Good Dog. Seriously. Say It.


Photo by Jim Thomason

I have a lot of pets. And many of them are pet peeves.

Ba-dum-dum. Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.

But seriously folks, I do have a lot of pet peeves, especially when it comes to the animals that share our world. And hey, one of my first pet peeves is that I don’t call them “pets.” I’m going to admit it. That word annoys me.

Pet is something I do to greet my dogs, to comfort them, to calm myself. It’s an verb for me, not a noun. Using the word pet to describe my dogs actually seems demeaning to me. My dogs, horses, chickens, unintentional house mice, etc., are my companions. They are my animal family. They are not furry/feathered humans, nor are they little slaves sent here to do my bidding. They are animals who are willing and kind enough to abandon a lot of their natural instincts to try to co-exist in our crazy, human-focused world.

That’s pretty amazing to me. I think it deserves a little respect.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the term “fur babies.” Nope. Let’s not go there.

Today’s pet peeve, however, actually focuses on how we speak to our animals, how we choose to try to communicate with them. As a professional dog trainer (fancy certificate, letters after my name and all!), I get a lot of calls about “bad dogs.”

“My dog is stubborn.”

“My dog won’t listen.”

“My dog is out of control.”

I listen. I ask questions. I imagine what I will find when we finally meet. And I’m usually spot on.

What I generally find on  visits with “out of control” dogs is a complete lack of clear, meaningful, and consistent communication. So what I’m telling you is that 98.9% of the time…it’s not the dog’s fault.

And more than a lack of dog training know-how, I have found that it’s actually a mindset issue. As humans, we still feel the need to be very large and in charge when it comes to our animals. And when other people come around, it seems humans often go into hyper-militant mode, as if to suggest that their dogs behave like perfect little angels every moment of the day…except right now. You should see how people act when an actual dog trainer steps into the mix. It’s as if everyone suddenly has something to prove.

“Sit. Bo-bo, sit. SIT. SIT. BO-BO SIT. Sit down. SIT. YOU SIT RIGHT NOW. Bo-Bo…come here. SIT. COME. NO. NOOOOO. SITSITSIT.”

Kind of makes me want to toss an “h” in that sit somewhere.

And then I get asked how to “correct” that. “How do I make him mind?” “See how stubborn he is?”

OK. I can’t give an entire dog training 101 here (because hey, I don’t give that away for free! Bills to pay, people. Dog food to buy), but what I can do is help you get your head in the game. The right game.

First, dogs require constant feedback when they are learning. That means as good as you are at telling them when they are wrong, you need to be equally as good at telling them when they are right. Equally good. Tell them when they are RIGHT. In fact, spend more time doing that than you do telling them how wrong they are.

I’m going to let you think about that one for a moment. Here’s a gratuitously cute puppy photo you can ponder whilst you chew on that paragraph…


Ok…all done pondering? Great. So here’s my next free tip: Let’s change your vocabulary.

Sometimes changing your mindset is as easy as changing the words you choose. Here are my new training words for you:

  1. Instead of train, use the word teach.
  2. Instead of command, use the word cue.
  3. Instead of correct, use the word redirect.

Let’s start with those three and see how it goes. Teach, cue, redirect. Doesn’t that feel better already? Just switching to those words and paying attention to their meaning, their undertone, could make a world of difference in the relationship you have with your dog.

This is not a battle. Dogs have no hidden agenda to overthrow the world. They repeat behavior that gets them attention. They avoid things that are unpleasant (and we wonder why they don’t always come when called…). Let me give you some real-life examples.

I visited a home with an “out of control” dog. The dog was said to have horrible manners when guests came over. The dog wouldn’t listen. The dog jumped all over people.

“He knows better. He’s just being stubborn.”

The moment I hear that stubborn word, I wonder which being in the house it really describes. And then I giggle to myself. Usually to myself.

So I asked my client to show me the dog and let me see how they were dealing with the situation. That’s when I got the SIT-SIT-SIT-NOOOO-NOOOO-DOWN-SIT-OFFFFFF-NOOOOOOOOO routine. I listened to the tone of their voices. I saw the chaos escalate. I saw the humans growing frustrated and more excited. I saw the dog doing the same.

And even when the dog wasn’t actually trying to jump on me, the humans were still barking commands.

So when the dog came toward me and kept four feet on the floor, I quietly said, “Yes! Good boy.” Then I offered the dog a little treat.

I backed a few steps away and invited the dog to follow me. I had his attention now because I was speaking softly, I wasn’t stressed. He liked that. He followed.

When he came to me, I asked him to sit. He did. I said “Yes!” I gave him a tiny cookie. I praised him. Then I backed away and did it a few more times. Pretty soon, every time I cued the dog to “come,” he ran to me and slammed his butt to the ground with his tail wagging happily.

I praised him. And looky there, I used all three of our new vocabulary words.

I taught the dog what I expected instead of just waiting for him to screw up.

I helped the dog learn a cue, one indicating what I expected, and also a word that marked the moment when he did something right. “Yes.” I captured behavior I liked.

And I redirected the dog. The dog was jumping on people because he was friendly and wanted attention. I showed him a proper way to earn attention. He listened. He learned.

Here’s another example. I visited a family who had a dog that would not come when called. The dog would play keep-away, staying just out of reach. The family was frustrated.

So I asked them to show me.

We went out in the yard. The dog chased a bird. When he ran to the other side of the yard, one of the humans said “Fritz, COME!”

Now, don’t think for one second that dogs don’t understand the tone of our voices. They do.

When this person said “Fritz, COME,” the sharp tone me want to back away slowly. Seriously…why do we have to change everything about ourselves when we go into dog training mode?

So Fritz, who was still on the lookout for that bird, did hear his person say COME. And he did look back at us. That glance back was the moment of truth…what would happen next?

Well, the owner repeated his command even more sternly, “FRITZ! COME! COME!” It sounded angry to me. It sounded angry to Fritz too.


Fritz didn’t come. In fact, he glanced away (which is actually dog-speak for “hey, human, chill out! Let’s all calm down).

“See? He’s stubborn.”

Huh. Ok.

“Let’s try something different,” I suggested.

I went to within a few feet of Fritz. In a happy voice, I said, “Fritz, come!”

The moment Fritz looked at me, I said, “YES! Goood boy! Good!”

