Dog Behavior 101 (Exploding some myths)

The domestic dog’s ancestors were carnivorous beasts that hunted and killed other animals for food. The behaviors associated with these skills are “hard wired” into our dogs to some extent. Without these skills they would perish.

The dog’s inherent social skills enable him to coexist well with humans

The fact that humans have developed, through centuries of selection, an animal that coexists with us safely and peacefully is testimonial to the adaptability of the canine organism and to the creativity and intelligence of man. We must never forget this basic prey drive of dogs; reversion to predatory behavior is more elementary to canine survival than the many more acceptable social skills we have selectively bred for and/or trained into them.

Our dogs’ ancestors were also social beings. This is evident in the behaviors and needs of wild canines today. They live in social groups, dependent upon one another to achieve their primary goals, one of which is to hunt and kill other animals for food. Thus canines have developed their own social skills. These skills are the foundation for human intervention; they are what made it possible for dogs and humans to coexist and form this inter-species relationship that is so remarkable.

… but they don’t have a “moral code” and often cannot meet human expectations

It is important to remember the basic needs of dogs: food, shelter, reproduction, and social interaction. Sounds a lot like our basic needs, yes? The intellectual capacity of our dogs is not as developed as it at times may appear to be. While dogs are amazingly intelligent and intuitive, their ability to reason is limited and their understanding of abstract concepts is minimal.

Contrary to what Lassie may have depicted, dogs have no moral code, at least not one that correlates with what most humans consider acceptable. They do not have an organized religion or other cultural influence to outline a behavioral code for them. They do what they need in order to survive. These skills are acquired from their mother, other pack members, and the environment. So it is not fair to assume our dogs “know better” when it comes to uniquely human expectations.

Dogs are not linguists. They don’t come out of the womb with an understanding of human language…verbal or otherwise. They also don’t have the brain connections for a complex verbal language and human/primate body language is not remotely similar to canines. They DO have the connections for a very elaborate canine language based upon subtle body movements. When we are successful in teaching cues using our language and signals, dogs demonstrate their willingness to adapt in order to survive in our “pack”.

Dogs can’t sue you. We should remember that the dog has few options when threatened, the primary ones being fight or flight. When we misinterpret our dog’s “language” or assume they understand ours beyond their capability, the probability for problematic behaviors to occur is high. It is best not to take our dogs’ abilities for granted or make demands beyond their grasp. Despite appearances, dogs are not little people in fur coats. For that we can be extremely grateful!

Agility Equipment for Home Use

Weave Poles

If your goal is to be successful in agility competition, it’s almost imperative to have the ability to train at home. Training once a week at the training center is definitely not enough for your dog to become proficient in weaves, for example – at least not within a reasonable length of time (reasonable for most people, that is).

I believe that all serious agility addicts need the following equipment, at a minimum:


  • Set of 12 weave poles
  • 6 bar jumps

Very nice to have:

  • more bar jumps
  • 15-foot tunnel
  • one contact obstacle, probably the teeter

and then anything goes after that.

So your investment doesn’t have to be huge, and if you stick with the “absolute” and “very nice” categories you won’t have to move a lot of heavy stuff every week to mow.

You’ll also be able to take your equipment “on the road” with you if it consists only of jumps and weaves. It’s nice to be able to drive to a local park or school and practice in a new and different place, so your dog can learn to generalize playing agility to different locations.

How to acquire equipment

Your options, of course, are to (1) make your own or (2) buy it somewhere — oh, and (3) ask Santa. Some obstacles (especially jumps) are pretty simple to make, and kind of fun. On the other end of the spectrum, you probably cannot make your own tunnel, and the contact equipment can be pretty involved. The best of it is made with welded aluminum and synthetic planks (light-weight, durable, low maintenance). You certainly can make backyard equipment using painted planks on sawhorses; just take extreme care to make it solid enough to hold your dog when he’s running on it, and using treated lumber will save you much heartache and maintenance.

Weave poles

Cheap and easy approaches:

  • “Step-on” plastic fence posts from some co-ops and Tractor Supply Company, possibly Home Depot. These have a 4-6″-long spike at the bottom that can be stuck into the ground. The plastic post works nicely as a weave pole (keeping the extrusions pointed outward, of course).
  • 18″ Rebar stuck into the ground about 6″ with PVC pipe slipped over top of it.

