From the Mouths of Puppies

By Debby Kay ©2018 all rights reserved

Ask any breeder, but especially those who breed retrievers, about storied they can tell of things puppies put in their mouths and you will be in for an ear full.  It’s not a bad thing as far the dogs are concerned. It is just something they do.  Dogs can’t use their hands like we do so they use their mouths and many of the annoying (to people that is) habits or behaviors seen are best viewed from that perspective.  I would like to talk about three of the most common complaints I get from people about their puppies “mouthing’ habits.

The first issue many people experience regardless of breed, is the one that technically is called bite inhibition.  Until a puppy learns not to bite down on everything in sight including your feet, hands, pants leg and any other body part that is handy, they think it is perfectly okay to it.  Watch a litter of puppies about 6 weeks old playing and you will see them grab each other’s ears, paws or tails as if it were a peanut butter treat. The recipient of the attack will scream loudly when this happens and the attacker will usually back off.  They are teaching each other bite inhibition.  When they go after adults, at first mom, in a likewise fashion, one of several things will happen. Many adults will just walk off and ignore the bad behavior. This is a great idea for people to follow too, since is opposite of what the pup wants-attention and someone to play with.  They learn quickly you are more likely to stay and play with them if they bring you a toy rather than grab your barefoot and chomp down.  Another thing is the mom will usually put her mouth around their muzzle and gently but firmly clamp down, the pup will squeal more from surprise than anything and the mom releases her grip and moves on. It is quick and without any further comment. To mimic the pup’s mom, I have learned to very quickly grip the muzzle in the same way and gently pinch their lip against their own teeth for a nanosecond and release. I don’t shout or say a word, like their mom, I just do it and they stop. I will then go and get one of their authorized play toys and redirect their attention to that.  I praise for the play.


The older Chihuahua here is correcting the lab pup for biting too hard using the best grip he can get on the pups muzzle.

I rarely have to do this more than once and the pups stop biting my hands and feet. Where I see many people fail is they are always offering their fingers to the puppy to chew on. When I point that out to people to they rarely realize they are doing it. So try to be aware of this in yourself and others around the puppy, since we don’t want to set the puppy up for failure.

What about the nervous chewer? This is the dog that must grab things and shred everything they put in their mouths.  This behavior can have complex origins which make writing a simple solution for this blog a bit complicated. But for the most part what I see with puppies is chewing such as this from not knowing what to do with themselves. That indicates to me there is a lack of clear direction from the person in the dog’s life as to what the role of the dog is all about. Setting clear rules, boundaries, and engaging with the dog when you are present is the best way to control this habit. Right now I am working with 4 young puppies who at 16 weeks already are figuring out when it is work time, play time and rest time and where to do each of these things. If the people are consistent the pups are more likely to pick up on things and learn quickly what works and what does not work.

The final mouthy dog problem I see which is really dangerous is the dog that will eat anything it can get its mouth on.  I have the vet bills to prove my experience with this issue and can vouch for how expensive this can be, so it is best to stop it before it starts.  Substitution is most effective way I have found to stop unwanted eating of things. Please don’t’ ask me why a dog would eat rocks, swallow socks, or cell phones, I have no idea but they do. In fact, if you do a quick google of things dogs have swallowed you would be surprised at the list.  So when I see a pup that likes to eat what it has in its mouth, I get them to swap it out for a more interesting toy or treat.  So instead of swallowing the rock bring it to me and I will exchange it for a nice treat. Not a bad deal as far as the dog is concerned. That works most of the time.  I also teach them self-control using a game that Susan Garrett has written about called Its Your Choice. The game basically is presenting food to the dog who only gets it when they back away from it, not go for it.  Even with some really hard cases it rarely takes more than 10 minutes to get a dog showing great self-control and not going after what it wants but waiting until you tell them it is OK. This behavior of swallowing everything in sight is not an easy one to deal with but should you see a puppy developing the habit try these two things and stay on top of the pup and hopefully you can get them past it.


Even sticks can be dangerous to a pup, maybe okay to retrieve if small and flexible like this one, but watch out for the chronic “eaters”.



