Your Reactive Dog: From Anxious to Zensational!

Change your on-leash reactive dog to calm and confident through this interactive, live online course taught by pet professionals.

Over 10 years ago, my dog-professional friend, Lisa, (a board-certified veterinary behaviorist) and I talked about how it seems to have become epidemic that so many dogs we were seeing or hearing about were acting aggressive or fearful on walks. Anytime a dog (or in some cases a person, a bike, or a car) passed by, they went crazy, lunging and barking. So what did we do to help? We created a Reactive Dog class.

We have offered that class for the last 10 years and have helped hundreds of dog owners change their dog’s behavior to calmer and more confident. One of the ways that initial success can be achieved is to first look at the owner’s goals for their dog. Will their reactive dog become a socially outgoing dog, greeting all other dogs with a happy wagging tail and big open grin? In most cases, probably not. But will this dog be able to walk down the street and ignore other dogs? That’s a reasonable goal. You can’t change a dog’s basic temperament any more than you can turn an introverted person into an extrovert. However, you can work on certain behavior patterns so that the introvert can learn to feel comfortable, say, giving talks to a roomful of people.

Fast forward 10 years to now. We realized that we were only reaching the tip of the iceberg of people who need help with their on-leash reactive dog. What about the thousands across the country, even the English-speaking world, that needed our help?

That’s when we decided to create an online educational company, Dog Nerds, LLC. Using the techniques, skills, and knowledge we had honed over the 10 years of teaching this sought-after class we put together an online, personalized program to help owners with reactive dogs anywhere in the world. We want to give owners more confidence and skills, change their dog’s behavior in a meaningful way, and make walking those dogs fun again!

dogs on leash

This online, interactive live course, Your Reactive Dog: From Anxious to Zensational which begins on February 10th, 2019 will cover everything from how a dog becomes reactive, what the dog needs emotionally to change his or her behavior, management techniques to create better attention and calm, and behavioral tools to build calm alternative behaviors to barking, lunging, or growling.

The instructors are educated and experienced. Lisa Radosta is a board certified veterinary behaviorist. Mindy Cox (me) and Cheryl VanVoorhies are certified professional dog trainers who specialize and have experience helping clients with their dog’s behavior problems including fear and aggression. We have been working successfully with aggressive and reactive dogs and their owners for decades.

We will meet live and online for 4-sessions of education and learning spread over 5 weeks. There will be an email support hotline to answer all questions. During Office Hours that will be held several times a week, we will group video chat about any issues. And we will provide a private Facebook page for our students to communicate with each other.

All of the sessions will be recorded. There will be bonus recordings and handouts to help make sure that our students are successfully able to change their dog’s behavior.

Recapping, this is what this amazing course, beginning February 10, 2019 will cover. (Missed the opportunity to register? Check on upcoming courses. Not sure if this course is right for you? Click here.)

  • You will build confidence in your abilities and you’ll stop worrying what others think.
  • We will teach you to have fun with your dog using positive, force-free, science-based methods. You will learn through games. You will learn to enjoy your walks again.
  • Your dog will become calmer and learn better ways to deal with the issues that cause him worry or stress, the things that often cause reactivity.
  • You will stop feeling like the neighborhood pariah, ashamed to be seen with your dog.
  • We will help you understand what causes reactivity and how it’s not about your dog being disobedient.
  • Our proven techniques will teach you in the comfort of your home without having to take your dog any place worrisome.
  • We will be there to help you as well as will a whole community of like-minded dog owners that share the same issues and worries and understand exactly what you’re going through.
  • The course uses easy to use, step-by-step instruction, videos, and written materials, that will help you even if you are not good at training a dog.
  • This course provides the skills and techniques you need to achieve dramatic and rewarding results. It is self-paced so while we suggest that you do it on the established time table, we know you are busy so you are able to fit it into your lifestyle.

Please help us get the word out to anyone who can benefit from this unique course. They can check out the website or find us on Facebook. Let’s make dog walking fun and enjoyable for everyone in the neighborhood!

Can you create the dog you want?


