unleash your dog's spirit 


Tuesday, 02 September 2014 00:00

The dogma of Alone Training

Having your dog accustomed to being behind a gate (or door, ex-pen, etc.) can be helpful in many situations. It allows the dog a quiet place away from potentially stressful activity and gives you time to remove them when you cannot be fully supervising them. Preparing your dog to feel comfortable when being left alone will prove to be a useful skill throughout their lives. The steps to accustom them to a gate are:

1. Put the gate up somewhere in your house and always have it there to start, so that bringing out the gate does not become a trigger to them that they are going behind it.

2. Occasionally toss treats onto the other side of the gate for your dog to find on their own.

3. Feed the dog's meals on the other side of the gate.

4. After a few days, begin introducing a cue. Say your cue (ex: 'Behind gate'), toss treat. Praise as dog eats treat and then cue him out with another cue of your choice (do not reward the dog for coming out from gate).

5. Repeat step 5 numerous times until your dog enjoys going behind the gate for the treat, without actually closing the gate.

6. Start to cue the dog and encourage them to go in on their own. Once they are in, reward with a treat. Ensure you cue them to come out.

7. If they are hesitant to go in on their own, wait it out. Do not repeat the cue! Stay upbeat and positive and do not force them behind.

8. If the dog still will not go on their own, end the session – stay calm and do not appear frustrated. It was just too much for your dog. Try again at a later time. If the dog does go in, jackpot reward them!

9. After dog will go into gate on cue, begin to shut it when they go in. Treat repeatedly while they are in the closed gate to start. Only do small increments of time to start and then increase.

10. Start to get up and walk around, around room, towards the gate.

11. Take one step over the gate, then two, etc.

12. Start to walk around on other side of gate, while remaining in sight. Ensure you are returning to dog and rewarding.

13. Begin increasing duration by keeping yourself busy while dog is behind the gate. Go back and reward as needed when dog is being quiet. Ignore any crying or whining. Never let the dog out of the gate if they are crying. They need to learn they only come out when they are quiet.

14. Next start going out of sight for short periods. Build this up the same as the above steps. Do not continually make the time longer – vary this. Keep your sessions short!

15. As your dog begins to use the gate more, ensure you are not only using it when you leave the dog home alone. They may begin to pair the gate with isolation and create a negative association.

16. Always teach your dog that the gate is a positive, safe place for them!

There are many important skills that are important to being effective in your training with your dog. These include your handling skills, controlling your own body language, understanding your dog's body language and many other essential traits/skills. However, when you are first starting training, or even if you have been training for some time, this post will cover what we consider to be essential to gaining success in training your dog.


It can be a frustrating and challenging time for us during training, especially with a new or young dog. There are many factors that contribute to this, primarily the miscommunication that occurs between us and our dogs. Dogs communicate mainly through body language and we do so verbally. It presents many challenges. As well, they are learning (and often so are we during this time!). We need to remember this and understand that they are on a learning curve. The behaviour is not going to change over night. Think of it as the same as learning a new sport. Let's say you are learning to skate. At first you learn how to balance on skates and then progress from there. With our dogs we often forget this during the training. We expect that once they learn a skill they should be able to understand and apply it in all situations. We must be patient. There will be frustations, but we must remind ourselves about this and show patience while we teach them.


Dogs require consistency to best understand what is expected of them. We struggle with this as we rely on our verbal language. For example, we can say that you can do something this time because... For dogs we cannot do this. They do not understand that they can jump on us today because we are as happy to see them and are wearing our casual clothes, but they cannot do it another time when we are wearing our nice clothes or their paws are muddy. We have to be clear and teach them rules are always the same. This makes things much more clear for our dogs and less frustrating for us. Another example( and one we see frequently in class) is when an owner may ask a dog for a sit, the dog lies down and the owner thinks the dog is just so darn cute and is trying so hard, so deserves a reward. As a result, the dog hears sit, lies down and gets a treat. They then don't understand when they may do it again and the owner gets upset with them. Consistency is critical and will ensure faster and better success in your training!


