A Dog’s Choice – Does Your Dog Want What’s in Your Left Hand?

Remember ‘Does Your Dog Tell You “No”?’

Listen to small “no’s” to get your pup to say “yes”. This post was about training Rio to do a voluntary foot soak in the tub for when he has little paw injuries that need care. This is most similar to the start/stop button type behaviors that Eva and Emelie talked about in their 2018 ClickerExpo presentation. (I can’t believe I had to miss ClickerExpo this year! So sad!) This type of behavior can be used for training husbandry behaviors and veterinary procedures – administration of vaccines, blood draws, nail trims, application of medication, etc. Eva and Emelie also talked about using it in training behaviors that could be somewhat scary for a dog like going over the teeter agility obstacle. Super cool stuff.

Control as a primary reinforcer was a huge topic at ClickerExpo 2018 St. Louis and it is one that is hugely interesting to me!


In the same presentation, Eva and Emelie spoke about two other important ways that choice and control come up in our training plans. They broke it down into these three categories of control:

  1. Animals Can Make Requests – They can tell us what they want.
  2. Animals Can Make Educated Choices – Given a choice between A or B, they can communicate their preference.
  3. Animals Can Choose to Start and Stop Procedures – They can tell us “okay, proceed” or “pause, please”

Of course, these categories of communication do not come built in. Some of them may develop on their own and can be aided by us (especially the first category! can I go outside? fill my water bowl, etc.), but all of them require quite a bit of mutual understanding and clear contingencies. “In situation A, if I do B, then you do C.” This can be taught!

So the foot soak most closely resembled category 3 Start/Stop Button Behaviors. Although, not strictly. Maybe I will come back to discuss this category in more detail in another post.

But today I am going to share with you one of my first experiences with category two. This one is more fun, at least for Rio and me.

The setup: Rio has several toys he likes to play with in the yard. His favorites are his Frisbee and his ball.

The challenge: I’d like him to be able to indicate to me his preference of which toy he wants me to throw. Just for fun, really. And because I am very interested in the idea of enrichment through choice and control. And I just want to get to know my dogs better, what are their preferences anyway? It’s interesting, to me. Lots of reasons, I suppose. This could be a good foundation to other choice type behaviors we may train in the future – once he gets the concept!


Teach nose target to Frisbee = reinforce with Frisbee throw


Teach nose target to ball = reinforce with ball kick

Slowly start to present the two choices at the same time. Over time, Rio learns he has control over which toy I toss for him. I suppose he also has a third choice which is not to play. If he doesn’t pick one, then I know he is not interested in playing my games right now. Off you go then, Rio.

Check it out!

Recently Rio has started messing with me. There was one day he always choose whatever was in my left hand. I thought the behavior was broken! I could not figure out why he was just choosing my left hand, no matter which toy it held. I still don’t know and I don’t have a video of it so I can’t go back and scrutinize to see if I was doing something differently. Most days, he will have a strong preference for one toy over the other and it changes day to day. Some days he will go back and forth between the two without a clear preference. And apparently some days he just wants the one in my left hand. *Shrug*


May a good dog be with you!

Coffee + Dogs

*Disclaimer: Dogs should not eat/drink coffee – it is toxic to them. However, a warm doggy and a hot cup of coffee is the perfect combination to curl up with on the couch in the wintertime.


Kavir just made me an Americano with a bit of sweetened condensed milk. He really is the best. Rio is curled up next to me on the couch. Roscoe is sleeping in his crate right now next to the couch. It’s a peaceful late afternoon. I had a few lessons outside and came home quite chilled so this really is the absolute best.

Coffee with this guy.

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Dogs and Dirt – Frustration in Living and Training

Dogs: beautiful creatures, good at changing all our well-laid plans. Disruptors for the greater good.

I am still figuring out how to train with Roscoe. Of course, figuring out how to train with him successfully will make me a better dog trainer. It will also make me a better person. How many times have I caught myself thinking and speaking about how dogs make us better? About how they teach us the things we need to learn – about ourselves, about our relationships with other people, with ourselves, and with the world? Our dogs have a tendency to bring to light the places we need to grow – they show us how we could do better – how we tend to manage our emotions and navigate our relationships with others, what works and what could work better.

