10 Helpful Tips for New Dog Trainers

Want to be a dog trainer? Just getting your feet wet? Here are 10 tips for new or aspiring dog trainers to help you get started.

1. Expect to work for free… even if you are hired for a paid training gig.

You were hired on as a mentee or a kennel technician at a training facility and you’re feeling on top of the world. Or, maybe you are still looking for a mentor but feel all in. At this point, it’s important to note that you will not learn all you need to know during your work day. Anybody can learn the basics working part time, but if you want to become legitimately skilled and reputable it will take thousands of hours. This is not a career you can get away with minimum knowledge — expect to be attending classes, workshops, seminars, shadowing lessons, and researching on your own time, off the clock, and unpaid. If you are looking for a mentor, know that you may be required to pay a mentorship fee, or work an extended period of time for no pay. If you want to be great, you have to learn from the best. This won’t happen overnight.

2. Keep an open mind.

There is a lot of conflicting information in the dog training world. There are many solutions to the same problems, and there are many different cliques that will tell you certain methods or tools are the only way to train a dog, that branching out is bad. Try to shadow a few different trainers from all sides of dog training and explore what works for you. Don’t condemn a method or a group of people based on hearsay or what one trainer tells you.

3. Don’t get too confident.

Dog training can be an incredibly dangerous job, even when you are not intending to take on aggression cases yet. Reading body language is like learning a second language, and knowing when to approach a dog and when to back off is a skill. One bite can permanently disable you, and mishandling can result in a dog escaping, attacking another person or dog, or even being hit by a car. Go slow, and always have a plan for your next steps.

4. Remember, your mentor is your boss first, your friend second.

Something I love about dog training is all of the amazing connections I have made with mentors and colleagues. It can be easy to forget that our mentor is ultimately our boss as our relationship grows and we bond. Your mentor has invested years of their life and countless sums of money into honing their craft, and they are sharing their information with *you*, knowing that one day you will likely branch out, open your own business, and take clients using their trade secrets. Remember this and appreciate it daily. Watch your tone when talking business, whether it be in person, by email, or by phone. Your mentor obviously cares about you, but don’t think they won’t kick your ungrateful butt to the curb if they find you’ve become unappreciative of all they are doing for you.

5. You’re currently at the bottom of the totem pole. It will get better.

You are new to this. We have all put in our hours of crappy shifts, cleaning duty, and poop messes. We’ve been overworked, often underpaid, and had to do things we really didn’t want to. It helps us grow into strong trainers with great work ethics. You don’t get to dictate your schedule or your tasks at this point — if you aren’t ready to train, you will be stuck doing kennel duty for a while. Hell, even once you are training you should expect to spend some years doing the same tasks. It is a part of the job. One day, you’ll get the hours and clients you hope for… but for now, expect to become frustrated every once in a while. You are still learning and, whether you see it now or not, these hours and tasks are helping you become better.

6. You WILL make mistakes. Own them.

Yep. You chased away that evaluation and they went with another training company. You couldn’t find your words and rambled like an idiot. You messed up your professional jargon, or the pricing, or what was required to bring to class. Oops! It happens. We know when we put you in front of clients that you are going to make mistakes. It is okay, really. It will get easier.

7. It is totally normal to be nervous to teach, even when you’ve been doing it for years.

At some point, you just have to do it. You are never going to feel 100% prepared for the random questions clients will throw at you… and it is totally acceptable to say you will get back to them with an appropriate answer later on. You are going to talk REALLY fast and skip over some information, or repeat things, or forget what lesson you are on. Nerves will do that to you… but a secret? It happens for a LONG TIME. Many of us still get a bit of an adrenaline rush when speaking in front of clients. It is a skill that many people struggle with. Don’t worry — we totally understand!

8. Take as many seminars and workshops as possible.

Again, you are not going to become a skilled trainer overnight. Learn from as many people as possible. Take the information you like, and toss out that you don’t like. Getting outt here and hearing new perspectives is a wonderful way to add new tools and skills to your repertoire.

9. Enroll in various training classes with your own dogs.

Basic obedience, agility, nosework, rally obedience, competitive obedience… take it all! While your goal may not be sport work, learning those skills will make other pet skills easier. Maybe you’ll find a new passion, maybe a new appreciation for that type of training, or maybe you find out you totally hate learning or teaching certain skills. It is about the experience and the practice, not always the titles (although those certainly have advantages!).

10. Fostering and volunteering for shelter/rescue work is amazing experience.

I mentioned before, this is a dangerous gig. Dogs have teeth… a lot of them. Ah! I learned how to not get bit as a veterinary assistant, as well as fostering, volunteering at spay/neuter clinics, working in a daycare/boarding setting, and doing shelter work. Finding a shelter that will let you put hands on lots of new dogs will absolutely help you avoid getting bit by client dogs. Learn proper restraint techniques, how to use a leash to noose a dog, how to control lots of strong dogs, watch body language, and watch how the public approaches and interacts with strange dogs. It will all help you later.

Getting into the training industry has been one of the best things in my life, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I am still learning and growing every day, and I know how hard it can be in the beginning. We all want to get to the sexy stuff, but the rest is important. Work hard, appreciate your mentors, and never, ever underestimate the work involved in becoming a reputable professional.

Happy Early Birthday, Versailles

My heart dog turns 6 years old on Monday. It is amazing to think back on the years, to smile at the good times and laugh at the not so good, knowing in the big picture of things it is all just a bunch of seconds forming wonderful memories together.

When I was looking for my first working dog years ago, I had a deposit down on an East German/DDR litter. I was 19 years old and thought I wanted a mean, tough, huge dog for my first “protection prospect”. Fortunately, my mentor of the time talked me off the cliff and had me contact a wonderful breeder in Massachusetts instead, and my puppy arrived only a week later. I have never regretted my decision.

