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K-9 Prodigy

Unleash the genius in your dog

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The "Red Flag " Puppy

Posted on 2 March, 2022 at 15:25 Comments comments ()

The other day at a puppy assessment, I mentioned to the owner that I thought the puppy was great and “didn’t see any red flags,” and he asked “What would you consider to be red flags in a puppy?” I thought it was a great question! Here are some things that I would be very concerned about, to see in a young (12 or so weeks or younger) puppy.



Red Flag #1: A puppy who is not curious and eager to meet me. Puppies are supposed to jump up on, mouth, and be overexcited about people. Because they’re puppies! Of course you’ll strive to train them out of the overexcited and obnoxious behavior later, because Manners, but at this age they’re supposed to approach even strangers enthusiastically and wiggle, jump, try to lick faces. I’m concerned if I show up and the puppy immediately starts alarm barking and won’t stop. (Breed tendencies can be involved in this, and that’s taken into account, but at this age even a guardian breed or “watchdog” type should at least be very quick to warm up after some initial barking or spookiness.) I’m also concerned if I show up and the puppy just sits there, looking at me but not investigating, or rushes to the owner and sits closely or leans on or hides behind him/her as it looks. A lot of people get tripped up by this – they specifically choose the one puppy that’s just sitting there because he’s “calm.” Often it turns out that he’s not actually calm, but afraid.



Red Flag #2: A puppy who seems very scared of other dogs and puppies. It’s common and normal for a puppy to greet an adult dog very appeasingly or submissively – rolling over, cowering, etc. But the puppy should warm up quickly if the adult dog is calm. If a puppy never warms up to a calm adult dog, or if it’s lunging, barking and reactive, that is a red flag. And yes, it is possible to see reactivity and aggression directed at other dogs in very, very young puppies – this is an enormous red flag.



Red Flag #3: A puppy who seems older than its age – a puppy who is already exhibiting full-fledged behavior problems that I’d expect to see more in adult dog. Tiny male puppies lifting their leg/marking and showing clear dominance over other dogs. Tiny puppies of either gender growling if the owner approaches their dog bed or food bowl. It’s common and normal for puppies to “experiment” with various behaviors to see how they’ll work out. It’s less common and more concerning for puppies to already be so confident with what already looks like a full-fledged behavioral issue. Many puppies who are “prodigies” will still turn out just fine – they just need a more assertive handling style.



Red Flag #4: Extreme sensitivity to body handling. A young puppy, ideally, is completely free with its body and doesn’t mind if it’s handled. But a very young puppy who tenses or freezes, panics, or bites when its ears, mouth, tail, paws, etc are handled will become a difficult dog to handle and groom and take to the vet if training and desensitization are not immediately begun, the earlier the better.



Red Flag #5: Young kids in the household are already kind of scared of the puppy. This isn’t a red flag about the puppy’s temperament (lots of puppies will chase and bite at kids, and the smaller, dartier and screamier the kids are, the more the puppy will chase and bite) but it can demonstrate a pattern that needs to be turned around quickly. Lots of puppies love to chase and bite at kids, the smaller and dartier and screamier the better. But if the kids are showing fear of the puppy (for example, if the puppy’s let out of its pen and the kids immediately climb on top of the sofa to avoid getting bitten), something’s off in the dynamic of how the puppy is managed and controlled around the kids.



Most behaviors that a puppy does, however, aren’t red flags at all, though they may at first glance seem concerning to a novice owner. Most puppy behavior is totally normal! Here are some things that are not red flags:



NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is lethargic on walks. A common issue with very young puppies is that they “won’t go on walks.” You leash up to go for a walk, and...the puppy just sits there in the middle of the sidewalk. Don’t worry about this. Within a month or so, you’ll probably be working really hard on getting the puppy to not drag you around! Puppies are small and get tired easily. What seems like a short walk to you could be a monumental task for their short legs. They’re also new and can be a little disoriented in the big world; the constant new stimulation can be exhausting.



NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is biting hands, clothes, etc. Puppies bite. They interact with the world like a toddler would, putting everything into their mouths. Over time you’ll teach the puppy not to bite, and to leave items other than their chew toys alone. Puppy-proofing the house so they don’t pick up truly dangerous items, and not stressing too much if they eat some leaves and grass outside, will also help.



NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is playing roughly with other dogs (growling, etc) A lot of very normal play can look a little scary, especially if you haven’t spent much time with dogs before. Dog play can get pretty intense, with lots of high arousal and ferocious sounds. There are some key ways to tell the difference between playing and fighting, and to catch when play is working up to a level that might culminate in a fight. One good test is to catch and briefly hang on to the dog you perceive as the aggressor, then look at the other dog’s behavior. If it runs away and hides, then you’ll know the play was too rough. But 9 times out of 10, that dog will come running up to start the play all over.



NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is stealing things and running around. Puppies do this!!! Normal puppies want to investigate their environment, mainly with their mouth. If they pick up something random and realize that it causes you to become animated and chase them around, they’ve just discovered the wildly exciting game of Keep-Away. Good solid Puppy-Proofing is your best friend here. A puppy-proofed house has things picked up and placed up high where the puppy can’t get them. Areas a puppy might get into (your huge potted ficus, for example) are gated off or behind closed doors. Enticing toys are all the puppy can access. I know this is hard with young kids, who want to leave their stuffed toys and other appealing items all over the place. Do your best!



NOT a Red Flag: A very young puppy (under 12 weeks) is panicking and screaming when left alone. Puppies do a “puppy distress cry” that’s meant to alert the mother dog if it finds itself alone – it’s fallen into a hole or accidentally crept out of the den or something. This is natural and normal and is not the same thing as separation anxiety.


NOT a Red Flag: The other (adult) dog in the home is growling at or snapping at the puppy, when the puppy “just wants to play.” Your adult dog is not being mean to the puppy if it doesn’t want to play. It’s not being mean if the puppy is being pushy and rude and the adult gives a correction, like growling or even escalating. This is usually normal dog communication.



As many trainers say, “It’s a puppy, not a problem!” Most puppies are perfectly normal, but if you see something that worries you about your own puppy, then let me know; I’m glad to be your second set of eyes!



Puppy Training Log Week 38 -- Rally READY!!!

Posted on 27 October, 2015 at 14:27 Comments comments ()

Puppy Training Log: More Distractions

Posted on 7 August, 2015 at 11:08 Comments comments ()
She's getting so much better with distractions. Like any dog, the answer for problems with distractions is to just keep plugging away at it!

Puppy Training Log Week 26: "Generalization"

Posted on 19 July, 2015 at 23:53 Comments comments ()
Did everyone see last week's training video of Halo? Wasn't she just GORGEOUS? Fluent, happy, willing, accurate. So she's trained, right?

Ha! Wrong! Not yet! There's more!

In the dog training world, there's something called "Generalization." Generalization basically means that, if the dog learns something in one environment, it's not a given that it can repeat it in a different environment. It's otherwise known as the "He only does it in the living room!" syndrome.

Dogs are highly environmental creatures. For dogs who are new to this whole "training" thing, it might take them a long time for them to generalize all their new knowledge to different places and situations.

If you work at an office, whenever there are computer upgrades or other training, they might send you to a computer lab and you would learn all the new programs and how to do them. Then you'd without any thought go back to your own office, turn on your computer, and be able to use what you'd just learned.

Not if you were a dog! If you were a dog, you might perform fluently in the computer lab...and then your own computer and just stare blankly at the screen, with literally no idea what you were supposed to be doing. That's how it'd be if you were a dog.

There's good news and bad news for you and your dog!

Bad news first: Generalization work can be REALLY tedious, and REALLY disheartening. All that hard work and then you go to the park and literally nothing, not even a "sit."