By having good timing, we are able to tell the dog exactly when they have performed a requested behaviour. In our training classes, we primarily use a 'yes' in the foundation classes, but this would be the same as using a clicker (both of these are referred to as reward markers). This marker is used to let the dog know they did something good and is another tool that ensures training progresses faster and effectively. It proves to be a key part of communication in training and your timing is important. For example, you ask your dog to sit and they do, then you go to get a food reward and in this time your dog scratches his ear and lies down. You give him the treat when he lies down, so in his mind, he has learned he gets the reward for lying down when he hears sit. However, if you use a marker such as 'yes', you can achieve better timing. In the above example, if you use your 'yes' as soon as the dog's bum hits the floor, you provide the dog correct feedback at precisely the right time.

A reward marker is also a key part of removing food in your training. If you introduce it and associate it with good things early in your training, this allows you a way to still offer a reward once your dog understands a skill. For example, a two year old dog has responding well to a sit cue for most of its life. At this time, the owner no longer offers a food reward to the dog for the sit, but still provides the reward marker to communicate to the dog they did something good!

How we behave and interact with our dog is critical to our training. There are many things to keep in mind, but by paying close attention to these skills, you will begin to see continued success!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 00:00

The dogma of Relationship Building

Dogs are social animals and they are pack animals. I do agree that we need to guide and take responsibility for them and our family, but why does this have to be so much about being a pack leader? I do teach my dogs rules, structure and manners, but this whole idea of being a leader has become about force and coercion. We used to discuss these as leadership habits, I changed it to relationship building, and now I am leaving out anything to do with being a pack leader. The whole concept has become so misconstrued and to the detriment of the dog. It has created fear in people towards our dogs as we view everything they do as a potential act of dominance and their steps towards taking over leadership of the household. I will discuss this more in part 2, but for now, let's focus on relationship building.

In order to have a dog that is secure, happy, well trained and a great joy to the family, you will need to provide your dog with guidance. Building a proper relationship with your dog is essential to prevent conflict between you or other family members and your dog. This is not about force, but rather about training and activities that enhance the bond between family members and your dog. Majority of the skills we are going to discuss below are about teaching your dogs self-control, which in turn improves their manners and makes them more enjoyable to live with. These are also ways to incorporate training into your everyday life and work with your dogs to teach them the rules and structure of the household.

  • Nothing for Free. Make your dog work for everything they perceive as a positive (attention, treats, food, toys, etc.). This could just be something as simple as a sit. The dog learns to listen to you, be patient and be attentive. They also understand that you are what allows them access to all of the resources and fun stuff!
  • You should not free feed your dog. They should be fed two meals a day. This is not only a great training opportunity, but it also allows us an easy, consistent why to montor our dog's health.
  • Have your dog sit or down and wait for their food for up to 30 seconds. Their food should be on the floor. They must wait until you release them. This is a great exercise to practice patience and self control.
  • Focus on attention work. Reward offered attention and frequently practice name attention. Attention is the foundation of everything that you will do with your dog and is an excellent relationship building skill.
  • Ask your dog to sit at doorways. They should wait until you release them. This is an exercise about patience and manners. Do we really think that if our dog goes out the door ahead of us they are thinking that they rule us for the day?
  • Have certain toys that are only in your possession. By doing this, you will create high value items that you can use to further motivate and reward your dog.
  • Do not allow your dog to jump on you. If they do, turn your back and wait for all four paws to be on the ground.
  • Have your dog's bed in the bedroom. This allows you the whole night for you to spend with your dog bonding. This communicates to your dog that they are part of the family.
  • Rough play such as wrestling and play fighting encourages dogs to be physical with us. Play games like fetch, find it, and tug-of-war instead. By teaching them the rules for these games, you are building excellent impulse control in your dog.
  • Work on teaching your dog to calmly accept handling and spend time each day interacting with them physically. This could be just some petting or it could be through grooming.