I didn’t know much then — sure, I thought I did, but let’s be real.. this poor dog has had to put up with some terrible training, horrendous handling, the wish-washy commitment of a young adult, and unrealistic expectations. She has taught me more about dogs and behavioral issues (lol) than I could have ever imagined, and every day over the past 6 years I have learned something new. Things about what I did wrong, what I did right, how to create issues and how to solve them. That not all dogs are going to be friendly with other dogs, that intelligence can be both a blessing and a curse, that sometimes when you do everything right things still go wrong, and when you do everything wrong sometimes things turn out right.

My bond with this crazy, over-the-top, pushy bitch shaped my career, my relationships, my priorities, and my work ethic. She has made me question my sanity, pushed me over the edge on numerous occasions, and has taken my lack of patience with a derp-tongue and a tail wag. She has never let me down and continues to excel at everything I throw her way, even if her body is slowing down and her age is starting to show physically. Mentally, I hope she always stays so patient with me, and so willing to try anything I ask of her.

Happy early birthday, you Ver-psycho, maniacal, rude bitch. I hope we have many more years together.



Life with Your Aggressive Dog

Experienced dog trainers commonly work with dogs who have shown aggressive tendencies — whether or not they have actually injured another dog or a person, it is critical that their owners understand the severity and the commitment it takes to own an aggressive dog. Many owners are desperate by the time they realize training is necessary, and unfortunately often with that desperation also comes unrealistic expectations on what future life could be with their dog.


It is important to understand that aggression, whether stemmed from fear, territorial guarding, resource guarding, or outward aggression, is almost always managed and not totally cured. With dogs that have been practicing aggressive behavior for a long period of time, we have to understand that our dogs have learned the aggressive behaviors work and that we cannot undo that knowledge. What we can do is provide our dogs with structure, consistency, and management to help prevent aggressive outbursts in the future. Owning an aggressive dog is a serious responsibility and should not be dismissed until a serious incident occurs.

The first step to working through aggression is to admit there there is a problem. Making excuses for the dog or dismissing their behavior simply will not work. Once we accept that there is a problem, the whole family needs to be on board to managing the dog in the same way. Certain steps need to be taken in order to keep the public safe and any deviation from the agreed protocol cannot occur.

1. Always consult a veterinarian for a full examination to rule out any physical ailments. This visit should include a full blood panel and check up.

2. Work on conditioning your dog to a basket muzzle. Muzzles help keep the public safe, but are not fail-proof nor are they a stand-alone solution.

3. While searching for a trainer or waiting for your appointment, do not put your dog in situations where it is doomed to fail. Limit walks, but if you need to get your dog exercised or walked for potty breaks try to go in areas that are not as populated. Do not allow strangers or other dogs approach your dog.

4. Crate train your dog so they have a safe place to hang out in when you have guests over. If you are using any sort of baby gates or closed doors for confinement, make sure there is no way for your dog to get loose or for anyone to enter the room they are contained in.

5. Limit your dogs freedom of movement (no free reign of the house) and resources (toys, bones, food, etc) unless you are directly supervising them.

6. Keeping a leash on your dog when you are home allows you to quickly interrupt any aggressive, unexpected outbursts such as when a package is delivered.

7. No dog parks or public gatherings — before or after training. It is too difficult for us to have control of outside influences, so using common sense and having realistic expectations of where our dog can be out safely is critical.

Again, it cannot be stressed enough that aggression is not a disease that can be cured, but rather a state of mind in your dog that can only be interrupted and directed. Your dog needs to learn alternate, appropriate behaviors such as place/go to bed, come when called, and heel. A dog that is clear on the criteria expected of them in all situations is easier to direct and more responsive to obedience cues. Be your dogs’ advocate and do not put them in unfair or unsafe situations. The results from a bite can be devastating, not only for the victim but also for the dog and owner. Being proactive in management techniques can help your dog lead a more normal life, and a less stressful life for your family.

The Importance of Zen in Your High-Octane Dog

Although I am currently only on my second personal working dog, my professional training experience over the last 7 years along with my association with multiple dog clubs in Colorado and Arizona have brought to light one of the biggest mistakes repeated over and over again by green working dog enthusiasts. Unfortunately, there is a lot of crazy information out there. Because I wish I had been educated on this topic when I was first looking for a puppy, I felt it would be appropriate to share my thoughts in order to help newbies to high energy, working line dogs.


You don’t need to supercharge your adrenaline junkie. If you have done your research and currently have or will have a puppy from a reputable working dog source, know that your puppy probably either has *it* or she doesn’t. If you set a solid foundation as a puppy and find your dog needs extra attention in certain areas as an adult dog, good trainers can help you tackle them. If your puppy grows up to be a dog that is nervy and not fit for a certain dog sport, I can almost promise you that it wasn’t because you didn’t focus on drive as a puppy.

I cannot tell you how many times I was told to crate my puppy any time she wasn’t working (and while I would love to elaborate more on this, the short of the long is that if your puppy/dog will only work if they have been isolated for hours on end beforehand, perhaps it is not a very good working dog), to back-tie her on a harness to encourage drive for the toy/dumbbell/whatever for months on end, to ignore obedience and focus on DRIVE DRIVE DRIVE. This was the single biggest mistake I made with my first working dog. She naturally had *it*, the glorious drive and energy and desire to work that everybody wants, and my lack of experience ultimately created an over-the-top, disengaged yet frantically-ready-to-work drive machine.  While drive building exercises are absolutely beneficial in certain circumstances, engagement and teaching your working line puppy an off-switch (how to settle when they are not actively working) should be at the top of your priority list.

Colorado puppy trainers

Additionally, your high-energy breed does not need copious amounts of exercise per day. SAY WHAT? Seriously. Those people that tell you your malinois is going to suffer and maybe eat a baby if you don’t run her at 30mph for 12 miles per day, every day? They are full of crap. This plays right into a previous comment — these dogs were bred for versatility, and they either have a good work ethic or they don’t. However, we can absolutely create a monster by over-exercising and over-stimulating our working dogs. While working dogs are supposed to be athletes, they do not necessarily need to be Olympians. Even dogs competing at the highest level of dog sports need to be able to travel well (often internationally), be out in public with Joe Average, and turn themselves off to recharge.

