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As Shelby and I went on our nightly desensitization walk last night, a neighbor’s car drove down the street. Like usual, we moved to the side, and I signaled for Shelby to lie down, which she of course did, earning herself a cookie. I raised my hand to wave to the driver but instead of passing, she stopped alongside us.

“I just have to tell you, I see you walking that dog every morning and every night, and she’s just so obedient. She never pulls, she just stares at you the whole time, and you never have to tell her to do anything, she just does it, it’s really impressive.” I smiled and thanked her while I thought to myself, “Yes, she’s very obedient from this distance, but if you got out of your car right now you’d see something different.”

Another one of my neighbors commented recently that, “Your dogs always come when you call, my dogs even come when you call. You just have a way with dogs; you’re a natural pack leader.” Again, I smiled and nodded through my grimace (I know better than to get into training with my neighbors by now).

As I was taking my rings off to do the dishes last night and the dogs immediately scampered to their crates, awaiting their Kong/bully stick/bone, whatever was on the menu for “mommy washes dishes and makes dinner and we lie quietly in our crates” time, it got me to thinking.


The big Panzer man looking wary about the camera as he chews on his bone in his crate.

Two and a half years ago when we first brought Smokey home, I didn’t have any idea how to train a dog. I knew next to nothing about German shepherds (Smokey was the first black GSD I ever saw or at least recognized as a shepherd). The first dog training book I bought was the Monks of New Skete’s The Art of Raising a Puppy, the first “training” DVD was a Cesar Millan compilation (neither of which I’d recommend now). I bought the book because it had a German shepherd on the front. I bought the DVD because someone told me to. Now, I know better and won’t judge a book by its cover or submit to training principles because someone tells me I should.

Our home life in the beginning reflected my lack of knowledge – it was utter chaos. Smokey had separation anxiety and dog aggression, he pulled on the leash and destroyed everything from the carpets to the couch to cell phones and remote controls. His “crate training” ended up with one destroyed Great Dane kennel and one rattled German shepherd. The three of us living together certainly wasn’t pleasant, but the more and more I learned, the better and better life got. The improvement had nothing to do with me becoming a pack leader and everything to do with me learning how a dog learns and using that knowledge to my advantage.

I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m constantly learning and adjusting, but I thought I’d share with you some tricks I’ve learned over the course of two years and four dogs:

1.            Puzzle toys are your friend. I didn’t know what a puzzle toy was when we first adopted Smokey, but now I have a small puzzle toy store in my house. I particularly like puzzle toys on days when the weather is really crappy and I can’t get the dogs out to exercise as much as I’d like, or when I’m not feeling like being bothered. I just set five or six puzzle toys up in the house at “puzzle stations” and let them have it. Most of the time, I end up just sitting there and watching them as they run from puzzle toy to puzzle toy. Before long, they are both all puzzled out and relaxing calmly in their crates.

2.            Situational cues are key. Your dog likely already knows some situational cues – when you put on your shoes or jacket or pick up the leash and your dog goes all wiggly or when you pick up your car keys and he gets excited (or sad because you’re going to work), or when you pull out those suitcases, and he seems to ignore you, these are all situational cues we’ve often unintentionally taught our canine companions. They’re classically conditioned, mom puts on her shoes, I go out, so when mom puts on her shoes I get excited because I know I’m going out, same as Pavlov’s dogs, they ring the bell, dinner comes, so when the bell rings, I salivate because I know dinner is coming. I love situational cues, because they’re easy to teach. They’re normally part of your routine, you do it every day, and you don’t even have to speak, things just happen, as if by magic. So my taking off my rings to do dishes and the dogs run to their crate example, this was intentionally conditioned by me. Every night when I go to the kitchen to start dishes and dinner, the routine goes like this – I take my rings off and put them in their box over the sink. Then I open the refrigerator and take out a soup bone or a bully stick or a frozen peanut butter Kong and usher the dogs to their kennels where I give them each their treat. Then I shut the door and walk into the kitchen to do dishes and cook dinner, releasing them after dinner is on the table. The dogs caught on quickly though, starting with first running to their kennels when I opened the refrigerator and then eventually running to their kennels as soon as I took my ring box down. Now, we have a routine in place based on situational cues where I don’t have to say a word or even close the crate doors, everything just works smoothly.

