Archive for the ‘Dog Behavior Issues’ Category

How Do I Get My Dog to Behave When I’m Not Home? Chiller the Couch Boy, Part 2

June 19, 2010

After a long day at work, cuddling on the couch with Hazel is heaven. But what if you don't like your dog up on certain furniture? Read on.

The Myth: Dogs know the same rules apply whether a human is present or not.

The Real Deal: Dogs can easily learn that a specific experience has a different outcome when you’re absent vs. when you’re present.  They will then behave according to which outcomes work best for them in the moment, not according to “rules” you have set.

Let’s get back to this great question by Real Deal reader, Tracy.  She wrote:

What I want to know is  “how to teach my dog to still obey the rules when I’m not in the house.”  He would never go up on our formal living room couch if we were home, and apparently (from the warm seat and askew pillows) knows that the garage door opener sound means we are about to come in.

In part 1 of this post we talked about why Tracy’s dog, Chiller, goes on the couch only when she’s not home.  We also examined the simple rules dogs learn from their experiences and how these drive their behavior.

Now, using this example, let’s talk about how to prevent unwanted behavior when you’re not home and what Tracy can do about the fact that Chiller’s already learned: the couch is wonderful – as soon as everyone leaves.

First, the best time to establish rules such as “don’t go on the couch” is right at the beginning of your relationship. If you have a puppy or newly adopted adult dog, it is MUCH easier for him to learn a rule if you start from the beginning and then stick to the rule.

Sticking to the rule means that you don’t allow the rule to be broken when you’re not watching. This is probably the biggest mistake dog owners make. I suspect this is how Chiller learned that the couch is a delight as long as no one else is in the room.  Remember this: Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding. MANY experiences can be rewarding WITHOUT you being there to provide a reward.  Rewards come from everywhere – not just you!

Here are a few classic examples of rewarding experiences that dogs have when unsupervised, all of which can lead to unwanted behavior patterns:

  1. Peeing on the floor/carpet: dog feels, ahhhh, I’ve relieved myself, that was rewarding! I LOVE peeing on this surface, it’s always SO RELIEVING!
  2. Jumping on the counter and eating a sandwich found there: dog feels, YUM, that is the BEST thing I’ve EVER tasted!  I love jumping on counters – I can’t believe I haven’t tried this until today.  I’ll check this spot every day!  Hell, I’ll check it THREE TIMES a day!!!
  3. Resting on forbidden couch or bed: dog feels, mmmmm, this is SO COZY!  Whenever no one’s around to disrupt me, this is heaven!!!

Are you seeing how it works?  It’s when we’re not paying attention that dogs learn these behaviors pay!  Behaviors unwanted by owners end up being rewarding behaviors for our dogs.  So what do we do?  Let’s start with problem prevention (always the best way to raise great dogs).  We’ll use our couch example.  Here’ a recipe for getting your dog to permanently follow the rule of NO couch, whether you’re home or not:

  1. When you’re in the room you ALWAYS body block your dog’s access to coming up on the couch or immediately put him back on the floor when he tries to come up.

    X-Mat: Just leave this bumpy mat on any surface you don't want your dog to rest on.

  2. When you’re not in the room, you put up a barrier to deny access to the room OR you make the couch otherwise inaccessible/unpleasant.  You can use these bumpy X-Mat to do that.  No dog wants to lie on THAT.
  3. Give your dog an alternative option that is always available, very comfortable and ALWAYS rewarding (a cozy dog bed or old blanket).  Of course it is always rewarding if it’s comfortable, but you can enhance the experience even further by giving your dog positive attention when he is lying in his bed (belly rub!) or calmly bringing him a treat/chewie/stuffed Kong when he is relaxing on the bed.  This will seal the deal that this dog bed is THE PLACE to BE.

If you follow this recipe and maintain consistency for several weeks then your dog will quickly eliminate the idea of couch chillin’ from his behavior repertoire.  Your dog will essentially look at it this way: There’s a couch.  That’s something people sit on.  Dogs don’t go there.  I never have.  Any experience I’ve ever had trying to go on there has been unspectacular at best, a waste of time.  That’s just another dull object in the room.  Now here’s an idea, I’ll go lie on my comfy bed or my favorite spot in the sun by the window.  That’s a great place to be.


