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When Training Your Dog, Listening Is the Key to Success

Dogs don't have the benefit of human language, so their actions must convey the "why" behind unwanted behaviors and lead you to a resolution.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Feb 4th 2016


One of my favorite things about dogs is that they cannot tell a lie. Not because they can’t talk, but simply because they just don’t lie. It’s not in their wheelhouse, thankfully.

This inability to lie has huge implications on how we train these wonderful creatures. Here are three real-life examples that could have turned out horribly for the dog had I as the trainer and the owners not really heard what the dog was telling us.

1. Puppy pees a lot

This summer I worked with a young Golden Retriever who was enrolled by her owner in my Puppy Enrichment Program. We know from scientific research that the crucial time to properly and positively socialize a dog is before he reaches 16 weeks of age.

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Little puppy Bella had a peeing problem caused by a urinary tract infection — she wasn’t being stubborn! (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Puppies stay with me during this impressionable time for a minimum of two weeks, and during that time I help them learn to positively navigate the human world in which they have found themselves. Bella was frantic puppy from the get-go. She had trouble concentrating and her energy was all over the place. My biggest concern for her, however, was the enormous amount of time she spent urinating. When she had to go, she had to go, and that was A LOT. When she wasn’t sleeping, she asked to go outside at least three times an hour, often five or more times. A few times she didn’t make it to door and peed as she ran toward it.

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Training Bella was so much easier after the veterinarian cleared up her urinary tract infection. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

She peed on my rugs more than once. What if I had wrongly interpreted her behavior as being defiant? What if I labeled her “stubborn” or “stupid”? And worse than any of the labels, imagine if I had physically punished her for all of that peeing? Instead, I recognized that this was abnormal behavior. I called the owner, and she immediately came out and took Bella to the vet. My suspicions were confirmed: Bella had a urinary tract infection.

She left my program and went home for 10 days on an antibiotic. She came back after that, and the peeing issue was resolved. She wasn’t lying about needing to pee that urgently. She wasn’t being naughty, stubborn, or trying on purpose to disobey. She had a painful medical condition. How unfair it would have been for me to punish her for a physical problem.

2. Dog loves spinach

Really? Well, that’s what a client told me. It was more than just spinach. She said her dog, Simba, would eat anything and everything, and she ate it so quickly that the owner was concerned about the gulping behavior. Her dog was so over-fixated on food that training her had become quite a challenge due to her strong reaction to the presence of any food. I asked her to bring the dog over for a taste test. I wanted confirmation for myself that there was a spinach-loving dog out there.

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We did a taste test with Simba to see which foods she really, really liked. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

The Labrador came into my training room acting like she was starving, which she clearly was not. I asked her owner to hold on to her leash as I laid out several rows of training treats, starting with the spinach, then carrots, apples, turkey, hamburger, and cheese on the last row. I asked Simba’s owner to release her dog, and Simba ran over to the food as though she had not eaten in a month. Sure enough, she scooped up every piece of food, starting with the spinach. Huh. Maybe there is a spinach-loving dog out there.

Simba ate with such speed that I rather doubted she stopped to even sniff or taste any of the treats. We replicated the lines of treats three more times and moved around the lines so the food would not be lined up in the same order. Every time Simba scooped up every morsel … except for the last time. The last time, in fact, she ate everything BUT the spinach. Hmm.

So I tested her two more times with the same ingredients, and each time she left only the spinach.

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We needed to know what foods Simba loved and didn’t love so much to aid in her training. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

What is the moral to this spinach story? Simba didn’t care for spinach that much after all. In the beginning of our taste tests, she was willing to inhale everything in front of her, but as she began to feel satiated, she got a bit pickier. This lead us to change her training treats. I asked Simba’s owner to use a specially designed bowl that slows down eating (such as these) for meals. For training, we would continue to find things like spinach that didn’t push Simba’s taste buds over the edge.

Because we knew from a taste test that spinach was a low priority, her owner would begin working on calming exercises first using spinach and after a meal. As Simba gradually learned how to relax around food, better treats could be slowly brought into the mix. We needed to slow Simba down because there is a risk of bloating or choking from eating that quickly, not to mention the need to calm Simba down in the presence of food so that quality training sessions could begin.

Simba couldn’t fake a love of spinach, but we needed to really investigate that to determine if she would readily eat everything in front of her, as had been assumed.

3. Adult dog begins marking in the house

I cut my training teeth working with shelter dogs years ago. I ended up training and fostering more than 400 shelter dogs over an extended period of time. When I first began bringing these dogs into our home, my highly trained Border Collie named Radar was 4 years old. He had never so much as had one peeing accident in the house, even as a puppy, and yet he suddenly began peeing on my furniture. It happened to correspond with the presence of the foster dogs, so I wrongly accused Radar of marking to let the new dogs know that the territory had been claimed by him. I could not have been more wrong.

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My adult dog named Radar suddenly began peeing in the house, and it took a vet exam to figure out the real reason why. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

We lived on a 100-acre ranch at the time, and my dogs had a doggie door and access to a fenced backyard, so I wasn’t observing how many times Radar went outside to urinate. For some reason, one morning I decided to put him on leash and walk in our neighborhood instead of our usual off-leash walks on our ranch. Thank goodness I did, because that’s when the lightbulb went off for me — Radar peed every few steps! We didn’t happen to have a foster dog in the house that week or on that walk. I made a veterinarian appointment that day. It turned out that Radar had a kidney infection. The only outward sign he displayed was an increase in urination and his new habit of peeing inside the house.

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My dog Radar stopped peeing in the house after a month of being on antibiotics. There was a physical reason for his unwanted behavior. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

What if I yelled at him or even hit him for peeing on my furniture? I did interrupt him when I caught him doing it and put him outside for a little bit, but I never punished him or scared him. He went on antibiotics and stopped peeing in the house.

It’s important when dealing with a sentient animal who does not have the gift of human language that instead of labeling him or assuming we know exactly what’s going on, we take a step back. Put on an investigator’s hat and REALLY look at all possibilities that may be creating unwanted behavior. I always encourage dog owners to first and foremost rule out a medical issue before starting behavior modification work.

Dogs don’t lie. They aren’t stubborn, and it’s up to us as the smarter mammal to find workable solutions for behaviors that we don’t like.

Read more by Annie Phenix:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.