Do dogs need rules?

Unbelievably, there are people in dog training circles who think positive-only training is wrong. But as Victoria Stilwell explains, positive does not equal permissive.

Cesar Millan is big on saying that dogs need rules, boundaries, and limitations, more than they need affection. Whether or not that’s true, I abandoned that notion around the time I learned that most of Millan’s methods are not backed by science or research.

I’ll be honest. I let my dogs do whatever they want, and I shower them with affection.

Know what else?

I can’t name a single rule that my dogs follow.

Not one.

Sure, they’re house trained and they walk on leashes. Do those count as rules?

German shepherd training

My doggie daddy and dog grandma are even more lenient with the rules than I am. Perhaps that explains the adoration in Mia’s eyes.

I can think of two rules that would be useful:

  1. No chewing doors.
  2. No surfing counters.

Left to their own devices, Mia won’t follow the first, and Leo won’t follow the second. Best I can do to enforce those rules is to block their access. Put an X-pen across the doors Mia likes to eat, and never leave food on the counter.

We were told to implement some strict rules when we first sought help for Isis’s leash reactivity. As far as I’m concerned, the world’s stupidest rule is that dogs shouldn’t be allowed on the bed.

I mean, sure, if your dog bites you in bed, or growls at your wife, probably keep him off the bed. But what did Isis sleeping on my pillow have to do with her lashing out at other dogs on leash?

At the time, I was willing to do anything to improve Isis’s behavior, but I couldn’t see Rob going along with the bed rule. Our initial plan when we first got her was to keep her off the furniture, but after about a week, Rob scooped our two-month-old dog into his arms and lay down with her, singing, “Whee! Isis is on the bed!”

I tried to enforce the new rules recommended by our trainers, but sure enough, I came home one night to find Rob watching a Seinfeld rerun in bed, with Isis sitting at his feet.

“Isis! Off the bed,” I ordered.

“She’s not allowed to be on the bed at all?” Rob asked. “I like visiting with her.”

Why did he have to be such a softie? He weakened my resolve. I sat down on the bed and when Isis jumped up again, I let her.

“Those rules are for bad dogs,” I told her. “We have a good dog.”

Now, here were are, five years later with no rules.

I want to be a responsible dog owner, really I do. I was grateful when Fern Camacho’s podcast The Great Dog Adventure covered the topic: What Rules Should Your Dog Have?

I was further relieved that he validated my feeling that when you have older, basically well-behaved dogs, you can ease up on the rules. We did have rules for Leo when he was a puppy. Now that he doesn’t chew furniture anymore, he has more freedom.

We don’t make our dogs sit for 15 minutes before feeding them, and Fern says they don’t have to, as long as they don’t ambush us. Listening to the podcast, I laughed when Fern said sometimes it’s enough for a dog to make eye contact and check in before being given a treat. Reminded me of a time when I was trying to be strict, and I saw Rob’s mom give Isis some treats.

“You have to make her do something before you give her a treat,” I said.

“She did do something,” Alice said. “She looked at me.”

What do you guys think? Do good dogs even need rules? What rules do you have for your dogs?

This is my first time joining the Thursday Barks and Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog.

Heart Like a Dog

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Q is for Quitter

A rare photo of Isis and Leo together

A rare photo of Isis and Leo together

The day we brought Leo home, and his introduction to Isis went very, very badly, my first instinct was to take Leo back. Rob talked me out of it.

In my memoir, I wrote:

Here’s where Rob and I showed our true characters. I am a quitter at heart. Rob is not.

The moment comes after thousands of words describing my efforts to train Isis. My memoir classmates constantly said things to me like, “I can’t believe how devoted you were. You never gave up.”

How to convince them that, no, really, I’m actually a quitter?

I’ve quit lots of things: violin lessons, the first university I went to, gyms, NaNoWriMo 2009. (In my defense, I didn’t quit that novel; I’m still working on it.)

There are plenty of good reasons to quit things. Ask Dave Chappelle. You may remember he walked away from a multimillion-dollar TV deal a number of years ago. In a standup perfomance last year, he talked about the parental speech he gave when his own son wanted to stop going to an after-school program: “Son, sometimes it’s okay to quit.”

