of feed, etc. A passive stranger should be sitting quietly approximately 20 feet away from the path of the dog.”
    • Border Collie- off lead, the BC can guide the livestock safely around farm equipment, through barn aisles, past stacks of feed, etc. A passive stranger will not be noticed.
    • LGD- they live  in this environment.  They don’t need to be guided around. The stranger will be noticed long before it gets a chance to be passive.
    • Jack Russells- can maneuver around, over, under anything you put in their way if there is a mouse to pursue.  And if there isn’t a path, they’ll make one.
  3. JUMP ON HAY/STRAW BALE  “The handler approaches a hay/straw bale or a safe* pile of sacks of grain/feed with the dog on a loose lead and instructs the dog to jump up on the bale of hayThe dog may stand, sit or down until the Judge instructs the handler to allow the dog to jump off of the hay bale. The Judge shall determine length of stay (minimum of 10 seconds) until satisfied that the dog is comfortable with the exercise.”(first of all, seriously? secondly, if you think anything about a farm is *safe, get back in your car. And finally, 10 seconds… again, seriously?)
  • Border Collie- the BCs will get onto hay bales, bags of grain, into trucks, the 4 wheeler, the tractor, hay wagons…and they’ll stay there.  Until they are needed. They may think they are needed before you think they are needed, but they’ll also go back when told.
  • LGD- will tell you to go pound sand.
  • Jack Russells- again, if there is a mouse, they’ll climb on anything. The older one will also stay anywhere she’s told to, unless she thinks she’s going to get run over by something. Then it’s every dog for herself. The younger one is a work in progress.
  1. WALK BY FARM ANIMALS “The handler walks the dog on a loose lead in view of penned farm animal(s) approximately 30 feet away from the fence line housing the farm animals. The dog is not expected or encouraged to engage with livestock and should pay no undue attention to the animal(s) at this distance. Any animal routinely found on a farm is suitable, cow, pig, sheep, horse, chickens, ducks etc. All livestock must be penned or fenced in a manner to ensure safety from any uncontrolled dogs.”
    • The Border Collies and LGDs bloody well better be paying attention to the animals at this or any distance.
    • The Jack Russells better be sure they have an escape route so they need to pay attention as well.
    • Anyone who thinks that “any animal routinely found on a farm” will prepare a dog for any other specie of animal…or even another breed of same specie, is deluding themselves and anyone they teach or judge, and by extension, endangering livestock and farmers.
    • Trying to fence livestock to keep them safe from uncontrolled dogs is all too familiar to farmers. I truly think this AKC test will put more livestock at risk.
  2. WALK OVER OR THROUGH UNUSUAL SURFACES “The handler walks the dog over or through three different unusual surfaces. One surface shall be a piece of plastic that is a minimum of 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, such as a polyethylene tarp or clear plastic in good condition. A second surface shall be a wood surface that is a minimum of 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, such as a sheet of plywood or wood flooring that is lying flat on the ground. A third option shall represent typical rural terrain and can include such examples as safe metal or wire grating lying flat on the ground, mud, water, or jump over a series of three logs that are a minimum 4” diameter which are placed 3 feet apart. If mud or water is used, the dog, at a minimum, must place all four feet in the mud/water. Surfaces should not present any risk of injury to the dog or handler.”
    • see #3 (and again with the risk.  Being on a farm is inherently risky)
  3. SUPERVISED SEPARATION “The handler places the dog in a free standing kennel or dog crate, removes the leash and walks out of sight for a minimum of 1 minute. The dog may move around within the space allotted but should not continually bark, whine, or pace unnecessarily, or exhibit any behavior greater than mild agitation or nervousness.”