This will work without fail for any new dog.  A new dog is especially easy to set rules with.  Ah, but what if it’s NOT a new dog?  What if it’s a dog who already has the unwanted behavior pattern of going on the couch only when no one’s around?  Like Chiller does.  That’s a little trickier, and I’ll cover it in Part 3 of this series.

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How Do I Get My Dog to Behave When I’m Not Home? Chiller the Couch Boy, Part 1

June 17, 2010

Here’s a great question that came up in recent conversations I’ve had with Real Deal readers on my Facebook page.  Dog owner Tracy wrote: 

What I want to know is  “how to teach my dog to still obey the rules when I’m not in the house.”  He would never go up on our formal living room couch if we were home, and apparently (from the warm seat and askew pillows) knows that the garage door opener sound means we are about to come in.

When it Comes to Snuggling or Snoozing - Dogs Can't Resist a Soft Couch

The Myth: My dog knows better than to do something “against the rules” when I’m not home.

The Real Deal: He doesn’t.  Your dog simply does what he has learned works best for him in the present moment.

Let me explain how Tracy’s dog appears to “know” he is wrong for being on the couch when no one is home, and how in fact he does NOT know.  Then I’ll tell you how to get your dog to stop “breaking the rules” when you walk out the door!

Let’s give Tracy’s dog a name to make this explanation easier.  We’ll call him “Chiller,” since he loves to chill on the couch (once they leave).  Tracy says Chiller would NEVER go up on their living room couch when they are home.  This means that anytime Chiller has tried to go on the couch when a person is present, he has been stopped or reprimanded in some way that he finds unpleasant (this does not have to be mean, just clear).  One way or another, the people of the household have gotten the message across to Chiller that it’s not worth the effort or comfort to get on the couch when people are home.  It is LESS FUN for Chiller to get on the couch than it is to find some other spot for his chillin’.  He knows this.  He has learned it through experience.  What exactly has he learned you ask?  Here’s the simple RULE in Chiller’s mind: 

Me on the Couch + People in the Room = NOT Fun for Me (so pick another spot)

Now, there’s something else that I’m willing to bet Chiller has learned.  I’m willing to bet that Chiller has learned that chillin’ on the couch is a sublimely comfortable experience. And I’m willing to bet he discovered this more than once.  This happened in one or all of the following ways:

  1. Some people in the house have let Chiller up on the couch sometimes. Sometimes even when they are present in the room.
  2. Chiller has gone on the couch on his own when no one is in the room.  On at least a few of these occasions, he was then reprimanded upon discovery.  However, this was after the fact (once he had already experienced how comfortable the couch was).
  3. Chiller was NEVER, ever, allowed on the couch, not even for one second.  BUT, he could not resist his natural desire to rest on soft, elevated surfaces so he tried it for the very first time when no one was home (this is the least likely of the three scenarios, but possible).

We can safely assume that one or more of the above scenarios took place.  It would only take one or two occurrences to create Tracy’s problem.  That is because once Chiller learns that sometimes being on the couch is enjoyable, the only thing left for him to figure out is: WHEN is lying on the couch enjoyable and WHEN does it suck?

Well, that’s easy for him to sort.  He tries going up on the couch at different times, in different situations.  After a few trials, he can plainly see that the couch is perfectly enjoyable when no one is around and it sucks when people are present (because they immediately kick him off).  He’s now got two SIMPLE Rules he can trust:

  1. Me on the Couch + People in the Room = NOT Fun for Me (pick another spot)
  2. Me on the Couch + NO ONE in the Room = Joyful Peace and Comfort (relax on the couch)

So, Chiller has learned that the couch is bliss when no one is around – Rule #2.  When he hears a signal that someone will come into the room (garage door) he follows Rule # 1.

Tracy, your smart dog IS obeying rules.  They’re the rules he’s learned from his own experiences.

Did he deviously strategize any of this?  No!  Is he a bad boy?  No!  Does he have spite?  No!   He just knows the simple rules above. He does what works for his happiness in the present moment. Just like every animal. Just like you and me.