It takes me back to when Rio was a baby. God, was he frustrating at times! I also had no idea what I was doing with him and no experience as a clicker trainer or as a human responsible for another being. The thing that got me the most with Rio was when he jumped on me and started humping. He always jumped on me and started humping me whenever he got over-aroused or anxious. I didn’t really make the connection about when and why it was happening, I was just focused on trying to get him to stop. You know how as clicker trainers we are always talking about preventing problem behavior and asking the question: what do I want instead? Yeah, it wasn’t so much that as “F—, just stop!!!”

The same sorts of emotions present in several cases with Roscoe. It’s probably not as bad; I’d like to think I’ve gained some amount of emotional control in the intervening years. When Roscoe eats dirt in the yard, when he cries while Kavir and I are eating dinner or trying to watch a movie, when he gets frantic trying to predict what we are doing next and starts running back and forth from one end of the house to the other or pushes past me through the door – I can get a bit irritated with him.

Good thing you are cute, Roscoe!

Especially when we’re out in the yard together. The weather is now turning from mud to ice at intervals, and apparently mud popsicles are a huge motivator for Roscoe. There is actually probably some kibble dissolved in the top layer of dirt in places from all the scatter feeding we’ve done trying to build calmness in the yard. Well, that works lovely, but I now also have dirt eating doggies. I don’t know why that gets me so irritated. It’s not actually a huge deal. Rio started doing it sometimes too after he learned about it from Roscoe, “Oh, that’s a great idea! Eat dirt!” I imagine him thinking. Rio gets really excited and runs around the yard playing chase with Roscoe, then when they stop he wants to take big mouthfuls of dirt. Is it because he is thirsty? Does he just need some transition from crazy play? Maybe.

Roscoe does it when he is bored, which is to say, the moment I take my attention off him (it seems like!). Sometimes he will dig or pull up clods of grass and dirt and run around with them. Sometimes I can call him away from it, but apparently it is a very fun activity. He needs constant direction – unless he is searching for kibble in the grass or playing with Rio.

We are going to avoid yard play for a little bit in favor of walks and training games in other areas. We’ll see if preventing the behavior for a little bit will help. Then we will have to set him up to make different choices while he is in the yard.

Sitting on the couch with Roscoe while typing, I experienced another moment of frustration. Since the doggies are allowed on the couch, we keep blankets over it to make it easier to wash. When Roscoe gets bored or frustrated that someone is taking up too much of the sofa real estate, he likes to start biting and pulling on the blankets. Sigh. Chew on your antler instead, please.

Sleeping so innocently.

Roscoe is both frustrating and easily frustrated in training. Rio and I have a much longer history of reinforcing each other and so our training sessions are usually so much fun! Kavir commented when we were traveling with the two of them that Rio’s training walk was much longer than Roscoe’s. That got me thinking. It is true that Roscoe needs a bit shorter sessions. He will get bored and frustrated easily and need a change or a break. But it is at least in equal part me (if not more). I need a break from him! I can only handle so much Roscoe training! He is go, go, go! He is fast! Try to do a shaping session with him, you’d better be ready. As we learn to work together, he will make me a better shaper, a better trainer, no doubt. But wow, I need to shape myself there too.

Yes, Rio and I have a long history training together. I enjoy all the signs that he is enjoying the session – his tail waves loosely, his mouth is gently open, his ears pricked, he makes frequent eye contact – the Oxytocin loop.

My six year training history with Rio puts us on a pretty solid foundation. Even then he can still frustrate me at times. (Why are you just barking into thin air?!! Why??! And are you still seriously afraid of the FLOORS?!) Sigh.

It makes me realize how far we have to go yet.

Roscoe, he is intense. Of course, he is a different dog. So of course he is going to train differently than Rio. You would think I would know this by now, especially after working with so many different kinds of dogs as a trainer! But he is my dog, so I see him and his faults day in and day out. I compare him to Rio. I get upset whenever Kavir makes an observation that puts something Roscoe does above something Rio does. “Roscoe is better at traveling. He is more relaxed in new environments,” he observes. “Why do you say that?!” I ask. (Rio is the greatest, he can do no wrong). Roscoe has different strengths and as we train together more I will begin to find and appreciate more and more of his strengths. We will learn to work together fluidly and have more fun together. But for right now, I do have to plan out his sessions carefully, end them before either of us gets frustrated (him whining, his movements becoming more and more frantic, me dropping my shoulders and sighing – which is, of course, aversive to him). Plan carefully, end early. And bit by bit we learn what makes us all happy together.