Most of the things I’ve quit because they were boring or too hard. I admit it; I don’t like to work very hard. I’ve found that there are certain things I am rather good at. Can’t I just do those things, and not toil away at the other stuff? (Not one of my most admirable qualities, I’m well aware.)

I never quit Isis, that is true. And I never quit trying to get her and Leo to get along. The universe intervened on that one, and not in the way we would have liked.

I have quit dog classes. Never because they were too hard, though. These I quit because they were the wrong class or wrong trainer. (Sometimes also boring.)

I’ve given up on the fantasy that I can train Leo to be bomb-proof on a leash. Sometimes I feel like such a quitter that I think I’ve given up training my dogs altogether. So what that Leo doesn’t sit on cue, or come when I call? It’s too late for him; I’ll get it right with the next one.

Still, I find myself strapping on his ThunderShirt, and taking him to a parking lot to practice not barking at things. And he barks and lunges and embarrasses me, and it’s hard. But then there are the moments that, despite being hard, are also kinda fun. And that’s why I keep doing it.

Q is for Quitter


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This post probably would make more sense if I wrote it before Progress, but I have an alphabet to follow.

P is for Progress?

My favorite guys

My favorite guys

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re making progress or not.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, I’ve been taking Leo to a parking lot to work on desensitizing him to bicycles. During the cold, dark months, I discovered that the adjacent residential neighborhood has many fewer bicycles and joggers than our own neighborhood, so that’s become a regular walk route. Now that it’s warmer and lighter, we’re starting to challenge ourselves around distractions again.

The parking lot is next to a sports stadium that’s encircled with chain link. Leo pretty much ignores what’s happening on the field. Instead, he’s often triggered by teenage hooligans skateboarding through the lot. There’s a dirtbike park and a skate park next to the parking lot. That’s actually why we go there. The idea was to bring Leo close enough to the bikes and/or skaters to be interested, but not react. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to predict when a cyclist or skater is going to cut through the lot.

Lately, the jog-away technique has been surprisingly effective.

We’ve had a couple of glorious, peaceful strolls, even when there’s a lot going on: high-school soccer in the stadium, little kid soccer on a nearby field, a little kid P.E. class on a patch of grass directly across the street from where we walk. I’ve noticed that if Leo’s leash is completely slack when he sees a stimulus like a moving bicycle (at a decent enough distance), it removes his barrier frustration and he is capable of remaining calm.

The other day, despite the soccer games on the nearby fields, and the shady characters hanging out in their parked cars (to sell drugs to the skater kids, I can only imagine. Unless they’re parents waiting to pick up their skater kids, who are also honor students), the parking lot had a very serene energy.

Skaters and cyclists were enjoying their parks, but the lot itself was quiet. Leo and I made two successful approaches where he watched the skaters and cyclists, then looked away. I praised him and we moved farther away.

He was sniffing some grass when a car pulled alongside us and a woman said through her open window, “Your dog is gorgeous.”

Yes, yes, I know, and if you look at him a second longer, he’s going to bark at you in 3, 2, 1 …

I smiled and said thank you and sort of shrugged off the barks. What does she expect from a German shepherd in a ThunderShirt?

I decided to make a third approach and get Leo to watch the dirtbike riders in particular. We walked to the fire hydrant just outside the chain-link fence. He sniffed and peed, and then noticed the group on wheels. I noticed a man leaning against a pick-up inside the stadium on the other side of the fence. Maybe a maintenance worker.

Leo watched bikes of all sizes leap through the air while maneuvering the dirt moguls. He turned back to me and I praised him, enormously proud.

Then I noticed the maintenance guy running toward us and I recognized him. Several weeks ago, he did the same thing — race toward me and Leo on the other side of the chain link. He happens to be developmentally disabled, which explains why he didn’t understand not to run directly toward us, although it does not excuse Leo barking at him. Leo would bark at anyone running toward him.

I called out, “You can’t run toward us; he’ll bark,” then turned and ran away, chirping my stupid, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” cue that I give when I’m trying to redirect Leo from something scary.

