Bark and Lunge: Saving My Dog from Training Mistakes

(updated Nov. 2015)

A memoir


On sale now!

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Bark and Lunge has received three national book awards:

Indie Excellence Award and Sponsor’s Choice Award, the USA Best Book Award, and a Gold Medal and 5-star review from Readers’ Favorite.

Buy the eBook from Amazon, Kobo, Nook, or Google Play.

Buy the paperback from IndieBoundAmazon or Barnes and Noble. Your local bookstore can order it for you too.


Senior doggie aging with grace


Mia had a bit of fur shaved last week at the vet. She’s been so itchy, they wanted me to be able to get the medicine to the skin. It’s not a great haircut, so Mia’s been rocking some adorbs hoodies while it grows back. I bought a couple of new ones too, because I think it could be a while.

She also had a funny looking bump aspirated and pathologized. Usually my vet leaves long voicemails for me with test results, and I hadn’t heard back from him. I thought maybe he was waiting to deliver the news in person this week when I brought Leo in. I started researching cancer treatments, and wondering whether my vet accepts the Care Credit card.

Last night I checked the email account I don’t use very often and found a message from the vet: “mixed inflammatory cells. No cancerous or neoplastic cells were seen.”


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Three times I spoke up for my dog

dog park_2


Often, people with reactive dogs are overly concerned that others will judge us for the uncontrollable, barking, lunging, frothing beast on the other end of the leash. We need to get over that and just worry about our dogs.

I have gotten better and here are three examples where I was proud of speaking up on behalf of Leo.

1. For some reason, people like to ride their bikes on a path through our only unfenced off-leash area. This field happens to be next to a sewage plant. There’s signage at the top of a path, which I’ve wanted to supplement with “Off-leash dogs. Bike or jog at your own risk.” Or even “Walk your bike, please.”

Recently, we were working our way down the path when I noticed two bikes at the top of the path. They had a choice of directions; one featuring a view of the bay, the other the scent of sewage. If they came down my way, we were screwed. There’s no place to step off the path. I know because once I tried avoiding a jogger and fell embarrassingly down a hill. The jogger of course wanted to stop and help, and I was like, just go! Instead of letting the cyclists decide our fate, I called up to them, “Please don’t come this way. It’s an off-leash dog area.” And they didn’t.

2. Clearly I have forgotten what it is like to not live with one’s romantic partner, because it baffles me to see young people kissing and hugging in parking lots. So we’re walking up a path and I can see cars parked at the top, and the heads of a couple of people, and I’m thinking, whyyyyy are you parked there? when a shepherdy looking dog starts wandering down the trail. I called out, “Are you walking your dog down this way?”

The dude said, “No, we’re just hanging out.” And put his dog in one of the cars, and we were able to pass.

3. While this next one is a success story for Leo, it pissed me off to an unreasonable degree. It actually happened on the same walk as #2. We walk around a big sports complex where we can see triggers coming from a good distance. I had just bagged up some poop and was headed toward a trash can when I saw a 60-year-old guy on rollerblades, like it’s the goddamn nineties! I turned the other way and cheesed Leo while I tried to assess where Roller Dude was going. Of course his destination was the same trash can. Once he threw away whatever, he headed in our direction.

So we’re on the sidewalk, and he’s rollerblading down the middle of the street. Leo rumbles, like, a little bit, but honestly, I’d had more trouble managing him the night before during an encounter with a deer. Yay! Good boy, Leo. We throw out the poop and continue down the street. And then, Roller Dude skates back down past us again! And Leo rumbles again just a little bit and I’m cheesing the hell out of him, and he’s wonderful, but I’m watching this guy skate to the end of the block in the middle of the street like he’s motherfucking Gretzky. I mutter to my dogs, “This guy’s an asshole.” And he turns around again to skate past us a third time!

When he does, he turns to us with this shit-eating grin that probably wasn’t meant to mock me so much as to say either, “Ain’t life grand?” or “Look how cool I am on my rollerblades.”

I say to him, “Could ya not keep skating past us?”

We got to the end of the block before he had time to make it back our way again, so who even knows if he would have, or planned to but didn’t, because I so bravely spoke my mind. But it sure made me feel better.

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This is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below. All positive reinforcement training posts are welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long.