Dog Manners Matter– 5 Tips to Improve Your Public Appearances

By Debby Kay ©2017 all rights reserved

I am seeing more and more so called service dogs appearing in public with very poor manners and feel the image they are giving service dogs is not a positive one. So I felt for this month’s blog I would offer up 5 tips for making the image you portray in public a little more positive.

One issue for many dogs living in our urban culture is controlling the urge to rush over and greet another of their species when they pass on the street.  Dogs are sociable and they love to greet new dogs, sniff butts and get the latest scoop on where the other guy has been.  Humans often handle these urges in the wrong manner causing their dog to become more dog reactive in many cases.  For service dogs in particular, they need to stay focused on their job and must exhibit exemplary manners at all times so there can be no interaction with other dogs in public while “on the job”.   To teach your dog to be less reactive you need to practice around other dogs.

a group of service dogs prating manners in a store

Practicing in public with other dogs is important

The best way to do this is pick a dog friendly store, such as a pet shop, and find a few willing friends with dogs to help.  Everyone goes into the store at different times and mills around, passing each other often as they go up and down isles.  I have my students periodically sit their dogs while they pretend to shop and the other dog passes by.  The SD should not move or attempt to interact with the passing dog. If the SD tries to interact, the handler should try to preempt the move by asking the dog to “watch me”.   If the dog is properly trained to look up at the handler on this cue, then they should look up thus missing the dog walking by and maintaining the sit stay.  If your timing is not too good it might take a bit of practice on your part to get this down but it is one worth practicing.  Soon when your dog sees another dog approaching he will be looking at you and not the other dog.

Eating out with a dog can be a challenge too. When you go to a restaurant or bar try to find a table out of the way or in a corner so the dog can relax without being near a lot of foot traffic.  Some people carry mats so their dogs can have a “place” to stay on. This is great for several reasons; it reminds the dog not to move from the defined place but also keeps him clean from dirty floors. Training for this can be done then at home by putting the mat in various places in the house and practicing longer and longer stays on it.  If the dog moves off the mat, replace them there firmly but with no anger and no second command. Start out with short stays and work up to longer stays, always vary the amount of time when training.

service dog resting under table on place mat

showing a good stay on his place mat.

Shopping carts seem to be an issue with many dogs I witness in public. First off I don’t believe the dogs should be riding in the cart. Even my Chihuahua Boo when we go shopping at the nursery for plants does not ride in the cart. He maintains his position by me as we peruse the isle for new additions to the garden.  This is just an exercise you need to practice and that practice should be in public.  I find stores with cart collection spots outside in the parking area, go by and grab one and practice in the parking area as well as on the sidewalks outside the store.  It might take several weeks of practice before the dog gets comfortable walking with the cart but with repetition, praise and an occasional treat for a job well done they will soon get the idea.

Walking in crowds where people have shopping bags swinging about is a situation where I have seen dogs bolt, bark or worse snap at the offending shopper and their bags.  Training a dog to be non-reactive in this situation is a matter of conditioning.  I will start with many shopping bags on the ground spaced just far enough apart that we can walk through them. I will weave around while having the dog heel beside me but will also practice stops where the dog has to sit with the bag actually touching them.  When they are confident with this I will have friends come by and pick up the bags and now walk about the area as I weave with the dog between them.  As the dog becomes more confident I will add in the final test and that is to have all my friends and myself and the dog squeeze into a small space about the size of an elevator.  You can make that space with barriers if you don’t have an empty closet to practice in or an elevator handy.  The idea is the dog is just go with you and not be bothered by people and shopping bags.

brown dog sitting next to shopping cart

Learning to be clam around carts takes practice

The final tip for those seeking to polish their SD performance in public concerns jumping on people. I know everyone is proud of their dog and it is great that the public wants to pet your dog but once you allow this your dog will expect to be the center of attention in public. That is opposite of what we want and need from a SD. A well trained SD should be ignoring the public and focusing on their person. They have a job to do and cannot do it if they are greeting the public.  Be firm with people not petting your dog; explain he is working and needs to focus on his job.  During training I use every situation I can think of to set the dog up with people distractions.  This might include children at the playground, people calling the dog, people rushing up to the dog and speaking in an excited high pitched voice.  I ask my helpers that if the dog gets to them before I can divert him, they should turn around and ignore the dog as soon as he approaches. At that point I call the dog back to heel and ask for a “watch me”.  This is another point of manners training that just takes a lot of repetition to get the dog to ignore whatever the other people are doing while he is on duty.