Leo barked a few times; it wasn’t the scariest sound he’s ever made. (The last time he barked at a bicycle in the middle of this parking lot, it echoed throughout the stadium. I was quite grateful there were no sporting events happening at the time.) What bummed me out was feeling like we’d just had a tremendously successful exposure to the bike park, and I didn’t know what effect the running man incident had. Did it completely negate the “progress” I thought we’d made 5 seconds earlier?

Leo and I left the parking lot and made our lap around the apartment buildings where apparently no one jogs or bicycles. My mild discouragement evaporated as I realized the experience would make a good post for P day of the A to Z challenge.

Before we got back to the car, I moved Leo into a driveway to get some distance from a bicycle. I kept his leash loose and let him look. He did not bark.

So I guess he’s made some progress after all.

P is for Progress!


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L is for Lunging on Leashes

I’m adding this post to Blog the Change, because there’s not enough information online about the benefits of using a leash with clips on both ends. I recently had a lengthy online conversation with someone who “hates” clickers, harnesses, and head collars. He insisted that the best way to stop a dog from pulling is with a prong collar. I strongly disagree and challenge anyone struggling with a puller to try attaching a leash to the front and back of a harness, or a Halti and a harness, and see if they don’t get better results than they would with a prong collar. If you find the gear confusing, I recommend finding a force-free trainer familiar with Tellington Touch.

I played around with a couple of working titles for my memoir about Isis before I realized that obviously, I had to call it Bark and Lunge.

I don’t like to overuse descriptive phrases, so if I find that I’ve used an expression more than twice, I start looking for synonyms. There are no sufficient synonyms for barking and lunging, and since those words so perfectly described the behavior that challenged me the most, I decided to embrace it.

I don't have pictures of Isis lunging, but here she is wearing a Halti and a "balance" lead that helped me teach her not to lunge.

I don’t have pictures of Isis lunging, but here she is in 2009 wearing a Halti, harness, and a “balance” lead that helped me teach her not to lunge.

I’ve written before about clicker training, but another key element to alleviating Isis’s anxiety and leash-reactivity was using a leash that had two points of contact. We used a Halti head collar on Isis, but if your dog doesn’t go for that, you can attach a two-ended leash to the front and back of their harness. This can be done easily with a Freedom Harness or Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Harness.

Ironically, Isis was in an “off-leash obedience” class when she first started showing leash reactivity. The trouble was, a good portion of the class was still on-leash.

Funny thing about barking and lunging: I wasn’t even aware it was a thing before I had a reactive dog. As often as Isis did it, I don’t think I even had the words until I sought help from a trainer and needed to decribe her problem behavior. The way I initially perceived the lunge was straining against her leash.

Everyone knows what barking is, and all dogs do it. It’s not even necessarily problem behavior.

Lunging though. That wouldn’t exist if we didn’t keep dogs on leashes.

What a lunge would look like without a leash.

What a mighty lunge looks like without a leash.

I’m not arguing against leash laws. I have fairly strong voice control over Mia, and I’d still prefer to walk her on a leash in populous areas, but that’s because she’s not reactive.

For a leash-reactive dog like Leo, what would happen if he tried to lunge, but he wasn’t on a leash? He’d just find himself running, and then, because there was no barrier holding him back, he wouldn’t experience any barrier frustration. I don’t even think he’d bark… and the vicious bark and lunge cycle would be broken. Maybe.

Speaking of vicious cycles, I suspect Leo’s leash-reactivity stems back to his formative months when we tried to get Isis to tolerate him. We paraded Leo past her on a leash, while she barked and lunged at him. Is it any wonder he lashes out at stuff when he’s on leash?

L is for Lunging on Leashes


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Blog the Change
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Choke Collars, Corrections, Classical Conditioning, and Clickers

I was dimly aware of clickers being used in animal training from the time I was a child and went to the Animal Actors show at Universal Studios. I remember hearing the clicks while the trainers made the animals perform tricks, and my brother explaining that’s how they got animals to do things.

When I first learned to use a clicker with Isis, it was a revelation. She was already two years old. Our initial training experience was with an old-school trainer who had us use a pinch collar. I have since realized the lunacy of jerking a dog’s collar and calling it a “correction.” It’s not a correction if it doesn’t correct the problem, is it? Our second trainer was a woman we’ll call “Tracey,” who suggested “distracting” dogs with treats to keep them from barking and lunging at things.