The above two types of “stick-in-the-ground” weave poles can be used as straight-up poles, angled like “Weave-A-Matics” (WAMs) or placed in a channel fashion:

Channel weaves

Channel weave poles

(dog runs between them and you can gradually narrow the channel between the rows of poles)

The spacing between weave poles is ideally 22-24″ (with most organizations using 24″ spacing). You can use a piece of wood trim or molding with lines marked every 24″ to help keep the poles straight and properly spaced. For this guide, 8′ should be long enough; you just keep sliding it along as you insert the poles into the ground.

The disadvantage of this type of poles is the inability to use them at some times of the year (ground frozen in winter, concrete-hard in summer). Also, with hard-driving dogs you have to reset them frequently. But they are cheap and do work nicely when the ground cooperates.

You can purchase weave poles from various sources

MAD Agility Equipment
In Pennsylvania but they frequently provide equipment for local trials, so you can order up front and pick up at a trial (saves on shipping!). They often sell the equipment they used at the trial at the end of a trial at a discount. They sell straight-up poles, channel weaves, and 2 x 2 weaves (another article coming on this).

Stick-in-the-ground weaves from Affordable Agility
Affordable Agility sells online: PVC weave sets that work great for small dogs or dogs that don’t push the poles too hard. They also carry straight-up poles with metal bases AND PVC stick-in-the-ground poles (left). These work fine for teaching by the 2 x 2 method. You can also purchase a “tape” with holes/grommets at 24″ intervals to show where to place your stick-in-the-ground poles. I believe they also have adjustable channel weaves (all PVC).

What Motivates YOUR Dog?

Motivation is critical in training dogs. We need motivation, and so especially do our dogs. What motivates most of us best is seeing our dogs learn and love learning.

For the dog, there can be a huge discrepancy between what you think is motivating and what your dog actually finds motivating. Sometimes, depending on circumstances or surroundings, motivators that have been top in the dog’s opinion become mundane and uninteresting — sometimes even annoying! Thus, it’s very important that you know what drives your dog and that you have a variety of these things available when you train.

Use the list below to help make your own list of what your dog loves; you’ll probably have items that are not included in the list (tell us about them!). On the other hand, you may find some new ideas here! Think like your dog, and rank them in importance. Be sure to include at least 10 items in your list.

  1. Steak
  2. Liverwurst
  3. Frisbee game
  4. Tug
  5. Canned catfood
  6. Back scratch
  7. Peanut butter
  8. Car ride
  9. Chase game
  10. Sniff around a tree

Rewards are not all — or always — created equal

Think about how your dog will react to your choices in different circumstances: training at home, coming to agility or obedience class, playing with his friends in the park, etc. You may notice that some of your reinforcers are not suitable for certain activities (e.g., hard to use “go for a ride” at agility class, at least not more than once per session). You should also consider, if using food, that a variety of food choices taken from higher and lower rankings might be more useful than only one food type, even if it’s the top choice. For instance, if your dog will KILL for chicken, you may want to bring it to class to use for “superior” performance, especially of a difficult task, but that you also have some jerky treats to use for “good” performance, and even alternate those jerky treats with a “lesser” treat in order to keep the dog guessing — and interested!

If your dog is having problems focusing on you — he continually puts his nose on the ground and wanders out to the end of the leash, or keeps trying to visit a nearby dog to socialize — just isn’t interested in what YOU are doing, definitely rethink what you are using as motivators. A high-powered motivator delivered frequently for a job well done should be sufficient to keep the dog with you. Be sure that your working sessions are short, especially in the early learning phases, so the dog doesn’t become overwhelmed with the job you are asking of him. Understand that sometimes the environment is just too stimulating for a dog and he is unable to focus. That is when you might move him away from all the activity or ask to have a barrier between you and the other dogs. Alternatively, you could lower your expectations for the time being. Often a dog will be overstimulated the first time he is in a new place (especially a training class) but is a totally different dog, able to focus and work, at the next class session.