Service dogs are allowed special access where other dogs cannot go and feel if that is the case they should have exemplary manners above and beyond the annoying untrained pet dog. I hope if you are training or have a SD you will continue to train all the time perfecting those manners so everyone admires your team and you set the example for others to follow.

The Dog’s Gift

By Debby Kay ©all rights reserved

As I sit to write this my last blog of 2016, there are many things happening around me that have caused me to reflect on what I value most in life. There is an abundance of talk about what gift to buy Uncle Fred or so and so friend and it got me thinking what is the best gift we can give during the holidays to those who matter most to us ? As I pondered that question my Chihuahua Boo snuggled a little closer to my leg to get warmer; that was my answer.  The gift our dogs give us is the best gift we can give others.

The gift from our dog’s is really complex from my viewpoint. There is the obvious love they lavish on us regardless of our sex, age, race, financial status, mood or temperament. Beyond that though as I share hours with my dogs doing many different activities I have gleaned how patient they are. Ranger will take many minutes to carefully examine a spot on the grass trying to decipher all the wonderful smells and their meaning. It is all important to him, he does not want to miss any detail of the information left by the previous dog.  I note to myself that I need to be more attentive to all of the words in the messages left for me so I get the full meaning of what is being conveyed.
Boo will sit for long stretches of time on the front porch waiting for the seed stealing squirrels to appear at the birdfeeder in the flower bed opposite the porch. He is still as a statue. He holds his position until the squirrel is at its most vulnerable position and then he explodes forward like a heat seeking missile to its target.  After the squirrel is successfully run off he returns to me seeking my approval. He reminds me that we all need to be recognized for a task well done.

chilbrookruebanjamesI could go on with many more examples about all the finer things I have learned and observed spending a lifetime with dogs. I think however Alexandra Horowitz said it best in her new book Inside Of A Dog;

“The more we learn of animal’ abilities, the finer we have to split the hair to maintain a dividing line between humans and animals. Still, it is interesting to note that we seem to be the only species spending any time studying other species—or, at least, reading or writing books about them.  It is not necessarily to the dog’s discredit that they do not.

 What is revealing is how dogs perform on tasks that measure social abilities we thought only human beings had. The results, whether serving to show how alike or unalike dogs are to or from us, have relevance to our relationships with our dogs.  When considering what we ask of them and what we should expect from them, understanding their differences from us will serve us well.  Science’s effort to find distinctions illustrates more than anything else the one true distinction: our drive to affirm our superiority-to make comparisons and judge differences. Dogs, noble minds, do not do this. Thank goodness.”

As you prepare the last minute things for celebrating the season in your own tradition, I hope you will consider your dog for who she or he is, a dog; noble, kind, generous, patience and full of boundless joy. They are our best reminder of what the season is all about and our models for how we should treat each other.


If you have time, I urge you to watch this very well done movie on one aspect of our relationship with our dogs that is often misunderstood.

Tough Love: A meditation on Dominance and Dogs

Have a safe and happy holiday!



The Dogs of Tibet

By Debby Kay copyright 2016 all rights reserved

It took me a while to fully realize that my plane had just landed in Tibet, a place that was so far from the reality of my everyday life that it almost seemed like a dream. But here I was in this mystical land of ancient customs and spiritualism not to mention some of the tallest mountains in the world.

I was in the city of Lhasa, one of the larger ones in the region. It was a wonderful mixture of old and new architecture and technology.  That is something I admire the Chinese doing far better than any other culture I have visited. They seem to have the ability to blend the two seamlessly and retain all the great points of both without compromising either.  During my trek around the area visiting monasteries, bazaars and people’s homes I was able to catch a glimpse of the local dogs, a rare sight in the big cities of the rest of China. People do have pets in China but they are a minority and you rarely see a dog on the streets in any of the towns.  Here in Lhasa, in a few stores and then on the outskirts of the city proper, you begin to see more dogs.  I thought it might be interesting to show a photo journal I took of these dogs and some of the insights I gleaned from our interactions.