In class or consultations I often see a clear incompatibility between a dog owner’s life style and/or abilities, and the dog they chose to bring into their family. I know sedentary older folks struggling with high energy puppies; parents with a toy breed who’s afraid of and snapping at their unstable toddler; an athlete who wants to take up an active dog sport with a breed that typically prefers to be a couch potato. Bad fit from the start, which causes frustration and, sadly, a dog that may be abandoned to a shelter. Of course, with lots of training and management, we can often improve an undesirable situation. But there’s nothing more beautiful when, with planning and research, the fit is just right.

I came across this great blog article by Dr. Jen Summerfield I want to share with you here. (Check out her blog .)

If you’re a dog owner, I’m sure you’ve heard this refrain.

Conventional wisdom says that young puppies come to us as blank slates.  Full of promise and limitless potential, ready to be molded into your ideal companion as long as you do your part – provide lots of love, the right amount of discipline, and appropriate training along the way.  If you’re a caring, responsible pet owner, there’s no reason that your puppy should not grow up to be a model canine citizen.

“Bad” dogs are the fault of bad owners, right?  After all, it’s all in how you raise them.

As always, in the world of behavior – it’s not quite that simple.

There are few myths in the field of dog training that get under my skin quite as much as this one.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many kind, committed owners with deeply troubled dogs break down in tears during a behavior consultation, certain that they have done something to cause their dog’s crippling anxiety or aggression issues.  After all, they’ve had him since he was a puppy – so clearly, something must have been lacking in his upbringing.

Or perhaps it’s the countless number of fundamentally mismatched dog/owner pairings that every veterinarian and trainer sees on a regular basis.  The gentle elderly couple, with the adolescent field-bred Lab.  The busy young professionals with three children under the age of five, with the spooky English Mastiff who doesn’t like kids.  Or even the lovely middle-aged woman who wants to do therapy work in a local nursing home, with her aloof and introverted Chow.

What all of these situations have in common, at their core, is a lack of understanding combined with an unfortunate and excessive sense of optimism – an unshakeable faith in the notion that any dog can be molded into the perfect pet for the owner’s particular lifestyle, as long as they’re “raised right.”  That every eight-week-old puppy is a formless mass of behavioral clay, ready to be imprinted with whatever characteristics and personality traits are most convenient for their living situation and the wishes of their new family.

Unfortunately for all involved in the examples above, this is utterly and emphatically not true.

But wait, you might say!  What about socialization and training?  Can’t we influence our puppies’ adult characteristics through exposure to the things we want them to be comfortable with?  Can’t we teach them early on how we want them to behave, thus preventing any problems later on?

In other words, a perfectly socialized and well-trained puppy should be a foolproof bet to turn out the way we want – right?

Well… the answer, as they say, is complicated.

Don’t get me wrong – socialization and early learning are very powerful things.  (See my previous posts on these topics here and here for a more complete discussion of how they influence puppy development, if you’re interested.)  There is a lot we can do to set our puppies up for success, and also to address possible problems or behavioral red flags early on.  This is the “nurture” side of the nature-and-nurture paradigm, and it’s incredibly important – but it’s only half of the equation.

So what does nature have to say?

We all know intuitively that behavioral characteristics can be inherited.  After all, this basic notion is the reason for thousands of years of selective breeding in the dog world – it’s why we’ve been able to develop specific lines of dogs who are consistently driven to retrieve things, herd sheep, guard our homes, or track rabbits without any formal training at all.  Why, then, does it surprise us that other types of behavioral tendencies can also be passed from parents to offspring?

The truth is, your dog’s genetic background plays a tremendous (and often under-valued) role not only in what inborn skills he might have, but in who he is – whether he is friendly or reserved with strangers, tolerant of other pets or not, a high-drive athlete or a snuggly couch potato, easily startled by loud noises or relatively “bombproof.”

Since the 1940s, studies in canine behavioral genetics have consistently shown that traits such as fearfulness, impulsivity, problem-solving ability, working drive, and even tendencies toward aggression are strongly influenced by breeding.  Socialization and early learning can certainly help to sway things in one direction or another, but these forces are operating on a pre-existing genetic blueprint.