A dog that is over-the-top and always on wastes energy, has difficulty thinking, and can be frantic in the work. Not only are those dogs extremely difficult to live with, they are not commonly going to be achieving top scores in performance, either. So, despite what some of the working dog crowd will tell you, your dog does not need a 45 minute training session, a trip to the dog park, plus a half-marathon run every day. In fact, they don’t even need a quarter of that. Make them think daily, take them on a walk, and give them some sort of job that you do at least a few times a week (agility, IPO, mondioring, nosework, competition obedience, etc) and teach them to settle.

Teaching your puppy or dog that there will be days she will not get exercised — we are human after all — is a skill that should not be underestimated. The expectation that a dog should, or will be, “worked” or given a “job” 24 hours a day is completely unrealistic in the average home. There is a time for work, and there is a time to relax. Don’t get caught up in the hype that you cannot peacefully co-exist with your dog in the house. You can, so long as you put in the work. Just because some training veterans say your dog is not supposed to live as a pet does not mean that the dogs cannot live in the house, be friendly to your family and neighbors, and be a good dog to be around. Just because we want energetic, flashy obedience in the future doesn’t mean we should let our puppies walk all over us while we ignore obedience until they’re “mature”. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing — no matter what somebody else tells us.

Puppy Socialization Tips

The current fad is to take a puppy everywhere to meet everyone and everything in the world. Unfortunately, there is also an extreme increase in dog aggression and leash reactivity, and fear with new people and places. This is not a coincidence – socializing our puppies is important, but it is more important to do it CORRECTLY.

When socializing a puppy, it is important that the puppy finds the new interactions GOOD. Just throwing a puppy in an arena with 20 other puppies will not guarantee that they will be social as an adult, and, in fact, may inadvertently CAUSE aggression issues as they mature. Rather than blindly sticking a puppy in with a group of strange dogs, we should encourage our puppy to experience the world while still maintaining that we, the owners, are the greatest being of all time. If done correctly, socialization will assist in creating a confident dog.

Socialization Questions to Keep in Mind

  • Does the puppy/dog have an escape route if they are uncomfortable?
  • Are they using the escape route frequently? If so, we’re pushing them too far, too fast.
  • Does the puppy return to the situation on their own? Bounce back is a very good thing!
  • Will the puppy experience the new item without food present? Some puppies are so “foody” that they will work through their fear to eat, but are not actually getting over the issue.

Important Points

  • Puppies learn more from stable, adult dogs than they do other crazy puppies.
  • Waiting until a puppy is fully vaccinated to take them out causes owners to miss out on the prime socialization opening. See THIS POST (Why You Should Socialize Your Puppy Before It’s Safe) for more information.
  • Dog parks and doggy daycare can cause reactivity issues later on, so it is important to monitor dogs in social situations closely for behavioral cues that they are not having a good time.
  • Allowing dogs and puppies to greet other dogs while on leash increases likelihood of leash aggression later on.
  • It is important to introduce puppies to new environments — not just other dogs and people — such as loud noises, slick floors, uneven surfaces, elevators, wheelchairs, etc.
  • Any puppy or dog showing fear around humans and dogs should be referred to professional training.

Fear Aggression versus Outward Aggression

Signs of Fear Aggression in Dogs

  • Head held low
  • Wrinkling of the nose
  • Curled lips, teeth exposed
  • Corners of the mouth pulled back
  • Ears pinned back
  • Raised hackles
  • Tail tucked/lowered
  • Panting


Fearful dogs will typically choose fight over flight if given the option. In a kennel environment or on a leash, we have taken away their ability to run. If you must handle a dog exhibiting fear aggressive behavior, do so with caution. Ideally, take some time to sit on the ground with your body angled away from the dog. Avoid direct eye contact, and talk in a calm, kind voice. Toss treats at them if they will take them. Fearful dogs typically snap when you have them cornered, or as you are walking away. Never turn your back on a dog exhibiting aggressive behaviors.

Signs of Outward Aggression in Dogs

  • Head held high
  • Front teeth exposed when lips curled
  • “Puffy” lips/huffing
  • Ears up and forward
  • Tail stiff and held upright, slight stiff wagging motion
  • Stiff posture
  • Mouth usually closed when not barking/growlingpost-3404-0-98483000-1362360823




Knowing the difference between fear and outward/assertive aggression is critical. Approaching the wrong one incorrectly will likely end in a bite. If a dog is exhibiting outwardly aggressive behaviors, do not attempt to handle him unless absolutely necessary.


Helping Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is typically caused by the anticipation of an owner’s return and often anxious behaviors occur either soon after they leave or before the dog feels they will return. If owners make their arrivals and departures less exciting, they can prevent or decrease the anxious behaviors. If a dog is exhibiting mild separation anxiety, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Obedience training to set rules, boundaries, and for mental stimulation
  2. At LEAST 30 minutes of heavy exercise per day (preferably more)
  3. Crate training — a RuffTough or ZingerWinger kennel if the dog is a known escape risk
  4. Medications if deemed appropriate, either holistic or prescription
  5. Fake departures/arrivals 25-50x per day
  6. Food only from meal dispensers/treat toys (examples below)
  7. Consider other options including recorded audio left playing, thunder shirt, etc.

With a new dog, it is important the owner gets them straight into a routine of being alone. Taking two weeks off work and spending every day with a dog, then suddenly leaving for an 8 hour work day, will trigger anxiety.

Meal Dispensers

  • Kong Wobbler, Bob-a-Lot, Buster Cube, Planet Dog Snoop, Kyjan Slow Feeder, etc.

Treat Dispensers

  • Original Kong, Kong Genius line, West Paw Tux and Tizzie, JW Treat Dispensers, etc.

