Is Your Dog Bored?

The exasperated caller complained that his dog was escaping his yard, digging and fence running. The dog was becoming a neighborhood nuisance and driving him crazy. I pressed a bit and asked about the environment the dog lived in. All I got was the dog had a yard to play in. I asked about toys, attention, opportunity to get out with other dogs if he had dogs he liked to play with, etc. The owner grew silent. He thought all a dog needed was a yard to run in. Sadly, this is a common misconception.


Dogs are not lawn ornaments. Dogs without stimulation become bored. Boredom leads to undesired behaviors. The dogs are not bad!  They are not vindictive.  They are trying to fill a void and may do so in ways we do not want.

Dogs are thinking creatures with natural instincts such as digging, chasing, sniffing, and tearing. Dogs are also social creatures.  This does not mean they will want to hang out at a dog park.  In fact, dog parks can be stressing for many dogs and have dangers humans may not realize.

This dog was escaping the yard because he was bored. He had no toys, little interaction with his people. Outside the fence was a world of possibilities. I explained to the owner what a dog should have to help enrich his yard and life.

Again, silence and then: “Well, the dog is too much work, maybe I should get rid of him.” Obviously even simple steps to helping his dog was too much for this owner. But recognizing boredom and working to prevent it are part of responsible dog owning. In zoos, creating a stimulating environment is called “Enrichment.” And at home, we must enrich.

Part of enriching our dogs’ lives is proper socialization based on the needs of the dog.  Please watch this video:

Living in the suburbs is great as we have the best of both worlds. Yards and open space but the luxury of having shopping and other amenities nearby! I can get dogs  who need it to quieter areas as well as areas with more activity as the dog is ready.

Many suburban and rural dogs lack in adequate socializing as owners have the luxury of a yard. There is no need seen to walk the dogs. Personally, my dogs have about 5,000 square feet fenced for their use.  Why should my dogs get out?

Walks are vital for learning opportunities. How else can the dog learn that the world does not have to be feared? It is amazing what dogs will view as a threat and either shy from or snap at trying to escape that threat. Often, I get calls from people who will not walk their dogs as the dogs lunge at bikes, other dogs, etc. By denying the walks, the owner is denying a great training and socializing opportunity. The owner develops a cycle – dog lunges, owner stops walks, dog does not learn to ignore bikes, owner tried again in a few months hoping dog grew out of it, dog lunges, owner stops walks…

Dogs also need to get out and sniff.  This is important for dogs.

Dogs who are bored tend to develop destructive and annoying behaviors such as barking, chewing, and digging. The dogs are not getting back at humans; they are just trying to entertain themselves. Dogs who spend all day alone and isolated from the family may develop barking problems as well as become escape artists. The owner views the dog as hard to handle, trying to “get back at me” and refuses to take him out even more as a form of punishment for not behaving. This does nothing but exacerbate the situation.

Let’s look at some enrichment ideas.

A toilet paper or paper towel tube with some kibble put in it and the ends crumpled allow the dog to tear into a toy. A clean milk jug with the top off and kibble dropped in lets the dog throw and tear and tackle.

Buster Cubes and similar toys have various compartments inside that kibbles rolls about in. Sometimes the kibble comes out. Feed your dog one of his daily meals or even both in this fashion.

Find the kibble games are great.

Games of hide and seek are wonderful! One person hides and another gets the dog to go find. Once the hiding person is found, a toy gets tossed for the dog. Or hide a toy for the dog to find.  This is also a great way to improve coming when called. Start simple (behind a chair in the same room) and build up the complexity (up the stairs and down the hall and under a box in your room).

Take a bunch of plastic or paper cups and lay them out mouth down. Put a treat under just one cup and encourage the dog to find the treat.

Play with flirt poles instead of fetch.

How about enriching our yards for our dogs? A strong rope tied to a tree with heavy bungee cords lets the dog pull and tug. Big boxes make great tunnels and many dogs will fit through the play tunnels sold at many human toy stores. Small logs and lengths of PVC pipe (4″ and 5″ diameter) can be laid down for the dog to walk and jump over while playing. (For safety, dogs under 12 – 18 months of age should have all jumps very low).

Do some backyard agility!

Make a digging area for your dog! Lay down a 4’x4′ box and fill it with a soft sand and dirt mix. Encourage your dog to dig here and not in your garden. Use landscaping timbers to mark off the dog’s digging box.