    • not so much. Working dogs don’t do well with confinement unless they know their job is done. The Border Collies will deal, but if you are working stock without them, don’t expect them to be still and quiet. The others may eventually give up and go to sleep.
  4. PASS THROUGH A GATE “The handler approaches a designated gate with the dog on a lead. The handler instructs the dog to stay in position while the handler opens the gate (the dog may stand, sit or down). The handler opens the gate away from the dog, passes through and calls the dog through the gateway. The handler then instructs the dog to stay as the gate is closed. At no time should the dog impede the handler in opening and closing the gate. The gate should function properly, be simple to operate, and present no safety hazard to the dog or the handler.”
    • Border Collies and Jack Russells- done.  LGDs- physical restraint will be necessary.
  5. HANDLER FEEDS LIVESTOCK “The handler performs a farm chore of feeding farm animals. At no time will the handler or the dog enter an enclosure or have direct contact with the animals(s). All feeding of livestock shall be over or through a fence or enclosure. The handler approaches the animal enclosure with the dog at side on a loose lead. Approximately 30 feet from the enclosure, the handler ties/stakes the dog in a designated area. The dog must be wearing a secure, flat collar. The handler instructs the dog to stay and proceeds to complete the chore of feeding the animals before returning to the dog.”
    • ok, now if the dog is not going to have direct contact with the animals, again, where does “working” come in?  Secondly, as previously mentioned, tying or staking your dog is extremely dangerous. Put them in a confined area or have them trained to stay put on a high surface for the amount of time needed to feed (more than 10 seconds!) As to REAL working dogs, read on.
    • The Border Collies will be sent in ahead of the handler to push the livestock away from the the handler and/or feeders so that the handler/farmer can safely get the feed out without being trampled by livestock.
    • The LGDs will be bouncing around because it’s feeding time for them too
    • The Jack Russells have been trained to stay out of enclosures when cued. If they, or I, make a mistake, they are also trained the concept “OUT!”
  6. REACTION TO ANOTHER DOG “The handler is positioned in a designated area with the dog at side on a loose lead. The dog may stand, down or sit. Another dog is walked by twice on lead approximately 10 feet away…”
    • Our dogs are going to notice, and react. The Border Collies and Jack Russells are going to bark and run toward the other dog.  You’re on their turf. The Jack Russells go into public and are taught to behave in that environment.  Their farm is not public property, as previously stated.
    • The LGDs may very well try to kill that dog.
    1. REACTION TO NOISE DISTRACTION “The handler may stand or quietly walk in a designated area with the dog at side on a loose lead. The assistant creates two background noises typical to a working farm environment. Noise distractions can consist of any common farm sound, such as hammering nails, sawing wood, leaf blower, farm machine starting up, lawn mower, chain saw, air compressors, etc. The tested dog must remain on a loose lead, and exhibit no excessive fear or sensitivity to the background noise.”
      • Border Collies are sensitive individuals.  The ones we have had, as a generalization, haven’t loved loud noises and if they are not needed, they would rather be elsewhere. Our current male is unusually numb to noise. Most will exhibit sensitivity depending on proximity.  That said, their working instincts will override a lot.  Our dear Nell helped me gather loose cattle in the midst of a thunderstorm one dark night when I didn’t want to be out in it either. If not for necessity, we’d both have been in the dry house with our ears plugged. She hates thunderstorms…but she worked. That’s what a working dog does. But you wouldn’t know that if you assessed her in an artificial situation.
      • LGDs will notice any sound, loud or soft, distant or close. They’ll assess for danger and respond accordingly.
      • Jack Russells- aren’t afraid of much