The first thing that strikes you is that no dog is on leash. Not in the city or in the more rural areas.  It is just not needed.


No leashes in Lhasa

These guys have had total freedom to make choices from puppyhood and it really shows in their attitude. They don’t pester people, beg, growl, or in any interfere with people. They are just there, minding their own business and observing what is going on or interacting with other dogs. I only saw one dog that belonged to a shop keeper and one other that “monitored” by a single person who seemed to be keeping track of where the dog was as they scurried along the busy bazaar street filled with people. All the other dogs appeared to belong to no one in particular. This is perhaps where the distinction between strays and feral dogs is made. In previous studies I have read on dogs, strays were defined as those dogs who were free roaming but choose to still associate with people whereas feral dogs would have nothing to do with people and choose to keep away.[1]

The dog in this photo which belonged to a shop keeper we visited and bought a painting from, did not need to be told what to do, where to stay or how to behave. He just did all those things on his own and in perfect accord with the comings and goings of people into the shop.  Does it make you wonder if what


The Shopkeeper’s dog and guest greeter

you are doing to raise and train a perfect canine good citizen is wrong? Just what do these people do differently that makes these dogs such a pleasure to be around.  I think the key is in allowing them to be dogs. They are not treated or thought of in any other way. They are respected as being dogs with their own culture, this is something that I saw in the people in Tibet towards other people as well.  It was clear that many of the people from very remote parts of the steppes around Lhasa who had made the long pilgrimage to the Sera Monastery we were visiting had never seen a Caucasian before.  I was looked at with great curiosity many times. One incident that stands out in my mind was sitting on a bench and having a pilgrim join me. He stared at me for a long while and then finally reached out with his hand to touch me. I smiled at him and took his hand and shook it gently telling him I was pleased to meet him. He was simply excited at the interaction; he did not try to make into anything else. This was the same with the dogs. All the interactions were simple, straightforward and nothing was made beyond what it was.  The impact this simple interaction leaves on the dogs is what I saw in the way the dogs reacted round people, in other words with the simpler interactions there was a peaceful and pleasant mellowness in the dog’s behaviors.

Think about how you, your friends, and people in general react to the presence of a dog. There is all this fussing, overly attention bestowing behaviors and certainly a lot of chatting too, every time people get around a dog or puppy. Try taking a young cute service dog in training to a public place to work and you can barely go 5 feet before being swamped by people doting on the poor thing.  Is it any wonder dogs begin at an early age to develop excitable behaviors around meeting people?  Think about the most common interactions we see on the streets of dogs meeting other dogs walking. The usual reaction I see from people is they get tense, shorten the leash, and in anything but a calming voice, try to reassure the dog that the other dog will not attack them.  Is it any wonder where dog on dog aggression comes from?

When watching all the strays around the monastery

however, what you saw instead was dogs sleeping peacefully out of the path of the people, you saw dogs meeting other dogs with no aggression what so ever and you also saw that these dogs recognized certain individuals that would periodically offer them scraps of food. In one case I was observing 5 strays that were napping on one another in a pile when a familiar food source person walked by behind them about 8 feet away. The dog on top of the pile lifted their nose towards the person and in a split second the whole group was up and sitting politely by the old lady who produced a bag of scraps.  No one fought for the scrapes either, each dog waited their turn patiently for the bit handed to them. When the bag was empty the dogs disappeared. Not a word was ever spoken by the old woman. In another part of the monastery courtyard I saw a young woman feeding a mom and her pups and again witnessed patience and manners from all.

These dogs knew their place, had rules they followed, and exhibited a great degree of self-control. No one taught them those things, they were able to work it out themselves.  It is amazing to me the degree to which dogs can problem solve and learn when they are put in an enriched environment and allowed to make their own decisions. Seeing what these dogs were doing I am more convinced than ever that we often micro-manage our own dogs far too much and don’t allow them to just be dogs and to make dog decisions.  I know when the bestselling book Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote came out and he extolled the virtues of dogs having free choices to roam as they choose in his village of Kelly, Wyoming a lot of people were taken aghast.  But the more I see how the freedom of choice allows dogs to develop the depth of personality I was seeing in these street dogs of Tibet, the more I am convinced that we are often doing a great injustice to our dogs with the overabundance of restraints we put on them. China_2016_terrier in bazaar.JPG I realize we can’t let our dogs all roam free here but we can certainly take a hint from these guys and make some adjustments to how we interact and manage our relationship with our canine companions to increase their happiness.