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Dogging up the new car

When I bought a new Honda six months ago, I didn’t trade in the old one, because it was so dogged up inside that 1) the trade-in value was negligible, and 2) I didn’t want to dog up the new Honda HRV. So we continued to shuttle the dogs around in the old Honda Fit.

On Sunday, Rob had some errands and didn’t want to take the new car. I wanted to take the dogs to the beach. So I put the seats down, laid towels over the parts that weren’t plastic, tethered the dogs so they couldn’t climb in front with me, and off we went.


I regret nothing.

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String Cheese: I’ll never let go

. . . one can never give too many food treats during temperament training exercises . . .
– Dr. Ian Dunbar



A few weeks ago I received a very nice message from someone who had heard my two podcasts on The Great Dog Adventure with Fern Camacho. (This one and that one) She related to my struggles with Leo, because she has a reactive dog too.

I never leave my home with out a pocket full of treats. Now when we see a dog, he turns to look at me to get a treat. I was wondering with your training of Leo, have you gotten to the point where you can wean Leo off of the string cheese? I am thinking that once a behavior is reinforced for a period of time, you no longer have to reward it.

I told her that I do still carry string cheese on all our walks. I’ve been doing it for two years, and the thought hadn’t crossed my mind to try to phase it out. Ever.

I’m totally okay with buying two large bags of string cheese every time I go to the store, and peeling the plastic off about twelve sticks before each walk. I went from thinking we’d never be able to walk Leo past a bicycle to having him look to me for cheese before I’ve even seen the bicycle. Now, even if he barks, he calms down pretty quickly.

For example, recently I spotted a bike coming our way. I crossed the street and readied the cheese. Then another bicycle came from the other direction, with an off-leash dog running beside it! Leo was amped, but not barking, and I don’t think he would have if I hadn’t made the tactical error of positioning us next to a dude rummaging inside a sketchy van. I got distracted wondering what that guy was going to do, and Leo wound up barking at one of the bikes.

Who cares. There was a time this would have ruined my whole day. Whatever.

Back to the question from my listener, though. She asked whether once a behavior is reinforced, you can stop rewarding it.

This is true with obedience training, especially if you show the dog the treat before you cue the behavior, because then it is a lure. You want to phase out the lure, lest it become a bribe. I learned this from Dr. Ian Dunbar, the father of reward-based training. (The quote at the top of this post, in fact, is from an article about the importance of phasing out treats!)

To quote my own blog paraphrasing him:

The biggest mistake reward-based and positive-reinforcement trainers make is to not phase out food soon enough. A lure takes a willing dog and tells him what we want him to do. A bribe coerces an unwilling dog to act against its will.

The difference is, I’m not using the string cheese as a bribe, lure, or reward. I’m using it to counter-condition him to things that scare him. That’s why I give him cheese even if he barks at the trigger, because I’m not as much rewarding him for not barking as I am conditioning* him that bicycles (or whatever) mean good things.

That’s why comforting a frightened dog (or human infant) doesn’t reinforce the fear. Fear is not a behavior.

In addition to their obvious applications in all aspects of teaching manners, food lures and food rewards may be more importantly used for behavior modification and temperament training. In fact, food lures and rewards are so effective, their use should be mandatory.

*So, shouldn’t Leo be conditioned by now? He’s getting there. When he sees something scary, he knows he’ll get cheese. And he has a much higher threshold for his triggers than he used to. Last weekend, we sat in the middle of baseball field while Rob practiced flying a drone, and Leo lay down very calmly. Bikes passed by on a nearby trail, at quite a distance, and he didn’t need to be cheesed.

Drone practice

Leo’s the one chilling on the left.

From the CARE for Reactive Dogs website:

You will need to continue to practice DS/CC (desensitization and counter-conditioning) and positive reinforcement of the alternative behaviors you have taught in new situations and locations in order to help your dog generalize the context. This will get easier and easier as your dog’s emotions change and his new behaviors are reinforced. As your dog becomes fluent in these new behaviors, you will be able to decrease the amount of food rewards you give him and use life rewards instead; these are things your dog finds intrinsically enjoyable, such as jogging a few steps with you, play, praise and sniffing interesting smells in the environment.

I still carry the cheese, because I can’t control the environment. It comes down to generalization. Leo could be completely desensitized to a 25-year-old woman traveling in our same direction on a bike at 37 feet away, but not to a 15-year-old boy traveling toward us at 26 feet away. Factor in speeds, and number of triggers he’s already seen that day… well, the cheese keeps him from barking most of the time.