A toy buried or some kibble sprinkled over the area can help redirect his digging from your Azaleas to his personal digging spot! Build a couple platforms for your dog to jump on and crawl under (just keep away from fences as some dogs will learn to use these as means to escape). Get out and play fetch with various toys to allow your dog to engage in chasing behaviors.

Take a box, hide treats in it and drag it through the yard on a rope (you stay still, just drag the box). This allows the dog to chase and tackle! These are all things that we can do to help enrich our dogs’ lives.

And if you have a higher- to high-energy breed, these games are wonderful for burning off that energy! Get creative. However, monitor toy use and if you suspect a toy is not suited for your dog, do not use it. There is no toy ideal for all dogs and safety with toys is essential!

Boredom in dogs leads to undesired behaviors. However, enriching their environment, getting them socialized and understanding that we make our dogs what they are goes a long way in making our lives together happy and healthy.

  • Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training
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Lazy Training

Training your dog is not a luxury nor is it an option. Training is an obligation. However, some of the instructions owners are given may be overwhelming such as set aside 3 – 5 sessions of 15 – 20 minutes every day for training.  First, these recommendations can be overwhelming when owners think of busy schedules. Second, these recommendations forget dogs learn something every moment they are interacting with anything in their environment.  Hmmm.  So, how can we address training with busy schedules and use every opportunity possible to teach?

Holiday 2002 auto level

Connor at 3 with our gang. West wind Dog Training.

I prefer to focus on the fact that every interaction a dog has in his environment is a learning experience. This means many teachable moments for me! Ask yourself “How often am I in the house with my dog? Why should I pass up so many opportunities to teach my dog something?”

A lesson can be as simple as reinforcing a desired behavior my dog is giving even if I have not asked him to do it.  For example, Sparky comes up to me and sits.  I will reinforce the behavior some how as it is good manners.

Many lessons can be worked into our daily routine – and should be – without setting aside of lot of extra time. Here are some things I like to teach my clients:

Leashes are great for helping manage my dog as he is with me in the house.  Plus, I can work on leash manners at the same time in a highly controlled environment. Keeping my dog tethered to me allows me to be proactive. It can help improve house training and reduce the chance of nuisance behaviors. I can teach my dog what is desired instead of coming across him doing things I do not want then having to react only.

After my dogs’ physical and behavioral needs are met, I spend time writing. I can use this time to work on relax on mats, crate training, just hanging out quietly with me. When I get up, I can do some name games, a couple stay reviews, a quick show stand, hand targeting, etc. This only takes a few minutes to do with all my dogs as I take a writing break.

How many times do you pass your dog as you walk around the house? I can ask for a quick sit or down.  I can do a recall as I walk around a corner.  I can work on sitting or keeping four feet on the floor for attention instead of jumping.  I can reinforce the good behaviors I am seeing as I walk past to go to the bathroom. Let’s walk to the front door and sit nicely.  I can do any or all of these as I walk from one room to another.

As I sit and watch TV, I can work on trade games to teach my dog it is good to let me take things if needed.  I can work on reducing the risk of resource guarding as I channel surf.  During the evening news I can practice body handling and grooming.  I can take commercial breaks and do some more formal work for Rally competition.

Now of course, I cannot be lazy when it comes to meeting my dog’s physical or behavioral needs.  My dog will need time to be out, running, playing, sniffing, etc.  If I am training for a formal sport, then I need to set aside time to devote to that.  However, many behaviors needed for life with humans can and should be worked into our daily routine.

Along without having to dedicate blocks of time throughout the day for training, a big benefit of Lazy Training is it helps me teach my dog desired behaviors all over the house and helps me work on other behaviors I will eventually need outside the home.

Take every chance you have to teach your dog what you want and be lazy about it!

  • Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training
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Recently I was at a smaller pet supply store with my daughter and two of our dogs.  I decided to take the dogs there because it is often much quieter than the big box stores.  There are often fewer pets there and less risk of encountering an out of control dog.

person touching brown puppy

Photo by Helena Lopes on

While there, a patron with a dog on a retracting lead allowed his dog approach ours.  I asked the patron to please shorten the lead.  He looked at me, I pointed to his dog approaching mine and repeated a little firmer to get his dog closer to him.  He said his dog was friendly.  I replied he had no idea if the dogs his was wants to greet will feel the same.  And no, his dog was not friendly.  The body language expressed was a dog on alert and debating on engaging. Just because the owner assumed his dog was friendly, my dogs do not like strange dogs approaching.  With the body language his dog was giving, I knew my dogs were now preparing to respond.  I advocated for the dogs and had my daughter take them away as I checked out.