The clicker was introduced to us by a positive reinforcement trainer we’ll call “Linda,” who explained the principles of classical conditioning. The following are excerpts from Bark and Lunge, where it comes together for me:

Linda handed me a two-inch-long oblong red plastic clicker with a yellow button. “Clickers are tools that focus on what the dog does right, instead of punishing them for what they do wrong. You get better communication and a better relationship with your dog.”

Linda clicked, then handed Isis a treat. “First, we need to prime the clicker.” Like Pavlov’s dogs before her, Isis caught on very quickly that the click meant something good was coming next. “Now, you can start clicking for the action you want, and give the reward when she’s in the position you want.” Linda asked Isis to sit, and clicked as soon as she started to lower her butt. When Isis had completed the move, Linda handed her a treat. “I’m reinforcing the position of sit by giving her the treat now.”

I practiced a few times, thrilled by how much Isis enjoyed the game. After each click and treat, she looked up at me eagerly.

What’s next, Mom?

“Clicker training creates an attentive dog who loves to go to work. I’ve been truly amazed at the results I’ve seen with clicker training and don’t understand why any dog trainers would still use choke collars or negative reinforcement.”

I looked guiltily at Isis’s pinch collar.

Who would put this medieval torture device on a puppy? I did, not knowing any better.

Who would put this medieval torture device on a puppy? I did, not knowing any better.

A few days later, I took Isis to a parking lot to practice classical conditioning with the clicker. Isis was amped up, as if we were in a completely unfamiliar place, even though she’d been there before. She darted to the end of her leash, moving erratically and sniffing the ground.

I clipped one end of her leash to my belt and started walking. Every time she was near my left side, I clicked and treated. If she forged ahead, I stopped and went the other direction. I knew this dance from our basic obedience classes. We were aiming for a solid heel, which Isis had yet to master. In this low-distraction parking lot, she was right there beside me, her entire focus on the treats in my hand.

Interesting. Tracey’s treat method hadn’t gotten Isis to walk beside me properly. What was different now?

The clicker.

Isis had learned that the sound of the clicker meant a treat was forthcoming. When I started to walk, she followed dutifully. I clicked as soon as she reached my side, which made her pause long enough to take a treat from my hand and process that the click marked the place where she was supposed to be. Major progress. Without the clicker, she might take the treat on her way past me to charge ahead, but I had no way to communicate that I would prefer for her to walk beside me instead.

This clicker business was genius!

An assortment of clickers collected from our various positive reinforcement classes.

An assortment of clickers collected from various positive reinforcement classes.

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How to train a dog to do anything (and prevent bites)

I read Ian Dunbar’s Before and After Getting Your Puppy before and after we got Leo. Unfortunately, I had not yet heard about puppy socialization when we got Isis, whose story I tell in Bark and Lunge.

That’s why, after reading an advance copy of my book, Ian Dunbar said: Prospective puppy/dog owners can save themselves a lot of heartbreak by reading Bark and Lunge, which tells the story of what can go wrong when a puppy is not properly socialized and when unsuspecting owners are bullied into using aversive training techniques. Please read this book so you don’t make the same mistakes with your puppy.

Ian recently came to town for a six-hour seminar at Tails-A-Wagging, where he taught us how to train a dog to do anything in four steps:

  1. Cue
  2. Lure
  3. Response
  4. Reward

1, 3, 4 are the science. The art is in the lure. The simplest example is:

  1. Say, “Sit.”
  2. Show the dog a treat in your hand and then lift it above his nose.
  3. Most dogs, as they look up, will sit down. Some dogs won’t quite get it, and therein lies the art.
  4. When the dog sits, you say, “Good sit!” and give him the treat.

Training Defined

Ian says he’s astounded when people tell him their dogs don’t like treats. They don’t like to fetch. They don’t like tug.

“Training is not just teaching a dog what to do, it’s teaching him to like it.”