Here are some take always I got from my interactions with the Dogs of Tibet to consider:

  • Allow pups to follow you without a lead in as many places as possible while they are growing up. The idea is to have a relationship with the dog that makes the dog want to be with you because you are a cool person to hang with not because he is tethered to you with a line.
  • When raising a puppy allow them to make their own choices without you interfering, for example, if they want to crawl over a log and it looks like them might fall off the other side, let them. Don’t say anything, let them experience things on their own.
  • Work on the relationship with your dog without bribes such as treats.
  • Try not talking so much to your dog, rather watch and learn their body language and learn how they talk to each other without words.
  • Quit petting your dog so much, I’m convinced dogs don’t like that as much as people think they do.
  • Don’t micromanage your dog or make your dog so dependent on you to make their decisions that it creates an unbalanced relationship
  • Install a dog door if you have a fenced yard so your dog can go there when they want. It’s not the same as being able to wander a wider territory but it will help to empower them to think and act in ways you don’t see when the dogs are dependent on the humans for everything including elimination habits.

I still can see the image of the puppy I met who was establishing his own routine and

allowed me to photograph him with nothing more than a glance.  He was full of confidence, knew what he wanted and yet was respectful of his co-existence with the humans of the village. He may not of had a fancy collar, soft bed to sleep in, or expensive handcrafted dog food to eat, but this was one happy puppy. Perhaps there is something to what the Buddhists here say about happiness.

[1] “Population Biology and Ecology of Feral Dogs in Central Italy“: L. Boitano, F. Francisci, P. Ciucci and G. Andreoli; in The Domestic Dog, Editor James Serpell; Cambridge University Press, 1995, 217-244

The Super Sniffer® Puppy Program: The Importance of PLAY

I have gotten a lot of comments recently on the good behavior of puppies coming out of my Super Sniffer® puppy program. These comments are usually followed by the same question—How do you do it? How can you get pups that are 16 weeks old to pass an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluation with flying colors, regardless of the breed of dog? I felt it might be of inter

6 week airedale pup

Proper socialization and early training will help a pup reach their full potential

est to explore the program in sections over the next few blogs to give readers some ideas that they can use while raising their own puppies. This month I would like to focus on PLAY.

Play is a central part of my program. Play teaches a puppy all about dog language, about their body, how to think on their feet, to be tolerant, to be patient, and also to master the rules of engagement. All of this is an important part of shaping and developing the personality and potential of your puppy, but it must be done in a thoughtful and controlled manner to be effective.

YpupsonBricksOne of the first things I added to the puppy play area was a wide variety of obstacles, textures, and visuals for the pups to get a taste of many things the world has to offer. We know from research that puppy brains expand with all the new things they experience during the first couple of months after birth. Starting at 5 weeks, I bring the pups to the play area and encourage them to walk over all the surfaces we have there. They include bricks, gravel, bark mulch, dry leaves, sand, cement, plastic, and fabrics of various kinds, to name a few. The list has endless possibilities depending on what you have available to include. There are also many different things for the pups to climb over or crawl under. You never know what will strike their fancy on any given outing and I have often been surprised at the places I have found them. One obstacle that takes most pups several weeks to master is a deliberately off level tunnel arrangement that teaches how to walk on non level surface with different visuals and egress at either end. I can see big difference in breeds and bloodlines on how the pups handle this one. It appears simple to the human mind but is truly challenging to the puppy in learning mode.

Teeters and elevated walks are great for building confidence. I use my trained older Chihuahua “Boo” to help teach the pups

dog showing pup how to go up ramp

Boo is teaching pups to use the ramp

these skills. He is very patient and loves to work with the young pups that are about his size. I’m always nearby to make sure no one gets hurt but allow them to slip off a ramp up or down if its not too far from the ground as part of the learning experience. As the pups get older and I take them through more of the formal obedience I will continue to teach exercise so they learn to be more aware of their legs. This will help them feel comfortable getting into tight spaces, climbing but also keep them safe while being active. The more formal training is done with FitPaws™ products and is something I learned from studying Dr. Chris Zink’s work on canine fitness[1]. It has been a real positive since I have added this element to the program. By 8 weeks of age, all the pups here have a good command of the obstacles and items in the play area.