Alpo treats Basketball Back scratch
Apples Ball on a rope Barking session
Baby food Boat bumper Belly rub
Bacon Boomer ball Ball game
Beef or other bones Braided tug Car Ride
Bil Jack Burlap sack Chase a laser spot
Bologne Cow milker toy Chase game
Canned cat food Fleece tug Chasing tail
Carrots Frisbee Clapping & cheering
Cat treats Furry mouse Cuddling
Charlee Bears Gumabone Flyball
Cheerios Hockey puck Get in the kennel
Chicken Jolly Ball Get out of the kennel
Cheese Kongs Go into the house
Cooked pasta Leashe Get out of the car
Croutons Nylabone Howling session
Crackers Protective sleeve Hand targeting
Dinner Puppy tug Heeling
Dog biscuits Riot Tug Herding (sheep, children, leaves)
Dried liver Rocks Hose – chasing water
Drinking water Rope tug Hunting rodents
Fish flavored treats Rubber chicken On the furniture
Freeze dried liver Sock with ball Trip to the park
Greenies Snowballs Pee on a tree
Ground beef Squeaky toy Play with other dogs
Ham Squishy ball Play with the cats
Hamburger Stick Play with children
Hard boiled eggs Stuffed Animal Pulling a sled
Heart, kidneys, liver Target stick Playing in Sprinkler
Hot dogs (chicken, beef) Tennis ball Running off leash
Ice cream Tug toy Praise
Ice cubes Retrieving
Jerky (beef, turkey …) Tummy tickle
Go outdoors
Liver cookies Meeting other dogs Hand targeting
Meatballs Ratting Heeling
Oinker Roll Shredding paper Herding (sheep, children, leaves)
Peanut butter Swimming Hose – chasing water
Pizza On the furniture
Popcorn Trip to the park
Pureed liver
Play with other dogs
Pupperoni Go for a walk or ride Play with the cats
Rawhide chews Wrestle with you Play with children
Red Barn or similar Clicker session (free shaping) Pulling a sled
Sausages Weave legs Running in sprinkler
Sardines Bow Off leash hike
Steak Jump in arms Praise
String cheese Roll over Retrieving
Venison Back up Soccer game
Right side heel Pee on a tree
Shake hands Agility
Play dead Tracking
Spin Tug game

Stay to Play

Here’s a fun game to play with your dog that will help teach her impulse control, develop a more solid stay and an enthusiastic release.

Tug-N-Treat toy, available from Clean Run, helps teach your non-toy-motivated dog to lust after toys Search for it at

This exercise will help teach your dog what a release cue is and will build in anticipation for that cue. So be sure you know what word you’re using as a release, and stick with it!

You can use a special toy, but if your dog isn’t crazy about toys, you can use a Tug-N-Treat toy, or even her favorite treats.

Tease the dog with the toy (or food) and ask her to sit.  Immediately release from the sit (OK!), CLICK, and then run with the toy. When the dog catches up, play (or feed). If you’re feeding, add plenty of praise; feeding should be more than merely dropping a piece of food into the dog’s always ready maw. Be excited!

Start out with the dog right next to you.  Work both sides.

If the dog gets up before your release, just don’t play. (“oops!” and back into a sit)

The dog has to sit and remain sitting, and wait for the release to play the game.

Gradually add distance from the dog, but don’t worry too much about duration. She must, however, hold it while you walk away and wait for her release.

Early in teaching the game (after your dog understands that you expect her to stay until you release her), start to tease her with movement. Start this when you’re still close to her. Look like you’re getting ready to run (rock back on your heels slightly, tense to spring, wiggle, move your feet – you’re adding both duration and distractions here, hopefully building her anticipation – and control). If she breaks, just start over without any comment. Remember, it’s a game! Keep it light, and fun!

Conditioning Your Dog with Fun Tricks

Getting and keeping your performance dog in good condition pays huge benefits. He will perform better and longer, and the possibility of injury is greatly reduced. You can do these tricks at home — actually pretty much anywhere — and no special equipment is required. And since you will be teaching these tricks in a positive manner, your partnership with your dog will grow. Besides, teaching these tricks is FUN!

Rear End Awareness Exercises

Rear-end awareness is critical for performance dog success. They really do need to learn where their hind end is and to move their rear legs consciously.
This video shows 22 rear-end awareness exercises for dogs.

Give Paw, High-Five, Wave

Kickback Stand

Short video with step-by-step instruction on how to teach your dog to do a kickback stand from a sit position (as opposed to walking forward with the front feet).

Target with Hind Foot

Bonus: Teach dog to self-trim rear nails:

Back Up


Roll Over

Take a Bow

Part 1

and Part 2



and backwards


From Pam’s Dog Academy. Five-minute video on teaching dog to sidestep:

This video is for clicker-training junkies like me (and hopefully you). Twenty minutes long, detailed, showing how to train the sidestep from scratch using pure shaping, including pitfalls and so many minute details that could be required to get the job done right. Love the cue: Frrrrrront.”