Let’s say the dog doesn’t consider treats to be very exciting rewards, but he really likes for you to chase him. Use the treat as a secondary reinforcer, like a clicker, before you reward him with what he really wants — to be chased. The treat becomes mega-secondary reinforcer. (At least, that’s how I understand it. Ian will be discussing this further at his workshop on Biting and Fighting Tuesday in Olympia.)

#1 Training Error

The biggest mistake reward-based and positive-reinforcement trainers make is to not phase out food soon enough. Or ever, in our case. We still can’t get Leo to sit unless we have a treat in our hands.

After a dog is four or four-and-a-half months old, the lure becomes a bribe.

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.

Preventing Dog Bites

You know what the biggest bite trigger is? Grabbing a dog’s collar.

Here’s how you turn it around: Once you’ve already taught sit and come, call the dog to you. Have him sit. Grab his collar. Give him a treat. Let him go back to doing whatever he was doing before you so rudely interrupted. Most likely, playing.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

You have turned the biggest bite trigger into a tertiary reinforcement. (Play is the primary reinforcer. The treat is secondary.)

Girl Problems

Apparently there are a lot of female dog trainers who have trouble walking their own reactive dogs. I saw this happen with Isis because my own anxiety about what she would do fueled her anxiety. Men don’t have this problem, because, in Ian’s words, “Men don’t give a shit.”


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Exercising a Dog’s Mind

John Pilley uses old-school psychology to train his border collie in Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, co-authored with Hilary Hinzmann. What a coincidence that the methods he uses, based on his experience as a professor of human psychology, look a lot like force-free dog training!

With one exception: Like Ted Kerasote in Merle’s Door, Pilley turns to an aversive method to curb Chaser’s “chase drive.” While Kerasote used a shock collar, Pilley uses a mighty jerk of a long line and a stern “No.” It’s hard for me to say these techniques are wrong, wrong, wrong, because as far as reported, they prevented the dogs from chasing things, and neither Merle nor Chaser developed aggressive or fearful tendencies as a result. I can say that knowing what I now know, I would never use either method on a dog.

Otherwise, the book is a joy to read. I love that this retired professor refers to himself as Chaser’s “Pop Pop” (because that’s what his grandson calls him). Throughout, Pilley emphasizes how much fun it is for Chaser to learn new words. He turns down an offer to let another scientist work with her, which would have meant more academic acclaim, because that would mean having Chaser live with someone else temporarily. Above all, Chaser is a family dog.

When Chaser appears on the Today Show, Pilley feels bad that Chaser doesn’t have a chance to play with her toys after fetching them by name for Matt Lauer. Chaser is supposed to get to play with her toys as her reward for fetching the right toy.

I’ve heard dog trainers brag about how many words their dogs know. How do they really know? I wondered. Beyond their names and basic obedience commands, most dogs know “outside” or “walk” or “dinner,” but how do you keep track of the number of words? Pilley set about it scientifically, by giving each toy a unique name. He has a list of 1,022 different toy names that Chaser understands. He also teaches her categories of words: she knows a racquetball by its name “Blue,” and also knows that it is a “toy” and a “ball.”

Like Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time, Chaser is a book about a dog of extraordinary achievement. While both dogs are special, neither would have been a superstar without the devotion of the “handler” (owner…trainer…Pop Pop, whatever you want to call them).

Pilley works with Chaser for hours a day. With that much dedication, I bet any dog of above average intelligence could learn quite a few words.

As I said in my post about Wallace, I wish I’d known about flying disc, or at least been able to turn catching soccer balls into a “job” for Isis. Reading about Chaser makes me wish Leo and Mia had that much enthusiasm about anything. Leo especially. Mia is content to sit in the backyard with her Jolly Ball and bark at us. But Leo’s still young. He needs stimulation. We took him to a nose work class, and he liked it all right, I guess, but not enough for me to keep at it. It seemed like a lot of money and effort to drive to a class where each dog only gets instruction for a few minutes at a time.

I wish Leo were as passionate about play as Isis was. I’m as devoted to my dogs as Wallace’s and Chaser’s people. I would gladly spend hours a day working on something Leo loved as much as Isis loved soccer. Sometimes in the evenings, especially during the winter when it’s cold and dark, I look at restless Leo mouthing the sofa cushion and think, “What? What is it that we can do that would keep us entertained for hours? What would hold your interest, Leo? Tell me!”