Is behavior moldable?  Of course it is – to a point.  You can only modify what you already have, not create the dog of your choosing from scratch.  So if you have specific goals for your pup or need a dog with a certain personality type, it pays to make sure that you’re getting a temperament you can live with!

Please note that none of this should be taken as a defense of breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination, on the theory that certain breeds are bound to be aggressive or otherwise “bad.”  There is a tremendous amount of genetic variability within every breed – so much so that it’s not possible to make any reliable predictions about behavior based solely on breed identification.  It’s much more valuable to look specifically at the parents and littermates of a particular puppy, or at a certain line of dogs within a breed.

So, what can we do with this knowledge?

If you have specific personality traits that you need in a dog, don’t choose a puppy based on looks or a cheap purchase price and assume that you can “make it work” – this rarely goes well, in my experience.

Instead, I would strongly encourage you to look into getting a puppy from an excellent breeder, with a good track record of producing dogs with the traits that you want – this is your very best chance of ending up with a dog that will be a good fit for you and your family.  Many owners need a dog that is reliably gentle and tolerant with kids, or with low prey drive because of smaller pets in the home, or easygoing and low-energy because they are elderly or disabled.  Getting an adult dog from a trusted source who knows the dog well (such as a breeder, or a good rescue group) can also be a great option.

This kind of predictability may not be important for all owners – which is fine!  Many of my clients don’t have any specific plans or goals for their dog, and their lifestyle is flexible enough that a wide range of personality types would fit into their household with no problems.  If this describes you, then you could absolutely open your home to a puppy or older dog with an unknown background and see where life takes the two of you.  There are many such dogs who desperately need homes, and the relationship that you have with a dog like this can be extremely special.

By the same token – if you are thinking about breeding your dog, or if you already have an active breeding program, please carefully consider temperament in your breeding decisions!  Most good breeders know this already and are very selective about which dogs they choose to breed, but this idea can be surprising to many owners who are new to the process and aren’t aware that personality traits can be inherited.  Excessively fearful or aggressive dogs should not be bred – period.  These issues should be taken as seriously as hereditary physical problems like hip dysplasia or degenerative myelopathy, as they are every bit as devastating for both the puppy and his/her new family.

And finally, if you have a pup from an uncertain background (or a known, not-so-great background) who is struggling with a behavior problem despite your best efforts, don’t beat yourself up!  For many of my clients, it comes as a relief to know that they have done nothing wrong – the misplaced guilt that comes with having a much-loved dog who is also severely aggressive or fearful of everything can be crushing.

It helps to understand that you can only play the hand you’re dealt; all dogs come with their own personalities and behavioral tendencies, for better or worse.  We can do a lot to help these dogs live safer, happier lives with training and careful management – we can build their confidence, teach them better coping skills to handle stress, and strengthen their bond with their owners – but we can’t change who they are.  And usually, that’s okay.

So if you have a dog like this, to paraphrase the famous Serenity Prayer – I would encourage you to work on the things you can change, and accept the things you can’t.

The trick is learning to know the difference.

(Sun) Dried Carrots – a Dog Chew

Since we live in Florida with lots of sun to dehydrate the carrots, I think this could easily work as a healthy dog treat!

A Vegan in Las Vegas

Hello everyone!

I have been experimenting with alternative dog chews for a while. Those store bought chews, and dental sticks can really weight on your pocket!

My dog is very picky when it comes to food, and treats. However, she has always been in love with carrots. I usually threw an organic carrot (with peel on) in the microwave, zapped it for a minute, cooled it, and let my dog have a field day. (The microwaving helps make the carrot more easily digestible, by the way).

As much as she was in love she was with these minute microwaved carrots, she’d eat about half of it and leave the rest behind. However, she’d come back to them once they were all dried up and super chewy. Since I live in Las Vegas, and it’s hot as balls here during the summer, I put some carrots out and let them sun…

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The Nose Knows!