Good play vs. bad play

It is now time to introduce the pups to the older dogs and expand the pack dynamics beyond mom and littermates. As a breeder, I have access to my own pack, which makes this part easy. I know the dogs in my pack and know how they act with puppies. More importantly, I know they are not going to teach the pups any undesirable habits. If you don’t have your own pack or know a breeder who will allow you to run your puppy with their pack, then it might be a challenge to find a group of dogs that would be suitable. The key to this step is getting the right group of dogs together. Dogs with bad habits, even small bad habits, will influence the puppy in a negative way. When the pups are introduced to the pack you want them to learn how to play politely with other dogs, to play quietly, to share toys and not show signs of resource guarding—all important things that will make for a better canine citizen.

Pups learning from another dog

Pups learning from another dog

With the right “teaching” dogs in the pack, the pups will learn how and when to engage in play as the older dogs patiently teach the pups the rules. It’s fascinating to watch them learn too. Again all this builds character, so don’t interfere much here. Let the dogs do the teaching while you take notes.

From my notes on this activity, I will structure the training exercises for the future lessons. If a pup is not very patient or not showing good self-control, then I will use games designed to enhance this skill as we move on with the formal obedience. You can also see learning patterns with the pups during these times as well which can help you choose how to set your pup for success during obedience lessons. If your pup is very visual then you should have training exercises that make allowance for that trait.

One last way in which I also use play when raising the pups is as a stress reliever when the situation calls for it. If you are teaching the puppy something that is very stressful or causes some anxiety, to interject a brief play time can help turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one for your puppy. When I am testing pups during obedience training around increasingly higher distractions, I will often see signs of stress as they are trying to do the right thing in face of something else they want to do more. So after they successfully complete the exercise I will break off into a brief play session to not just reinforce the reward and praise for a good job but to relieve the tension. When stress levels are high, learning is low and retention of the lesson is not as good. This is something to keep in mind as you move on with your pups training. Be carful not to overdo this type of play as the smart pup will soon be running the show, manipulating the situation to their advantage.

pups climbing bricksPlay has its place in the raising of a well-balanced puppy if it is done properly, safely, and for all the right reasons. Remember that good play stimulates the brain, offers positive learning experiences that will help the pup relate to other things in their future, and it strengthens the body too.

©2016 all rights reserved

[1] Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation by M. Christine Zink and Janet Van Dyke available at

Another view of behavior problems

By Debby Kay ©2016 all rights reserved.

Every year hundreds of well-bred seemingly healthy Labradors end up being cut from training programs or turned over to lab rescue because owners can no longer deal with behavior issues. Many behavioral problems are an expression of an underlying health problem often not recognized by trainers and veterinarians as the case studies that follow illustrate.

CStonyfrogleggedase Study 1: Blackjack was a typical Labrador puppy, full of energy, bright and responsive to his owner but he could not “hold” his bladder long enough to make it outside to relieve himself. By 7 months of age, after many consultations with professional trainers and a full exam by the local veterinarian, he was still not housebroken. A very frustrated, disheartened owner gave Blackjack to Lab Rescue.

Case Study 2: Dana was a gorgeous yellow show prospect that came from a highly regarded kennel with impeccable bloodlines known for their good temperaments. She was well socialized and was never mistreated by her owners who were very experienced dog trainers. At 9 months however, Dana was growling and nipping with vicious intent at every human and animal that came near her. Fearing for their children’s safety, Dana was given to Lab Rescue with the label of “fear biter”.

