Digging is a Good Thing!

One of my favorite social media pictures is a Belgian Malinois and the wonderful holes he dug. It reminds me of my old Hunter. Hunter was a large, active dog who was a digger. At our first house he excavated a crater about four feet across and three feet deep under the landing of our back steps.


photo from imgur – credit will be given when original source is found.


Dogs dig for many reasons including: digging is enjoyable, they want to escape a yard, trying to alleviate boredom, creating a cool spot on a warm day. Digging is a trait various breeds and crosses of those breeds have. Terriers, for example, have centuries of breeding telling them to go to ground and dig out vermin. We have a Standard Schnauzer, a working breed. Part of her breed history includes farm work and vermin eradication. True to her breed, Uhura has dug some serious holes where we knew rodents were taking up residence in our gardens. Why should I try to fully train out a natural behavior? I compromise with my dogs.

Hunter digging for ball 3.JPG

Hunter’s ball got stuck.  He dug it out.  (c) West Wind Dog Training

Designate a space in your yard where it is fine for Rover to dig. The spot should be located away from fences to reduce escaping. Using landscape blocks or timbers mark out off an area a couple feet longer than your dog. This is his designated digging zone. In the digging area, put several inches of soft dirt. I would place the digging spot in a shady area or provide shade over it. Do not expect your dog to immediately take to the digging zone, especially if he is used to digging somewhere else.

As with any behavior, I want to set dogs up for success. Showing them what is desired before they do something undesired is important. Bring him to the digging zone and make it interesting. Scatter bones and treats across the dirt. Bury things for him to find. Dig with your dog, show him what to do. Make a big, fun deal of this behavior. In the beginning, every time you go out with your dog, show him where it is good to dig. You will need to monitor him, especially if he was used to digging in a different area. If you see Rover heading to the old area, before he gets digging, redirect him to the new spot.

From a dog’s point of view, many yards are boring. Enriching our yards with different toys, creating places for games of tug, using food releasing toys, ramps and raised platforms for climbing (away from fences), wading pools for playing bobbing for kibble, and human led games such as fetch, flirt pole chasing, etc., along with a digging spot, can help alleviate boredom.

If your dog is digging to escape, you need to address it immediately. Make it harder for your dog to dig under the fence. There are commercial products like Dig Defense you can buy. These stick in the ground at the base of your fence. River rock or gravel around the fence may discourage other dogs from digging out. Make an L out of 18” vinyl coated wire fencing and run it along the fence perimeter. Cover with dirt, gravel or mulch. Bored dogs are at greater risk of digging out to find activity. Make sure along with securing your yard that you meet your dog’s physical and behavioral needs.

Digging is a normal behavior many dogs love to do and may be driven to do based on breed/type. Instead of discouraging it, encourage it in a more acceptable place.

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He Is Not Giving You A Hard Time – he is having one

This was published in Inside NoVA in a shortened version in Feb 2019.  It was not on line so I expanded it for this blog – Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training


In this blog I am referring to behaviors that are indicative of stress. Dogs exhibiting stress often behave in ways we do not like. These dogs may be labelled as dominant, stubborn, or defiant.  Children may be called spoiled brats or pests, clingy and “mama’s boys/girls”.


We have seen dogs lunging, spinning, jumping, barking, whining, panting, pulling all over, or reluctant dogs being dragged by his owner.  We have seen that overtired, hungry, burned out, in desperate need of a nap child, melting down while an adult, often distracted by a phone, drags him through a store. Alternatively, the child may be withdrawn, shutdown, shuffling along, having given up. Laments along the lines of “Why are you giving me such a hard time?” often follow. The answer comes from various memes I have seen: “They are not giving you a hard time, they are HAVING a hard time.”

alone black and white blur child

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

A common response to these behaviors is punishment. Show that dog who is boss. Give that kid something to cry about. Punishment may be applied until the behaviors stops. The assumption is if the behaviors stop that punishment worked. Nope. You may get the illusion of the problem resolving when more emotional, and better hidden, damage is done.  Think of the commercial where the harried mother places a monkey sticker over the indicator light on her dashboard.  The problem is still there.  Covering the light does not mean the problem goes away.

