V is for Victory

I have proof that counter-conditioning reactive dogs to scary things works.

On a recent walk around Rob’s parents’ neighborhood after dark, we saw some kids run out of a house. I thought they were going to get in a car, but they just stood there in the street.

I worried they might hop on skateboards and head straight for us, which would have set Leo a-barking, so I asked, “Are you guys headed this way?” One of the kids said, “Who are you?”

We probably looked weird, with the dogs in their glow-in-the-dark collars and all.

I said pleasantly, “We’re just walking our dogs, but they might bark at you if you make any sudden movements.”

I’m totally delighted at how well I handled that, if I do say so myself. I’ve been counter-conditioned to scary things too.

They still just stood there (maybe in fear of making the aforementioned sudden movements?), so we kept walking while I gave Leo cheese, and everything was cool. As we passed, I saw they had toy guns, which made me even more proud of my dogs, because people with guns? That’s what German shepherds are designed to protect me from!

As far as I’m concerned, this was a total victory! Something unusual happened, and Leo looked to me to tell him whether he should be concerned about it.

To anyone who’s struggling with a reactive dog… there is hope. Keep on counter-conditioning your dog with positive associations to scary things. Eventually they will look to you tell tell them that everything is okay.


Also of note… Yesterday was Leo’s fifth birthday. He really has grown into a wonderful doggie, figuratively and literally: We weighed him and discovered that he weighs 103 pounds!

Birthday Boy

For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Read the story of how positive training helped my reactive dog Isis in my book, Bark and Lunge!


U is for Understood

Kari and Isis 2010

The best part of publishing Isis’s story, Bark and Lunge, has been getting feedback from other dog owners who relate to our experience.

Some fellow dog-bloggers have been very kind to review the book on their sites, and I’ve excerpted their reviews on my Media page.

Last week, I commented on this great post by The Pet Mom about adopting older dogs. She responded to my comment, I responded back, and this led to her buying my book and tweeting about it. That alone was thrilling, but then she emailed me after finishing the book.

Among her kind words were these: You went way above and beyond what most pet parents ever would. Her sweet, happy, precious personality shone through the book as well, and I too fell in love with Isis — what a beautiful, wonderful girl! I really wish I could have known her.

I wrote the book so people who have challenging reactive dogs would be able to find answers more easily than I did. I wanted them to feel understood, and to know there are others going through the same thing.

Of course all writers want to hear that readers enjoyed the book, but as a parent to a challenging dog, to hear that readers connected with Isis as a character, and wished they could have known her — that makes me feel understood.

For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Read the story of how positive training helped my reactive dog Isis in my book, Bark and Lunge!


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T is for Treats


As you’ve read, string cheese is the high-value training treat of choice around here, used to help Leo overcome his fear of bicycles and other fast-moving objects. With a reward-based counter-conditioning program, you’re supposed to use a treat that is special to that training, and it’s supposed to be extremely high value.

At first, I tried to stick to an ancestral diet by using cooked liver, which is odorific in preparation and leaves residue on the hands during training. For a variety of reasons, string cheese works best.

When we play nose work games in the garage, I’ve been using Zuke’s because they are very fragrant and easier to handle than cooked liver. They remind me of the Train-Me treats I described in Bark and Lunge:

These treats, about the size of a pencil eraser . . . tantalized me with their aroma. I gave up eating meat almost ten years earlier, but I loved sticking my nose in a freshly opened bag of bacon-flavored Train-Mes.

A general purpose treat around here, for example, to give the pups when they come back inside from the yard, is Merrick’s Texas Hold ‘Em dehydrated lamb lung. (Some of my dog-bloggy buddies recently were given some of Merrick’s BackCounty ancestral food to review. Hey, Merrick, put me on that list!) The dehydrated lung was recommended to us by an observer to a training class, who called it Doggie Crack.

Here you see the Mia and Leo tweaking out over it. (As I took these shots, I thought of all my dog-bloggy friends who do a really good job taking pics of their dogs for product reviews, and felt like inviting one of them over… or asking to go to their house, where I imagine the natural light is fantastic and the floors are perfectly clean.)

Something that was kind of fun for Easter, we did a little egg hunt with dollar-store plastic eggs and Zuke’s mini treats. Here’s a re-enactment.

For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Read the story of how positive training helped my reactive dog Isis in my book, Bark and Lunge!


Join me for the Thursday Barks and Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog.

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R is for Reward-Based

reward based

I give my dogs cheese in stressful situations to reward them for good behavior.

My relationship with my dogs is based on what’s often called “positive reinforcement.” This is a form of operant conditioning with the goal of increasing the likelihood a behavior will be repeated by reinforcing it with a positive stimulus.

Dog gets cookie when he sits on cue –> Dog likely to sit again when he hears the cue.