These and similar situations are common and are repeated countless times across the country every year. At first glance, it would be too easy to say Blackjack and Dana were either the result of bad breeding or had poor training or socializing. The truth is that neither situation applies in either of the case histories.Annabelwithtoy

Both dogs were fortunate enough to be examined by a knowledgeable holistic veterinarian who recognized they needed a chiropractic adjustment. Blackjack actually had 6 spinal vertebrate and 2 toe bones out of alignment. After his initial adjustment, he went to his new home and has not had an accident in the house since. He continues to do remarkably well in obedience and is a very well mannered companion. Dana had a slightly different problem in that nearly every vertebrate was out of alignment but in particular, several of the nerves controlling vision were affected. Dana had her eyes cleared for PRA at a breeder’s clinic at 6 months however; it was pointed out that this type of problem would not show up normally in that type of examination. Dana took several visits to make everything right again, but her attitude improved immediately after the first adjustment. She is a wonderful and trustworthy companion today with no signs of aggression or fear biting.

Dog owners, when dealing with health and behavioral issues, frequently overlook alternative veterinarian chiropractic treatment. A veterinarian must undergo specialize training in this field in addition to their regular training and as a result there are not many in practice, however that is no reason to discount a potential problem with the spinal column as a contributing source of a health or behavioral issue. The chiropractic involves adjustment of subluxations[1] of the spinal column and as in the case of Blackjack, the toes or extremities. Their examination will include posture analysis, gait analysis as well as examination of the spine and legs including range of motion. X-rays may or may not be part of the examination depending on the nature of the initial diagnosis. What I find particular good about the chiropractic is that is a drug free approach to health care. The basis of chiropractic is that if an individual has a spinal column properly adjusted which in turn keeps the nervous system inside it operating properly; the result will be a healthy benefit to the entire system.

Labradors are active dogs and thus are subject to many potentially damaging jolts, twists, and turns that we might overlook as insignificant. However, these small seemingly harmless events can build and potentially lead to significant health and behavior issues. All of our Labradors can benefit from an annual chiropractic examination in addition to their regular physical. To find a certified, qualified practitioner near you visit the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association web site at or you can call them at 918-784-2231.

[1] A vertebral subluxation is a spinal misalignment or dysfunction of the joint that results in nerve or biochemical problems.

Guinea pigs, games, and ground rules

By Debby Kay, ©October 2015 all rights reserved

This has been an exciting month for me, with loads of things happening—like writing this blog from the whelping box while my sweet girl Hope is delivering her puppies. This is a special litter as it will be the last litter born to my long-since-gone English import CH Majestic Saxon, a.k.a. Ben. Ben was from the Labrador era of the ’90s and his bloodlines are the last of a very famous line of dual working dogs. It’s exciting to know that these lines will be preserved and that the old-fashioned Labrador will continue. This is something I have always been very passionate about, but after my travels and discussions with some top researchers this month I wanted to share some initial thoughts.

I feel everyone, no matter how long you have been doing something, needs to continue to educate yourself on the latest research in your field. With that thought in mind, I was able to meet, train, and discuss scent training with some of the top researchers.

My travels took me first to Tennessee, where my Labrador Rosie and I trained for 2 days with Ed Presnall, a well-known author, tracking judge, and trainer.   Rosie relished all the time spent figuring out the many scent puzzles that Ed and his partner Debbie presented to us. We learned a ton of excellent suggestions for improving our teamwork and how to compete successfully in AKC tracking events.

The one pertinent thing I want to share with you—even if you don’t train tracking but do some other kind of scent work—is what Ed pointed out several times to us during training. You need to be :

  1. Observant of what the dog is trying to tell you and
  2. You need to keep practicing.

This seems obvious, but so many times we think “we see” a behavior when in reality we are “seeing” what we hope for and not what the dog is really doing. This idea is difficult to write about but becomes very clear when you get into Ed’s workshop and it was a very valuable lesson. I’m hoping to add a few more exercises to my own scent workshops that will help people to read their dogs better, as I feel this is one of the big problems I see early on in the scent training, especially for the medical alert dogs.

As for practice, it is a very human thing to think that just because we have the idea our dogs should too. I have seen people fall into this false belief and the outcome is disappointment in the dog’s performance nearly every time. Obviously you can practice too much which can also lead to some negative results. I saw this at the workshop too where a very eager participant got up extra early to try several more tracks before class and her dog was just plain tired and did not perform too well. Knowing when to quit is key to achieving the results you are looking for, which should be leaving the dog with a positive impression and success on the last exercise performed.