Any thoughts, friends? Remember, Leo is leash-reactive, so long walks are challenging, but I think that’s what he enjoys most: excursions. It’s kind of nice on really cold evenings. I take him somewhere well-lit, where no one else is out who will incite his barking and lunging.

Aside from that, he loses interest in fetch fairly quickly. We have agility equipment, but like everything else, he goes over the A-frame once, maybe twice and is done with it. Same with Rally-O. The kid only wants to practice his sits so many times. Then I get a blank stare. Honestly, I don’t think he’s as bright as Chaser, otherwise, I’d start acquiring hundreds of toys.



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Weekly Writing Challenge: Character

I’ve gotten some feedback recently that I don’t describe people as well as I describe dogs. No huge surprise, since I don’t like people as much as I like dogs. But I would like my readers to be able to “see” the human characters, or at least, that’s what they keep telling me they want from my book.

I decided to use this week’s writing challenge as an exercise to get inside the head of a tertiary character.

1 year

I have no pictures of the main human in this piece, but here’s Isis at about the time it took place. Bet you can’t tell which one Isis is in the scene.

Tracey adjusted the pouch of dog treats clipped to the front of her jeans as she waited eagerly for her new pupils to arrive. At five minutes after the scheduled start time, they finally streamed in: yippy little white dogs, a couple of mixed breeds, and two German shepherds. Plus their owners.

“Welcome, welcome.” Tracey’s eyes shined bright behind her blonde bangs. She shook off the momentary nervousness that no one would show. After all, she was a pro, having designed this class to help dogs with behavior problems such as leash aggression, lunging, barking, and growling.

A brown-haired woman in her thirties maneuvered one of the German shepherds into the room, carefully avoiding getting too close to the other dogs.

“What a pretty girl,” Tracey cooed at the black and gold shepherd. Flipping her long straight hair over her shoulders, she reached into her pouch for a cookie to offer in exchange for a sit. Without needing to be told, the bright-eyed shepherd sat and smiled happily at Tracey.

“Do you have a restroom?” the woman asked.

Tracey pointed the way, and the woman looked uncertain.

“Can she come with me?

“Of course,” Tracey said. “Dogs can go anywhere here.”

“She comes with me at home,” the woman confided.

“It’s a sheppy thing,” Tracey said. “I just love sheppies.”

Australian shepherds were her favorite; she had five at home. Notoriously hard to train, they had been her inspiration to get into dog training. She loved helping other dog owners going through the same struggles. She knew they valued hearing stories about her own dogs.

Tracey arranged the people in a circle of chairs positioned about five feet apart. Since she was a positive reinforcement trainer, she told them to give their dogs lots of treats to keep them from barking at each other. After introducing herself, she explained that all dog behavior problems begin at home. “Does this sound familiar to anyone? Your dog free feeds, meaning he eats whenever he wants. The bowl is always full.”

She paused, validated by her students’ guilty expressions. “He can go outside whenever he wants, through a doggie door. There are toys all over the place. He decides when to play, with what, and gets your attention with a nudge or a bark or a whine. Maybe your dog budges you with his nose. ‘Hey, I’m here. Look how cute I am.’ And you play with him.”

Tracey handed out a worksheet she found especially helpful, detailing house rules that each owner should implement if they wanted to improve the dynamic with their dogs. “I know, no one likes being told to keep their dogs off the bed,” she said. “But let me tell you, one of my Aussies was used to being on all the furniture. I didn’t think anything of it, until he started ignoring me in agility class. Once you start taking privileges away, it makes a huge difference in the relationship.”

At their skeptical faces, she added, “I once had a student whose dog bit her husband in bed twice. Twice! Apparently it was more important to her to have her dog in bed than to have a dog who doesn’t bite. If I were sharing a bed with someone, I know I wouldn’t want my dogs biting him.”

She hadn’t meant to reveal her single status to her new students. Not that there was anything wrong with it. Tracey was independent, young, slender, blonde, and pretty; she would have no trouble getting a man if that’s what she cared about. For now, she was happy to concentrate on her career.