Does Your Dog Tell You “No”?

Do you listen to him?

Rio lip licks – Is the camera stressing you out?

How do you get him to say “yes” to things that might need to be done?

Clicker Expo St. Louis 2018 – I was at a presentation by Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson Vegh, and Peggy Hogan and this one line sticks out to me, “in order to hear more ‘yes’, start listening to smaller no’s.” On the surface, it might not make sense. But in practice it makes all the difference. Listening to small “no’s” is one of the bases of trust.

A dog who trusts you to listen to his ‘small no’s’ is the dog who turns his head from you and yawns rather than curls his lip, snarls, or snaps. Or maybe further up the ladder of aggression it is the dog who air snaps rather than grabs your arm.

People sometimes ask me, “if you stop when he pulls his paw away/gets up/jumps off the mat/fill in the blank __________, then aren’t you just teaching him to do more of that?” First of all we need to back up the plan and look at how to further break down criteria in order to keep him comfortable in order to have success. Secondly, and this is what I’m focusing on here, we don’t want our dogs thinking, “I need to speak louder in order to be heard.” This is especially important for procedures that might be scary or uncomfortable – things like nail trims, baths, grooming, restraint, or even just basic handling for some dogs.

So first we must learn to listen when our dogs ‘speak softly’. This is no small feat given that our languages have little overlap. Every dog is a little different (just like people and their language!) and context changes are very important (again, much like our language).

Some of my favorite books on the subject: Brenda Aloff – Canine Body Language A Photographic Guide, Turid Rugaas – On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Patricia McConnell – The Other End of the Leash

But let’s just run through some quick examples:

  • Head turn away
  • Stiffness or stillness
  • Yawning
  • Breathing changes – e.g. open mouth panting to closed mouth
  • Avoidance
  • Lip licks
  • Blinking
  • Ears pinned back (in general, changes in ear position)
  • Hiding
  • Owner ‘clinginess’
  • Whale eye (whites of eyes visible)
  • Sniffing the ground – ‘checking out’
  • Sudden scratching or self-grooming
  • Lowered body carriage/ position – ‘slinking’ behavior

Observe your dog – I think it was Patricia McConell who talked about the ‘laboratory of your living room’ – use this laboratory to make some observations and record some data about your own dog when he is relaxed/frightened/frustrated/excited. Sometimes it’s really hard to put a name to what they are feeling – how can we truly know? – but we can make observations about their behavior and how it fits within the context of their lives.

There are a couple places where Rio tells me “no.” A while back he had an injury to his declaw. Evidently it was very painful. I had him soak it in a Epsom salt solution to help with healing. Now I could have left him no choice; I could have just taken his foot and made a compress, restrained him and put it on. However, I thought there is a some chance we’ll have to deal with a foot injury again in his lifetime. I don’t want to add to his trauma and it would be awesome to end up with a behavior we could use again in the future should it be necessary.

I went back and made some videos of the pieces long after his foot was healed. It was useful to go back and revisit, but since the behavior was already known and he was not experiencing pain, I dropped the value of the treats back to plain old kibble (we used delicious canned food initially).

First, I used the process of shaping with the clicker and his long history with shaping (in addition to playing the ‘paws up’ game with anything and everything), to get him to step into an empty container in the kitchen. Then we generalized this behavior, taking it into other rooms.

Next, we took the empty container into the bathroom and put it into the bathtub. This was just to keep the whole soaking process from being super messy. Rio is not a huge fan of baths, but he will jump into the tub for me. (This is actually another place where choice is important to him, and listening to ‘no’ is important for me.)

So since writing this and taking the first two videos, Rio got a little sore between his toes and I decided it might be a bad idea to do the foot soak again. It was really small and it looks much better now, but I was able to take some video as we worked through it. Roscoe cameos. 


During the foot soak process, Rio got a pretty high rate of reinforcement for keeping his feet in the container in the bathtub – a little classical conditioning for you. At any point, he was free to take his feet out and even jump out of the tub and leave the room. A few times he choose to do this. I just waited for him to come back, hop back in and resume, which he did. It took him less than 30s to make that decision; he knows where the value is. I don’t know how painful his paw was; I have no way of knowing. I wanted to give him some control over the process rather than using force to get the job done.

With him, and for this, it worked really well, and ended up strengthening our relationship rather than becoming a battle and straining our bond. I know this is not always going to be possible; sometimes emergencies happen and we just need to get something done quickly. Restraint may be needed; choice may have to be removed. But whenever it is possible to take it slow, to work together, to listen to and respect our dogs when they tell us “no, please stop,” whenever it is possible to find a way to help our dogs feel comfortable and in control enough to say “yes,” it is the kindest course to take.