Another response, especially to fear, is to ignore it because we do not want to “encourage” fear.  You cannot reinforce fear. Let me say this again:  YOU CANNOT REINFORCE FEAR.  Please comfort your scared and stressed dog or child. It is amazing what properly responding to and helping a dog or child through fear can do. You need to build trust to help overcome fear.

Being over tired, not feeling well, placed in situations not age or ability appropriate, being afraid, overwhelmed, overstimulated, anxious, hurt, confused, people around them not giving lessons needed to handle life before something happens, etc., can all factor into undesired behaviors and the perception we are being given a hard time.

Life is stress (good and bad). We cannot avoid it. However, We can productively teach other how to handle things. Dogs and children do not perceive things like human adults. Dogs are a totally different species.  Children, especially young ones, are not little adults. We cannot expect them to behave as such. What is fine for us may be too much for them at this point.

We need to teach them how to navigate different situations. Have them learn and experience things at an age and ability appropriate pace for the individual. We need to work to not overwhelm them and assist when we see the beginning of distress. Have a game plan prior to going into situations, even if it is going home. When we are mindful of the needs of our pets and kids, physically and developmentally, and learn how to teach in more effective ways, we make a difference.

Being a parent has helped me become a better dog trainer.  Being a dog trainer helped me be a better parent. By understanding how stress affects development, perceptions, and learning, we can increase the chances of successfully raising resilient and mannered dogs and kids.  It is amazing, when lessons are done with thought, what even little ones are capable of learning and being able to experience without having a hard time.

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Let’s Hear It For Muzzles

I have been following a case where a groomer was severely mauled by a client’s dog. The dog came in muzzled.  The muzzle was removed and the groomer severely injured. Several months earlier the dog attacked a neighbor’s dog and bit a dog walker. The dog was designated dangerous and was supposed to be muzzled. There are conflicting stories about how much of the dog’s history was given to the groomer. There have been conflicting reports about why the muzzle was removed and store policy.  What it comes down to is a dog needing to be muzzled was not and someone was seriously injured. A veterinarian I knew was trying to examine a small dog that was a biter. The owner did not think his small dog could do damage when he bit so he did not muzzle the dog. Well the dog bit and the bite damaged a nerve in the vet’s hand.  If the damage did not heal it would have severely impacted the vet’s ability to work. This is an example of why muzzle training for all dogs is important. Most people would agree that muzzles are needed for dogs that are deemed dangerous. However, as a trainer I feel muzzles should be a part of any dog owner’s tool box.  You are out with a lower confidence dog and though the dog has never bitten, you do not want to risk the chance of something if the dog is startled.  Muzzles are not a bad thing.

close up photography of two dogs

Photo by bin Ziegler on Pexels.com

All dogs should be muzzle trained.  Some sports require muzzles like certain types of lure coursing events. Dogs who lunge while on leash, especially if they try to nip, should be muzzled while out. If your dog is stressed by vet exams or being handled by groomers even when the vet or groomer is trained in low stress handling, I would use a muzzle. Remember, even if your dog is a great, relaxed, social dog, there may be times when a muzzle is needed.

Train your dog to accept a muzzle before one is needed. The more comfortable a dog is with muzzling the better. The Muzzle Up Project has some great on-line resources.  You can also have a dog trainer get you started.  Once you learn what to do the process is not difficult. It simply takes time, practice and refreshing the work. I will discuss muzzle training basics in another column. A dog should be acclimated to wearing any muzzle, but muzzles are not all equal. What type pf muzzle should you choose?

Fabric muzzles, muzzles that slip like tubes over the snoot and the cute duck bill ones inhibit the ability to pant, drink and receive treats during training. Dogs that cannot pant cannot effectively cool themselves. Panting when not trying to cool down is a stress indicator. Also, some dogs can still bite while wearing some of these muzzles.  These are for short term use only and not for general wear. A good basket muzzle that allows for panting, drinking and delivering treats is preferred.  As with anything, periodically check the muzzle for wear and tear.  Metal ones may let loose at the weld point and over time plastic can fatigue.  Leather requires maintenance and cleaning.