In the next post I’ll tell you how to solve Tracy’s couch problem and prevent your dog from following different rules when you’re present vs. when you’re not.  Hint: The problem above comes from the fact that Chiller was given an opportunity to experience the joy of the couch – sometimes – and when no one was there to teach him otherwise.

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David in the July Issue of Dog Fancy

May 25, 2010

Hi Everyone!  I am excited to announce that I’ve made my second contribution to “The World’s Most Widely Read Dog Magazine,” Dog Fancy.  Pick up a copy of the July issue which just hit the newsstands.

I was interviewed for a great article by Lynn M. Haner called “Canine Behavior Decoded.”  Lynn and I also worked on a fun quiz to accompany the article.  It’s a quick test of your breed knowledge.  Take the quiz here, at Dog Fancy’s website, Dog Channel.

For more fun, take a listen to the Dog Trainer’s Blues, where I sit down with my guitar and tell you about a day in the life…

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Liquid Dog

April 7, 2010

Flash is Long and Tall for a Border Collie

With a Face You Could Smooch All Day

It was a humid, stormy night.  I got home late from teaching a class.  My wife was away for the summer so it was dark and quiet when I entered the house.  I was sticky with sweat and exhausted from a long day.  I couldn’t wait for the dogs to lick my cheeks.  Through my glass front door I saw the familiar black shape of my Husky-Shepherd, Eli, curled on his bed in the foyer.  I turned the key and walked in with a smile.  Eli got up and stretched in my direction, ears pinned back, slow circle wags – oh, he melts my heart.

By now my second dog, Flash, the Border Collie would have rushed down the stairs in a frenzy.  His full body wag usually met me at the door.  Then I saw a flash of lightning out the window and remembered he would be hiding because of the storm.  I called his name to coax him out lovingly,  “Fla-ash.”  Then again, “Fla-aa-ash.”

No response.  Sometimes if there was really loud thunder, he would stay in the closet in our bedroom.  So I went up to find him.  “Fla-ash.”

Huh.  I should have at least heard his thumping tail by now.  He usually bangs it against the floor whenever I come near.  I poked my head in the closet.  Didn’t see him.  Turned on the light.  No dog.

Suddenly my heart rate picked up.  Why was I nervous?  He’s here somewhere.  Could the dog walker have lost him while hiking in the park?  Have I even looked at my phone today?   I quickly pulled out my cell to see if I missed any messages or texts.  Nothing.

Wait. Maybe he shoved himself under the bed.  He’s a big Border Collie, 50 pounds and tall, but he could get into a tight spot when he wanted.  In order to fit under our bed he would lie down flat on his side, cheek flush against the floor, and then scoot sideward in little thrusts, partnering with gravity in a way that only animals can.  Without lifting his shoulders or rump an inch higher than needed, he squeezes under the bed frame, then doesn’t move for hours.

But when he’s under there I usually hear his tail thump the wooden floors.  “Thwack, thwack, thwack,” I heard in my mind.  But in reality there was no thwack,  just the sound of thunder outside, rain on the roof.  I bent over and lifted the bed skirt.  I saw some old boxes, a forgotten sock and a lot of furballs.  No dog.  I knew it.  I would’ve heard his tail if he were under there.

I did a quick check of all the rooms.  The office – no one there.  The second bedroom – no.  Could he have gone in the bathtub?  I ripped open the shower curtain.  Empty tub.

Oh no. Maybe the walker left him out in the yard by accident.  My feet pounded quickly down the stairs and ran to the back door.  I threw it open.  Rain hit my face.  “Flaaa-aaash?”

My eyes darted to the corners of the yard, looking frantically for black-and-white.  Nothing.  I knew if he was out here he would be shaking and staying put, huddled into a corner or under something, so I went out in the storm and checked his favorite hiding spots.  He was not in the corner behind the bench.  I lifted the lawn chairs.  Nothing.  I hurried back in.

When I got in the house I wiped my face and took a deep breath.  Could he have been left in the yard and then stolen?  Nooooo.  Stop.

Was my trusted dog walker actually an undercover Border-Collie thief and exporter, taking weeks to woo me into comfort then shipping Flash off to a master camp for herding breed champions?  No – that’s not it.  I once took Flash for a test of his herding instinct.  With live sheep.  We cut him loose in the pen and he took one look at the sheep before lowering his head, tucking his tail, and proceeding straight to the corner where he tried to look as invisible as possible.  The sheep herded him.