Positive TrainingThis is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop hosted by Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Please share your responsible pet owner positive pet training tips by linking a blog post or leaving a comment below.  Our theme for this month is my positive training journey but any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are also always welcome. The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop goes all week long. Our next hop will begin October 3rd and continues for a week.

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That one dog who ruins it for everyone

A peaceful alternative to the noisy dog park: lying in the grass by a ball field while Rob practices flying a drone.

A peaceful alternative to the noisy dog park: lying in a ball field while Rob practices flying a drone.

Dog parks are risky for reactive dogs – all dogs, really – but we’re lucky to have three off-leash areas that aren’t usually too crowded where we can manage our well-socialized dogs. We leave as soon as a small, uncontrollable child arrives, or at the first sign of an unstable dog.

We tend to rotate between these three areas. I was thinking about taking the pups to one of these tonight, instead of the same exact walk we went on yesterday and the day before.

Perhaps the one that’s close to a new Poke restaurant in town. Oh, but no, I don’t want to go there because that’s where the weird lady with the reactive long-haired shepherd goes. (If your dog doesn’t like other dogs, maybe don’t bring it to an off-leash area where there are other dogs. People are always asking if our dogs are friendly. No, they eat other dogs. We just brought them here for a little snack. How does yours taste?)

And we can’t go to the Good Dog Park, because that’s where that dog goes who lifts his upper lip when Leo chases him chasing his ball.

Worse is the Bad Dog Park, monopolized during all the afterwork daylight hours by this ponytailed dude and his spazzy dog. She’s an overly friendly dog who runs up and wiggles against everyone. She gets in Mia’s face. When Mia snarls and tells her to back off, she gets in her face again! She has this crazed energy that infects the whole park, and if I’m feeling particularly empathetic, I can imagine that this guy gets home from work and his dog’s been cooped up all day, so he spends his entire evening with her at the park or else she whines and chews stuff. Except, he doesn’t even play with her! He lets her run rampant while he 1) chit-chats with other owners, usually women, or 2) naps on the bench. And you just know he thinks it’s wonderful she’s so friendly!

So, each of our parks has one (1) dog that ruins it for us. Of course, we’re probably ruining it for someone else. But hey, all of this will be moot soon as we lose daylight and will be walking them around the neighborhood wearing headlamps.

Looking ridiculous doesn’t make us unconventional

The theme for this month’s Positive Pet Training Blog Hop is Unconventional Training.

Even though I look strange squealing “cheesy” at my dog when strangers walk, run, ride, or roll past us, I don’t think my String Cheese Method is unconventional at all. Reward-based training, to me, is the most basic, obvious method of training anyone to do anything.

And yet, we still see prong collars and shock collars and people who think screaming at a stressed dog will de-escalate the situation.

I just got back from another flawless walk with my two German shepherds. For more than a year, I’ve had Leo’s leash reactivity fairly under control. We manage, we train. Two weeks ago, I would have said, “Leo does really well on walks when I can see the triggers coming. Of course, he’ll still bark if a bike or a jogger comes out of nowhere.”

Until last week when a jogger zipped around a corner at us. And I was doing the worst thing ever. I was distracted by Pokémon Go. (Shout out to ZoePhee for finding a way to use Pokémon to aid in training, not distract from it!) Fortunately, Leo was also distracted … by peeing. I saw the jogger before Leo did and I said Cheesy and Leo didn’t bark! It was glorious.

On tonight’s walk, he saw a couple of bicycles, and not only did he not bark, he didn’t even seem stressed.

At the risk of repeating myself: Reward-based training works.

If only there were a training guide to help people with reactive dogs who have been getting the wrong memos.

Oh, wait! There is!


Trainer Annie Phenix’s best-selling book The Midnight Dog Walkers has answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. As soon as I heard the title and saw the cover, I knew this was the book I needed when I struggled with my first reactive dog Isis.

My book about her, Bark and Lunge, is the story of what happens when owners follow “conventional” (old-fashioned) training methods. Now that The Midnight Dog Walkers exists, my greatest wish is that positive, reward-based training becomes the obvious, conventional solution for reactive dogs and their people.

The Positive Pet Training Blog Hop is hosted by Cascadian NomadsTenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. Any positive reinforcement training posts or comments are welcome. Linky List open through Sunday.

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