Guess what? Fritz came right to me. Because I praised him in the moment he acknowledged my cue by looking at me, I gave him a reason to want to come to me. We communicated. I was teaching Fritz that the cue “come” would be followed by something good/fun/rewarding/calm/happy.

Fritz liked that. I wasn’t scary. I was nice. That made Fritz feel good and want to be near me.

So Fritz’s dad, who was also a really nice person when he dropped his alpha dog trainer persona, gave it a whirl. When Fritz heard the cue “come” and glanced at his person, he was praised. Oh hey, Fritz liked that and came RUNNING on cue.

Just capturing that one little questioning glace back and giving Fritz the promise of good things to come, made all the difference in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The true key to good dog training is to be a teacher, not a trainer. And to give clear praise when praise is due. And perhaps most importantly to recognize when praise is due. Be in the moment. Your dog is.

OH if only I had a dime for every time I’ve seen people continually telling their dogs what NOT to do, but never capturing that moment when the dog is actually doing what they want. I would be a wealthy, wealthy retired dog trainer.

Think it through. Go talk to your dog. Talk. Don’t holler, yell, get all stern and scary. It’s not about intimidation. It’s about building communication.

Now get out there and play with your dog. Oh, and here’s another gratuitously adorable puppy photo as your reward. Good human. Goooood.


(Bo-Bo and Fritz are not actual dog names. But the stories above are quite true. So true. Very true. Let’s just let all of my training clients wonder if it’s them…)

Terrible, Terrible Twos

the chaseI can’t say they didn’t warn us. They did.

“You won’t really know what you’ve got until he turns two.”

Those simple words from our wonderful friends at Freedom’s Song Wolf Rescue have stuck with me for the last 18 months. Now they’re proving a bit prophetic.

And what they meant was, with wolfdogs, you really don’t know whether they will think more like a wolf, or more like a dog until they mature. For some, I guess, the wolf side of the brain can prove to be a bit of a challenge. It’s possible we’re finding that out.

I  can’t say that I didn’t see it…and feel it…coming. Over the past several months I have seen a shift in our wolfdog Kainan’s attitude from time to time. It was subtle at first. You had to pay attention. And it was easy to write it off as just a little incident.

Since joining our family as an adolescent wolfdog in August of 2014, Kainan been remarkably easy-going. Though he dwarfs all of our other dogs – now easily outweighing the largest by about 40 pounds – he has been an affable boy, romping and playing like a gentle giant with dogs half his size or smaller. His current most devoted playmate tips the scales at a mere 38 pounds.

He also defers to our 10-year-old, “top dog” Dalmatian, Howie. He bows down to Howie on a daily basis, groveling at his feet and licking under his chin in absolute submission to the older dog. Howie is very large and in charge in Kainan’s eyes. This behavior is not because Howie is an “alpha dog” who has forcibly rolled Kainan over and asserted his dominance. That theory is tired and outdated. Kainan’s behavior toward Howie is healthy, voluntary submissive behavior and it’s a good thing.

But in recent months I have noticed it, I’ve seen a little shift. Dogs that were once included in Kainan’s merry little circle of playmates, are now excluded. If you know the subtleties of dog to dog communication, you can see the change in attitude a mile away.

Kain and Bernie

“Good play” with Bernie

I think I first noticed it with Bernie, our pit-mix boy. Bernie was one of Kainan’s initial best buddies. They would romp and play like big, goofy puppies. Until one day I saw it.

I looked outside and saw Bernie sitting in the very back corner of the yard, sideways to the house. His body was curved, his back rounded, his head dropped low, his ears pinned back in a worried expression. I could see he was licking his lips and glancing sideways toward the house and then looking quickly away. These are all signs of stress, all signals to another dog that he is no threat, that he is not challenging, and he wants no trouble.

Having never seen Bernie display this behavior, I quickly looked to see what was causing his concern. There, standing tensed and focused between Bernie and the path that leads to the dog door, was Kainan. His ears were pricked sharply forward. His head was dropped level with his back. His body was tensed and in a partial crouch as if ready to spring. His eyes held a hard focus on the worried dog across the yard.

I immediately went out into the yard and called Kainan to me. He did not respond quickly or very willingly. I had to go to him. His focus was intense, but just by breaking the moment, the spell, I was enough distraction to allow Bernie to run to me and then into the house.

What the heck had I just witnessed?

Time to pay closer attention. We had dropped our guard. We had been lulled into a false sense of security by silly, adolescent Kainan. Now mature Kainan had moved in and it was time to take notice.

Kill the wolfdog

“Kill” the wolfdog.

For a bit, I saw nothing further. He was Mr. Frolic. He had a little pack of girls comprised of three Dalmatians, one husky/malamute, and one mixed breed dog who raced and wrestled with him nonstop. Even with his huge size advantage, he was gentle with his girls. In fact, more often than not, he chose to be the prey, allowing them to chase him down, tackle him, and “go for the kill.” It was hysterically ferocious and comical.

And so my guard slipped back down.

Then it happened. Our little whippet girl, Lacy, dainty and all legs and speed, popped out of the dog door with a bunny-like hop and Kainan grabbed her. He reacted as if by instinct. Grab the prey.

Jim was just inside the house and was out the door to break things up in an instant. But it still happened. And our little Lacy got some puncture wounds in the process.

You could explain it away. Lacy moves very erratically and very quickly. If she popped out right on top of him…well…you can almost understand what happened. But still.

So we watched. We redirected Kainan when we felt his focus was inappropriate. We kept a close eye on Lacy.

And then it happened to Nora, our senior Dalmatian. We’re not sure what caused the incident, but Kainan went after her. Again, Jim was there quickly. Nora was not badly injured.

But still.

We had a problem. And it was a problem we always knew might surface. Wolfdogs are not dogs. Wolfdogs are not wolves. And there’s the tricky part.

You don’t know what you’ve got until they turn two.

I have watched the well-educated, experienced people who run Freedom’s Song. They too live with wolfdogs. I know that not all wolfdogs are social to people. We are very lucky that Kainan is. He is quite friendly and very appropriate around people.

I have also never seen him act aggressively when we see other dogs. He has been out and about with us to a few places where we have encountered other dogs on leash and he has been fine. We don’t let other dogs rush up to him, we don’t ask for trouble, but Kainan has consistently remained calm.