11. DOG APPROACHES LIVESTOCK “The handler, with the dog at side on a loose lead, enters a fenced area that contains livestock within a separate inside enclosure. The handler and the dog approach penned livestock, close enough so that the dog can clearly observe the stock. The dog can move ahead of the handler but cannot lunge or be held on a tight lead. The dog must remain responsive and under control while approaching livestock and/or if the dog’s presence causes the livestock to move within their enclosure. It is acceptable and anticipated that the dog may show interest and liveliness towards the livestock…”

Stop. Right. There.

This is so dangerous that it makes me sick to my stomach. Regardless of how REAL working farm dogs react in this situation, taking pet dogs to livestock and having them show “interest or liveliness towards the livestock” is potentially lighting a stick of dynamite. Last year we had a neighbor’s pet dog climb a four foot panel to get into the barn with our sheep when no human was there and by showing interest and liveliness, all the sheep inside the barn were traumatized and fifteen were killed.  Simply by chasing them to exhaustion, they piled up on each other, smothering the ones on the bottom and leaving the ones on top gasping for their final breaths. We found no teeth marks. He just chased them.

Sadly, this is not an unusual situation.  Pet dogs are a serious danger to farm animals. Leading dogs toward stock and allowing them to show “liveliness” could be lighting a match that never should have been taken out of the drawer.

This brings me to my main point. There is not enough guidance in this “test” for dog owners.  I found nothing that indicates the farm related qualifications of someone judging the test or helping the dog owners prepare for this test. That’s a crime.

The final element is that the dog must allow a physical examination so that “plant material, debris or objects that the dog may have collected while working on the farm” can be removed. That might be the one sane element to the test since you can pick stuff up just walking by on the road (please keep your dog on the opposite side of the road or take a different route if you can).

They advertise “no experience necessary” to take this test. In my opinion, the AKC is showing incredible irresponsibility toward dog owners, dogs, farmers and livestock with this test.

Off Leash Walks

Yesterday was Wilder’s first off-leash walk on our road. I cheated a little bit on my client rules but I’ll explain what they are and why  I cheated.

My rule is that puppies or new dogs stay on a leash or long line until they are at least one year old AND have a rock-solid recall.  I define a rock-solid recall as one in which the puppy/dog is highly fluent.

  • she responds immediately to the cue
  • she comes as fast as she can
  • she comes directly to my feet

Now it’s easy to get a young puppy to do a rock solid recall.  They love their people, and love to get treats when they come to them. But when adolescence hits, just as with human puppies, the bigger world becomes more interesting than their people. They feel the need to explore a little further, investigate what that noise was they just heard, see how fast that cat can really run, etc. That is why my rules include being at least a year old.  A puppy who has a rock-solid recall at 5 months, may not respond the same way at 10 months, and it’s not due to lack of training as much as it is due to maturing. I want puppies kept safe, and keeping them a long line on them until maturity is one way I help them stay safe.

Being in a fenced area may keep them safe from traffic or disappearing into the distance. If there are no other dangers inside the fence, the puppy can be off line to run and play freely. However, if there are other dogs in the fenced area, one might still want to keep the pup close to you on a rope to protect them from bumbling up to unknown, and perhaps unfriendly, other dogs. In addition, humans must know not to call the puppy unless they are absolutely sure that the puppy will respond. Every time a puppy ignores your recall, they get better at ignoring. If the pup is on a leash and distracted, you can simply walk up to them and redirect them.

Once I become confident in my puppy’s response, but he’s still not a year old, I’ll simply drop the line and let him drag it.  That allows him to go further and faster, but I still have a good chance of preventing the loss of his focus to unexpected distractions. I can get close enough to step on the line (I make them 30-50 feet long and an appropriate diameter for the size of the pup) and then I have him.

Back to my own puppy. I was kind of surprised to find out how good his recall is. He goes with me to the barn for chores several times a day and since it is winter, the doors are usually closed up tight so he can play in the barn without risk of disappearing. He was on a line going to and from the barn, as well as on all walks, since his arrival in early October. When I had to put out hay, or dump a wheelbarrow, I’d put Wilder in the barn kennel with Eloise and they’d snuggle down in their bed together (Wilder snuggled, Eloise tolerated).


In the last couple weeks we have had some unseasonably warm weather and I had the barn aisle doors open to let some fresh air sweep through.  I didn’t want to keep the dogs locked in the kennel in that wonderful weather so I assessed what Wilder would do.  He was so happy to be outside, sniffing around and exploring around the barnyard. Chores took longer, since I kept checking to make sure he was still close.  In my training process, I teach the dog to be the one to check in with me, but Wilder is still in the training process. I could not rely on him so it was my responsibility to know where was. As it turned out, he was never far…yet I was uneasy if I couldn’t see him around a corner.  When he did check in with me, or come when I called in a panic if I momentarily couldn’t find him, he’d get a treat and/or a play session. Over time, I began to be more and more confident that he really was meeting my requirements for a rock-solid recall, at least in the conditions allowed.  I never let him get very far from me so I still can’t be sure of his response at a long distance or in new environments, but that’s what we’ll work on next.