Enacting nothing in life is free and getting on a serious obedience training schedule can be helpful for confidence and anxiety. Teaching conditioned relaxation, settle, on your bed, as well as other obedience cues can help you through this process. It is HIGHLY recommended that you find a dog training professional asap to help you with your dog: http://www.humanesociety.org/…/training_nothing_in_life_is_…

Holistic supplements and aids: Composure (Composure Pro preferred), Rescue Remedy, Bach Walnut, CBD oil (Charlottes Web is a good option, cwbotanicals), Adaptil DAP pheromone collar, thundershirt — not recommended for dogs that shred fabric.

Common prescription options: Fluoxetine/prozac, xanax, trazodone, clomipramine/clomicalm.


Some dogs have CONTAINMENT PHOBIAS rather than separation anxiety, or the separation anxiety is so severe that they can seriously injure themselves in a crate. You have to make a determination of what the best route is for your individual dog. For my personal dog, it was best to start allowing him to free roam because he has containment phobia more so than separation anxiety. If your dog will injure themselves trying to escape from the house, a crate might be a better option.

Helpful books: Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena Demartini-Price, Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety by Nicole Wilde.

I have found it beneficial to have a webcam hooked up to my mobile phone.. helpful in monitoring progress.

Do you have any tips for owners dealing with separation anxiety? Questions about your own dog? Leave a comment below!

Balanced Dog Training: What is it, and why do we care so much?

Balanced dog training. A phrase that seems so obviously desirable, that it is hard for the average dog owner to understand why there is so much fuss about it between dog trainers. Unfortunately, the philosophy of “balanced” training has been under attack heavily in our industry – so much so that a huge split has occurred in the field. Instead of working together for the bigger picture, many dog trainers internationally spend hours online spreading propaganda and even harassing other professionals who do not use the same methods they do.

Let’s stop right here. Before you get a headache and exit the screen at the thought of another article slamming the +R/Force Free dog training movement, know that this one will be different.

So – what IS balanced training? Why does it ruffle so many feathers? The term separates us from the “old school”/”traditional” dog trainers and the force free/positive reinforcement only trainers, finding a happy balance somewhere in between. The idea is not to say that we use 50% treats and 50% corrections, nor is it a way to sneak a fast one by the industry or our clients. It is simply describing our work as harmonious, in the sense that we will use various tools and methods to create a happy, behaved dog. We are not in the industry to create fearful, shut down dogs. We want to help, and we do it in the way we find most successful for us.

Is there one right way to train a dog? Of course not. Saying there can only be one correct philosophy is like saying there is only one acceptable sport or type of music. Like human beings, dogs are individual creatures with different personalities, drives, and confidence levels. Some like food, some like a good game of tug, and some can’t be bothered with either. My German Shepherd, as sweet as she is on her own terms, mocks me when I try to reward her with a pat on the head. “Really, lady? A head pat? Throw the damn ball!”, I imagine her saying as she glares at me with those big brown eyes. I must oblige.

If dogs are individuals, then it makes sense to assume that each dog requires a different variation of training in order to succeed. Or, if not a custom training style, perhaps a particular teacher will get through to them. This is what many trainers from both sides don’t seem to understand. Not only are dogs unique, but so are our abilities as dog trainers. Just as a hip hop dancer might struggle to teach a ballet class, a talented force free trainer has a different developed skill than an equally talented balanced trainer. This doesn’t mean either one is wrong – just that each has developed different skills through their own experience and education. The ability to know which style of training a dog will excel under is a necessary skill for a successful dog trainer. In my own career, I never stick to one path when training. I assess each dog and each situation every second of every lesson, adjusting my style based on the feedback from the dog. Those who claim they have solved every dogs issues using one style only is either incredibly lucky to have such a biddable pool of dogs in their care, abnormally talented, or completely dishonest with themselves and our dog training community.

The problem with labels, of course, is that we set ourselves up for attacks from our peers and on social media. See, the other common misconception is that using corrections has to be harsh, inhumane, and unfair to the dog, while positive methods are permissive and destined to fail. These are not true. While there are certainly trainers (as was commonly the case in the past before many of us knew better) out there who jump straight to unfair corrections, the majority of balanced trainers work hard to ensure that dogs are set up for success using a heavy foundation of reward based training before ever correcting the dog (aside from behaviors that are outright dangerous for any party involved). On the other side, most force free trainers are dedicated to the upkeep required to keep the dog successful in distracting situations. See – our industry, while divided, has the same goal. We want the dog to succeed long-term.

Unfortunately, many balanced trainers are contacted by owners who have been through the ringer with other inexperienced trainers in the past and have reached the end of their rope, or have experienced a recent trauma involving their dog that has caused them to give up hope completely. You will see many force free trainers call prong collars and electric collars “lazy” dog training because the results come faster than counter-conditioning and desensitizing. . . because at some point, fast results became a bad thing in this industry to everyone except the dog owner and the dog. Fast results does not equal laziness or lack of trying from either dog trainer or dog owner; rather, they mean more time to enjoy life with the dog and move forward from the bad behaviors that have caused so much stress and distress to both human and dog.

With this, the tools many balanced trainers use have been under heavy attack for years. Prong collars and electronic collars (e-collars) in particular have been the driving force for the anti-correction movement. Misunderstanding and misuse of the proper techniques these tools are used with have caused most of the issue. When mentioning an e-collar, for example, many have the vision of a dog being shocked at a very high level at the first sign of disobedience, causing the dog pain and fear based compliance. While this was true when they first came out with these devices, times have changed and so have the methods. They have become multidimensional tools with often over 100 levels of stimulation, most dogs working at under a quarter of that. When I introduce an e-collar to a new dog, I ask that the dog owner feels the level I am introducing to their dog; after placing the collar against their wrist, I am most commonly asked if the collar is even on. It is not pain or fear that trains the dog – it is the technique used by the trainer, in addition to the unique sensation of the tools, paired with motivation (be it food, toys, love, or otherwise) and consistent communication that creates results.