Now, this behavior at home, well, it actually makes sense to me. This is his space. This is his home territory. We have asked him to share it with a number of other dogs. And we have dogs come and go from time to time as foster dogs come in and eventually leave for homes of their own. It’s a busy place, and can be a stressful situation for some dogs, but we are generally good at finding balance and keeping the peace.

So now it appears that Kainan has a little circle of friends that he prefers…I call them his gang. And it also appears we have some dogs that he does not want in his circle. So who makes the rules? Wolfdog or humans?

Calm before the pounce

Still good play…I promise!

Well, it has to the be humans, but we have to have respect for Kainan’s view of the world as well. As I tell every training client who has dog to dog issues in their home, just because YOU like a dog and want to add it to the family does not mean your dog is going to like it as well. Humans don’t like every other human they meet…I don’t. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be asked to live just any other person that comes along.

But humans ask their dogs to do that all the time and then seem appalled when the dogs don’t agree with the decision.

So what to do?

Well, I jokingly say that Kainan is currently grounded. He is not allowed to play unsupervised with all of the other dogs loose as he once did. We have supervised sessions several times a day with Kainan loose with all of the dogs, and then we give Kainan his own space with his little gang.

Fortunately, our world is physically set up to handle this new routine. We have sturdy dog runs that allow access inside the house and to outdoor space. We have two dog yards. We can allow Kainan to play with his little gang, while keeping the other dogs separate and safe.

And we are dedicated to doing a lot of work with Kainan. Jim and I have worked out a plan for reminding Kainan the benefits of offering desired behavior. We are focusing on spending a lot more one-on-one time with him. We are working to teach him a strong recall – no matter what the distraction in the world around him.

We’re also giving him constant feedback when he is loose with all of the dogs. My own belief, backed by a recent online course presented by Dr. Ian Dunbar, advocates giving dogs like Kainan consistent input. If he’s playing nicely, he gets lots of praise and reinforcement. If we see that he’s starting to be a bully or he’s starting to get too rowdy, we call him, we interrupt the action. He gets told “uh-uh,” and redirected. The moment his behavior shifts back to calm and loose, he is praised.

If he crosses any tiny line, it’s game over. He is removed from play.

There is no hitting. There are no shock collars (and BOY are there a lot of people who love to go there…that’s a topic for another day). There are no harsh prong collars. There is no physical punishment beyond limiting his freedom.

There is feedback. Lots of meaningful, timely feedback. And we are patient. And we are fair. And we are learning.  All of us. Kainan is as much our teacher as he is our student.

We love Kainan and we are committed to his welfare and his well-being. That means it’s our job to understand his way of thinking. It’s our job to help this home and life work well for all of us. We don’t want to “dominate” Kainan, we want to provide leadership. If we are good and fair leaders, then everything else can fall into place.

We will make wise choices too. We may have to rethink what types of dogs and how many dogs we can foster. We can do that. Our own dogs come first.

We hope this is just a phase for Kainan. He is not one tiny bit aggressive. In fact, one stern look from me or Jim sends him sprawling to the ground in an apologetic pile. He is just mature now (and yes, neutered, but that doesn’t change who/what he is!), he has instincts, and he is testing the boundaries of  his world. We hope that with fair, positive-focused training, Kainan will be work through his terrible twos to be able to be free-roaming with the other dogs again soon.

But if he can’t…if living with a number of other dogs is just not right for him…we will deal with that too. We will make sure he has always has a great life that is fair to him, while also fair to the other dogs that share our home. We made that commitment to Kainan when we took him in and we will always stand by it.

We know he is new territory for us. We still have a lot to learn, and so does Kainan. But I know it will work out. Everyone is OK. Kainan is happy and being very compliant. Oh, and he really loves turkey hot dogs for his training treats.

This too shall pass. He is still very much our big, fuzzy, lovable guy who, 9.5 times out of 10, gets along great with our furry family.

But oh the terrible twos. I’m so ready for three.

Kainan and shadow 2

Sometimes You Just Gotta Go With The Flow.


20150425_083651 (1)

Early yesterday morning- we’re talking pre-first-diet-Dr.-Pepper-o’clock – I heard this sound echoing through my house:


Now, if you are a dog person with multiple dogs and a dog door, you immediately know what this sound is. And you also know that the rapid succession three-peat means that there was a serious game of chase exploding into the house from the back yard.

I glanced downstairs from the loft just in time to see CC (14 month old deaf Dalmatian), Nadia (aka Marylou…if you remember that story), and Kainan (the somewhat famous wolfdog) hit our living room couch at full canine speed.

The couch went skidding a full six feet to the right. No kidding.

Impressive. And, apparently, great fun was had by all. (We seriously cannot have nice things around here.)

Later in the day I headed to a client’s house for a weekly training appointment. We were working to convince her Bichon Frise that unfamiliar humans are not necessarily boogie men and/or chew toys. Fortunately, for the sake of my credibility and my ankles, the little dude truly loves me.

As I stepped inside the home and received an enthusiastic greeting from my little student, I took a moment to look around. This was one nice home. Opulent was the adjective that came immediately to mind.

The furnishings were ornate with rich upholstery and gleaming wood. There were gorgeous, colorful area rugs showcased against a backdrop of polished dark wood floors. There was artwork adorning every wall in sight and I’m pretty sure nary a one was simply a framed poster. Everything was pristine. Everything was just so (and by “just so” I mean perfect).

Houses like this make me nervous. First, I really don’t know how to behave around nice (and by “nice” I mean ex-peeeeen-siiiiiive) things. Second, I am fairly sure that I am to dog hair what Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen is to dust. I believe a thick cloud of various types of dog hair constantly orbits around me like my own personal galaxy. I should likely have been required to don a hazmat suit for the protection of this home and its contents.

As I absorbed the grandeur surrounding me, I couldn’t help but compare it to my own spartan-by-comparison home and the the scene from my dogs’ morning game of tag. Oh the damage Kainan and crew could do in this house. Those thick area rugs would be perfect for a four-legged Risky Business-esque slide down the gleaming hall floor and straight into the giant vase (pronounced vahze in this case) filled with…are those silk peacock feathers?

Oh, I thought to myself, I so do not belong in this house.