But here's the good news! 1) Dogs CAN learn to generalize, and 2) As they get more mature and savvy, they get better and better at it.

If your dog will only perform in the living room, here's what to do!

First, take your dog just to a different environment in your own house. This could be just a bedroom or the attic or something. Go over and rehearse the veeeery basics, like Sit and Stay and Attention. You might literally have to retrain each behavior. But soon your dog will be working there as well as the living room.

Next, go to your backyard, a porch or a deck. Repeat. The goal is to get the dog to do as well as it did in its original training environment.

Next, go to a low-distraction area. I like parking lots, culdesacs and very low-traffic streets. (Pavement is easier if your dog has a lot of scent distraction issues.) And repeat!

Then, go to maybe a second, though "novel" low-distraction area. Repeat! Are you getting the idea? Tedious much? Ha!

Gradually, you can start moving into more and more distracting environments. Along the way, you should start noticing that it's not taking quite as long for your dog to perform well in the new environments. Instead of taking maybe 5-6 sessions in the new environment, now maybe your dog is only taking 2-3 sessions. Soon it will be able to immediately work well, even in a brand-new place! Progress! Soon your dog will be "generalized," and your dog will work like a pro no matter where it is.

Good luck! Let me know if you get stuck!

And P.S.! This video of Halo was filmed on Thursday morning. We went back to the same park on Friday morning, Saturday morning, and by Sunday morning she was performing quite well! Not as good as in her previous environment, but I bet we'll be there in 1-2 more sessions and then we'll be off for yet another "new" place!

Puppy Training Log: Week 25

Posted on 10 July, 2015 at 18:11 Comments comments ()

Puppy Training Log Week 15

Posted on 23 April, 2015 at 12:30 Comments comments ()
Puppy Training Log: What to do with the "Bad"

This video is Halo working in the backyard for the first time. What do you think about it? Not too pretty, huh? This is where a lot of people get really disenhearted. All that practice! And then it doesn't look as awesome!

But what's really going on?

Dogs are extremely environmental animals. For Halo, the kitchen or the front yard are the obedience areas. The backyard is a play area. Obedience in the backyard is an odd combo! This isn't disobedience; it's just what trainers call a "lack of generalization."

What does this mean? "Generalization" is when the dog can perform in any and all environments without needing to think too much about it. Since dogs tend to be so environmentally specific, this is not something that's easy for them. In order to get it, you have to actually work in lots of different environments, starting with easy ones and gradually getting harder and harder.

Now, on to the nitty-gritty: What do I do about the "bad" behavior? What do I do about the jumping up at heel, or the galloping ahead during Fast Pace? Or the mouthy behavior during the handler engagement exercise?

Here's what I DON'T do:

1) I don't reward it. Obviously she won't get a treat for jumping up on me in heel, but if you look closely, when she gets mouthy during handler engagement, I actually stopped play -- all movement stopped, so that she wasn't rewarded for mouthing by then getting more play. I waited until she'd stopped mouthing...and THEN more play.

2) I don't punish it. The reason Halo is such a cheerful and enthusiastic worker is because she is free to make errors. Punishing a dog for enthusiastically leaping into the air would get the dog to stop leaping into the air. BUT it would also get the dog to stop being enthusiastic. The saddest thing in the world is a sad Golden heeling sadly. I don't want any part of that picture. Training and practice will get rid of the jumping up, and keep the bright eyes and waving tail.

3) I don't immediately pull out a treat and show it to her, encouraging her to get back into position for the treat. This literally teaches dogs to disobey and not pay attention until it sees a treat in your hand!

4) I don't despair, not even inwardly. I'm still having fun with my dog!

Here's what I DO:

1) I might recue -- ONCE. If she misses the first "sit" then I might say "sit" again. Or I might use a hand signal to remind her. But just one re-cue; after that I've got to accept it as a missed exercise.

2) I might let her work it out on her own. If I'm running along and she's bouncing and playing, I might just continue running and let her figure out what she's supposed to be doing -- then reward when she does it.