The other requirement is that the dog be one year old…roughly mature. Some breeds take longer! As Wilder has an unknown background, we don’t know his age. With the clues we have, I am guessing he was a March puppy. As yesterday was February 28, I was technically cheating as I doubt he’s really a full year yet. However, I also know that Spring is a very challenging time for dogs due to the multitude of distractions when critters start waking up and coming out of their holes. (Fall is also tough, when they are doing the opposite. I even had to put Eloise back on a rope last Fall because of the moles and voles scurrying around storing up food and digging new tunnels in the fields.  It was just too much for her terrier brain to ignore.)

I know that in another month, we’ll be dealing with heavy environmental distractions. I don’t want that to be the time that I begin to try Wilder off leash as I’ll be setting us both up for failure. I decided that if I could do it now, then if I have to put him back on a line for a month or so when Spring comes, we’ll have a base to return to afterward, as opposed to postponing the whole thing until May!

My biggest concern on the road is, of course, traffic.  We do not live on a heavily trafficked road, but the traffic that passes is too fast as our farm is along a straight flat stretch.  But right now, it’s very muddy.  VERY muddy. That slows drivers down or has them avoid the road entirely. That was a plus for me. Also, Wilder hasn’t learned to embrace mud yet. At least not the cold icy mud we have now. Which means he is careful about where he walks, rather than running pell mell up the road. If he climbs up off the road, into the snow, he can’t go far very fast either. There is still about a foot of slushy snow in the fields. With his short little legs, he has to wade through that to go anywhere which means I could still catch up to him with my longer legs that reach further down into the snow.

Finally, we’ve been practicing the “car” protocol since Wilder’s arrival.  Whenever I hear a car approaching, I call the dogs (in this case, Wilder has been on his long rope and Eloise has been loose), and they come to me and sit on the side of the road until the car passes. Then they get a treat and a release cue to go explore again (although Wilder is limited to the length of his rope).  Some days we see half a dozen cars, some days only one. But five months of that is a lot of practice and Wilder now turns to me automatically when he sees or hears a car. So we had that necessary behavioral component before heading out.



As one final tool, I took a hot dog out of the fridge, cut it into 100 pieces and put those into a small plastic container in my pocket.  Wilder will work for kibble in training sessions and I use store bought dog treats for around the farm.  He’d never had hot dog before and I anticipated they’d be over the top in value. Exactly what I wanted.

My hope was that as we went down the road, Wilder would offer to check in with me. I really did not want to have to call him if he got too far. This was continuing the training of giving him a treat when he checked in with me around the farm. If he’d offer to look at me as we walked along, he’d get hot dog pieces.  I’m sure I underestimate what dogs remember. He was quite aware of the wonderful smell of hot dog as I cut it up in the kitchen.  I know he watched me put the pieces in the container and put that in my pocket.  Did he remember that? It wasn’t until we got to the end of the driveway that he got his first piece. Stopping at the end of the driveway is another component behavior that I work on with all dogs.  I don’t ever want anyone dashing out into the road when we get there. Standard procedure is that puppies get clicked as they get to the end of the driveway and pretty soon they anticipate that and stop to look back at me when we get there. As grown dogs, they continue to get treats for this on a regular basis. I’m happy to pay for that to remain a solid behavior.

Wilder was as enthusiastic about the hot dog I handed him there as I anticipated.  Then I listened for cars, took a deep breath, and released him into the road.

Success! He was further ahead than I wanted him but I held out with fingers crossed and he did give me that offered check-in.  That was the furthest he got from me in the next mile long walk- even when we passed the sheep barn where he’s loved to go in and investigate on recent walks.  He got a hot dog piece each time he checked in for the first quarter mile, and then I started swapping out praise, body rubs, and play once in a while. But I kept the hot dogs at least a 3:1 ratio to the other reinforcers. On the return walk, he was practically doing a heel next to me.  That’s not what I really want as the purpose of these walks is for the dogs to explore and play and sniff around. But we can loosen that up over time. Having him nice and close, on his choice, is just fine for now!