We had passed through the formal foyer, the formal living room, the formal dining room, and the formal parlor (see a trend here?) when we noticed that the furry little focus of my visit was suddenly nowhere to be found. As we stepped into the family room, there we found Wallace (yes, Wallace…it fits), his tail wagging in great delight as he stood proudly on what was surely an antique wood with marble inlay side table. I was certain his owner would panic and snatch the little guy, whose backside was wriggling precariously closes to what was surely an antique lamp,  right off that table.

Instead, she just laughed and said, “Wallace, what ARE you doing?”

Then she turned to me, smiled, and said, “If you’re going to have a dog in your life, sometimes you just gotta go with the flow, right?”

Amen and A+++.

Suddenly, this designer showcase home didn’t seem quite so intimidating. I walked over, plopped down into the plush velvet of the adjacent settee – I don’t think you can call it a couch or a sofa in this house – as my cloud of dog hair settled all around me. What the heck? Maybe the hair that would linger long after I departed would provide little Wallace enough of a tempting olfactory distraction to keep any future visitors safe from assault.

Holy cow, these people are going to think I am an AMAZING dog trainer!

Of course this is not to say that you have to let your dogs overrun your home and mangle all of your furniture. (Kainan, take note…you are NOT supposed to mangle the furniture). But maybe the point is that it’s ok to love your dog a bit more than you love your decor. Maybe it’s not the end of the world if your cute little dog stands on your antique table…or your giant wolfdog uses your couch as a skateboard.

And you know, looking at it now that I’m back home, the couch actually looks better six feet to the right. Well played dogs. Well played.

goofy Kainan


Life is Short. Snuggle With Your Dog.


I don’t know about you, but I’m not telling him to move. Well, maybe, “Move over a little.”

Despite tales of lost remote controls, couches chewed to smithereens, shoe after shoe after shoe lost to determined jaws, holes in the backyard landscape big enough to hide a body or four, I am actually a professional dog trainer.

No really…I even have an official looking certificate and letters after my name. CPDT-KA: Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed. You can even Google me.

And to my credit, I do live in relative peace with a rotating number of foster and on-purpose dogs that requires me to stop to count heads on my fingers…and yeah…my toes. So you know, I have that on the old resume.

And Jim. I have Jim. He has mad dog training skills all his own.

My professional training work is with other people’s dogs. And while I love the clean slate of helping someone train a new puppy, more often than not, I’m called in to “fix a dog” (which really means “undo something the human accidentally taught the dog”).

The most common training requests I get, beyond basic manners training, are usually related to jumping up on people, too much barking, pulling on the leash, and dealing with shyness and/or aggression issues. And sometimes I have people who ask me to teach their dog to stay off of the furniture.

If you’re anything like me, that last one is a real head-scratcher.

This request often comes from owners who held a baby puppy on their laps for months, but now the big dog is just too much. Ahhh…the old rule change. Dogs love that. They totally get it.

Not so much.

After months and months, perhaps even years, of snuggling up next to the humans on the couch, now the dog is just supposed to understand that it’s time to move over to that fancy dog bed way over there in the corner. Sigh.

Well, of course we can teach dogs to stay off of the furniture, stay off of the bed, and sleep on the dog bed. It starts with retraining the humans…that tends to be the tricky part. But it can all be done fairly and in a positive fashion. Because you don’t punish the dog for something that was rewarded with a hug and a belly rub just five minutes ago, right? Right?

The old off-the-furniture mandate is not the end of the world for the dog or the people. Worse things have happened. But still, as I go through this particular training process with families, I really want to ask them if they know what they’re giving up. Do you really want your dog to get “off” and “go place” over there?

dog snuggle

Don’t you feel better just looking at this moment?

Don’t you know how great it feels to have your dog next to you on the couch, pressing his head against your cheek to help the stress of a long day at work melt away? Won’t you miss that warm body curled up in the crook of your knees on a cold night? Don’t you know that it’s the ultimate compliment that this loving, devoted creature wants to be as physically close to you as possible?

Oh I know. Not everyone wants to live as I do. My dogs are free to get on the furniture and the bed. Admittedly, my furniture and bedding do pay a little price in the wear and tear department. I get it. Some people choose to have nice things and don’t want dog hair and paw prints included in the decor. Yes, I get it.

(But I really don’t.)

Yes, I admit that dogs and humans can exist in perfect happy harmony with the “no dogs on the furniture” rule in place. I’ve seen it. I lived it as a kid in my own family.

But if you come to our house? Well, I will ask the dogs not to jump on you. I will ask them to give you space on the couch, though feel free to invite them to snuggle up – they will happily comply. Truth be told, if you don’t want a pretty close friendship with my dogs, we should probably just meet at a restaurant.

Jim buried

Jim is under there somewhere. Who needs blankets?

I may have methods for teaching other people’s dogs to stay off, stay away, stay in your place, but in my home, the closer the better. And when I wake up in the night and feel the warm bodies of my dogs curled next to me, when my Brooke puts her head on my shoulder and snores contentedly in my ear, my soul smiles.

Training clients, you may want to stop reading now.

Brook chair share

Every post I write involves sharing my chair with my muse. We fit just fine.

You want my heartfelt, professional advice? Rules and furniture be damned. Snuggle with your dogs, people.

The Training? It’s Going Really Well. Just Ask the Wolfdog.

Sock thief

The key to any great relationship between a human and a dog is consistent, positive-focused training. Today’s dog trainers work to establish meaningful communication with their students while finding creative ways to encourage desired behavior and replace undesired behavior. It’s a far better path than the old days of correction based training.

I’m pleased to report that I think Kainan has really caught on.

Kainan, the wolfdog who moved into our world just over a year ago, is a smart, sneaky, playful, mischievous, furry force. At about 110 pounds with a reach that would make any NBA player jealous, the boy can wreak a little havoc around the house. Keeping things out of reach of the dogs has taken on a whole new meaning and action plan now that this guy is around.

I swear the other shorter canine residents see his potential and cheer him on.

“Hey Kainan, I think I smell barbecue…yes…check way back there on the counter.”

“Kainan! I think the hu-mom just left her freshly toasted bagel by her computer…unattended!”

“Whoa…do you see that K-man? A whole bag of marshmallows. I can’t reach it, but YOU can.”

Why yes, all of this has happened and then some.

He also steals things. Television remotes. Shoes. Shirts. Door mats. Bowls. Silverware. Pillows.