What is the solution? I wish any of us knew the answer. My goal is to have a harmonious relationship with other dog lovers in this industry, and to constantly attempt to better myself. Not only so I can continue to grow as a dog trainer, but also so that I can continue to help even the toughest cases. Dog training is evolving every day, and new information is constantly being put out. It is our job as dog trainers, whether force free, balanced, or something else, to look objectively at the information out there and determine what works best for our needs and the needs of our clients. If we could stop all of the bickering and shaming, maybe, just maybe, we could learn a lot from one another.




Assessing Aggression: The Complexity of Predicting Canine Behavior

A research paper that dives into the complexity of behavioral assessments in animal shelters, and the potential possible solutions.

This year in the United States, it is estimated that consumers will spend a total of 60.59 billion dollars on their pets. This number has risen consistently throughout the years and is astronomical when compared to the 17 billion dollars spent in 1994 (American Pet Products Association). Unfortunately, the number of dogs euthanized in shelters each year is also quite large. According to the ASPCA, 3.9 million dogs enter shelters each year, and 1.2 million (31%) of those dogs are euthanized during their stay. Many euthanized dogs failed behavior testing conducted by shelter staff and were deemed unavailable for adoption, resulting in euthanasia. Data supports that relying solely on behavior testing does not work, despite the fact that there are major benefits to behavior testing (S. L. Bennett). In order to solve this problem, alternative methods that give desired results in behavior need to be implemented, including multi-dimensional behavior programs in shelters, recruiting more foster families for shelters and rescues, and providing low-cost behavior and health care to dog owners before they make the decision to surrender a pet.

In order to improve behavior testing, it is important to understand why behavior testing is important. Shelters aim to adopt out dogs that are not only suited to the lifestyle of its adopters, but also to ensure the dogs are not a risk to public safety—a current public concern due to the heightened attention dog bites receive in the press and social media. When a dog is not a match to its prospective owner due to a lack of behavior testing, the results can be tragic. Take the case of 57-year-old Anthony Riggs, for example. Riggs, described as an animal lover, adopted a 5-year-old Rottweiler on the morning of November 12, 2015 from the Jackson-Madison County Rabies Control in Tennessee. The Rottweiler, a stray, was adopted out to Riggs without any behavior testing. Although it had shown no aggressive behavior towards the Rabies Control staff, Riggs was mauled to death by the recently adopted Rottweiler. His body was found on the evening of the day of the adoption. Several other people were bitten before the dog was fatally shot by police officers (Moye). To help prevent similar tragedies, the results of a series of behavioral tests are often used to determine whether a dog is adoptable, and, if so, to what type of family dynamic. There are many different ‘temperament-testing’ programs used across the United States. The two most commonly used include Sue Sternberg’s Assess-A-Pet program and Emily Weiss’ Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER) program.

According to its creator Sue Sternberg, the goal of the Assess-A-Pet program is “to find the gems that don’t often come in gemlike packages” (Robertson). The process takes about fifteen minutes to complete and involves a series of exercises that hope to predict a dog’s social behavior and potential for future aggression in various scenarios. The person administering the test starts by standing in front of the dog’s kennel and maintains neutral eye contact with the dog for five seconds. The dog is then removed from the kennel on a leash and ignored for thirty seconds, followed by ten seconds of friendly speech and three strokes of a hand along its back. The teeth are then examined by lifting the lips five times, held for five seconds each time, followed by stroking the dog’s back, lifting a back leg, and touching a foot, the tail, and ears. The evaluator then uses a towel to wipe the dog’s entire body, tugs on the collar, applies pressure to the shoulders, and gives the dog a hug. Next, arousal is evaluated by engaging in play behavior. Food aggression and guarding behaviors are examined by the Assess-a-Hand—a fake plastic hand that is used to handle the dog’s food and toys. A new person then enters the room, gives the dog ten seconds of eye contact, reaches for the dog, and kneels to solicit attention. Finally, aggression towards other dogs is tested by introducing it to an unknown dog. Both dogs remain on leash until the test is completed (S. L. Bennett).

The ASPCA SAFER Aggression Assessment is another commonly used program when helping determine adoptability in shelter dogs. According to the ASPCA, the test is “a predictive, consistent method for evaluating the probability of canine aggression in individual dogs” (ASPCA). The test takes approximately ten minutes per dog, and begins by holding the dogs head still and looking into its eyes using neutral eye contact. Then, the evaluator moves their hand in a kneading motion along the dog’s back, hips, and shoulders three times. This is followed by an attempt to engage the dog in exciting play to test arousal and overall excitability levels. Next, the evaluator says “squeeze” aloud and squeezes in between the dog’s toes multiple times. Food guarding and possession is tested using the same Assess-a-Hand as described above. Finally, the test is completed after a neutral dog is brought in on leash and the dog’s reaction is noted (S. L. Bennett).

While there are benefits to the tests, there are many issues surrounding the way animal shelters currently evaluate behavior. Behavior testing in its current state gives only a partial look on what behavior a dog may display upon leaving the shelter. According to Barbara Robertson, a journalist for online magazine The BARk, the tests are not only unfair, but also help shelters boost their adoption statistics as only dogs that pass the tests are included in their adoption and euthanasia figures. This, she states, does not give communities a clear picture of the dire overpopulation issue in shelters. Additionally, dogs in shelters are frequently too stressed to react as they would once they have been in a new home for a few weeks. Many types of aggression, including food aggression, aggression towards strangers and/or children, as well as resource guarding may not be exhibited until weeks after a dog is adopted. Dogs with food or territorial aggression may pass those tests, for example, because they are refusing food due to stress and do not feel the need to protect their current environment.