The dog training gods were looking down on us because we did not encounter a single vehicle on our walk.  I was prepared to pick him up if a car went by just to ensure he didn’t pop out into the road unexpectedly (I did have the harness and rope tucked under my arm if things had not gone as I’d hoped). It was only when we were a good 25 feet back into the driveway that I heard a car come sloshing along.  I took the hot dog container out of my pocket and just sprinkled pieces in the driveway as I walked along, keeping his focus on me, the ground, and movement toward the house.

It was a very successful outing. I don’t know whether our next walk will be leash free or not. If I could control the traffic, I’d be more confident. But I will assess the weather conditions, the time of day, and all the other things which affect his behavior before deciding on any given day what I’ll do.

I am glad we have this maiden voyage successfully under our belt.

Release Cues, Choice, and Environmental Indicators

Release cues can be different things to different people. I’m not aware of any official definition or description, but I do know what they mean to me and to Eloise. I share my explanation and approach with clients, and we discuss whether it works for them or if it needs adjustment.

An important part of the description for me is that it gives the dog choice. I describe it to clients as meaning “go be a dog”. In other words, do whatever you would like to do: sniff in the bushes, roll in the grass, pee, chase a butterfly, run around like a crazy thing or anything else you’d like. There are implied limits which have been developed separately. I work hard to remove all reinforcement from these behaviors and offer strong reinforcement for incompatible behaviors. Digging in the vegetable garden is an example. When I release Eloise, running over to dig in the garden is something I hope she chooses to avoid because we’ve worked hard on passing the garden without digging, and allowing digging as much as she wants in other places.

One can also use management strategies to put limits on what the dog is released to do. If you have a fenced yard, and you release the dog into that yard, behaviors are constrained by the physical limitations of the fence. That’s ok. Hopefully the yard is big enough for fun and contains opportunities for enriching activities such as rolling in the grass. I want the release to allow the dog to find something enjoyable. That’s where the choice comes in. If I release into a small, concrete kennel with nothing to do, that isn’t a lot of fun, and so the release word will not be reinforced.

I train the release cue as the opposite of a wait cue. Using a door as a management aid, I open it only a crack and click/treat if the dog stays seated. We then progress, millimeter by millimeter, with the dog learning that if she just sits there as the door open and closes, she gets handed treats (be sure the dog has had opportunity to relieve herself beforehand so you aren’t fighting that urge to go out). Once the dog is secure in her waiting behavior, I open the door fully and this time I give the release cue and use my own enthusiastic body language to encourage the dog to go outside with me.  At that point I walk off, allowing the dog to do what she likes.

For my dogs, doors opening becomes a cue to wait until released and that includes barn doors, car doors, garage doors, etc. I consider it a necessary safety feature for a dog to always wait for permission before blasting through a door into an unknown environment (such as cars or other dogs). This also includes going IN. This becomes valuable in what we Vermonters call mud season, when the walking surface of our world becomes liquid and that liquid gets transferred onto dog paws. Nothing ruins a day like opening your car door to get something and having your dog enthusiastically leap in leaving paw prints and belly smears all over the seat of your car. Here is a video of Eloise waiting to be released into the carHere is Eloise waiting to be released from the car.

At times I have found myself caught off guard when Eloise chooses to do something other than what I expected. Probably 350 days of the year, when I say “break!” (her release word) and I open a door, she responds by going through the door. But there are days, especially this time of year when an open door lets a frigid blast of air in, that Eloise chooses to do something other than go through that door. At the very least she backs up a step and looks at me as if to say, “thank you but I think I’ll wait a while”. I have to remind myself that her release cue means she can do what she wants! Knowing that she has a bladder of steel and we have a dog door into a safe kennel for her to use when she decides she really has to go, I have to respect her decision not to go out with me.