And lately? Socks.

IMG_5028We are in a huge sock phase. Clean socks, dirty socks, it matters not. He finds them, though I SWEAR I keep my laundry out of reach, and then it’s game on. The sock becomes a toy that he tosses up in the air and then pounces. I’m sure, in his wolf-inspired imagination, instead of a sock, he’s capturing some elusive, wild prey…that happens to smell exactly like my feet.

Far be it from me to ruin his fun, but I’m running dangerously short of matching socks (I just solved one of the great mysteries of the universe for you. Where do all of the missing socks go? The damn wolfdog has them.)

Time to get some training going. Chasing him down, cussing, and scolding just makes it a grand game of keep-away for my big elusive-as-hell-when-he-wants-to-be friend. So how do you turn a sock fiasco into a positive training exercise?

IMG_5030I decided that every time I caught him cavorting with a sock, I would tell him to come and sit. If, instead of bolting out the dog door with the prized sock, he complied with my request, I would offer a trade…a cookie for a sock. Comply, surrender the precious sock prey, get a little treat. Win-win. Right?

And so the training started. Kainan bolted through the living room with a sock, I issued a pleasant “Kainan come! Sit!” Kainan did just that. Nancy retrieved a slightly slobbered sock, Kainan received a yummy cookie. Yes! Good boy.

Mere moments later, Kainan showed up with another sock. Training must be consistent, right? Repeat the above paragraph.

Then Kainan showed up with another sock.

And another.

And another.

Getting the picture here? Pretty soon he was just directly bringing me socks, sitting, and looking expectantly at the cookie jar. Nary a cue from me required.

I’d say our training program is going really well. I know Kainan thinks it is.

He thinks I’m coming along quite nicely.


A Nadia by Any Other Name…


Nadia when she first came to the farm as a youngster.

Nadia and I both need a little attitude adjustment.

Nadia is my foster dog. She is going through a rough patch. The happy, easy-going puppy I once knew has become a bit of a moody, uncomfortable teenager. She seems lacking in confidence. Her social skills are unpredictable. She often seems stressed or concerned for no apparent reason.

If she were a human girl, I believe she would wear heavy eye makeup, dark clothing, and there would be piercings. Oh yes, I’m sure there would be piercings.

I really can’t explain why Nadia has decided to become a Goth dog. Yes, she was rescued from life on the road at a young age, but that was eons ago in dog time. Her life truly has been safe and secure from that point forward. We will not fall back on the “she’s a rescue” excuse.

A rescued dog, yes. A tragic life? Hardly.

No, Nadia’s issue are not because I rescued her. During her first couple of months at our farm, the onetime stray transformed into a happy, bouncy, outgoing puppy with no lingering issues from her roots as a castaway.

Nadia did place in a home for a period of time. It was a good home with a woman who really tried to help Nadia fit into her world. But it didn’t work out. You can read that tale here for a little background.

Nothing tragic happened in her “almost home.” She received good care, loving attention, and positive training. But somewhere along the way, Nadia seemed to stop trusting her new life.

So now, of course, she has been welcomed back into our home. The plan was to give her a bit of time and training to restore her to her more carefree self, then try, try again to find her a perfect permanent home. This time we would take a few cues from things we learned about Nadia during her time in my friend’s home when she started exhibiting stress and anxiety issues. For example, we now know that Nadia will do better in a home with another resident dog. Nadia will also likely do better in a suburban or country setting instead of a home in a midtown neighborhood.

Nadia 2It has been several months since Nadia returned to Tails You Win Farm. She loves being here with all of the other dogs. She loves having dog door access to the big fenced yard. She loves lounging on the multitude of dog beds here.

And yet, something is still so off. I still get a very heavy feeling when I’m with her.

This week I decided that we need a change. It may seem simple, it may seem silly, but I think I have finally discovered the ticket to a happier, lighter outlook – for both of us.

I’m going to change her name.

Yes, I am a professional dog trainer and I think this dog needs a new name. Oh that voodoo that we do. Sometimes effective dog training has nothing at all to do with yummy treats and the right leash or collar. Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling backed by some good old dog sense.

Initially, I dubbed this girl Nadia because she loved to tumble all over the yard in a floor exercise routine that would have surely earned a perfect 10. She had dark, lovely hair, and big dark eyes, so making her the namesake of a talented Romanian gymnast seemed very fitting.

Nadia humanBut think about it. What image do you see when you think of the name Nadia?

Well, I remember Nadia Comaneci’s debut in the Olympic games very well. She came across as a quiet, serious, focused young lady – anything but lighthearted and playful.


So now I am changing Nadia’s name to Mary Lou. Yes, Mary Lou. I’ve tried the name out and it causes a certain dark-haired dog to wag the back end of her body from side to side as if there is a giant hinge just behind her rib cage.

Mary louAnd if you look back again in Olympic history, well, there’s no denying that Mary Lou Retton had incredible energy and appeal.

Will the name change really matter to Nadia/Mary Lou? Well, maybe not directly, but it might change my attitude toward her; it might improve my feelings surrounding her. And if I change my mindset, her outlook may change as well.

A human’s attitude toward a dog has a huge effect on that dog and his or her ability to respond to training and environment. Nadia/Mary Lou’s situation brings to mind the plight of a friend who was training with her dog in obedience and trying to earn a novice title in American Kennel Club competition.

The dog trained nicely and performed very well in all of the exercises in the trials until it came time for the group stay…which after a few fails became known as the “dreaded group stay.”

In this particular exercise, several handler/dog teams enter the ring together and line up with dogs sitting to the left of their humans. The judge instructs the handlers to leave their dogs, and everyone utters a loud “STAY,” leaving their dogs lined up in sit/stays as they walk to the opposite side of the ring for what generally feels like the longest minute of their lives.

My friend’s dog would hold steady for 20, 30, even 45 seconds, but you could easily see increasing anxiety furrowing her brow and causing her to pin her ears back. Before the full 60 seconds could pass, she would slowly get up and slink to sit directly in front of her human.

In the dog obedience trial world, that’s a big, fat fail. Ugh.

So my friend asked me to watch her with her dog to see if I could come up with some trick she had not yet tried. Was there some correction or some incentive that she had yet to think of?

After watching her in a trial, and witnessing another failed stay after an otherwise great performance, we met at our training club. I had an idea.