There are many things that we may do that will discourage relationship building with our dogs. Below are some of the key items and ones that we should actively work towards avoiding when interacting with our dogs.

  • Yelling. The only thing that yelling tells our dog is that we have lost control.
  • Physical Corrections. By physically correcting (punishing) our dog we may be putting them in a position where they feel that they have to defend themselves. We don't want our dogs to be scared of us, or think negatively of us. We want them to trust us and see us as only positive!
  • Using your dog's recall cue negatively. Don't call your dog to you and then do something negative like clipping their nails. Then, quite simply, your dog won't want to come to you.
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 00:00

The dogma of Distraction Training

"My dog is perfect inside the house, but forgets everything and pays no attention to me outside!"

Have you ever found yourself saying this or can you relate to this statement? Every dog owner has felt frustration with their dog at one time or another due to their dog's short attention span. A common mistake that dog owners make while training their dogs is not properly proofing for distractions. We expect that once our dog knows a skill, they should be able to understand how to do the skill in any environment and/or situation. A common example would be when a dog does well at recall from the backyard to inside the house. Then the owner takes this right to the off-leash park and tries to call the dog to come out of play with another dog. The dog cannot handle this level of difficulty and will most often fail at this task.

This is where distraction training becomes a critical part of a training program for our dogs. To gain reliability and have success out in the real world, we need to introduce distractions and condition our dog on how to respond in a variety of situations and environments. We should start indoors in a quiet environment and then slowly begin to add in distractions. We often encourage people to compare the distraction training process to learning a new sport. For example, let's say someone has just learned to jump off a diving board for the first time. If we compare this to what we do to our dogs, we would then immediately expect them to begin performing intricate dives off the highest board.

We need to have a good understanding of distraction training to make faster progress at reliably teaching our dogs new skills. As well, after a few sessions of working on something over our dogs head, both we and the dogs will get discouraged. So distraction training helps to make the whole process more enjoyable for both us and our dogs. By taking the time to properly plan and asking your dog to perform in circumstances that are gradually more and more difficult, you will be leading them to extremely reliable performances in the future.

Below is a sample list of the levels of distractions (varies with each dog).


  • At home with no one around.
  • In the backyard at a quiet time (no one in sight, no dogs barking, no squirrels, etc).
  • In the classroom, with no other dogs in the room.


  • In the house with other family members around.
  • In the front yard with people walking by.
  • On the sidewalk while walking towards a dog that is a fair distance away.
  • Could also be out on a walk with a familiar dog in view.


  • In the backyard with a squirrel in view.
  • In the front yard with people your dog loves walking by.
  • In the house with family members trying to distract your dog with food.
  • Decreasing the distance out on a walk with another dog in view.
  • In a busy parking lot.
  • In the classroom with other dogs.


  • At a park with lots of people around.
  • At the vet clinic.
  • In the house with family members playing with your dog's favourite toy.
  • Further decreasing the distance on a walk with another dog in view.
  • During play with a dog.

Experiment with these lists and develop one that provides a scale for your dog. Get out and practice! If your dog does not respond to you right away, remember that it is most likely that they are not being disobedient but rather they are just too distracted and the skill level is too high. Try to determine how to make the situation less difficult for them and remember that it is your job to set your dog up for success!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 00:00

The dogma of the "Drop It" Cue

The 'drop it' cue is one that we consider a potential life-saving skill for your dog. This teaches your dog to release an item in their mouth when they hear you say 'drop it' (or any cue you would like to say such as 'give', 'mine', etc). This could be something that could be dangerous or fatal for your dog, but it is also a good skill for self-control, overall manners or part of games such as tug or retrieve. This can be a relatively easy skill to teach as long as it is set up correctly and your dog has not had lots of practice at playing the keep away game!