Another video from Pam’s Dog Academy, training sidestep (using stairs):


“Yard Training” Your Pup

… by Cathy Hughes

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the house training process for our dogs. This is amazing to us since humans have been faced with this task for centuries…you’d think we’d get it right by now. Perhaps the confusion starts with the name–“house training.” From the numerous calls we get it seems that owners house train dogs quite well! That is to say, many dogs wait until they are safe inside the house before relieving themselves! This is not what the owner intended… what they were shooting for is a dog that is “yard trained.” Let’s look at a few simple rules that would apply to yard training an adult dog as well as a puppy.

  1. Feed the pup at regular intervals and on the same good quality food while in the learning stages. Remove any food that has not been eaten within 15 minutes after offering it. Water should be available until the same time every evening…around 8:00PM is good. The pup should be taken outside immediately following each meal and again about 30 minutes later. The owner must accompany the pup so you can praise her when she performs the appropriate behavior. As she is “going”, calmly give a cue such as “go potty” or “do business”. You can then use this cue to let the dog know what is expected of her when you take her out to relieve herself in the future. When she has completed voiding, calmly praise her and give her a treat.
  2. The dog should be taken out first thing in the morning and after naps.
  3. The dog should be taken outside prior to and after indoor play periods (or any other excitement such as the arrival of guests or your return from an outing) and make sure she relieves herself before she comes back into the house after outdoor play periods or unsupervised periods outside.
  4. The untrained dog must not be given free range of the house. She should be in the same room you are in or confined in a crate or outside area when you cannot supervise her.
  5. Do not scold your dog when you come upon an accident in the house. This will only confuse the dog and make you unpredictable in her eyes. This can actually lead to aggression problems later. At the very least it will make her reluctant to come to you when you call her!
  6. If you catch your pup in the process of voiding in the house, act shocked and hurry her outside. Take any of the material, via paper towel, out to the area of the yard you wish her to use. The next time you take her out, take her to that area and let her sniff those items. Once she is going in that area, you can remove the toweling.

Some trainers recommend “scruffing” the pup when you catch them “in the act” in the house. That seems to have worked with some dogs; however I have seen dogs that have learned not to void in their owner’s presence when subjected to this method. Those are the cases where the owner calls me and states that their dog went into a different room of the house and voided following a 45 minute uneventful session in the yard! These owners have actually trained their dogs so well not to void in their presence that the poor dears cannot bring themselves to void outdoors with their owners in attendance.

If you follow these guidelines and see no improvement after 10 days, a veterinary exam may be in order. Young puppies can have urinary tract infections or parasites that may interfere with the progress of yard training. If the vet exam is negative, then you may need to enlist the services of a behaviorist. Some yard training problems are only a symptom of other problems in the canine/human relationship.

Ask your trainer for help in teaching your dog to indicate her desire to go outside. Some dogs do this naturally, but some need to be coached to speak or ring a bell hung on a door knob when they need to be let out. Your trainer can also give you advice on crate training your puppy/dog.

Dogs are not perfect and may have an accident once in a while. Cleaning the area to discourage repeat visits can be accomplished by first saturating the area several times with plain soda water, blotting up with towels in between applications. Finally dab rubbing alcohol on the area. This will not leave a residue that attracts dirt and dust–and it smells awful to the dog long after humans are unable to detect the odor. There are also enzyme-based cleaners on the market that report good results.

As you can see, good management is the most important tool when yard training your dog. Practice it and you should see improvement soon. GOOD LUCK!

Shaping a Behavior

Can your dog read your mind?

Of course he can! You’ll probably swear to it after you’ve shaped a few behaviors, and you can tell your friends this is the case. But you’ll know the truth – that he’s offering you behaviors because he’s been reinforced repeatedly for those behaviors – and he even figured out what works (i.e., what you want. There you go, he can read your mind!).

I like to “shape behaviors” because this method is 100% hands-off and the dog gets to decide what to do – or so he thinks. This method empowers dogs to use their brains – and they do have brains – to figure out how to earn the reinforcement. It’s the most rewarding method I’ve used to train dogs, and I’m talking about rewarding to me, as well as to the dog!