There are lots of fun ways to harness your dog’s amazing sense of smell

Your dog learns about the world through his or heNose-Zanderr nose. As a matter of fact, dogs have astonishing olfactory powers. Sometimes dogs can be so engrossed in smells that we have trouble getting their attention. Instead if fighting it, why not harness it to play games! Our Nose Work Games instructor, Cheryl VanVoorhies, has provided some simple starter games that you can try at home.

Towel Search

Place food (real cheese or chicken) in a loosely folded towel. Let Fido try to open it and eat the contents. Eventually you should be able to tie the towel in a loose knot to keep your dog occupied longer and longer. If your dog starts to chew the towel, help him open it. Fido is still learning how to do this so be patient.

Muffin Tin Search

Place a couple of small pieces of food (cheese works well), into one well of the muffin tin. Let your dog find it and eat it. Repeat a couple of times. Next, cover the single well containing the food with a tennis ball or old sock rolled into a ball and then offer it to your dog. Let Fido figure out how to uncover the section and get to the food. As long as he is actively searching, resist the urge to constantly help. Gradually, add more more balls to the muffin tin to increase the difficulty as your dog searches for the single section containing the food. You can also feed your dog’s meals this way so he eats slower.

Here’s a fun video that demonstrates the game: Thank you to the participants in this video, Jackie and border collie Bear, and Elyse with border terrier Lola.

Unroll & Treat

Roll small pieces of food in a cabinet liner or small, sturdy towel. Space the treats 5-7 inches apart. Roll the liner up tightly. Place one treat at the center of the rolled up liner so when she eats the treat she is also beginning to push the roll with her nose. Encourage her to push the liner, discovering more treats, until it is unrolled and all treats have been eaten. Increase the difficulty by placing fewer and fewer treats in the liner where Fido has to push it all the way open until he or she gets the treat.

Nose Work Basics

• Hold a cardboard box, place some treats inside, and allow your dog to stick her head in the box to eat them. Repeat and then do this with the box on the floor. Next, hold her by the collar, toss treats in the box, and while she is looking at the box wanting to go get the treats say “Find it” and release her to get the treats.

•  Place 3-5 boxes in the room and show Fido the box with the treats. Place the box on the floor about 3 feet away and tell Fido to “Find it”. Fido should run to the box and eat. While she is eating, drop a few more treats into the box to build value for the box. Repeat this 3 times.

• Place 3-5 boxes in a room while Fido is in another room, unable to have access to you.
Place food in one of the boxes. Let Fido out of the room and tell her to “Find it”. Once Fido finds the box with the food in it, place a few more pieces in the box to keep Fido’s head in the box. You can praise her as well.

• You can also play the Find It game by hiding a toy in the room and then telling your dog to find it.

Fun Facts

  • Dogs noses are way more powerful than ours. If you  make an analogy to vision, what we can see at 1/3 of a mile away a dog can see as well from 3000 miles away.
  • We can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee but a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water (two Olympic size swimming pools).
  • We have a measly 5 million olfactory receptors in our brain; dogs have up to 300 million. The canine brain devotes 40 times more real estate to smell detection than the human brain, proportionally speaking.
  • Dogs smell separately with each nostril; this helps determine the location of the odor.
  • Our best friend’s amazing sniffers are used to find cadavers, drugs, bombs, bedbugs, cancerous tumors, and missing children, to name a few.
  • Want to learn more? Here are some interesting resources.

It is certainly fun to appreciate how our dogs experience the world so much differently than we do!


This Is Most Important Skill To Teach Your Dog

It’s fun when your dog is reliable and well-trained enough to go anywhere with you, even off-leash. The other day I was at the beach and there were several dogs playing. I could tell that an owner was getting frustrated as he called his large breed dog over and over with no greater success each time he yelled. The dog continued to play with the other dogs and completely ignored her owner. Why? Probably because there was no strong built up history for the dog coming when called and being rewarded, so the dog figured, “why listen when I’m having so much fun here?” Or perhaps the dog listens great at home but the owner was expecting his dog to respond under very new and difficult conditions, something for which the dog was not trained.