A dog that demonstrates food guarding is often deemed unadoptable and automatically condemned to euthanasia. A study by the ASPCA discovered that 34% of shelters make no attempt to correct this behavior before euthanizing. In addition, though many shelters consider food guarding sufficient reason for terminating a dog’s life, the ASPCA found that most food-guarding behavior is eradicated within three months of adoption. This study took place at the Wisconsin Humane Society between April 2004 and September 2006, and focused on food-guarding from humans only. The study’s objectives were to identify dogs with food-guarding behaviors, place those dogs into new homes without prior training, record any guarding issues within three months, and determine how guarding behavior was handled in other shelters in the United States. Out of 6,603 adult dogs adopted, only 96 dogs were enrolled in the guarding program. Enrolled dogs were tested using the SAFER assessment and showed aggression only during the food-guarding test. Pit bulls and Rottweilers were not eligible for the study, per the shelter’s requirements; also ineligible were dogs that were determined to be too dangerous to participate. Adopters were instructed to follow a specific protocol that required they offer food at all times, feed part of the meal in an enrichment device, keep feeding-time calm, ask the dog to sit before feeding, avoid conflict with the dog, and allow the dog to eat without disturbance. They were additionally instructed to randomly drop a treat into the bowl as they walked by. A follow-up was done at three days, three weeks, and three months after adoption. Thirty-one percent of adopters were unable to be reached for follow-up and six dogs were returned to the shelter within three months. Unfortunately, the compliance rate with adopters was low and dropped as the study continued. Almost all of the adopters took away the food bowl during meal times by month three, few were using enrichment devices, and many were no longer asking for a sit before feeding. Despite this, only six dogs demonstrated non-food guarding behaviors within the first three weeks, and of those six only one showed food guarding. By month three, that dog was no longer guarding food (Mohan-Gibbons). The study concluded that euthanizing dogs based solely on food-guarding results is unnecessary as many dogs will not exhibit the same behavior once adopted.

As the unreliability of behavior testing continues to result in the euthanasia of many potentially adoptable dogs, some shelters and rescue groups have taken new steps in an attempt to save more dogs. Bound Angels, an animal advocacy group dedicated to “bringing attention to the shelter crisis and implementing proven solutions”, created its ‘Behavior Assessment and Reactivity Checklist’ (B.A.R.C.) in order to address the current issue. B.A.R.C. allows a person to “fairly interact with a dog in a normal manner”, and the results of the checklist declare strong and weak points in the dog’s personality (Bound Angels). These results are rated using colors — Red, Yellow, and Green– and are available to both staff and potential adopters. A poor rating, however, does not condemn a dog to euthanasia. Instead, options are given that assist with rehabilitation and reassessment in the future after behavioral improvements have occurred. While it is still difficult to assess a dog’s future behavior in a shelter environment, the B.A.R.C. checklist is a step forward in the correct direction.

Another way to correct the current problem is incorporating comprehensive behavior programs into shelters. Dr. Sheila Segurson D’Arpino– a specialist in Veterinary Medicine– conducted an in-depth study of behavioral assessments during the research portion of her residency at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program. After her research, D’Arpino developed a list of steps necessary to successfully operate a shelter behavior program. The list includes: an appropriate behavior assessment test, a questionnaire for prior owners upon relinquishment of a dog, shelter behavioral guidelines, a professional behaviorist available to staff, a foundation behavior and training program covering basic obedience and house manners, a program for behavior modification, adoption screening, behavioral counseling before and after adoption, and post-adoption follow up for new adopters. The guidelines provide a detailed behavioral plan for every pet in the shelter– under the supervision of a committee– which gives descriptions of each step in the behavior program. Each pet is assessed for behavioral problems and problems classified as manageable, treatable, or untreatable. Dogs with no behavioral issues or mild problems enroll in a foundation behavior and basic training program, while dogs with more serious issues undergo behavior modification training performed by experienced and reliable staff members. Once completed, those dogs are reevaluated and euthanasia is performed if they did not respond to training or drug therapy. Adoption screening reduces the number of returns to the shelter by matching an adopter with a dog that fits their lifestyle and is compatible in their home. Once an appropriate dog is found, the adopter undergoes adoption counseling in order to ensure that they understand the necessary training and management requirements. Counseling remains available post-adoption and at least one follow-up is performed after the dog leaves the shelter (D’Arpino).

In addition to comprehensive shelter programs, utilizing rescue groups as much as possible allows for a better determination of behavior. Rescue groups operate using foster homes– volunteers who open up their homes to dogs in need– for dogs with behavioral or medical issues that shelters are unable to help. These non-profit groups provide medical treatment, behavior training, and shelter for the dogs in their care. The foster home is responsible for housing and caring for the dog until they find a family to adopt them. Unlike behavior tests in shelters, foster homes are able to view a larger portion of a dog’s behavior on a day-to-day basis. While many dogs are still initially stressed in the new environment, they tend to show more of their personality once in a home environment. Many of the dogs in foster homes are tested around children, other pets, strangers, and other items typically experienced post-adoption. Unfortunately, as is the case in shelters, foster homes are a limited resource. Since all fosters work on a volunteer basis and many provide the food and other care items for their foster dog, finding enough homes willing to take in all of the dogs with behavioral issues is an impossible task. However, the more community outreach and funding that is done promoting rescues and recruiting volunteers, the more dogs are saved.

Finally, funding low-cost training and medical treatment options for communities help keep more dogs out of the shelters to begin with. A high number of dogs enter shelters as young adults with bad behavior that is completely preventable. Dog training classes teach basic manners such as sit, down, stay, and come, and also provide impulse control exercises such as leave it, politely greeting guests, and calm leash walking. Adult dogs that have no basic training often exhibit undesirable behaviors that result in their relinquishment to a shelter. Low-cost training options geared toward owners who want to solve their dog’s behavioral problems will result in fewer relinquishments, and low-cost puppy programs will help prevent behavior problems as the dog matures. Additionally, many dogs are surrendered due to unwanted litters of puppies, health problems, and injuries that owners cannot fix due to the expense involved. Low-cost medical treatment and sterilization clinics not only keep dogs in their homes, but also reduce the total number of unwanted litters. Bad Rap, a rescue and pit bull advocacy group in California, offers all of these low-cost resources to families in need. Bad Rap’s spay and neuter clinic operates on a ‘pay what you can afford’ system in order to fight pet overpopulation, behavioral problems, and health concerns associated with remaining intact. Bad Rap also offers free microchipping and vaccinations as well as training classes that prioritize helping train dogs at risk for relinquishment. In addition, support is given to those facing homelessness, are struggling to find a place to rent, find pit bulls they cannot keep, need financial help with veterinary care, or cannot afford pet food (BadRap.org). This type of community support for dog owners who truly want to keep their pets is a key link in reducing shelter population numbers.