A muzzle will not teach a dog to stop biting. One the muzzle is off, if it is fitted poorly or the wrong muzzle is used, a dog can still bite.  A muzzle does not teach a dog to stop barking.  Muzzles sold to “stop barking” hold the mouth shut can lead to overheating, dehydration, etc.  Muzzles should never be used to make a dog safer for dog parks.  If a dog needs a muzzle around dogs or humans, he should not be at dog parks.  Nor should they be used to let dogs “work their issues out.” Muzzles are to increase safety, not an excuse to do something with a dog that he should not be doing.

It is time we get rid of the stigma of muzzles and realize they are for safety.  There is no shame in teaching your dog to wear a muzzle or using one when needed.

In the past I have written about allowing dogs to determine if they want to be touched.  However, there are times your dog needs to be touched: vet visits, grooming, examined by the owner, and yes, when being muzzled. Therefore, the first lessons needed are allowing touch. If your dog is not accepting of touch, gives indications he may bite, etc., contact a good trainer to get started.  Right now, I am going to assume a dog is already good with being handled as we look at teaching a dog to wear a muzzle.  Begin with getting your dog used to the presence of the muzzle before we put it on.

Wearing a muzzle is not natural for a dog.  Before we attempt to muzzle we must work to make the presence of the muzzle near the dog a positive thing. Carry the muzzle with you when you are home.  Hang it from your belt loop. Feed the dog while you are holding it.  Put the muzzle down and let the dog investigate it.  Put good treats around the muzzle as it sits on the floor.  When the dog is OK with the muzzle’s presence start teaching him to put his snoot in the muzzle.

If the muzzle is large enough slip a small container, open end up, in to the basket. Drop an awesome treat in the muzzle and let your dog take it out.  If the muzzle is too small for this take a treat stick and slide it through the spaces in the front and let the dog take a nibble. Put a treat on the ground under the basket of the muzzle and let the dog get it. Slide a spoon with good food through the basket of the muzzle and let the dog lick it off. When the dog is eagerly looking at the muzzle as a source of good things begin offering the muzzle with no treat.  If your dog puts his snoot in, reinforce that behavior with a treat slid to him through the basket. Be patient, do not rush things. Progress to feeding the dog through the muzzle while the straps are hooked up.  Continue to make every step of being muzzled a positive and fun experience.  Even after your dog is muzzle trained make sure you keep making muzzling positive.  Yes, just because he is trained to wear the muzzle does not mean we can stop making it positive.

Have your dog wear the muzzle at times when he is not under stress.  We do not want to risk a dog associating a muzzle with bad things happening around him. You want to make wearing a muzzle as normal to your dog as wearing a collar.

Always remember: if it has a mouth it can bite. Being prepared and having a dog that will allow a muzzle without fighting is a good thing. If needed call a trainer to walk you through the process.  Muzzle training is not difficult but sometimes a little guidance from a professional never hurts.

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That Stinks – Skunks



Skunks are beneficial critters.  They are omnivorous and eat a variety of garden pests including: mice, voles, beetles, various larvae, wasps, and crickets. Skunks are also scavengers. They will seek out animal carcasses which helps keep an ecosystem free from carrion. Scavengers are important to the health of the environment. However, they also have a not so pleasant side. Anyone who has had a pet get “skunked” certainly knows this!  Skunks spray as a form of defense.  Since they are slow and do not climb, skunks evolved a way to drive predators away.