Should the owner punish the dog when he finally gets him? Well, I think he should pick up a rolled newspaper and hit himself in the head for asking the dog to work above her level by placing her in a situation that she was not trained for! Coming  from off-leash play at the beach is graduate school or PhD level training. (And punishing your dog is a great way to get her to NOT come to you in the future.)

Last week I was walking my three high energy dogs off leash around our quiet neighborhood. All of a sudden a rabbit popped up and my Australian Shepherd mix, Runi took out after it. I let her have some fun for a moment and then called her. She returned to me immediately.  I rewarded her with a tossed tennis ball, one of her favorite activities. You know what? If I didn’t know she would respond, I would not be walking her off leash! That behavior took lots of time, patience and reinforcement to achieve; it did not happen overnight, but I’m so glad that I can trust my dogs.

I got a very quick video; sorry for the bad technique! You can see the rabbit running across her path; this was after she had chased it  up the street and then it turned and ran in my direction. When I called Runi she came immediately. Check it out.

Want your dog to come when you call? Check out my 5 tips.

Tip #1: Follow the 5 rules of recall

 If you adhere to some important training principles, you can begin to build up a solid foundation.

1. Never call your dog for anything unpleasant. Including nail clipping, bathing, or having his leash clipped on to go home from the beach or park. In short, anything that might give him pause the next time you call him. And even if it seems like it took forever for him to finally come to you, don’t punish him; it will make him think twice about repeating that behavior.

2.  Never call your dog if you are not sure he will come. All recalls should be successful recalls. Work at your dog’s level: If he has a kindergarten-level recall, don’t give him a graduate assignment like being called away from a fleeing rabbit. Here’s one way to test if you want to call your dog. Will you bet $50 that he will come when you call? If not, don’t do it. Instead go and get him.

3. If you call your dog and he doesn’t come, you must make it happen. Run over to him and put a treat in front of his nose, backing up as you get his attention so he follows you. Or clap your hands, make funny noises, or run the other way.  Do anything that will work. Then don’t set him up to fail again.

4. Never repeat the command. Resist the urge to call over and over and over. It only teaches your dog to tune out the command. Call once and, if necessary, use rule #3: Make the recall happen.

5. Fabulous rewards get fabulous recalls. If you want your dog to stop whatever interesting doggie thing he is doing and come running to you, make it worth his while. Use extra yummy treats—no dry biscuits here!—or a well-thrown ball, if that is your dog’s fancy. This is not the time to be stingy!

Tip #2: Reinforcement is key.

Reinforcement increases behavior so use the one that is meaningful to your dog and reinforce desirable behavior every time. For a difficult distraction use the best reinforcement and consider giving more of it to reward your dog (such as hand a treat to your dog every second for 10 seconds to pay your dog for a great behavior). Find the reinforcement that is meaningful to your dog whether food, toy, or other. This may vary depending upon the situation.

You have voice, body and food lures to get your dog to come. Another key is learning how to pay your dog. Lots of distractions compete for dog’s focus.

 Tip #3: Distractions & Timing

Smells and movement trigger a dog’s interest. Social dogs will be attracted to people or other dogs. Every dog is different. Anticipate what will be challenging for your dog: squirrels, rabbits, lizards. Plan to work at your dog’s level for that situation and distraction.

It’s easier to call your dog when you’re a few feet away from him than 50 feet; and it’s easier when the distraction is farther away. Timing is important too. The longer your dog interacts with or becomes focused on the distraction, the harder the recall becomes. Call quickly and before your dog gets too close or too invested in the distraction. The more difficult the recall, the bigger the reward should be, both in quality and quantity.

Tip #4: Work at Your Dog’s Level

This drive and enthusiasm is such a joy to watch

Don’t put your dog in situations that he or she is not ready for. If your dog won’t come to you when she’s running loose on the beach, don’t let her loose at the beach. Figure out what is reinforcing the undesirable behavior and remove it. (For example, if she gets reinforced by playing with other dogs on the beach and ignores you, don’t allow her access to that reinforcement.) Build up your recall success, staying at each level in each different environment until you are near 100% successful. Then add more difficulty. Having problems? Make the exercise easier to gain success.