“Ok, here’s what I want you to do,” I instructed. “As you are walking away from your dog, I want you to take three deep breaths. Then, when you turn to face her from across the ring, I want you to plaster a big, happy smile on your face.”

She looked at me like I was completely nuts, but desperation in dog training often makes insanity look pretty damn good, so she followed my advice. Guess what? Yep, the dog stayed put.

The issue was not with the dog at all. The issue was with the stress my friend felt about being away from her dog on the stay exercise. Prior to our little training session, the expression on her face as she planted herself opposite her dog was a big, stern scowl born of obvious stress and fear of failure. Her dog was completely unnerved by her normally cheerful human’s dark expression and it caused her to lose her confidence.

A few huge smiles later, and handler and dog were awarded the degree of Companion Dog, AKC’s novice obedience title.

So, am I guilty of the same story, different chapter? Maybe so. Maybe I’m just mired in the frustration of dealing with a dog who needs to work through some growing pains. Perhaps I’m still projecting disappointment that her placement didn’t work out. Maybe the stress we seem to feel just requires one little change to fix my attitude. Could it be that the problem is not the dog at all?

Oh yes, yes it could be.

A Nadia by another name, just might find the world a little brighter. A Nadia by any other name just might be a Mary Lou. Sometimes the most profound dog training isn’t really profound at all. Sometimes it just requires looking at a problem from a different angle.

Come on, Mary Lou. Let’s give it a try. A little placebo name change sure can’t hurt, can it?

I, for one, feel better already.

Talk to the Animals? I’d Rather Listen.

Toby boss 2

There is a lot of talking going on in this moment…but not a sound was made.

As humans, I think we are a rather arrogant species.

We are!

We spend a lot of time talking about how to train animals, to make them understand our language. We come up with all sorts of tools and gadgets to make animals do our bidding. Sometimes we yell, we bark out commands like a drill sergeant. And all of our efforts are often met with confusion and stress.

Boy. We’re really missing out.

Animals of all species have rich language. They communicate subtly and effectively. The twitch of an ear. A glance. A flick of a tongue. The curve of a back.

If only we could just hush for just a bit. If we could just learn to stop filling the silence with a lot of words that are often not given the chance to have meaning, we could learn so much. We could work together with our companion animals so much more effectively.

The horse trainer who understands an ear turned one way or the other, or the message of a horse making chewing motions and licking his lips, is the trainer who will work with a horse fairly and without force to form a meaningful bond.

A dog trainer who understands a deliberate glance away, a quick sit, a dropped head, or a big yawn, is a dog trainer who can work to make a huge difference for a stressed dog.

A human who understands what it means when a wolfdog gets up from his spot by the desk, walks all the way downstairs to find “something,” and returns just a few moments later to place a dog food bowl in said human’s lap…well…

Yeah. I got up from my desk and fed the dogs breakfast.

Sometimes animal communication is anything but subtle. Sometimes the language gap is bridged rather brilliantly.

Well done, Kainan, you clever boy. I heard you loud and clear.

Interested in learning more about how dogs communicate? This is a brilliant article written by Turid Rugaas on calming signals. She also has a great book entitled “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.” Anyone who wants to learn to work with dogs…or just improve your relationship with your own dog should read this book.

Wolfdog in the House: Busted.


The face of innocence? I. Think. Not.

Sing with me!

“Bad wolf, bad wolf,
Whatcha gonna do?
Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”

In this case, “they” are not the police. They are Jim and Nancy. Bad wolf? Well, If you’ve been hanging out with my blog in the last month or two, you know who that is.

Let me set the scene for you.

Jim and I were upstairs in the office/loft/lounge/dog room (every room in this house is multi-purpose…every room in this house is a dog room). We were enjoying a little rare quiet time. The dogs were fed and napping. We were catching up with the world on our computers.

Then I heard what, for a nanosecond, I believed to be Jim playing a little online video clip.

“Kainan!” Jim roared as he launched out of his desk chair, “Leave it!”

What the…the dogs and wolfdog are all right here. Wait. Where is the wolfdog?

Gone, that’s where. That animal is pure ninja. Here innocently napping one moment, gone the next without a sound. But, what about that audio (still playing in the background) suggested bad-Kainan?

“He’s got the remote!” Jim’s voice bellowed as he bolted down the stairs to grab the spotlight we keep by the backdoor for just such emergencies. I too leaped into action at this point.

Here’s how it works…whoever busts Kainan’s latest “grab and dash” heads into the yard to talk the wolfdog out of whatever he shouldn’t have in his mouth. The other partner grabs a handful of treats to distract the resident also-leaping-into-action dogs who would otherwise interfere with any search and rescue attempts.

I couldn’t see what was going in the dark yard, but here’s the audible version:

“Kainan.” (stern male voice from one corner of the yard)

“Leave it.” (even more stern now, from the opposite corner of the yard)

“KAINAN.” (caps mean even MORE stern, back to that original corner)

“GIVE. ME. THAT.” (somewhere in the middle)

Jim came back in cradling the remote control; this time rescued unscathed by wolfdog teeth. Other remotes have not been so lucky. (Moment of silence)

So how did Jim know EXACTLY what was going on? Well, apparently this is not the first time that Kainan has inadvertently turned on the television while stealing the remote control. And this is why said remote now lives in the drawer of the bedside table.


Kainan. Busted and pouting.

I’m pretty sure I could maybe, sort of, possibly be the one to blame here. I was the last one to use that remote. I may…there is no actual evidence…but, I MAY have forgotten to put it back in the drawer after using it.

Kainan slunk back inside trying to look contrite, but I didn’t buy it. He was obviously just waiting for the next time we let our guard down.

Bad wolf, bad wolf…or is it bad dog, bad dog? Either way, whatcha gonna do?

Well, I, for one, am “gonna” remember to put stuff away…out of reach. Which reminds me. I watched that TV just last night. And I put the remote…I put the remote…

Wait. Do I hear the theme for Good Morning America? Dammit. Gotta run.


Wolfdog in the House: Kainan 1, Couch 0

20140930_093441revThe title of this post could also be “When Bad Things Happen to Perfectly Good Couches.”

Now, before I detail the event that I am wild guessing you have already surmised, let me back up and share with you the one caution I always send home with anyone who adopts a dog from me: There will likely be a honeymoon period. During the adoption honeymoon, you will think you have adopted the perfect dog.