As pet owners, it is important we advocate for our critters.

Advocating is an important part of management, training, and helping our pets feel safe. Expecting any pet to tolerate things humans will do or allow their animals to do to ours is not fair for our pets. Allowing others to be rude to our pets may lead to undesired behaviors, undo training, injury to our pets or others.  Reducing the chance our dogs are in positions they are not ready for increases the chance of long term successes with training. How can owners become better advocates for their animals?

The first step with advocating is learning how to read stress signals. The more we wait until a pet is showing higher stress, the greater the chance he will learn to go to the higher-level signs first.  For dogs, search online for the Canine Ladder of Aggression.  There are many great graphics illustrating how much your dog will say before you begin to recognize it. All pets will speak volumes before resorting to things like lunging, scratching, biting, etc. It is our duty to learn and respect these signals.

ladder of aggression 2


The next step is the ability to say, “Please don’t” and not give in.

Many of us do not want to upset people.  This can be particularly true with family and friends.  However, the ability to help our pets feel safe is a big part of reducing or preventing behavioral concerns. The more a critter feels overly stressed in situations, the greater the chance of fears developing.

One way I have found effective when advocating for your pet is tell people what they can do instead of always saying “No.”  For example, “Sparky takes time to accept guests so please ignore him for now.  When we think he is ready, we can see if he will say ‘Hello’.”

Be polite when you advocate “Thank you for asking if you can pat Spot.  His body language is telling me he is not ready, so I need to say ‘no’.”  Now, there are times when you may have to become firm.  Remember, you are trying to keep your pet’s anxiety levels lower.  Would you rather upset a human or set back all the work you have done?

Finally, do not hesitate to say, “I SAID NO!” Sometimes you need to be firm.

As a trainer, I advocate for the best interests of the dog. For example, I am called to work with a dog with fearful and aggressive responses to other dogs.  His human wants to continue taking him to dog parks even after several incidents.  My job is to advocate for the needs of the dog.  He does not need a dog park to be happy.  I also advocate when it comes to using training methods based on science and research into how organisms learn the best.  No animal needs punitive, scary, painful methods to learn.

Advocating is an important part of working with any animal.  Please, do not hesitate to be your critter’s best advocate, I know I will!

  • Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training
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Leashed is Loved

There is an old saying “Leashed is Loved.”  Personally, I do not like it.  The saying implies people failing to leash their dogs do not love them.  I want to replace this saying with “Leashed is Safe.” Why?  Many people who allow their dogs to run loose really do love them.  Many think they are doing something good for their dogs. However, there are risks which often outweigh the benefits. Let’s look at a few.

Sarah and Uhura 4

Sarah with Uhura on a long lead.  This allows the dog to roam and poke but not be loose. (c) West Wind Dog Training.

A couple years ago there was a story from the western part of my state.  A dog owner allowed his dog to walk off leash, unsupervised, in the front yard.  The dog wandered off the property.  The dog was picked up and brought to a private rescue.  By the time the owner tracked where the well-meaning finder took the dog, the critter had been transferred out of state and adopted.  Had the dog been on leash this would not have happened.

A former neighbor had a dog struck and killed by a car.  Her dogs were often allowed off leash. One day the dogs went for a walk. The owner assumed they would return as always. The dogs managed to cross a major four lane road then headed towards the highway. One dog was recovered safely.  The other did not make it.

I have had various clients discuss plans to move to the country.  They all said something along the lines of “It will be great to open a door and let Rover run in the woods and fields out in farmland!” I have also spoken to people with livestock.  Many have had family dogs repeatedly harass and kill their animals.  In many places it is legal for farmers to shoot loose dogs going after their animals.  I remember talking to a family friend who was an animal control officer.  One shift she had the task of explaining to a family why their beloved pet was killed.  The dog was found in the act of attacking livestock.  Since it was not the first time and the dog was in the act, the dog was shot.

There are risks loose dogs pose to wildlife and wildlife poses to them. I have watched dogs disappear to chase deer.  I have been in a vet clinic when a dog allowed to run loose tangled with a porcupine. Skunk spray is nasty. We have venomous snakes around here. Loose dogs can harass and kill wildlife.  Not to mention the dangers of allowing a dog to roam in areas where trapping is allowed.

“But my dog is friendly!” is no excuse for allowing dogs to be off leash. I have seen too many owners misinterpret body language and assume arousal was friendly.  I do not like seeing a dog in a heightened state charging up to other dogs.  You do not know how the leashed dogs will respond.  One of the first cases I consulted on was a situation where a loose, smaller dog ran up to three large leashed dogs.  The smaller dog snapped at the larger dogs.  It ended tragically.