Many dogs do learn to keep items away from us because we may have inadvertently taught them that grabbing certain items gets them attention from us (even if it is negative, many dogs still find this attention rewarding!) or that it starts a really fun game of chase! If we handle this incorrectly as well, we may create possession aggression concerns in our dogs. This is because when we finally get the item, we often are angry, yank it from our dogs and take it away. By doing this, we are teaching them that giving us items means bad things for them and that we always take the items away from them. This will often create a vicious circle where the dog begins to try harder to keep the item away or just finds the overall game and attention a lot of fun and continues to grab items. By teaching the 'drop it' cue we are basically teaching our dogs to trade to start; release the item in your mouth and something good will happen.

  1. To start, offer your dog a toy that they will put in your mouth. Ensure it is a toy they enjoy, but not something too high value. You always start at lower value items and then work up to the more high value items.
  2. While the dog is holding the item in their mouth, say 'drop it' while you hold a treat up to their nose.
  3. When the dog drops the item, say 'yes' or click and give them the treat while picking up the toy.
  4. Provide them with verbal praise and then give them back the toy.

We are teaching them that giving us the item means good things for them. In the above steps, this was for the treat. While going through these steps during training, ensure that you always have the higher value item to use a reward. As well, by giving back the item to the dog, you are teaching them that when they give you the item, they may sometimes get it back – this does not always mean that they lose access to the item. Remember to always start the training with a lower value item.

After the dog has done the above steps a few times, follow the below steps:

  1. Say the 'drop it' cue with the treat out of sight.
  2. When they drop the item, say 'yes' and give them the food reward.
  3. Repeat this multiple times and give them the item back.
  4. Start to occasionally keep the item while rewarding the dog.

Go through all of these steps and begin to add higher value items. A typical sequence may be a tennis ball, a squeaker toy, their favourite toy, a new toy, a milk bone, a smoked bone, etc. Work at each level multiple times until the dog is happily dropping the item before going to a higher value item. As you increase the value of the item, ensure you are also providing them with a higher value reward. This does not always have to be food. For example, the dog may drop a tennis ball in exchange for a new squeaker toy! During this training you are teaching the dog that you have a great reward for them and that it is worth it for them to drop the item.

With any training, it is important that we set it up to start versus just waiting for the dog to grab onto something they have to drop. This allows us to have better influence over the situation to ensure success. As the dog becomes more reliable with the skill, you will begin to set up 'real world' situations. To do this, always have a reward on you. When your dog picks up an item, you can practice the above steps and offer big rewards for when they drop the item.

So, what happens when your dog grabs something they shouldn't have or you know is too valuable to them so you may not have good success? If it is something that is not dangerous to the dog and they will not destroy or it is okay for them to chew it up (for example, a kleenex from the garbage), ignore the dog. This is especially true for those dogs that have turned this into a game and do this to get your attention. You are no longer going to play this game with them and teach them that you will ignore them, not play the keep away game. As well, ensure you are preventing the dog from grabbing these items by dog proofing your house by putting items out of reach or putting lids on garbage cans.

What about an emergency situation? Your dog has grabbed something dangerous and you need to get it back. These are critical situations that require high value bribes. Do not chase the dog! Instead get a high value item (maybe hot dogs from the fridge!) and toss them towards your dog while you kneel down. Do not make any movement towards your dog. Toss the food and as the dog goes to get it, continue to toss it further away from the dropped item. Continue to do this until you can get the dangerous item and provide your dog with big rewards. Understand that it was not your dogs fault and that you need to do a better job at keeping these items out of your dog's reach.

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Megan’s Musings are by Megan Armstrong, Owner/Operator of dogma

Megan became one of Calgary's only Certified Pet Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) in 2005. The CPDT designation means her programs are based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge about dog training. In other words, Megan's dog training expertise is grounded in a thorough, extensive education and examination process. 

View Megan's bio