In the field of psychology, positive reinforcement is one of four quadrants, and as far as I can tell, the only one that laymen actually understand. Even I have to consult the chart to keep track of the others.

An even better way to describe my dog-training philosophy is “reward-based.” Some people hear that and think that means I give my dogs treats all the time to get them to do what I want. Which is kind of true, but there are other rewards you can use, like praise, playtime, or petting.

The best way to get a dog (or anyone) to do what you want is to reward them when they do it. Make it really easy for them by setting them up for success.

For more on reward-based training and how to set up a dog for success, check out this post from The Good Dog Blog.


Sitting calmly at the Dog Days of Summer event last year.


For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Read the story of how positive training helped my reactive dog Isis in my book, Bark and Lunge!


Q is for Quagmire

While many associate “quagmire” with Vietnam, I write of a literal quagmire: an area of soft, wet ground; soft miry land that yields under the foot.

Leo loves a quagmire

Continuing Saturday’s discussion of the Good, the Best, and the Other dog parks in our town… One of the features Leo enjoys most at the Other Dog Park is a muddy swamp shrouded in brambles. Last week, I took the dogs to the Other Park on my own, because I’d been sick with a cold for a few days, Rob was housesitting for his parents, and the pups were hungry for some stimulation. We went in with a Chuck-It and two balls, and came out with just the Chuck-It.

What happened was, Leo made friends with a smallish Husky who picked up his ball a couple of times. This is fine; I go to the dog park expecting to share our toys. Mia tends to hold onto hers, so that one seemed secure.

Because tennis balls are single-use items in Mia’s mouth, we have a variety pack of the rubber balls. This day, we were playing with a blue ball made of recycled materials containing flecks of orange, and the Best Ball… an orange ball that whistles when you throw it. Leo was carrying the orange ball when he strolled near the swamp. I encouraged him to leave the ball outside the swamp, so he dropped it. The little Husky swooped in, carried it into the swamp, and left it there.

His owner was apologetic, but I said, “These things happen at the dog park. It’s fine.”

After he left, I crawled through the brambles to look for it. The dogs followed me. I dragged the Chuck-It through the quagmire and found some tennis balls, some branches. The orange whistly ball, it seemed, had been gifted to the swamp. After a hearty search, I decided to call it … then noticed Mia beside me, mouth open.

“Mia! Where’s your ball?”

Also sacrificed to the quagmire.

But wait! There’s a happy ending! I brought Rob* to the swamp on Saturday to document it for this very post (careful to keep an eye on the blue ball Mia carried this time) and I found the orange ball! While the blue and orange-flecked ball is still enjoying a soak in the quagmire, we did come away with a red rubber Kong ball. A fair trade, I’d say.

We went in with one ball (two leashes, a PoopPac, and a Chuck-It), and came out with three.

*Special thanks to Rob for entering the quagmire with me. Your devotion has been noted.

For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Read the story of how positive reinforcement helped my reactive dog Isis in my book, Bark and Lunge!


Thanks to Alfie’s BlogSnoopy’s Dog Blog, and My Brown Newfies for hosting the Monday Mischief Blog Hop!

Monday Mischief

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P is for Park

pups park

Chilling at The Best Dog Park

I’ve written before about the two dog parks in town, but due to my self-inflicted rules for this All-Positive A to Z Challenge, I can repeat the name of only one of them: The Good Dog Park. (You can probably guess the name of the other.)

Now there’s a third, henceforth to be called The Best Dog Park.

“Have you been to the new dog park?” My hairdresser asked me last week.

“There’s a new dog park???”

I consider myself pretty locked in to the dog news around here, so I’m going to assume that I heard this first from my hairdresser because my dog training buddies have better pro-social activities for their dogs than the Wild West of off-leash parks.

We work hard to make our occasional dog park visits positive, even if that means leaving when the party is just getting started. Our visit last week to the Other Dog Park got really exciting when a year-old German shepherd zoomie-galloped into the fray, and Leo chased after him. I thought, Oh, good, Leo can wear himself out with this guy. But when the young dog slowed down, Leo mounted and humped him.

This has become our signal that it’s time to leave. While humping is a perfectly normal thing for a dog to do (Fern Camacho can tell you more), we keep things polite at the park. We used to have a three-strikes policy, but once Leo fixates on a dog, he keeps going back, so now we pack it up after the first mount.

Which is also what we did for our first visit to the Best Dog Park. While it’s farther from our house than the other two dog parks, it’s worth the drive. We’re still in the honeymoon phase, but it’s amazing! The ground is fully covered in bark, and there are some nice logs for people to sit on and dogs to jump over. More importantly, the people there were more attentive to their dogs than the folks tend to be at the Other Dog Park.

Somehow the dogs even seem better. This all might be because it’s new, but we’ll take it!

For the A to Z Challenge, I’m using all positive language in my posts. Find out how positive reinforcement training helped my dog in my book, Bark and Lunge!