Appreciation for Roscoe: He is easy to reinforce with play (tug). He is not super interested in sniffing in the woods. He could care less about other dogs on the trails. He is highly food motivated even in challenging environments (after he is reasonably comfortable). He is super cute. He loves to cuddle. His intensity, enthusiasm, and speed are really something to be appreciated as soon as I learn to channel them appropriately.

Let’s check out some training:

Here is Rio – shaping left paw on left box while right on right box. For all my training faults he is doing very well.

and Roscoe:

He is just getting started with this (while we have done lots of practice on 2 paws on the same object). His criteria: right paw on right box OR left paw on left box. Again, for all my training faults, this is a fantastic session with Roscoe. I see no frustration behaviors (that was my criterion)!!!


May a good dog be with you!

Dog management?

What does it mean to manage your dog? Managing your dog is all about helping them fit into your life in a way that causes the least amount of effort and stress for you and for your dog. Management is not training, technically, since through management your dog is not learning anything new. On the other hand, management is a very important part of training, since if you are effectively managing undesirable behaviors your dog is not practicing and rehearsing these behaviors. Dogs, creatures of habit like us, will always do what they’ve always done, so if you can effectively break the cycle of behavior with a management strategy, you are setting your dog up for success down the road, as well as avoiding pain, stress, embarrassment, and possible danger in the meantime.

A gate across the kitchen was an early management strategy to keep peace in the household when we first introduced Roscoe, otherwise they wanted to play way too much. We still use it!

Management is about choosing your battles. You only have a certain amount of time, energy, and resources to put toward your dog (or anything, really). Your dog has to fit into your life. You want to maximize your happiness together. One way to help your dog adapt to your style of existence is through training. Now, I am a dog trainer, so of course I think training is awesome. In fact, it is one of my favorite aspects of sharing a life with dogs. Training new and appropriate behaviors can be really fun. However, it also takes time, energy, and resources. This is why it’s so important to choose your battles. Pick the behaviors you really need to modify in order to be the happiest with your dog and manage the rest in the meantime (or possibly forever, there is really nothing wrong with management!). Sometimes I feel like I spend way more time training and helping others train their dogs than in training my own! Which causes my own set of management/training woes.

I love to teach stationing on a bed or mat! Once taught, it can now be used to manage doggies while we are cooking, eating, or exercising.

Training or Management: How to Choose? 

I love to travel with my dogs, so it’s pretty important to me that they are both happy in the car. When we first adopted Roscoe, he did not like jumping into the car. After Rio and I experienced a minor car accident, he also went through a period where he did not want to get in the car. It was pretty important for me to work on modifying this behavior and improving the emotional state related to riding in the car. So this is a place where I invested some training time. Nail trims is another one – Rio’s nails tend to split if they get too long. I have to trim them pretty frequently – so for his and my own sake, investing some training time into happy nail trims is well worth the effort.

On the other hand, Rio and Roscoe both like to bark at cats. If the cats run when they bark, they would totally give chase if given the opportunity. Our yard is set up such that there is an unfenced section right outside the back door, a small path leads to our fenced yard. Each time I want to take them out in the yard, I need to leash them both and walk them out to the yard. I do not trust them not to take off after cats, other dogs, people, etc. This is management. Could I invest enough training time so that I could trust them to walk with me off leash from the back door to the fence? Sure. Maybe it would be worth it, but I haven’t been able to convince myself of this, and I’m perfectly okay with that. I have much more fun working on other things. I always go out with them to the yard anyway, so it’s no big deal to clip on their leashes and lead them out. Could we put up another fence? Sure. This would be another management-type strategy to deal with this situation, but this one again would require more time, effort, and resources.

Rio – Off-leash in the safety of our fence.

What about rescue dogs? Some dogs come with behaviors that aren’t ideal, but if we can be more adaptable, they could be adoptable! Here are some examples from the Rescue Dogs at Wags Inn Canine Charities:

Stranger Danger – Management Strategies

Some dogs have a hard time meeting new people. Wags Inn rescue Tucker is one such dog. It takes a lot of effort to help him safely meet new people, but once he trusts you, he will remember you forever and love you dearly. Tucker is not a dog I would ever trust greeting guests in the house, not without a ton of work, and possibly not ever. Out of fear, he has bitten several people. He is a last chance doggy. A management strategy for him would be to always put him away in his safe place – possibly a crate in a quiet room that can be closed – when people are visiting. I would probably employ a double defense by also putting a gate across the entryway that always remains closed, just in case someone were to accidentally walk in before he is safely away. Vigilance and consistency would be very important in keeping everyone safe. He would also not be a dog suitable for someone who likes to entertain, but would do best with a quiet family and a large, safe yard. He is great with other dogs though, and he is a major sweetheart. <3

Tucker the rescue – Still looking for the perfect forever family. He will need someone who can take the time and has the patience to provide both training and management for his anxiety and fear of new people. Seriously though, he is a sweetheart.