Finally, in many regions leashed is the law no matter what you want to do.  In my area of Virginia, Prince William, Stafford, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Spotsylvania counties all have leash laws. All National Parks and National Forests have a leash law with a six-foot maximum length.  Unless your dog is in an area where being off leash is permitted or participating in an event where off leash work is needed, your dog needs to be leashed.

However, many people still think this is not fair for dogs to be leashed.  Well, neither is being taken by a well-meaning person, shot because he is chasing farm animals, getting in an altercation with a leashed pet, etc.  There are things we can do to make leashed walks more dog-friendly.  Please read Are Your Walks Meaningful? for more on this.

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Your Dog Training Journey

Training and behavior work with any species (even humans) is a journey.  The journey may be short.  It may be long.  It may be easy.  It may be difficult.  There is a destination in mind but no solid course.  All we know as trainers, therapists or whatever professional you seek, is the journey begins with the first contact.

Splash and Sarah herding crop

Splash at a herding instinct test


This first contact is often information gathering.  You tell us your concerns. We get background information.  We look for various factors that could affect our journey.  We ask questions. We may ask you to prepare and assign preliminary work.  This preliminary work before the real journey begins is important.  It is part information gathering.  We need to determine things such as exercise requirements and your dog’s daily needs.  We may look at things like boredom and confusion and give beginning exercises to address them.   You may be given charts to fill out so we can see what is being done.  In order for us to begin, we need this preliminary work started.

Your first task may not seem like much, but preparation is needed. I would hate to hike the White Mountains in January with just flip-flops and a sweatshirt.  If you have problems with your preparations, let your guide know, we will help you. Guides are not mind readers. Nor does the journey end with this initial preparation. That Golden Fleece is not a gift for beginning a journey.  It is part of much more.

After the initial contact and preparations have been started, your guide will begin creating a map. We can begin to set serious goals. No, we cannot pick up any map and follow it.  We cannot grab an atlas or a guide book and wander off.  Yes these can help but your journey is personal to you.  Our map needs to be drawn up and customized for you.  As your guides, we should know the science behind what we do and follow it.  However, there are things that will have to be specific to you.  Each client is different even if the concern is the same.

Our journey is neither a straight road nor a set path.  Along our trek we evaluate things: the climate, the geography, the progress made or not, do we need more supplies or to step back and reevaluate our maps? Something may happen and cause us to change our entire route.  Weather may get bad and temporarily hinder progress.  We may get to the end and see more paths are opening.  We may hit a complete impasse and have to discuss alternatives.  Sometimes, yes sometimes, the journey must be halted.  These are the hardest ones.  They will hit your guide hard; we may feel it a lot more than we let it show. It is part of being your guide – the good and the bad. We hope for the good but understand sometimes…

There are no miracles or magic.  We cannot wave a wand or listen to an enchanted hat. We need your help, your honesty.  If something is too hard or has affected progress when we are not there, let us know.   Secrets do not help.

The work we do with behaviors in any species is a journey.  Please understand that there are variable and no guarantees.  Just come along with your guides and let’s see where we go.

Karen Peak

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Detective Work

A big part of helping owners with their canine concerns is doing detective work. Listening, observing, taking notes, looking for the obvious and not so obvious are all things that allow me to help owners uncover possible causes for why dogs are doing what they are.  Let’s look at three cases (details changed for privacy).  Right now, you will be given the same information I got at the initial phone contact.

adorable blur breed close up

Photo by on


1) Sophie was refusing to walk on leash.  The behaviors started within the past few weeks and were worsening. Previous training was positive reinforcement. There had been no incidents her owner could remember that could trigger the behavior. Medical had been ruled out.

2) Spike’s owner called me at the recommendation of another trainer. Spike was doing great with coming when called in class as well as during formal training sessions in and out of the house.  However, outside formal training sessions, Spike was ignoring the cue.

3) Bingo, a mid-adolescent dog, had begun attacking the older dog in the house. Bingo was given plenty of enrichment things, so the older dog was not the sole focus for playing.  Bingo had been neutered.  The older dog was neutered.  As Bingo hit adolescence, his attitude was changing towards the other dog.  His owners wanted help before things escalated.

Stop reading, go get a snack and a cup of something.  Sit and ponder the three cases and see if you can come up with possible reasons for the concerns.  (Insert Syncopated Clock – aka Jeopardy music here – and time is up). Let’s go over each case and see how you did.