Although the number of dogs in shelters is overwhelming, reducing the number of dogs euthanized in shelters is possible. Shelter behavior testing is evolving, and, if implemented with the goal of gaining consistently accurate results, euthanasia rates will drop. Behavior testing should not be the determining factor of a shelter dog’s future, however. Focus should be given to creating comprehensive, multi-dimensional behavior programs in every shelter. Those programs will help solve behavioral problems and provide enrichment for dogs in shelters. Additionally, community outreach regarding rescues and fostering will free up resources for animal shelters by reducing their population, and will provide better evaluations of an individual dog’s behavior. In addition, low-cost medical treatment is necessary for families who want to keep their dogs but cannot afford treatment or basic medical care. Finally, affordable training options for low-income families should be required in every community in order to provide foundation training and behavior modification support to those in need. If these steps are followed, more dogs will have the opportunity to make it out of animal shelters and into forever homes.

American Pet Products Association. “Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics.” n.d. APPA. 8 December 2015.
ASPCA. “Pet Statistics.” n.d. Shelter Intake and Surrender. 29 Nov. 2015.
—. “SAFER.” n.d. ASPCA Professional. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
BadRap.org. Resources for SF Bay Area Dog Owners in Need . 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
Bennett, Pauleen, et al. Reliability, validity and feasibility of existing tests of canine behaviour. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Bennett, Sara L. “Temperament Tests: What we do and do not know about them.” n.d. Purdue Animal Behavior Clinic for Maddie’s Fund. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.
Bound Angels. Behavior Assessment & Reactivity Checklist. n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
D’Arpino, Sheila Segurson. Behavioral Assessment in Animal Shelters. 2007. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Mohan-Gibbons, Heather, Emily Weiss, and Margaret Slate. “Preliminary Investigation of Food Guarding Behavior in Shelter Dogs in the United States.” Animals (2012): 1-16. Web.
Moye, David. Man Killed By Rottweiler He Adopted Hours Earlier. 2015 17 Nov. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Robertson, Barbaera. “Dog Is in the Details.” n.d. The BARk. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Just some obedience training!

It’s been yucky, snowy, windy outside. Versailles and I have been training in obedience, rally, and back into IPO.. lots of training time for the two of us! We had a decent session today that I had decided to record.

It is always the funniest things in dog training. Versailles can down-stay for 15 minutes with my back away from her while another dog performs a routine – but man, this new tug was SOOO exciting! What’s a down stay? Clearly another word for sit 🙂



Split-Tone Versailles

Split tone German Shepherd

I have a serious obsession with my dogs. No, seriously – it is pretty deep. All dogs, really. I find them fascinating; their behavior, their ability to work with humans, their individual quirks and challenges… it is simply remarkable that these creatures can do what they do. I look into their eyes and I see so much more than “just a dog”. I can’t help but get wide eyed and skeptical of a person when I hear them say that phrase. …Are we on the same planet? Do we speak the same language? I guess just like dogs, humans have their own individual quirks and challenges…

Our First Attempt at AKC Novice A Obedience

We were SO incredibly close! We decided to pursue our CD title in June and have been preparing like mad – our teamwork was great, but the odds were not in our favor.

With this being our first trial, I had NO idea what time we would go up – the only time slot near obedience listed was 11:20am, so I figured if we go there by 10:30am we would be golden. Wrong! We ended up going at 3:30pm, so we were both hot, exhausted, and I was feeling pretty anxious.

The routine went beautifully – she forged and crowded in a few spots, and I made some handler errors, but I really felt we had it in the bag until the end. During the group sit stays, one dog went down. Then another. One stood up. Versailles looked around confused, and sloooooowly went down… with seconds to go on the one-minute clock. DISQUALIFIED! Man! I cried and I cried, and then left quickly embarrassed at how emotional I was after such a nice run.

I emailed our judge after the show hoping to know what my score would have been had she Q’d – 193.5/200! Pretty exciting for our first time! So, we are signed back up in October and we will try again – and this time, we will SIT STAY!

Available for Adoption – Victoria

Outpaws Adoptable

Outpaws Adoptable

5 month old Victoria is available for adoption through OutPaws Rescue in Colorado! She likes other dogs, playing with ball, and cuddling with her people. A rescue that just flew over from the Humane Society of the Grand Bahama, she needs to be taught how to be a proper American.. but she is very friendly and eager to please!

Colorado Adoptable Puppy

Top 5 Durable Toys for a Large Breed Dog

When I am hired by a client with a destructive large breed dog, the first thing I ask is what toys, if any, they are offered during their “free time”. Often, I am told that they are not able to have interactive toys because they destroy or even eat them if given the opportunity. My German Shepherd, Versailles, is a notorious chewer and killer of all things fluffy. I understand the dilemma of buying a $30 “tough” toy, only to have it torn apart within 5 minutes of bringing it home. Thus, I bring to you a list of my top 5 personal favorite toys that both entertain and last for large breed dogs!

1. Top 10 Toys for Large Breed DogsKong Wobbler: The Wobbler is no doubt one of my favorite treat dispensing toys. In addition to being interactive, it is quite durable and has handled being chucked against the fence frequently by my own three dogs. While I have seen some very persistent chewers mangle the plastic in order to get the food faster, dogs that enjoy pushing around toys with their noses will get plenty of entertainment from this toy.

“The KONG-shaped Wobbler is an action-packed treat and food dispensing toy. It sits upright until pushed by a dog’s paw or nose and then periodically dispenses tasty rewards as it wobbles, spins and rolls. The unpredictable movement keeps the toy challenging, even for seasoned Wobbler users. The Wobbler can also be used as an alternative to a dog bowl to help slow and extend mealtime while providing exercise for your dog. Unscrews for easy filling and cleaning.”