The next trip for me was to Dallas, Texas, where I was able to attend Guinea Pig Scent Detection Camp with the well-known author and professor of ethology, Dr, Roger Abrantes. Camp was quite an experience indeed as our mission was to first train a young raw Guinea pig to run through an agility course,

photo of miniature obstacles

A Guinea pig sized agility course complete with weave poles

then to step cue on a block and finally to differentiate explosive from non-explosive odor giving the step cue on the correct container. The idea here was to learn the importance of correctly identifying and marking behaviors, while honing timing and other skills. With the little piggies, you do not make mistakes, because if you do, they shut down completely. They will literally freeze and then it is all over.

Dr. Abrantes was an excellent instructor and with the help of the Guinea pigs doing their thing he was able to show us many useful skills that can apply to dog training. One thing I noted as I watched others working their piggies was the lack of consistency directly led to the lack of success they experienced in getting the pig to perform. In several cases I saw pigs freeze when the mixed signals became too much for them to handle. Almost all of these trainers had many years experience in training too, which made me realize one thing we can all do is check ourselves for consistency. This means in everything from how we present the reward, where we present the reward, and timing of it down to the words and other things we say to our animals during training. Since I have worked with many other species besides dogs, I am a person of few words during training sessions, which really paid off when working with my Guinea pig. I had to work hard to be consistent but observed that once you are aware of this, things gets easier as you continue to train.IMG_0440

Having a plan at the beginning of your work really helps you to stay consistent too. Dr. Abrantes stressed that each session should have focused goals. I’m pleased to say my little pig performed all her tasks very well, even though she was tired by the end of camp.

Some of the other trainers I met with at the conference also stressed that having ground rules, sticking to those, and keeping with your game plan are key to success. I could not agree more and it was good for me to hear this as the student instead of my usual role as teacher.

In one lecture by Dr. Erica Feuerbacher I got some great insights on structure versus function and how to sort out the parts of a scenario that will help to identify the source of the problem behavior that people usually call me about; for example why does the dog only jump on the husband and not the wife. As Dr. Feuerbacher pointed out, with all our dog training we are helping the dog to generalize the things we are teaching so they are applied in all situations. By dissecting the issue into parts, which she called discriminative stimulus (this is stimuli that are contributing to the problem and predict reinforcement for a certain behavior) and stimulus delta (this is stimulus that predicts the absence of reinforcement for a certain behavior and when present the rate of the behavior decreases) she showed how as trainers we can more effectively isolate the things that need to be worked on. It was a lot to take in but I found the whole conference very stimulating and informative. I have already started to incorporate some of what I have learned into my future lessons.

The October workshop, held here at my facility in Harpers Ferry, was a good place to watch these principles and lessons in my practical world. I realize now that I have not been stressing enough about the variable reward schedule and when to start it. Variable reward means that the food treat we use to mark the correct behavior we are trying to train, is not given 100% of the time the behavior is performed. A sample session implementing the variable reward might go something like a reward given after every other behavior, then maybe four in a row, then maybe every third time the behavior is offered and so forth.

service dog learning to be still with kids

Learning to deal with kids

Praise with your “bridge” word would be given all the time at first even though the food is not always coming, but then eventually the praise would be gradually backed off. The idea here is that once the task is learned using the variable reward will help reinforce the behavior stronger than 100% reward and as it becomes less and less food the dog is finally working on task because he understands his job, not just for the food. Certainly we do not want any dog—but a service dog in particular—to be working for food. Different experts had different opinions (no surprise) as to when to start to introduce the variable reward. I have previously said it should be after the scent memory is built, for those familiar with my program. After a lot of discussion with other trainers, I am reconsidering that perhaps it can be introduced earlier, such as the second week of working with the dog without any setbacks. I’ll be looking at this more closely with future trainees and see how the results compare. In the meantime, if any of you have already experimented with this, I’d love to hear your comments and reporting of your results.

As I finish up this posting, we have several nice black males, chocolate females and one chocolate male on the ground now and I am beside myself at the miracle of these pups coming from long-frozen semen.   I’m sure these will be some of the most videoed pups ever, so watch for postings on my YouTube page as they develop and start their training in the weeks and months to come.