3.            Strive to avoid “too much too soon”. This has always been a tough one for me. Because I know my dogs are oh so smart, I always try to skip steps which has led me to many a training flop. When you up your criteria for the first time either in increasing distance, duration or distraction, make sure your dog is still performing the behavior reliably. If he/she isn’t or is showing signs of frustration, try to avoid getting frustrated yourself and take it back down a step.

4.            Teach a “get out of Dodge” U-turn. One of the first behaviors we were instructed to teach Smokey for his dog-dog aggression was a highly reinforced “U-turn”. It has become a regular training protocol for me to teach all my dogs right away. The U-turn is great for non-reactive and reactive dogs alike. It’s just a quick, “Turn!” or “Uh oh” (my cue), and the dog immediately turns around, and you can scurry out of trouble. You can begin teaching it in the comfort of your own living room either by luring or shaping (if your dog already has a great heel or loose leash walk under his/her belt this comes quickly).

5.            Reward calm. Shelby’s life improved tenfold with this Carolyn special. It is what it sounds like, just reward your dog for using the correct part of his/her brain (that is the “non-crazy” part). If you reward calm behaviors like napping or relaxing or cuddling by treating them or praising them, the dog will be more likely to repeat those behaviors in the future instead of the annoying ones that you don’t like, like barking in your face or pawing your leg or sitting on you. Simple.

6.            Set up for success. I know, same old boring thing you hear from trainers all the time, but it is so important! And when you can’t set up for success and life happens, use your U-turn!

7.            Be a good observer. When Smokey first came into our lives I had no idea that his aggression or rage or whatever we called it at the time, was actually fear. The best way to educate yourself on your dog’s emotions is to watch him/her closely, especially when you are in situations where you know your dog isn’t that comfortable, those are the best ways to learn what your dog’s particular stress signals are.

8.            Be the Pez, and let other people do it too. Your rate of reinforcement can always be higher. That being said if you have a puppy or a non-reactive dog, let other people be the Pez sometimes too. There’s a lot of controversy in the positive reinforcement training circles on whether or not a dog will “guard” his/her owner (Carolyn believes they can and do, because the owner becomes a “gold plated Pez dispenser”). Whichever way you lean however, the whole problem can be really easily fixed by letting your friends be the Pez sometimes too.

9.            Manage your Management Tools. Crate games are awesome. I love crates and fences and gates and long lines, I use them constantly. That being said, I don’t use them all the time. When it’s safe and reasonable, I will opt not to use management tools. In my opinion, freedom is always better, when it’s safe. In herding, Carolyn puts this simply, “Be brave” she says. At some point, you need to trust your dog’s training and get rid of the long line, because you can’t trial a dog on a long line. However, please always consider safety first.


Shelby says – I love having the freedom to chase my sheep!

10.          Let your dog be a dog, he/she is a dog – right? Even though this is last, it may be the most important. Dogs are not furry children, they’re dogs and that’s why we love them (some days more than children). As I’ve said before, let them sniff, play, roughhouse, mount, sniff butt, eat sheep poop, roll in gross stuff and dig in the garden. By not controlling every aspect of their lives I bet you’ll find that they’re more willing to comply with the aspects that you do want to control, like not running out in the street to play in traffic.

Running in mud

Panzer and Shelby chasing each other in the mud – their favorite, not so much mine, but hey! Let dogs be dogs!

So there you have it folks, my list of ten things I’ve learned over four dogs and two and a half years. I could probably go on, but I’ll spare you. I hope to add to this in the future, over the course of ten years and a hundred dogs (please God not all my own), but I think I’ve come a long way just in the four we have had. Happy training!