More recently, Eloise’s choice showed how strong environmental indicators are. She has learned that the last thing I do before I leave the barn in the morning is close the stall doors on the south side of the barn. Because one of my horses is very adept at opening the exterior stall doors, I close the interior stall doors for added security. That has become her indicator that I am finally ready to leave the barn and either go for a walk or go in  the house for breakfast. If the barn kennel door is open, I find her dancing behind me as I close the doors. She is ready! If the kennel door is closed, I find her dancing behind it, waiting for her release cue when I open the door. I go in and out of the kennel a lot during chores because it also houses feed and tools. She stays in on her warm bed until she hears those doors close.

I have been introducing Wilder puppy to the release cue. He is more curious and is out in the barn a lot if I leave the door open. That is fine because if the dogs need to be safe, I close the door. Door open means they are free to come and go. The other day I was practicing with him and when I said “break!”, Eloise did not budge off her bed. She knew chores were not over and given the choice, she was going to stay right on that warm bed! But once the stall doors had been closed, then she chose to leave the kennel. Even when it meant being swarmed by the little monster.

Always a good reminder that the animals tell us what cues mean. If it’s not what we think, then we have to adjust our training or our expectations.

Collar or Harness?

Eloise and Wilder on rope and off
Eloise, on the right, has earned the right to be collar and leash free. Wilder, on the left, is still learning and so wears a safety net of equipment.



And which one? Or neither?

There are many types of equipment that people use on their dogs. Harnesses seem to be popular these days and many people think they should use a harness instead of a collar because of the risk to a dog’s trachea from the pressure which may be applied when there is tension on the collar. This is certainly a concern worth taking into consideration but it isn’t the only concern, and harnesses come with their own issues. One which I see more often than not is that people try to leave a harness on an unsupervised dog who promptly chews it off.

As someone who also trains horses, I am all too familiar with the promises that this equipment will solve all your problems. The implication is that you don’t need to spend time on training, you just buy this thing.  No one wants to admit that they aren’t training and it seems that someone who knows all the available options for equipment is now considered a trainer when, in fact, they aren’t training anything, they are simply tying the animal down so they have no choice.

Choice in training is what positive reinforcement trainers strive for.

This similarity in the dog world has translated into a booming market for “no-pull” harnesses. These are advertised as tools which will stop your dog from pulling on you when you take her for a walk. Various brands function in different ways. Front-clip styles  are designed to redirect your dog from being able to drag you forward. Others have pieces which tighten on various parts of the dogs body causing discomfort if they pull.

Some designers of these harnesses make an effort to educate the purchaser about how to use the harness as a training tool, rather than simply a controlling piece of equipment for the lifetime of the dog. But not everyone reads the package or insert, or follows it or stays with it long enough to be effective.

I do believe those no-pull harnesses have a purpose, but I tell everyone that it should be a temporary solution and not every dog needs one. Because of the way these harnesses work, they can cause slow but long term damage to a dog’s body, as they pull her out of her natural position. Even harnesses which don’t claim to be no-pull can be irritating to a dog.  I have met a couple dogs this year whose people said they just calmed down when the harness was put on.  This could be the thunder shirt effect but seeing the body language of these dogs, I think it is more likely that they are just uncomfortable in them, even though they’d each worn the harness for years.

It is far preferable for dog handlers to prioritize training the dog to walk happily with them, using positive reinforcement methods. A handler who provides sufficient exercise (not necessary to take them on long hikes or chase balls for hours, even though they may like to do both of those), and other enrichment activities such as sniffing and learning, creates a bond with a dog. That bond is what keeps the dog with you, so that you don’t need the physical restraint. Leashes and harnesses or collars become a backup safety net, not the primary connection.

The times I find myself recommending a no-pull harness are when someone has gotten a full grown dog from a rescue, shelter or elsewhere and the dog has no leash training. If the dog is large and has the physical capability to risk the handler’s safety or to pull themselves free and be on the run, that requires equipment as a temporary management tool to keep everyone safe. When these dogs have just entered a new home, there is no bond to function as backup.  Equipment is the only option here but the handlers should immediately begin working with positive reinforcement to build that bond and training history. If people have the experience, they can do it on their own. If not, they should consult a positive reinforcement trainer (preferably before the dog arrives!) for assistance. [Dogs who come from unknown backgrounds do not exhibit their normal personalities in the stressful environments of a shelter and a dog who appears calm may be very different when moved again to a new home. Have your support system ready!]