You will be amazed at how clever your new dog is. You will brag that he has not had one accident in the house. You will tell all of your friends that you can’t believe this dog ended up with a rescue group or in a shelter. You will develop a false sense of trust. You will let your guard down. Yes, despite my sincere, expert warning, you will relax.

And then it’s over. The honeymoon ends. It may be after two or three weeks, or even a month. And it will end in some potentially profound, eye-opening way after your “perfect” dog has settled in nicely and has started to feel secure. Oh yes, they let you believe that they are furry little angels and then…BAM. They blindside you.

In reality, the end of your honeymoon actually may not be anything too tragic. Keep it all in perspective.

A chewed shoe? Big deal. Wearing two matching shoes is SO last season.

A little accident on the floor? Clean it up and pay closer attention.

He snagged the sandwich right off your plate when you turned your head? Well, that’s just funny. Make another one.

Yes, your new dog may pull a little stunt or two…or your new wolfdog just might eat your couch. Ok, not the whole couch, but that’s only because morning dawned and a wolfdog can only consume so much couch in one sitting.

Now, I can hear wolfboy’s loyal fans asking, “Who’s to say it was Kainan who ate the obviously delicious leather couch?”

20141024_081500It’s true. There are potentially several likely suspects in my home. And it might have been a bit of a mystery, except that just I was snapping a photo of the damage so I could share the joy with Jim (he’s out of town…I blame him for this…if he had been home, he would have fallen asleep on that couch and this never would have happened), lo and behold Kainan photo-bombed the couch and grabbed another bite.

This tells me that he has no idea that couchicide is a major crime. It appears I have some training to do before I dare purchase a new chew toy disguised as furniture. Meanwhile, thank goodness designer duct tape is now all the rage in home decor. (Well, in MY home it is. Don’t judge.)

I will miss our honeymoon, dear Kainan, even though the honeymoon itself was filled with stolen items, mischief, and a bit of occasional mayhem. It all seems so trivial now…so very trivial.

Hey Kainan, guess who is going to revoke your “sleep loose in the house” privileges for the foreseeable future? The old ball and chain she-human, that’s who.

Yes, the honeymoon is over. But hey…I was growing tired of that couch anyway.

(He’s still worth it.)


Wolfdogs in the House: And Then There Were Two

2014-10-18 23.22.50The sound emanating from the dog room had a mournful timbre—an intense, beautifully eerie vibrato. Kainan’s head swiveled with ears riveted as he listened intently. Then he threw his head back to answer the tenor’s cry in his own rich baritone.

If I had heard this duet while walking through the woods at night, well, I would have been entranced and in need of new undies all at once. I would love to book this act for Halloween night. There are no sound effects in the world to rival this hair-standing-on-end opera.

So yes, the title of this piece reads “Wolfdogs in the House.” Yep. You read that right. WolfdogS.

Just over a week ago, my Facebook feed started blowing up with people sharing a photo of a dog that was at the animal shelter in Owasso, a nearby town. The dog had a certain “look,” if you know what I mean. And because of his look, he was deemed illegal within the city limits. He was in trouble.

When it comes to rescuing animals, the Facebook alert system can have the same effect as the beam of bat-infused light that prompts Bruce Wayne to squeeze into his tight, abs-built-right-in suit and then bolt off to once again save the city of Gotham. My slightly less theatrical bat signal came in the form of a private message from my friend Stephanie at Freedom Song Wolf Rescue.

10726645_766054940121746_1459711085_nThe question seemed almost tentative and was followed quickly by a pleading-eyes photo. I could imagine Sarah McLachlan crooning in the background, “…in the arms of the angel.” I could even feel Stephanie holding her breath as she awaited my reply.

“You got room and willing to do it again?” She asked.

I understood her hesitation. It was just over a month ago that Jim and I welcomed Kainan, our resident wolfdog, as a permanent member of our family. Right after that yes-he-can-stay decision, Kainan started stealing everything. He developed a taste for sheetrock. He took it upon himself to join our rank amateur dogs in redesigning the landscape of our backyard.

Oh yes. I understood her hesitation all too well.

But one look at that photo and of course I agreed to go get this boy out of the shelter. I am admittedly an easy mark. We agreed that I would spring him from the shelter, get him checked over by my veterinarian, and then house him for a few days until I could deliver him to Stephanie’s house.

On the following Thursday, after his required 72 hour holding period had expired, I made the 30 minute drive to the Owasso animal shelter to liberate our new temporary (picture that word chiseled in stone) boy. The shelter staff…who first reported that it was a female wolfdog and later changed that report to “oh, wait, it’s a male,” (ummm…so girls have…and boys have…yeah) had told us that the wolfdog was thin and very frightened. I was not worried. I have always had good mojo with shy/frightened dogs.

When they first brought him out to me, I could tell that he was nervous and unsure…you know, the old “what the hell now” expression clouding his expression. I sat down in a chair, not directly facing him, and within a few moments, he carefully sniffed me and decided that I might be OK. Considering that at any given moment I probably have the scent of no fewer than 25 dogs wafting around me like the dust cloud that follows Charlie Brown’s buddy Pigpen, I have to believe I’m a tad appealing.

As I helped WD2 into my Jeep I will admit to a tiny “what have I gotten myself into now” moment. Another wolfdog in the house? With all of my dogs? With Kainan? Well, hello hindsight, my taunting friend. You’d think I’d learn, but hey, planning things in advance can be so crazy overrated, right?

First stop with WD2 was a visit to my dear veterinarian friends who have basically grown numb to me walking through their doors, unannounced, with yet another dog or critter, domestic or otherwise, in need of their attention. I believe I even heard one of the staff members close a phone conversation by saying, “I have to go. Gallimore just walked in with another wolf.”

I think I’m becoming a bit too predictable.

WD2 was nervous, but behaved well as Dr. Henson gave him an exam. I remember one moment when the good doctor, who was crouched down directly in front of WD2’s muzzle, said, “Do you think he’ll tolerate a blood draw for his heartworm test?”

“Uh. Sure?”

I’m fairly certain my wishy-washy answer did not give Dr. Henson the rush of confidence he hoped for, but we had one great tool on our side. WD2 was thin and really hungry. I held a piece of food for him to nibble while Dr. Henson aided by Chris, the fearless veterinary technician, quickly drew a small amount of blood from WD2’s front leg. He never knew what hit him.