But where was he herded to now?  This was too weird.  He has to be here.  I opened the basement door even though logic told me it was always locked.  I jumped down the stairs, skipping steps.  “Flash?”  “Flaash?”

I scanned the whole basement and saw nothing.  Another deep breath.  Why wasn’t he trying to find me?  Why wasn’t I hearing his tail?

Time to re-check every room, every inch.

I went back upstairs.  Turned on all the lights in the office and then I saw him.  He was wedged into an impossible space that had no access.  He was tangled in every type of cord and wire you could imagine.  He was behind the computer desk but he might as well have been stuck in a thicket of thorn bushes.  He gave me a look like, “yeah, I’m not too happy about it either.”

I sighed.  I was glad to see him.  “Oh, Flash,” I said lovingly, “What the hell were you thinking?”

You weren’t thinking.  You were just reacting.  That’s what animals do.  That’s why I love them.

I turned off the surge protectors and started unplugging everything.  I was going to have to untangle the cords to every device in the office and then re-plug them back in.  And I was going to have to find a way to block access to this spot in the future.

“You nut,” I said, as he licked the sweat off my cheek.


When I first adopted Flash, Lillie of Glen Highland Farm had given me a word of advice.  As I put him in the back seat of our car and shut the door she warned, “Border Collies are known to dart through the slightest openings, so be very careful whenever you open the car to let him out.”  That was before he was a trained dog, of course.  But I remember the X-Men like ability she was describing.  And it held true.  My wife and I later came to call Flash the liquid dog.  He seemed to be able to pour his body into or through any space he wanted.

One time we were packing to go on a vacation.  You know how that is.  You get the big suitcase and throw it on the floor.  Then you start making piles of all things you need to bring.  We started loading our suitcase and then went into the bathroom to get the toiletries together.  When we came back in the room, guess who was all ready to come along on the trip…

The Liquid Dog Pours Again

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Who is the Pack Leader? Defining Factor #1

April 5, 2010

This post can be found at the new CATCH Canine Trainers Academy blog!

Click here to read: Who is the Pack Leader? Defining Factor #1 at


This is a Stickup! Your Munchies or Your Leg.

In dog training we have a saying, “Leaders initiate, followers react.”


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The Joy of Being Bitten

March 31, 2010

Yes, it’s true.  Being bitten by a dog can be fun.  I know, this sounds wrong, ridiculous, crazy.  But when you do a lot of private lessons covering everything from puppies peeing on floors to senior citizens getting pulled around by their new Vislas (what were they thinking!  “I’ve had Vislas my whole life, I’m not stopping now.”  Umm – but you’re 78, with a cane, in New York City), then yes – it’s fun to spice up the lessons with a little dog bite every now and then.

I don’t mean bites that cause real injury.  Those suck.  Good trainers avoid those.  You read the dog and the situation and you simply don’t let those happen.  But the kind of bites that sting just enough to shoot up your adrenaline – those add flavor to a private lesson, like hot sauce on a burrito.

I was reminded of this yesterday, as I was about to open the door of a beloved client’s apartment.  I hadn’t seen their dog since she was a pup and apparently she had blossomed into quite a territorial adolescent.

“You’ll see why we called you as soon as you open the door,” my lovely gentleman of a client said.

“This should be interesting,” I thought, and swung the door open.

“ARR-ARRR-ARRRK!” out of nowhere there was a Mini-Aussie terrorizing me at the threshold.

She came at me full frontal, barking and pinching my coat with her (dare I say cute) little mouth.  She worked me from the sides too, jumping up to my hands and giving the fingers a nip, then back down to my legs for a little grab and shake on my pants.

I later discovered those nips were just the appetizer.  The little dog calmed and sniffed me curiously once I sat down to hear the owners’ take on everything.  But I still had to test what she would do if I got up to move around.  So I calmly packed up my stuff as if I were leaving.  No response from the little aussie.  Then I turned and left the room.  The dog did not budge.  I went out of sight behind a wall, rattled the front door knob.  Heard nothing from the dog.  Then I turned around and came back into the room.  Wham!  That little dog bolted off the couch like a shot, circled around behind me and NAILED me on the back of my legs 2 or 3 times before her owner scooped her up and brought her straight to the crate for a cool down.