Putting your dog away when company comes could be a successful management strategy not only for a dog who is scared of strangers, but also for a dog who is overly excited, jumpy, or one who barks, or begs too much when you have company. Make sure his safe place is a happy one by having him practice settling there before you need it as a management strategy. Feed him stuffed, frozen Kongs and treats in his safe place frequently. He could go here to eat dinner several times a week, relaxing with a dinner-stuffed Kong.

Managing Expectations

It is very important to know before you think about adopting a particular rescue: what are the most important reasons you want a dog? What are types of behaviors that would interfere with having a successful life with them? What kinds of behaviors would you be comfortable managing? How much training could you afford to do with them? Think about the costs in terms of time, effort, and resources. Do you need an easy dog? Or would you be comfortable and capable of providing a home for a more challenging rescue who might need more in terms of training and management?

If your family is busy and often rushing, you’re not going to want an easily spooked dog who needs extra time to make decisions and feel comfortable. If you love having dinner parties and you want your dog to be a part, you are probably not going to match well with a shy, reserved dog who does not like to meet new people. But you might like dog who is everyone’s friend like Opie!

Opie the rescue Beagle wants to be everyone’s friend.

Do you love to walk, run, or hike with your dog? You’d love Pepper.

Pepper loves to run, but watch out, she also loves to chase after squirrels! An easy walk harness is a good strategy to help keep her under control.

Do you live in an apartment and have to manage barking carefully for the sake of the neighbors? A quiet dog will be best. These are all things to think about when considering your new best friend.

Penelope is a dog who does not really like meeting new dogs. She does play well with her suite-mate Petey, but he is currently her only dog-friend. She loves people – bouncing and playing outside and cuddling on the couch. Penelope is not going to be your dog-park pal, but she is working on being comfortable passing by other dogs on leash at a comfortable distance. She will make someone a super sweet companion in a one dog household (or you could adopt Petey too!).

Penelope – No dog parks for me!
Petey – Penelope gets me. My feelings about other dogs are the same as hers!

Nail Trims – Management and Training

Lots of dogs dislike having their nails trimmed! Management might look like taking lots of long walks over rough terrain or on pavement to wear down your pup’s nails. It might look like scheduling nail trims under sedation at the vet. Training could involve getting him to scratch his nails on a nail board to wear them down. Training could also involve counter conditioning to the process of foot handling and eventually nail trims. With my two boys Rio and Roscoe, whenever I pull out the nail clipper they are getting in line to be first to offer their feet! They both know a cooperative nail trim is a well-paid behavior, making it easy on everyone involved.

Crates and Potty Training

Crate training is a great way to manage overly rambunctious dogs – giving them time to chill out and settle. Crates are also great for potty training. Management is a huge part of potty training. When you are working on potty training, it is very important to prevent as many accidents as possible. You basically do this strictly through management – it might be keeping a puppy in a crate when you can’t watch her, tethering her to you with her leash so she is always under your supervision when out of her crate, and slowly opening up her freedom by using gates and puppy pens. The other side of potty training, of course, is giving lots of opportunities to get it right and lots of positive reinforcement for appropriate elimination. I love crates as management tools! But make sure management doesn’t go too far. Puppies can’t spend eight hours in a crate. If you have a long day at work, a management strategy you might employ could be daycare for a dog who likes to play with other dogs, or a dog walker or enrichment visits for dogs who are happier one-on-one.

Opie again! He is probably going to do well with crate management to help him make the right choices when he first moves in with you. What can you expect, he is still a young, energetic pup?!

Management should help you meet your dog’s needs as well as your own! A dog’s needs include – exercise, appropriate potty breaks, mental stimulation, play, social stimulation (with you, other dogs, or humans), training to help understand and fit into human society, rest, healthy food, fresh water, basic vet care, as well as others you may think to add. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go play with my pups. 🙂

Everyone loves playing tuggy in the yard!

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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