This fall we had a new dog join our household. At approximately seven months old, he was close to full grown and had no leash training. But as a Jack Russell Terrier, he was small enough that he could not pull me over! I chose to use the same approach with him that I used with our other Jack, who arrived at over a year with no leash training. It was an experiment with Eloise seven years ago but I was really happy with the way it worked and have recommended it to anyone with a dog who does not have the risk of an untrained large size dog.

The backbone of the plan is that dogs learn environmental cues really quickly. Visual or contact cues from us or from equipment we use is an easy way to begin communicating expectations to a dog. I use both a collar and harness for different purposes.

The harnesses I use are not no-pull harnesses, but rather harnesses with wide fabric

Wilder, temporarily tied to a barn door, shows off the wide fabric of the underside of this harness.

specifically so that the dog IS comfortable pulling on it. Why in the world would I want a dog to be comfortable pulling? Because I want them comfortable in exploring their world. The harness goes on when we are going out to play, sniff, climb, dig, hunt and have dog fun. I attach a long rope to the harness so the dog or puppy has a large radius around me to play in. They can run or chase a ball; climb a snowbank or wade in water, all while I still have a physical connection. Inevitably they go around a tree or get the rope stuck in a bush or tall grass. I want the dog to learn persistence and learn that if they get a little stuck, they can just pull or push a little harder to get free. That way, heaven forbid, if the dog does get away and stuck somewhere, they don’t just sit down and give up.

At the same time, we begin working on loose leash walking on a collar. This begins in the house and with my pockets full of awesome treats. The dog has absolutely no desire to leave me in this situation so there is no pulling on the collar/trachea. Instead, the dog learns that when the collar and leash go on, those are CUES that we are going to walk politely right next to each other for treats. Over time, I can graduate to other rooms, the garage, the barn, the driveway, all for short distances and time periods. I make sure that the puppy/dog has had opportunities to eliminate before these outdoor collar-training sessions so that full focus is on me (I might do a long harness-excursion and then pop the collar on for a couple minutes just before going back inside).

Wilder stuck on rope
with the rope stuck on a piece of frozen ground, I encourage Wilder to drive toward me to release himself.

From here, a lot depends on your future needs for your lifestyle. Do you want to take your dog into town on a leash? Do you want to take your dog hiking with you? Do you take your dog to walking trails where there are people, children, bicycles and other dogs? Whatever your plans are for your dog, you will need to slowly introduce those distractions into your dog’s leash manners. If the leash is on, and you have trained your dog to focus on you in those situations, then a collar, in my opinion, is fine to use (please be sure there is a clip you can quickly undo to release a dog who may have gotten it caught on something which is a strangulation risk). You can train your dog a cue that allows them to stop to pee on a bush or sniff in the grass, but they should be ready to come right back to you, ignoring all other dogs, people and other distractions as long as he is on that leash.

Wilder on rope down roadIf your life is more like mine: a rural existence with large spaces away from busy roads and no other people or dogs, maybe you can do off-leash walks. I know off-leash is verboten with some trainers, and I can understand that in some environments. But in our area, most people have their dogs off leash far more than on leash. Taught a rock solid recall while still living on the long rope, the training must include lots of practice being called away from distractions unique to each dog. Hounds need lots of practice being called off scents.  Terriers need practice being called off small critters. Herding breeds need lots of practice being called away from livestock or anything which moves (like vehicles!) With solid training for these situations (which should only occur infrequently), I think off leash walks with dogs are idyllic for all.

I even take it one step further and my terriers do not wear collars if there is not a leash or rope attached to it. This is because they love to go down holes after small animals and it is too easy for a collar to get caught on a root when they try to come back out. Stuck there, where no one can see them, it’s a horrible end. Microchips allow us a way to identify a dog even if they don’t have a collar on. Certainly the intention is to have your dog in sight at all times, but for those just-in-case scenarios, I feel it is safer to be without a collar than with.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is to educate yourself about the pros and cons of your choices, and that you leave choice in the life of your dog.