“Okay, now we know everything we need to work on,” I said.

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Can’t Miss Tip for Puppies #1 – What You Don’t Let Them Do

March 30, 2010

Tonight I’m starting a new puppy kindergarten class at our Greenwich Village location.  This is always awesome because 1) the puppies are ridiculously cute, and 2) people are excited to fill their pups’ minds with stuff that will make them good adult dogs.

Let me tell you a not-so-secret.  When you first start with a pup, the trick to raising a great dog is what you don’t let them do. That’s right, what you prevent them from learning is a BIG DEAL.

For example, if you keep playing with a puppy that is biting your hands, you are teaching them that biting your hands is part of a fun game.  Another example – if you allow your pup to chew on furniture (when you’re not paying attention) THAT behavior is self-rewarding.  It’s fun to chew wood. Let’s look more closely.

Example 1:  Your pup’s developing brain is extremely impressionable.  She learns biting you is fun.  You taught her that, through continuous play WITH biting.  Your pup grows up.  The adult dog likes to bite you.  It’s fun, remember.  Ingrained from the early days.  Nostalgic.

Example 2:  Again, your pup’s brain is like a sponge, remember.  He gets to try his teeth out on some wood.  (Because you’re not there to teach otherwise?).  MMMmmmm.  Chewing wood satisfies.   Your pup loves it, seeks it.  Not his fault, you gave him a chance to learn it.  Your pup grows up.  Your adult dog likes to chew wood (or plastic, or shoes – whatever you allowed will be the favorites.)

The point: To raise an adult dog who doesn’t bite you or chew on furniture or (insert bad behavior X here), simply do NOT permit the behavior from occurring with frequency.  Most importantly, do not allow unwanted beahvior X to become rewarding for the pup.

Manage the environment.  Set them up for success.  Be the teacher.  If not, everything and everyone else will.

Simply put: Adult dogs have behavior patterns that they found rewarding as pups.

This Week’s Most Amazing Dog Sports

March 29, 2010

No, no, not agility or schutzhund – I’m talking about the sports the dogs invent.  You know, your bored dog.  He’s not going to sit around doing nothing for too long.  He was born to use his keen mind and athletic body – but that won’t always turn out the way you want.  If he gets put in a situation with a healthy serving of territoriality and a dash of barrier frustration, you might see some intense behaviors cook up quickly.  Here are some of this week’s most amazing dog sports, the ones that produce big headaches for owners, but a really great adrenaline rush for the dog.

Television Attacking:  favorite targets are other dogs and animals that, to your dog’s mind, seem to have suddenly and magically appeared out of nowhere.  Even more frustrating – these intruders have no scent.   Some dogs will bark at anything – even cartoons will spring them into action.  Many mad dashers go right up to the screen and give ’em hell.

Window Frothing: a variation on television attacking, this can get intense.  A particularly bedeviling problem is when your dog learns to run to multiple windows to track the “perpetrator.”  Better get your squeegee, top dogs in this sport can really spit up your glass.

Now that's what I call a dedicated athlete.

Fence Frenzy: this is when there is something on the other side of the fence that your dog really wants, but can’t have.  Like another dog, a squirrel, children running.  All of the above can unleash the nightmare fence runner.  My border collie used to fence-run so intensely that he dug a fifty-foot long trench along one side of our yard that was 3 feet wide and one foot deep. He would bang straight into a park bench and then keep running.  Back and forth, back and forth….

The problem with these “sports” is they are self-rewarding for the dog.  Adrenaline rushes are fun.  If left to their own devices, dogs get really really good at producing them, become obsessed with them, pine for the moment when the slightest trigger will spring them into action.  Then they are thrilled: barking, chasing – wild-eyed, unable to hear a word you say.  I call it off the planet.

Dogs can be trained out of these behaviors, but it’s usually not easy.  Not easy at all.  If you see your dog starting to teach themselves one of these sports, stop the pattern.  It’s time to show them new ways of using their brain and body.  Check out my nosework blog from yesterday.