One hurdle down, it was time to head home and get this guy into the house. By myself. With 20-someodd other dogs vying to be the first to sniff his nether regions. Yay.

In just the span of time we were in the car together, I was already seeing some differences between WD2 and Kainan. They were equally wolf-like in appearance, but behaviorally, Kainan had always been pretty easy going. This might have had something to do with the fact that, at just 38 pounds when we initially rescued him, he was nearly starved to death and very weak. But even with more than 30 pounds gained (and still gaining!), he was still a relatively placid, albeit more playful, boy.

20141018_104434WD2 wasn’t in much better shape at 46 pounds, but he was different. He paced the back of my Jeep. He tried to dig into the floor. He wanted to climb into the front seat. He wanted to climb into my lap. He tried to “borrow” my purse. He immediately started chewing on the tarp that covered the floor of the cargo area (the tarp in place because I learned the hard way that some newly rescued dogs do unspeakable things in the back of your vehicle. The very hard way. )

It was a drive home that required me to watch the road and the rear view mirror in equal parts. Of course I knew that WD2 was stressed, so it was not fair to judge him too quickly, but still, there was just something that felt very different to me about this wolfdog. The old gut instinct was waving a red flag. It wasn’t a fearful feeling, but maybe a feeling that this guy was more of a handful than my sweet Kainan.

More of a handful? Those words struck terror into my heart. While we loved having Kainan as part of our family, living with him had not exactly been a walk in the park. His curiosity, mischievous nature, and propensity for kleptomania required constant supervision. I could not imagine Kainan squared. I could imagine the policeman being interviewed on the evening news, “We’re really not sure what happened. It appears that the house was somehow chewed down from the inside out. We found the human residents just sitting in a corner rocking and babbling nonsense.”

I did arrive home safely and managed to get WD2 into one of the indoor/outdoor runs in my dog room. As my herd of anything-but-subtle dogs flooded in to check out the newcomer on the other side of the fence, he displayed classic, wimpy wolf behavior. If you have read some of my previous posts, I mentioned that wolfdogs are not brave or confrontational. Beyond their impressive appearance, they make terrible watch dogs.

True to his wolf heritage, when confronted at the fence, WD2 pressed himself into the back corner, immediately sat, kept his muzzle pressed down to his chest, and bared his teeth—not in a menacing growl, but in a submissive grin. All of these behaviors were a clear message to the resident canines: Please, oh please don’t kill me.

Then Kainan came in. He stood very still and erect as he stared at the newcomer. Long lost brother? Grand reunion? Well, initially Kainan seemed kind of excited to see WD2. Excited until the moment I went in the dog run to sit with and sooth my new foster wolfdog. For the first time in our relationship I heard Kainan issue some low grumbles at the fence. Awww…he didn’t want to share his she-human with another wolfdog (come on…just let me have this one).

WD2 started to relax and began sniffing noses with the other dogs and the nose-out-of-joint Kainan.  I believe WD2 really wanted to come out to engage in a rowdier-than-I-was-ready-for play session with some of my dogs. There was play posturing at the fence, but Jim and I decided that since this was just a short stay (seeeeee…we don’t keep them all!), it might be best to just keep everyone separated.

2014-10-23 14.16.19WD2 continued to show me that he might have a bit more wolf attitude in the wolf to dog ratio than I was prepared to handle. I watched him as he tested every part of the fence in his run. I watched him nose the gate latch to see if he might be able to open it. I watched him look up to the top of the six foot fence and I immediately wondered if I would be running out to buy material to add a secure top to his run.

At feeding time, as I entered his pen, WD2…every bit as hungry as Kainan always was/is…immediately stood on his hind legs, putting him easily at eye level with 5’9” me, wrapped a front leg firmly around my shoulder, and, in this secure tango hold, proceeded to grab at the food in the bowl. Nothing about this was threatening to me personally, but he was being very rude. Food spilling everywhere, I wriggled free from his unwelcome embrace and backed out of the run to regroup.


I forgave some of this behavior. WD2 had experienced a hard week with lots of change, so stress and starvation undoubtedly played into his overly enthusiastic attitude at mealtime.

But still. There was just something different about this animal. Maybe that word was the key: animal. WD2 seemed more primal than Kainan—a bit more flighty and unpredictable. I never felt he was dangerous, but I certainly believed he could be a great challenge to live with and to keep safely contained.

20141018_104256On the following Saturday, I made the drive to Jones, Oklahoma with WD2 actually relaxing in the back of my Jeep. He was a very good boy for the drive there and when we arrived at his new foster home we were greeted by a chorus of howls from the other residents of Freedom Song Wolf Rescue. It was a beautiful serenade, though it put WD2 a bit on edge.

Stephanie, her daughter, and their young wolfdog Yuma welcomed us. Again, unlike the very gregarious Kainan, WD2 was a bit hesitant during the introductions and took a few moments to warm up. Once he seemed comfortable with his new human friends, I hopped back in my Jeep, happy in the knowledge that I had played a part in saving this beautiful boy, but happier still that he was now someone else’s beautiful boy.

During the 90 minute drive home, I had time to think about my expanding knowledge of wolfdogs. This brief time with two wolfdogs in my care provided some very clear lessons that confirmed everything I have read as well as what I have been told by my Freedom Song friends. First, temperaments in wolfdogs vary greatly. Some—like Kainan—are very tractable and can make wonderful companions, while some display more classic wolf behavior.

Second, had WD2 come into our lives BK (before Kainan), I doubt there would be a wolfdog living in our midst. Though he was sweet, based on our brief relationship, I did not feel I could have successfully integrated WD2 into our home. Third, and perhaps most important, WD2 taught me that we truly won the wolfdog lottery with Kainan…he is smart, affectionate, a wonderful companion, and a great ambassador for his kind.

Of course, as I see him dart out the dog door with something red in his mouth, I am reminded that his lovely disposition doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges.  Ah, and now Jim is yelling something about a favorite shirt. Uh oh. Time to run. Literally.

Heeeeere wolfdog. Gooooood wolfdog. (Really. Good wolfdog.)

2014-10-23 18.03.55

Kainan and our Australian cattle dog, Boog. An easy, welcome fit into our home.