3) I might do a little play or sniff break. If I think that a dog is just getting frustrated and is beginning to disengage, they need a break. Some dogs need more breaks than others. Stamina for training is something that dogs develop gradually; it does not help if you insist that they "focus, and pay attention."

The more you work with your dog, the more you'll develop a sixth sense about what to do and when. It's a skill that all handlers develop! 

Puppy Training Log: Week 14

Posted on 18 April, 2015 at 9:51 Comments comments ()

Puppy Training Sneak Preview: "Weaning off Treats"

Posted on 14 April, 2015 at 11:48 Comments comments ()
In my Beginning Obedience Level 1 class, on the last night I always teach some simple exercises to "wean dogs off treats" (the technical term is "reducing reinforcers" or "substituting reinforcers.") I'd always say this with a disclaimer, something like "I'm giving you this information not because I think that your dogs are necessarily ready for it, but because I know that some of you are going to jump the gun and start doing it anyway! So I'd like for you to do it correctly!" Then I'd add a long spiel about how "My next puppy is going to be getting treat reinforcers for a whole year, probably."

I like a very prolonged use of reinforcers, because it tends to make obedience just second-nature to a dog. They're so used to obeying and responding that they just do it out of habit. They don't make a decision about whether to respond or not. They just respond. There's no "he only does it if he wants to." Because they ALWAYS want to. They're conditioned to want to.

You should never start phasing out treats until your dog is performing 100% of the time flawlessly -- this means your dog is responding reliably, quickly, and with style. Once you phase out treats, a behavior will never get better -- it will basically be "locked in" at the current level it is now. So if your dog "sometimes" lies down on command, and you phase out treats, then you will forever have a dog who "sometimes" lies down on command (unless you go back later, and start over. I can help you with this, if you want a clean slate!)

Fast forward to my new pup Halo. At five months, we've worked through almost 3 dozen formal Rally Obedience moves. We're both at the point where we're naturally starting to work without treats. Sometimes I give a few commands without even thinking about a treat, and she responds without even thinking about a treat. (Some of my clients do this too. Often they just fade the treats away naturally, without thinking much about it. It's a natural, organic process. It seems to me that the less the client is concerned with "how quickly do we get rid of treats," the more natural and rapid the process is.) With me and Halo, I started noticing something -- I was no longer really paying attention to the treats, and was frequently dropping treats by accident. We'd be heeling along and I'd accidentally drop a few treats on the ground. Halo definitely saw and heard them (if you watch the videos carefully, you can see/hear it too.) But she'd IGNORE them. The work was becoming intrinsically valuable to her. This was a sign that she didn't really need as many treats anymore. So now I had to come up with a plan.

The first thing that I wanted to keep in mind was her age. Five months is the age when most puppies stop being completely focused and dependent on their owner. The outside world is getting more and more interesting. The puppy wants to explore and doesn't need the handler so much anymore. Developmentally, this is a terrible time to reduce treats. Knowing this, I decided to start out by only reducing treats in low-distraction areas.

Besides general puppy cognitive development, there is also the individual puppy's temperament. Some puppies can cope with reduced rewards better than others. Some get frustrated. Some just give up and wander away. Halo has a soft and sweet disposition. A lot of my training with her has been focused on confidence-building. Suddenly taking away the treats can simply shatter a sensitive dog's confidence -- they think that they're suddenly doing the exercises wrong, or that something else is the matter. I didn't want this to happen to Halo! But knowing that it was a real risk, I wanted to show her that yes, she IS still doing the right thing, and I AM still happy with her, even if I don't give her a cookie.

Next, remember how I mentioned that you should continue to use treats/rewards until you're sure that the dog absolutely KNOWS what to do, and the behavior is reliable, fast, and just how you like it? Yes -- I need to factor that in, too!

So, here are the training goals in a nutshell for introducing "weaning off treats" to a 5-month-old.