Bonding 101: Maximize FUN, Minimize FRUSTRATION

Or A Walk With No Expectations:

Have you heard we are fostering Roscoe?

He is a big sweet heart. If you are looking for an active dog to add to your household, get in touch with me (quick)! We are fostering him through Wags Inn Canine Charities.

But . . .

I don’t know if I can give him up at this point. (I believe that’s know as ‘foster failure’).

When you first bring home a new dog, it’s all excitement and newness, especially if it’s a puppy or young dog. However, you quickly realize that a puppy is an upheaval in your life. As is an older dog. They just throw off the nice little balance you’ve worked so hard to establish in your household.

I don’t know about you, but change isn’t super easy for me. And home is my little sanctuary. A new dog changes the energy, rearranges the timeline, and sometimes overturns the quietude. Frustrating.

Frustration is not good for the relationship. It is a withdrawal from the bank account.

But it’s also bound to happen from time to time, especially as you are learning how to fit your new dog into your old life. It’s a shaping process. It requires teaching some new behaviors, reinforcing good choices (on both your parts), and rearranging your own expectations.

You both adapt to each other. A new dog changes the shape of your life.

As this process unfolds, you are bound to come up against frustration and resistance to change. Better make sure you are making plenty of deposits into that new relationship bank account! But how do you make deposits? Any positive experience is a deposit into that account. Any negative experience is a withdrawal.

Today, we took walk with absolutely no expectations. No training goals. No fitness/exercise goals. Just going out for a walk with my two doggies. Anything could happen. We laughed. We sniffed. We got soaked. I didn’t even know it was going to rain.

When you welcome a new dog into your life, things have to move around a bit. Sometimes I resent that Rio and I don’t have as much training time together. Sometimes Rio resents it too. But finding ways for the three of us to have fun together is a great bonding experience. It fuels the relationship.

It takes me back to when Rio was young and Kavir and I were integrating him into our lives. There were some bumps along the road.

Bonding happens when you have fun together, when you can let go and laugh and be silly together. It happens when you learn together. It happens when you overcome challenges together. Camping was a great bonding experience for Rio and me (not to mention for Kavir and me <3).

Today, a rainy day walk in the park brought me and my two pups a little closer together. I laughed and ran with them. They ran, stopped, sniffed and ran some more. We all got soaked. No expectations resulted in lots of FUN.

So Roscoe and I are bonding. Is he here to stay? To be continued . . .

Roscoe – Are we home yet?

Just look at that pretty boy. <3

So Roscoe the rescue is still looking for his home. He stayed with us for a week when Lori was away so he could have some alone time, away from the hustle and bustle and all his friends at Wags Inn. He is a sweet and handsome boy who has been doing fantastic during his stay.

Some highlights:

He has been working on hopping into the car.

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Meditation with Dogs

There are probably as many personality types of dogs as there are personality types of the people who live with them. Which is to say there are either many or just one, depending on how you cut it. Are you a lumper or divider? Maybe we are all just dog-people and our dogs are just dogs. But there are also vast differences between all of us dog-people and between all of our dogs. I like to the think that dogs acquire some of our personality, they mirror us to some extent, or perhaps we acquire dogs that are similar to us. I’m thinking of the movie “Best in Show” and the neurotic couple with their neurotic weimaraner. This movie took a humorous look at the idea that dogs mirror their people or people mirror their dogs.


I am certainly not exempt and I think I have something to learn from Rio’s specific neuroses if I look closely. He is high-strung and excitable. I certainly can be too. Kavir says my spirit animal is a hummingbird. I tend to flit about from one flower to the next and rarely sit down for long. Rio is especially excitable in new and busy environments. He doesn’t handle changes in his routine very well, or at least changes get him worked up. He will start to scratch from the stress. When I take him to the pet store or hardware store to try to help him acclimate and cope with new environments, he needs constant feedback about what to do. He will look to me and if I am not helping him he might start barking at me. In a high stress situation, he does best with lots of cues to follow and a high rate of reinforcement. With these things in place he can thrive and even enjoy himself. He absolutely loves to work and delights in the tasks I give him. But he is easily overwhelmed if it is not clear what he should do next.

Who are you calling neurotic?
Who are you calling neurotic?