 Tip #5: Thinking Ahead

Eventually you want to trust your dog. Practice in these areas with a long line to give the illusion of freedom but maintain training control. When she is reliable on the long line, graduate to her dragging her regular leash so you can grab hold of it if things get too challenging. Take steps slowly always working at her level so she stays successful.

In this video, my dogs are in a down-stay and I call them one at a time (which you can’t hear in the video. I call using the dog’s name and the cue, for example, “Zander, come”. When they get to me they get praised and then I toss them a ball, a very high-value reinforcer for them. If I had not built up this solid foundation of stay and come, I would not be doing this in an unsecured area off leash. 

Training Tips: If your dog does not have a reliable stay, have someone hold him or her. Use a long leash to keep your dog safe if not practicing in a fenced, secure area.

Now get out there and practice, patiently build your dog’s skills, and have fun!

Puppy Playtime!

It’s healthy & important, but there are things to watch for to keep it fun for your pup.

What is cuter than puppies playing? Nothing! It brings a smile to the face to watch a bunch of furballs jumping around, mock fighting, and having fun. That is until one puppy is not having a good time. Luckily, in most cases, no harm, no foul and they quickly resume the fun. But what about when the puppy who got scared goes and hides. Should you push him back to play or let him be? It’s important to support your puppy’s emotional needs. When he is ready he will return, and if he is not, let him participate in his own good time. When we allow puppies to build their trust, their confidence will grow.

Play is important, especially in early puppyhood. Puppies are the most emotionally flexible until the age of 16 weeks, and the good experiences your puppy has now will help him grow up feeling safe and empowered. This is a critical socialization period . After that it gets harder, it takes longer, and your dog may never fully get the hang of feeling comfortable in the world and around other dogs (and other experiences).

My vet/breeder said to wait until my puppy has all of his shots

Early puppyhood is a critical time for socialization and learning. This time will set the stage for the rest of your puppy’s life. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show your puppy how to confidently relate to other puppies, unfamiliar people, and strange sights, sounds, and events. It is crucial that this developmental stage is used wisely! Luckily, the vast majority of modern veterinarians and breeders understand that puppies don’t just have medical needs, but behavioral needs as well and will instruct you to begin a properly run puppy training and socialization class as early as possible. Here are some resources for you:

Letter from noted veterinary behaviorist and Director Emeritus of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Minnesota

Read the position paper on puppy socialization and vaccinations from the American Animal Society of Animal Behavior.

The benefits of play in puppies can’t be over emphasized.

  • Physical and mental exercise
  • Socialization
  • Teaching boundaries and rules
  • Emotional control
  • Bite inhibition- puppies with little or no bite inhibition tend to bite more vigorously and harder than normal. If they don’t learn it as puppies, their bite as an adult will inflict much more serious damage.
  • Teaching new skills

What is a Consent Test?

Sometimes a puppy in a group has a particularly aggressive play style and does not understand how to play appropriately. Most of the other puppies run from this over assertive puppy. Or this puppy always appears to be pinning another dog beneath it. It is necessary to intervene early with these puppies who are either over aroused or just have poor play skills. Make their play sessions brief, pair them with an adult with good play skills, redirect to toys, and teach an on-off (arouse/settle) switch. To see if one puppy is truly bullying another, use the “consent test”. Hold the tough guy briefly away from the other pup. If the other puppy comes back at the more assertive dog to continue the play, then it is safe to let them play again and it should not be considered bullying. If the other puppy runs off or hides, then  he or she was probably being bullied, or the top dog had a play style that was too assertive for the bottom dog.

consent test
Is the dog on the bottom having fun? Do a consent test to find out. Gently pull off the top pup; if the other puppy comes back for more, release for more play.