Before spraying, a skunk will begin stamping his feet, doing elaborate “handstands”, raising and shaking his tail, turning in a U shape (tail and face towards the threat), and dancing about. Unless a skunk is startled and lets that spray fly, if you or a pet gets “skunked” it is most likely because warnings were ignored.  For a skunk, spraying is a last resort.  Striped skunks can spray several times, but that noxious arsenal will run out. Once depleted, it can take up to ten days before the skink is capable of spraying again. During this time, the skunk is vulnerable. Sadly, many pet dogs do not realize the warning signs preceding a blast. This can lead to, well, a stinky mess for you.  The next steps taken, post-blast, should be based in science.  Here is a quick skunk secretion chemistry lesson.

The noxious secretions that are fired from gland at the base of the critter’s tail is comprised of thiols and are basically a sulfur and hydrogen atom bonded together.  The thiols are trans-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinoline methane-thiol. (Science, August 4, 1990). The spray is not water soluble.  Once it hits something it can cling for some time – with the smell lingering possibly for weeks.  The spray is not only smelly but can cause damage to mucous membranes, irritation, and temporary blindness.  Rarely a form of anemia like that which develops when dogs eat onions and garlic.  If the symptoms are not recognized, death is possible.

A popular way to address skunked dog is with tomato juice.  According to Chemistry of Skunk Spray, by William F. Wood (Department of Chemistry, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif.), the reason we assume tomato juice works to nullify the smell is olfactory fatigue. The smell is still there but we do not detect it.  Instead we detect the tomato juice. Ditch the tomato juice and go for the science!

A recommended treatment is 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda (not baking powder, they are different chemically), and 1 teaspoon liquid dish soaps (this helps break up the oils).  This mixture will help break down the oils and chemically neutralize the odor. Do not mix this up for future use as the container can explode.  Alternatively, use a commercially available product containing neutroleum alpha. There are several websites recommending an essential oil mix.  Several of the oils recommended, including Tea Tree, can be toxic to dogs and cats even in the amounts recommended.

Skunks live everywhere from the desert to the city.  They are a part of life, but it is easy to reduce the risk of an encounter. Walking dogs on shorter leashes, keeping your trash secured and pet food cleaned up, making noise and turning on exterior lights a few minutes before letting your dogs in the yard (give skunks a chance to toddle off), can go a long way in reducing the chance on an encounter.

originally published in Inside NoVA, Fall 2018

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Working to Keep a Pet in the Home

Not to long ago I covered different reasons given why pets were given up.  Now I would like to look at a few things people can do to increase the chance a pet will stay in the home.  This is a general overview.  What needs to be done will vary critter to critter.

adolescence adorable animal beautiful

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

Do not do anything on impulse. Think and research. Can you safely manage the animal you want? What will it need for environment and enrichment?  Can you meet its daily needs for the next 2 – 70+ years? Are you able and willing to appropriately meet dietary requirements? Are you going to be a good fit for the animal and vice versa? Is a new pet going to mesh well with current pets? Will you be raising the pet or expecting a home health aide, nanny, or your children to do the work? Will you bring in help to meet the critter’s needs? What will happen if you move, start a family, bring an ailing relative in to your house?

Know state and local laws, HOA covenants and lease restrictions.  For example, hedgehogs are not legal in all Virginia counties. You need a permit to own a ferret in Washington, DC.  Pit Bulls, as of last check, are banned in PG Co, MD. I consulted with a dog owner who adopted a dog 100lbs over the 50lbs weight limit for his rental.  He admittedly knew the weight restrictions before adopting yet was shocked when he was told by management to move or get rid of the dog.

Be proactive. Confusion, boredom, lack of training, lack of resources (too few litter boxes, toys, etc.), can lead to undesired behaviors. Working to reduce the chance of something starting goes a long way to keeping a pet in the house. Even with proactive owners, things will crop up.  Proactive owners address concerns fast.  Waiting can worsen things to the point where some owners decide or are forced to give up a pet (think animal control complaints, legal issues, insurance).

No matter how much we prepare for things, life can throw us a curve ball. When my husband was in a serious accident, we had two young kids and he needed a lot of home care.  I sucked it up and did two things: I hired a poop scoop service and did grocery delivery for a few weeks.  Just having two tasks taken care of for a few weeks helped. When I was dealing with cancer not that long ago my husband and kids took over a lot of the critter care.  It is OK to ask for help or hire it.