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Pup Treats

Rio did have to control himself while I took pictures, but he got plenty of goodies in the process!

I tried out a new recipe for some treats! Salmon and sweet potato. I found a nice collection of dog treat recipes here:

The recipe I used is one that list here is the link to the recipe:

I train with Rio’s kibble as much as I can, but sometimes you just need to up the reinforcement value such as when you are working in a more challenging environment or when you have a particularly difficult training task, a so-called “expensive” behavior 🙂

Just a little closer . . .

Pup really likes these and they were very easy to make. Mine turned out really soft and gummy but I had a pretty large sweet potato. If your dog is on a special diet, be sure to talk to your vet before trying out new foods. Canned fish can be high in sodium so keep this in mind when using these tasty treats.

Okay, buddy you earned it. Now let’s go hiking!

A Dog’s Perspective – How it Deepens Our Empathy and Our Capacity to Love

Pup has his own plans. He has his own needs and motives. The emotions he feels are as real as anything I’ve ever felt. I just can’t know exactly how they feel to him. I can’t know exactly what it is like to be a dog. The things that are important to him I might not even see. Everything looks different through a dog’s eyes. Maybe everything is more real and present. I can try to imagine the scene made up of scents and the sounds that drift in from far away, the ones I don’t even hear or smell. I can try to imagine, but I bet I can’t even come close to appreciating the differences.

How do you see? What do you know?

Try to imagine this before you start a training session. What is going to matter to doggie in your environment right now? What is he going to be paying attention to? What will motivate him to focus on you? What makes him angry?

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Paws for Peace – Reinforcing Calmness

Who? Me?

Rio had a rough start after our move. Sometimes he still goes back to barking at every little thing. He can be a very reactive dog. Reinforcing calmness along with managing inappropriate barking helps him to become calmer and more confident in his new environment. When he was young it was hard to catch him during any sort of calmness. For him at least confinement seemed to increase relaxation. It still does. I can put him in his crate after a barking fit and he might settle right down and go to sleep.

When he was a pup we sectioned off a portion of the house with a playpen fence so he only had access to the kitchen and dining room area. He learned to be calm here first. I remember watching movies on the sofa in the living room and periodically walking over to reinforce Rio for lying on his bed calmly while we were on the other side of the fence (in plain view) watching movies. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to pay much attention to what we were watching because I kept looking over for moments to reinforce. Every time we let Rio out of the fenced area into the living room he would get a bit nutty. He would want to play or rub his muzzle all over the floor excitedly. Gradually I started letting him out in that room for longer periods of time and looking for times to reinforce calmness in this new area.

This is what you want, right? Pup on the floor.

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Dog Obedience to Dog-Human Cooperation

Rio and I, we are more alike than I knew. Similarities appear across our species’ barrier. “You get the dog you need.” It’s a statement I have heard before, but it takes on new facets of meaning as our time together lengthens.

We have joined an obedience club, and boy do I feel out of place. This is no TAGteach environment. They say they use something called positive reinforcement, but it’s a harsher brand than the one to which I subscribe. I joined because I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to learn obedience exercises and become familiar with the way people move in the show ring – obedience, agility, rally, rally-o; it’s all new to me. It sounded like a fascinating way to further explore the depths of our relationship with our dogs. New learning motivates me strongly. I had been feeling restless, in need of a way in which to grow.

Sometimes you learn best by jumping in. Sometimes you fail and have to pick yourself back up out of the mess.

Obedience? Really? Couldn’t you pick something more fun?

I’m sure there is a way to keep obedience lighthearted and fun, to make it a positive experience, a safe place to learn from each other and from our dogs. I’m sure there is a way to ensure that Rio enjoys the experience, that he gets lots of goodies and doesn’t get scolded or jerked around. There has to be a way because that is a part of who I am and it comes with me everywhere, inside every experience into which I venture with my pup. There is space within this structure that feels so rigid now, space for pup and I to move and learn with ease and joy.

I joined the Beginner Obedience class. I am well aware of Rio’s struggles with highly stimulating environments, in part, because they are my own struggles as well. Kavir points it out sometimes when we enter a busy restaurant. There is panic for a moment in my eyes. I try to hold it in, to pretend that it doesn’t phase me when I don’t know where to order, where to stand, but there are so many people, so much bustle. On top of all that, there are decisions to make about what I will eat and drink! Take a deep breath. Come back to your body and out of your mind. As I am able to relax and feel at ease, Rio will join me, lying down by my side to nap in trust and peace.

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