Using play as a training reward

Puppy (and dog!) play is valuable and can be used in training as a reward, but it is important not to allow the release of the puppy back to play until he or she is calm and mannerly. Insist upon fair play to prevent play from escalating to high arousal and then aggression. Be sure that there are frequent pauses in play to avoid over arousal; know when to allow them to work it out and when not. Bites should be inhibited and directed to the legs and lower body, with short mouthing to the neck and head area. Batting, brief pounces and pauses are all parts of good play. We suggest interrupting puppy play every minute or less to briefly get your puppy’s attention back to you for brief moments. At  those these times, expect your puppy to focus on you and follow simple cues; be sure to reinforce your wonderful pup with high value treats. Then again reinforce your puppy’s calm, attentive behavior by releasing back to play. This also teaches them that coming to you from play does not mean it’s over. (If play ends each time you call your puppy, you will find your puppy not wanting to come to you.!)


collar grab- Sly crop
This dog is leaning away from the hand that is reaching for him. He is showing additional signs of stress including the raised paw, ears pulled back, and the furrowed brow. He needs lots of positive gotchas!

Teach your puppy a collar grab. Simply start by touching the collar with one hand and then giving your puppy a treat with the other. Work up to grabbing the collar, and while still holding it, deliver the treat. Your hand should remain on the collar as you give the treat, then release and repeat a few times. (If your pup is really shying away from the hand, back off on the intensity and nearness of the grab until your dog show no reaction or is actually happy to see the hand nearing him.) Do several session throughout the day, choosing different locations within the house or yard. Do 10-15 collar grabs per session, breaking it up into several collar grabs (always with reward), then play, then several more. It’s great to add in a collar grab when you call your dog to you. Call, grab, reward. Once your puppy is happy with your hand coming at his collar, you can use the collar grab to help you call him out of play.

Know when to interrupt dog play

There are specific signs that indicate that play between dogs should be interrupted, including:

  • Dog is showing signs of distress;
  • Excessive mounting and other challenges; however you should not get too excited over the mounting behavior, it’s just that sometimes other dogs don’t like it. Mounting can indicate anxiety or over stimulation;
  • Excessive vertical play;
  • Excessive vocalization including throaty growls (most good play is actually pretty quiet);
  • No interruptions or pauses in play (leading to high arousal);
  • When one dog is avoiding the situation; watch for head or body’s turned away from the other dog;
  • When one dog is attempting to diffuse the session;
  • When competing for a resource such as a toy or treat;
  • Pinning;
  • Tandem sneezing (which indicates stress);
  • Continued orientation to the other dog’s neck or throat;
  • Body slamming or other hard physical contact;
  • Grabbing/biting with head shaking;
  • Full mouth biting;
  • Hackles are raised (piloerection);
  • Snarling;
  • When the body language of a dog shows that he or she is afraid, including ears back, mouth closed, tail down or tucked, lip licking, and trying to get away. Intervene immediately.

In this video taken at Ideal Puppy Training & Socialization class at Lucky Dog there are some nice examples of play. The yellow lab/great Pyrenees mix, Riley, is inviting play using play bows (front feet down and hind end in the air). Harley, the Akita, has nice soft body language in response. In the other puppy play group, you can see that Cody, the yellow lab pup, is unsure of the interactions and comes in for a quick sniff before retreating. He also does a lip lick, which is often a sign of stress, or an appeasement signal (“I mean you no harm”). The instructor is giving frequent breaks from play and having the owners do collar grabs before releasing back to play. This was on class one. In future classes the puppies will be asked to give attention or listen to obedience cues before being reinforced with more play.

What about dog parks?

Choose you puppy’s play group carefully to set your puppy up for success. If you do not know the play style of the other dog(s), proceed with caution. I do not recommend taking a puppy to a dog park (that’s an entire blog post in itself!). That can be a recipe for disaster. One traumatic event with an adult dog with poor socialization skills can convince your puppy that other dog are unsafe and not to be trusted. This can potentially set your dog’s emotional development into a tailspin that is not easily changed.  But once you have found some perfect playmates, or a good, well-run group, enjoy the fun!