1) This case was straightforward once I saw one thing many owners would not consider a problem. Sophie’s owner had attached a poop bag holder to the leash.  As they walked, the holder swung in front of Sophie’s face.  This was unpleasant for the dog.  Once removed, Sophie began enjoying walks again.

2) Spike’s trainer was one well known to me and someone I refer to for group classes, sports training, and play groups. I asked his owner how Spike was trained to come when called.  The trainer taught what I call a “competition recall.” Competition recalls start with the dog at a sit.  He is told to stay. The handler walks away, turns and calls the dog. This way of training a recall gives a set of behaviors that need to happen before the dog comes to you. Spike could not figure out what to do when most of the sequence was absent.

3) Bingo was perplexing at first. The history indicated things were great until they were not. During the evaluation, Bingo signaled to go outside.  Before opening the door, one of his humans put a shock collar on him.  Since the collar was not out when I got there, I had no idea they were using one.  It was information left out. I asked why it was used.  Bingo only wore the shock collar when outside with the older dog. If the owners felt he was getting too rough in play with the other dog, Bingo got zapped. The reason for the behaviors was very clear.  Bingo was associating the older dog with pain and was working to keep him away so there would be no pain.

So, how did you do? A lot of dog work can be detective work.  The more information we have through what you tell us and what we observe, the better for us.

  • Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training
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The Importance of Management

While waiting for my daughter to leave an event at a local high school, I observed a franchise trainer working with a very anxious behaving dog. The dog was clearly overwhelmed as dozens of kids ran out to meet parents.  He began pulling away from the growing throng. The trainer took the dog’s lead from the owner and went into action. A prong collar was put on the dog. Harsh corrections were given until the dog stopped trying to escape. Any good behaviorist or trainer knows that this is unacceptable training.  It is based in suppression of behaviors and does nothing to address the emotional well-being of the dog.  The dog can end up learning to be helpless.  Also, dogs learning to suppress behaviors I need to see as a trainer become dangerous.  We have nothing to read, nothing to go by, we end up with a dog that will “suddenly” go off because there is no warning given.

monochrome photo of border collie barking

Photo by Immortal shots on

With this dog I observed, there was no management of the dog’s environment to help reduce is stress. There was no way the dog was ready for the situation in which the franchise trainer put him in. Meaningful work begins with careful management of the environment and the situation into which the critter is placed. Though the owner looked pleased the dog was no longer trying to escape, there was no truly meaningful work happening.

Behavior is a response to something. The behavior can be something we want or do not want. Managing the environment around my dog increases or decreases the chance of the behavior happening or not. I am going to use leash lunging as an example of why management is important. Leash lunging, for whatever reason, is a common complaint of owners. Before I begin teaching better leash manners, I must begin by putting the dog in a position where he can succeed. This means managing the environment while I get back to basics.

I will work with the owner to identify what triggers the behaviors. Avoiding situations that will trigger a response is an important first step. If there is a dog down the street I know my client’s dog will bark and lunge after as the yard is passed, in the beginning we avoid walking that direction. While doing this, I teach how to recognize early signals the dog is entering a situation he is not ready to be in. I need to keep the dog below the threshold where he feels the need to carry on. Managing a dog’s threshold levels allows me to begin cultivating a better emotional state and the ability to humanely change the behavioral response.  It removes the assumed need for harsher methods of “training” – which in reality suppress.

Management also means controlling what I allow people to do to or around my dog. I cannot help a dog learn to be calm around children when children are allowed to behave in ways that are stressing. I cannot teach a dog to be comfortable in his crate when parents allow children to torment the crated dog.  I advocate for the best needs of my dog which may mean refusing to allow someone to greet if my dog is not in a state where greeting is desired or safe.

Sometimes owners decide it is easier to manage things than it is to work them through. Depending on what is going on, there may be times when it is easier and safer to manage behaviors instead of trying to work them through. Dogs do not need dog parks to be happy. Is it saner and safer for a human to try and force a dog to be happy and relaxed at a dog park or find alternative means to meet his needs? What about resource guarding? It may be easier depending on the situation to manage it instead of trying to work it through.  With my own dogs, I avoid big box pet supply stores. There are often too many poorly managed dogs there. I do not need my dogs charged by dogs on retracting leads. Instead, we go to places where this is less likely to happen.

Management is an important part of working with any species of animal. A good trainer will understand this and include management in a training program.

– Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training.

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