2.Top 5 Toys for Large Breed DogsChuckit! Max Glow Rubber Ball: While it looks like any other rubber ball, the Glow Ball is a huge hit in my house and is considered a favorite. In fact, we had to buy 3 so that each dog could proudly carry one around without fighting! The Glow Ball activates by sunlight and has a long lasting, intense glow. It has a nice amount of give which is great for dogs that enjoy chewing.

“Ready Set Fetch! Give your dog something to jump for. Durable rubber ball glows in the dark to allow the game to keep going when the sun goes down. Your dog will love this grippable rubber ball made just the right size to use with your Chuckit!® Ball Launcher, sold separately.”

3.Top 5 Durable Toys for Large Breed DogsJolly Pets Teaser Ball: The downside of this ball is that a vigorous chewer can mangle the plastic in each hole, which over time can create sharp edges. That being said, the fun dogs have with this toy is out of this world. A ball INSIDE a ball, the Teaser Ball is a blast to throw, chase, and tackle.

“HOURS. You may ask what we mean. Well, you’re dog is going to spend countless hours trying to get the ball out of the ball. No need to worry though, the inside ball isn’t going anywhere. And to make it more interesting, you can put some peanut butter on the inside ball to drive them even crazier!”

4. Top 5 Durable Toys for Large Breed DogsJolly Pets Bounce-N-Play: I honestly can’t say enough about this company. Jolly Pets has a large product line of durable toys for canine and equine families. The Bounce-N-Play is a large ball with a fair amount of give that allows a dog to chomp on the ball without puncturing it… and it floats! For heavier chewers, the Push- N-Play may be more appropriate as it is a hard plastic that the dog cannot grip with its mouth, and therefore cannot destroy. The Bounce-N-Play made it on this list because it appeals to a larger crowd (the dogs that enjoy biting the ball instead of hiking it around), but the Push-N-Play is my German Shepherd’s favorite toy to herd.

“And with one giant kick the ball went flying…and the best part is you didn’t break your foot and the dog can’t deflate this ball. Shazam! Made from a super pliable material, even if your dog gets a hole in it, it will still keep its shape. Great for any backyard or lake adventure.”

5.Top 5 Durable Toys for Large Breed DogsKong Extreme: A classic, the black Kong Extreme is great for entertaining a bored dog. It can be used for fetch, for chewing, or for stuffing with your dogs favorite treats. I tend to put a couple treats in the hole, fill it with peanut butter, and freeze it over night for full entertainment value. Kong has a color scheme regarding durability, and for the strong chewers black is the way to go.

“KONG Extreme represents the most durable version of our original KONG toy. The ultra-strong, ultra-durable, black rubber compound is recommended for the most powerful chewers.”

Top 5 Durable Toys for Large Breed Dogs
Versailles has always LOVED Jolly Pets brand toys!

*Remember, it is recommended that dogs be supervised when given toys – particularly if they are known for picking them apart!!

That is it, my Top 5 Durable Toys for a Large Breed Dog! Have a favorite toy that I missed? Share your favorites in the comment section below!

Interactive Wednesdays: Introducing Your Dog(s) to a New Puppy

For the first official week of Interactive Wednesdays, I am responding to a question posted regarding introducing a puppy to an established pair of adult dogs. See below:

We already have two dogs (as you know, you have painted them XD ) – how do we introduce a third to them? I keep reading it should be on neutral ground, but how can you do this when the newbie is a puppy that has no vaccinations?!

Any ideas or advice? The puppy has a crate and a 5x3ft pen in the living room, if that would change your advice 🙂

Thank you if you have any thoughts!

Great question! First, I think it is important you familiarize yourself with my opinions on socializing a puppy before it is fully vaccinated. You can read back to that post here.


I am working under the assumption that this will be an 8 week old puppy, but the methods still apply if they are older than that.

First, do not be surprised if your dogs are not initially thrilled with the idea of a puppy coming into the home. My very gentle Labrador turned his nose up at me when I brought home my 8 week old German Shepherd puppy, and it took him a few weeks to become convinced that she was staying and that, perhaps, he should accept her. Some dogs are much quicker to accept a new member to the family, but it most likely will take some work on your part to acclimate them.

A tired puppy is a good puppy, so you should make sure that you keep the new pup nice and exercised before interactions with your adult dogs. An 8 week old will not be leash trained, but if you have an enclosed yard you can create a fun situation for your puppy – they can wander around, follow treats, and you can begin basic obedience training such as sit and down. Mental engagement can be more tiring than physical exercise.

I would recommend keeping toys and bones put away when all 3 dogs are interacting during the first few weeks to prevent any sort of resource guarding. Do not feed them all in the same area – put the puppy in the exercise pen during feeding times.

During the first meeting, I do agree that a neutral location is important, particularly if your dogs have ever shown any signs of territorial aggression. This can be a small park, baseball field, or a backyard that your own dogs have not frequented often. If the puppy is 8 weeks old, carrying them while on a walk can be helpful so that your dogs can sniff and check out the puppy without being jumped on or pestered. Once the three dogs seem bored of each other, you can walk back to your house and introduce in the front yard, and then the backyard. I typically recommend having the new dog in the yard first, and then bringing in the resident dogs, to avoid triggering them at a threshold (a new dog coming into the yard that they feel belongs to them).

Give your dogs plenty of time away from the puppy by utilizing the play pen, and allow them to correct the new puppy to an appropriate extent. A sound, well balanced adult dog will not typically injure a puppy, but you may hear plenty of growling and see some snapping. That is completely normal behavior for an adult dog and can teach the new pup about the ways of the world! Do not correct your adult dogs for telling the puppy to knock it off, and intervene if the puppy is not getting the hint so your dogs do not need to escalate.

I hope that helps! Let me know if you have any questions or if I did not cover anything.

Do you have a question regarding behavior, training, or anything else that you’d like to ask about dogs? Post your comments below and I will answer one of them next week!