Other life changes include moves. In 1997 we moved from Massachusetts to Virginia with two dogs, four cat, some rabbits and a couple guinea pigs.  It took two cars and planning, but we did it.  We had a great real estate agent who hooked us up with a vet for boarding. The moment you know a move is a possibility you need to begin planning for your pets. Rarely do people have to move at the drop of a hat.  Even evictions take time.  As pet owners we need to do all we can to ensure our pets can move with us.

Being prepared and proactive can go a long way towards keeping a pet in the home. However, even with all the work we do, sometimes keeping the pet is not in the best interest of the pet or humans.

This was originally published in a shorter version in Inside NoVA.

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Etiquette Around Service Dogs

When my son was a toddler, I volunteered with a service dog organization. During that time, I was able to attend a lecture weekend at their main facility. One talk focused specifically on how the general public’s behaviors can affect service dogs. Though service dogs are supposed to have a high level of training and solid behaviors, they are still animals and influences by what happens to them.


tozzi 2

Tozzi – went on to guide a blind park ranger. (c) West Wind Dog Training – 1999


Service dogs are a major investment. Depending on what is needed it can take up to two years and $10,000 – $50,000 to raise and train a service dog. Handlers know eventually a dog will hit retirement age and this is an emotional time. The age of the dog and tasks performed factor into how long a dog can work. When a dog’s ability to work is compromised and forces an earlier retirement, the handler cannot simply go tappity-tappity-click and have Amazon ship another.  Sadly, the way many people behave or allow children and pets to behave towards service dogs can compromise the service dogs’ ability to work. Here are two such cases:

A visually impaired man did a lot of public speaking at catered events. His guide dog began distracting and trying to get to things he used to ignore like food carts in the city. The man worked with the organization to try and fix the dogs training but could not. It was learned that at speaking events, people would offer the dog food as he and his handler were walking around.  This behavior from humans slowly undid the dog’s training.  He was now unable to reliably perform his duties.  

A young woman was out with her service dog in training.  The handler often uses a wheelchair or cane. She is also epileptic. A man ignored not only signs on the dog’s vest not to touch but also verbal requests from the handler. The distracted dog missed a signal the girl was going to have a seizure.  This resulted in injury as the girl was not able to prepare or get someone to assist.

Recently a video of a mother throwing a tantrum because her children were not allowed to pat service dogs in training went viral. Not only was she stressing the dogs and handlers but what lesson what she teaching her kidlets? Instead, teach children that these are working dogs to be left alone.

Another risk service dog groups report is out of control pet dogs. Mercifully her dog bounced back and was able to continue working.  According to Guide Dog Users Group, 89% of handlers in a survey reported interference by other dogs.  42% of those reported outright attacks. If the attacks are severe enough or happen enough times it can negatively affect a service dog’s ability to work. Harassment by other dogs (and humans) can lead to behaviors developing that are not allowed in service dogs such as fear or aggressions.  A friend of mine had her service dog attacked by a dog an owner claimed was a service dog.  Service dogs are not supposed to show aggression towards other animals or humans.  When you are out with your dog, be mindful. Do not allow your dog to engage in any way with service dogs. If you see someone with a service dog and you are walking your dog, give the working dog a wide berth.

Never assume a dog is not working if he does not look like it to you. A dog at his handlers feet may be waiting for a cue to do something or a signal a medical episode is pending. Whether or not a dog is working when he appears not to be is not your call to make.

Trying to call service dogs, pat them, get them to distract, teasing. demanding a demonstration of what the dog does, letting your child or dog behave poorly around them are all things that affect a service dog’s work.  If you see someone out with a service dog, let the dog work in peace. 

Finally, just because a dog is small does not mean he is not a service dog.  There are reasons some people have or need a smaller service dog

This is an expanded version of a piece published in Inside NoVA, Jan 2019 – Karen Peak

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He’s Not Like My Old Dog

“I really do not like this new dog, he is not like my old one.”  After many happy years, this couple recently lost their beloved dog. The wife thought if she got a dog of the same breed and color, he would be exactly like their old dog.  I was called in because the wife was devastated that the new dog was behaving differently from their old dog.  I was charged with making this dog just like her old one. First, let’s look at dogs and what I can expect to varying degrees.

labrador retrieve near body of water

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels.com

When I work with an Australian Cattle Dog I can predict some level of certain traits based on breed. The same with Golden Retrievers, Shetland Sheepdogs, Dachshunds, any purebred dog has certain traits I can expect based on their breed.  This is why a Bassett Hound will behaviorally never be a Border Collie. Therefore, when someone who is a couch potato asks if I think a German Shorthaired Pointer would be a good choice of a companion I can try to steer them to a better suited dog.  However, this predictability does not mean two dogs of the same breed or type will behave identically.

Genetics lays the base for everything including inherited predispositions with temperament.  Even a litter of purebred puppies can have a range of temperament traits.  Sometimes the genetics fairy has a sense of humor or a bad cup of coffee when she decides what will be inherited and how.  I owned a Sheltie who was extremely laid back.  His temperament was much different from what Shelties generally are. His littermate was an outstanding performance dog competing in various sports. My guy went on to be the dog I founded The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project with.  There can be a wider range in temperaments in crossbred puppies even from the same litter based on how things are inherited. The genetics behind behavior is a fascinating topic.

So, I knew in general what to expect from the type of dog this couple had.  He was also a  purebred of a breed I have lived with for decades.  However, the dog the couple lost was from an excellent breeder who bred for correct temperament and type.  The dog they had now was a cute guy from a breed rescue but he was from a questionable background.  We knew he was purebred but nothing of his lineage.  Genetics lays the ground work.  The better the ground you build upon, the better chance of a solid building. Upon that ground we build a foundation.

The first 8 weeks or more the puppy is with whomever has the litter is crucial. Just like building a house or office building, or gee the Metro expansion here in the Washington, DC area, if the groundwork and foundation are not there, it will affect construction. If early and careful socializing is not done then it can negatively affect what the owner is capable of building from there. 

The first give or take 16 weeks for a puppy is crucial regarding social development. But will we do everything identically with each puppy we raise?  Nope, because we are human.  Now let’s take a little sci-fi side trip to see how far people would go to make a pet just like…

I was asked by a couple who had an elderly dog they loved beyond belief (and they had the money to do this) could they clone her and get exactly what they had now.  No.  Cloning will not give you an exact replica.  Cloning creates an embryo, not an individual. I have had dogs in my life I wish I could clone but I know I would never get exactly what I had.  Why?

My knowledge of socializing, training and behavior is far different from what it was in the 1980s. I am not the same person I was 5, 15, 25, 35 years ago.  How I socialize and train is much different.  My knowledge about the science behind dog work is light years from what it was in the late 1970’s when I got the first dog I ever formally worked with.  I know the importance of genetics and not isolating a puppy until four months old as many older school trainer and veterinarians still recommend.  I know the science behind learning and how to positively develop behaviors needed instead of punishing a dog into compliance.  No matter what genetics gave me in a clone, the dog would never be identical in looks or behavior to my old dog.

Back to the woman who was upset their new dog was not identical in behavior to the one they lost though he was the same breed and color.  This dog was an individual shaped by his own genetics and the experiences before coming to this home.  Even if they obtained him as a younger pup as they did their old dog, this boy would still be himself.  The wife was not ready to accept this.  She was still mourning the dog they lost.  It was very hard for her to move on. She had not given herself enough time.  Her husband was set to love this new dog.  He was ready.  She demanded the dog be like her old dog.

After time, she began to come around.  I can only hope years later she is happy with the dog.  He really was a fun guy once he began to adjust to the new house.

What do I want you to take from this?  Each dog, each pet, is an individual. We will never have another pet “just like…” but we can open our hearts to new adventures and another chapter in our lives.

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