Start where there aren't any distractions, so she won't be reinforced by the environment for making the wrong choice.

Specifically let her know that just because she isn't getting a cookie, doesn't mean she's doing it wrong. 

I wanted to actually show her what it "looks like" to work and interact with just me, no treats. That's the point of the above video. As you can see, the whole thing is very gentle and joyful. (And I promise, no trainer alive would have corrected/interrupted that jump-up that she does after she does her "Down." That's exactly the kind of joyful working that you absolutely want to keep -- keep the joy, you can get rid of the jump-up later.)

She knows a lot of "things," but there's only a few that I'd consider good enough and fluent enough for me to be absolutely satisfied with. She's very strong with: 1) Halt/Sit. 2) "Down" in front position. 3) Right turns. 4) Right About Turns. 5) Forward heeling for four steps. I'd like a little more strength, a little more confidence for all her left-turn work and her left and right finishes -- even though these are pretty good now, I think they can be even a little bit better. She's weak on finding "front" position and she's weak on "stay" and very weak on "Moving Down" and "Fast Forward from Halt." So I'll consider weaning off treats for Halt/Sit, Down in front position, Right turns, Right About Turns, and forward heeling for four or fewer steps. Everything else gets treats until it's juuuuuuust perfect!

In the coming weeks you will see more exercises like this. We're also beginning what's called "Ring Prep" -- preparing a dog for the competition ring where there are no treats allowed, none, ever. Not even in your pocket.

Still with me? Why don't you give that "Handler Engagement" exercise a try! If you know there's no way that your dog can do it for 60 seconds, then just make an easier goal for yourself. Set a goal of 15 seconds. Once you achieve that, then go for 30 seconds and it shouldn't take long for you to work up to the full minute! Give it a try! Let me know if I can help!

How to Be on "Puppy Time"

Posted on 15 January, 2015 at 11:38 Comments comments ()
New puppies are fun -- and they can be overwhelming!

I often hear new puppies being compared to new human babies, and the time and care demands can feel the same -- as well as the exhaustion resulting from late-night wake-ups! But a dog's puppyhood doesn't last as long as a baby's "babyhood." In just a few weeks things should start to settle down, and in a couple of months your household will be more or less back to normal, as everybody adjusts!

So if you're feeling overwhelmed by a new puppy, take heart -- and here are some tips for how to best cope.

1) Supervision: Your puppy needs to be supervised by you whenever it's awake (unless it's in a crate or puppy pen.) This is how you redirect them from chewing the wrong things or having a housebreaking accident.

2) You can stack the odds in your favor to prevent chewing or housebreaking accidents by puppy-proofing and by having an assortment of chew toys -- pups have different preferences as to hard, soft, edible, etc, so experiment with any safe chew toy. Prevent housebreaking accidents by taking your puppy outside frequently (at least every hour or so, more often if he/she hasn't pottied in a while -- also right after mealtimes and naptimes.)

3) Puppies sleep a lot, and use that to your advantage! The "play hard, explore hard, sleep hard" mindset of most puppies is going to be your best friend. While the puppy is active and engaged you can play with it, do tiny training sessions, and supervise supervise supervise! Within a couple of hours your pup should be conked out and then go ahead and do your laundry or your dishes. (Though don't beat yourself up if you elect to nap alongside the pup, instead of laundry/dishes.)

4) Your main training priorities for a young pup are housebreaking, chew training, managing puppy nipping/mouthiness, and socialization. Socialization? Yes! You've got to cobble together a socialization schedule! Puppies should meet at least 100 new people within the first three months of life. Take your puppy only to safe areas (no unfamiliar dogs or places where unvaccinated dogs may have been) and be sure that it is enjoying its socialization time and does not become overwhelmed.

5) Enjoy your new puppy! Dogs just don't last long enough. Some day your dog will be old and gray, and you will think back on these days with a smile. Take a lot of photos!
(My new puppy Halo is pictured here. Collective "Awwwww!")