To teach a dog a new behavior, a good trainer will divide the behavior into small “slices” – pieces of behavior that when put together form the final action we want the dog to perform.

For example, to sit in front of you, your dog must first lift his head up, shift weight back, slide his rear legs forward while dropping his haunches… In shaping a sit, each of those pieces would be clicked and treated multiple times. The more pieces a desired behavior is sliced into and each of those pieces reinforced, the more solidly the dog learns the final desired behavior.

Playing the following game with your dog will give you an idea of how the act of reinforcing small behaviors will lead to a dog happily learning things you never dreamed of! Continue reading

Clicker Basics

Three things to understand about using the clicker –

    1. You will click one time when your dog does a behavior you like.

Timing is everything! Pretend you’re taking a snapshot of the desired behavior. Click at exactly the instant that the behavior is happening. This means you should start the click when you see the dog’s muscles tense to sit or move. A touch early will probably mean you’re clicking on time. And what you’re really clicking is the dog’s decision or intent to move.

    1. Each click must be followed by a reward.

The reward can be a treat, or play, or a ride in the car (rather time consuming), a sniff at a tree… The goal is for the reward to be truly rewarding to the dog, not what you think should be rewarding to the dog.

    1. The click ends the behavior.

As soon as he hears the click, the dog is “allowed” to get up, or change otherwise out of the position you were clicking.


To the dog, the click means the following:

  1. What he just did at the instant you clicked was what you will be rewarding him for.
  2. The click is always followed by a reward. Every time. 100%. The dog’s human must not fail!

To teach the dog these simple things, follow these steps:

  1. Put 10-15 small pieces of yummy food in one hand and a clicker in your other hand. Your dog is with you. You may attach the leash to a hook, stand on it – just secure it so the dog is safe and won’t wander away. Pretty soon he won’t even think of wandering away!
  2. Click once and give your dog a treat. Reach down and put the treat in his mouth. The dog does not have to do anything to earn the click or the treat; he just has to be there to eat it.
  3. Repeat.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Repeat until all treats are gone.

You’ll probably notice that at about click #5 or #6 the dog is looking at you sharply when he hears the click. This is good.

If the dog shows no interest in the food, he might be full from a meal, the food might not be yummy enough for him, he could be stressed by the environment, or he could be dead. You’d probably notice that. We can deal with these other issues.

You have just “charged the clicker,” i.e., “classically conditioned” the dog to anticipate a food reward when he hears a click. His association with the click is a good one. You will be using this conditioned response to teach him many things.

What next? See Shaping a Behavior

Download this article as a PDF

Vaccinations and Puppies

Border collie puppy at Mountain View Dog Training puppy kindergartenMany of our students have questions about vaccinations and safety to their pups in classes before they are “fully” vaccinated. Based on our knowledge, we feel your puppy is safe coming to our small classes if he has received his first two vaccinations against parvovirus and distemper. Your pup will not be ready for rabies vaccination until he is at least 4 months of age; however, puppies are able to attend class before they reach that age. The chances of them being bitten by a rabid puppy are about 0 to none. 🙂

Many veterinarians and behaviorists believe that early socialization is so important that getting it in a safe environment is work the small risk involved. Without this critical socialization period they can develop many behavioral issues which cannot be fixed later, and can result in injuries and eventually to an early demise for the dog, after a short, unhappy life.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) in 2009 released a position paper outlining the importance of early puppy socialization, preferably before the puppy reaches 12 to 16 weeks old. Four veterinarians with extensive experience discuss early puppy socialization in a roundtable format. The article below will help you to make your own decision about your puppy’s safety:

Other Considerations on Puppy Safety

In our puppy classes, we warn people with very young, potentially under-protected pups not to walk their puppies in the park.  Always consider, when taking your young puppy out and about, what other dogs are using those locations to eliminate.

When you travel with your puppy, look for places to take him out to potty or take a break in places less traveled by dogs –  like bank parking lots, libraries, obscure parks, etc. Avoid rest stops, gas stations, and other popular stopping places. And be sure to pick up after your dog!

And As Your Puppy Grows…

And here’s food for thought, as your dog matures: There are many concerns about over-vaccination of our pets. Many of our dogs have sensitivities to certain vaccines and reactions to the rabies and other vaccines are almost commonplace. Here’s a discussion of a holistic approach to vaccination as compared to the conventional approach: