Prepping for the Real World

We train and socialize and work and do what we can to prepare our dogs for the real world.  The summer Uhura came to live with us my daughter and I abandoned the boys for two nights in Gatlinburg, TN.  We were going to take the dorky Standard Schnauzer pup for some socializing and to see how far she had come. OK and a trip to Ol’ Smokey Distillery, kicking around the mountains, etc., were added to the mix.  We knew what to expect in Gatlinburg – one of our favorite places.  We were pretty confident Uhura was ready for the town. The first evening, good training and manners allowed Uhura access to patio dining and in several businesses.  The next day’s events drove home just why I do what I do and encourage what I do with clients in regards to training and socializing.  


TN 2014 (18)

Summer in Gatlinburg, TN.  Sarah and Uhura on a socializing trip.  (c) West Wind Dog Training


I must add, Sarah was ten at this point.  She had done the majority of the work with Uhura who was 14 weeks old.  She was the one who was taking her through puppy classes.  She was the one getting her ready for shows.  Sarah was the one learning what to do to help her puppy succeed. 

We had spent the morning poking around Pigeon Forge, driving a lovely mountain road outside Gatlinburg, exploring a beautiful park and stream and talking with a retired teacher.  Then we headed downtown.   Now anyone who has been to Gatlinburg knows how busy it can be in the summer.  Uhura and Sarah were doing OK.  I made sure they got time away from the crowds as needed for breaks.  we had plenty of water and snacks.  Many air-conditioned places were dog-friendly too.  But right now we were walking down the main drag.

As we were walking along a congested sidewalk, we saw a younger woman struggling to support an appearing drunk, older woman.  Her cries for help were being ignored.  I handed Sarah the backpack and went to help.  The younger woman and I guided the older woman to the ground.  The younger woman was in distress. The younger woman was beginning to panic.  The older woman was not drunk. I asked if the woman on the ground was diabetic – yes.  She had not eaten or drunk since that morning – it was now after 3pm. She was in diabetic shock which can lead to death. 

I called 911 and began giving what info I knew and directions to where we were in the town.  Luckily a nurse happened by and began taking vitals.  I handed her my phone and she relayed the vitals to dispatch.   During this time, my focus was off Sarah and her puppy.   Realize even young ‘uns learn very well.  If started from birth, raised with positives and exposed to many things … there is a reason we do what we do… there is a reason I prepare my dogs as I do – and my kids…  Well… read on…

The moment I told Sarah I was going to help, she went into action with her puppy.  Sarah took the backpack and Uhura and moved away from the building crowd.  Sarah pulled out treats and made the entire situation a positive experience for Uhura.  Sarah was feeding the pup, talking to her and working to get Uhura to relax.  Sarah hearing what was going on, stepped up to the plate.  She got water, went to the drug store next to us, explained what happened and came out with a pharmacist who understood the medications the woman was on.  Sarah did all this while managing Uhura.  Sarah did all this while keeping Uhura calm.

The crowd was building and people were taking pictures.  The nurse kept the older woman managed while I handled the crowd and waved down the EMTs.  As soon as the EMTs got to the woman, Sarah, Uhura and I went back to being tourists.

That night, Sarah, Uhura and I were still in town. It had been day.  There was a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream staffed by a couple of slightly um, happy hippies. Ice cream seemed like a good dinner. Uhura and Sarah were tired. Sarah went in to order ice cream while I stayed out front with the pup.  Next thing I knew, the guys violated various health codes and brought Uhura inside to hang out. They gave the dorky pup a small bowl of vanilla.  Sarah and I chilled before heading back to the hotel in Knoxville.  

Life brings things we cannot anticipate.  Ten year old child, 14 week old puppy both able to calmly handle a stressing situation many adults of either species could not.  That day it was a woman in a life and death situation, rude tourists crowding for a peek, Mom stepping away to assist, sirens – so stressing.  Then being invited into a place with loads of yummy smells by a couple of happy hippies…

Training, socializing, positive lessons – what else can I say?  You never know when that simple trip will become something more.  When it does, will you and yours have the ability to handle it?  If you start young and right, there is a better chance they will. 


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Giving the Gift of a Pet

This was originally run in a shorter version in the print edition of Northern Virginia Today, Dec 2017.  I have expanded it here for my blog. Though this covers the Winter Holidays, the same holds for any time someone will consider gifting a pet.


Grandma has heartwarming dreams of her beautiful Sally opening a box to find her dream kitty. Carols playing, a glittery box, Grandpa dressed as Santa. This is a better gift than the other grandmother will give!  What about giving a pet to your new girlfriend Christmas Eve?  Oh how great would that be? Puppy and a mistletoe kiss! Stop. Turn off the Hallmark Channel thoughts and look at reality. The reality is pets are a commitment. Some are more of a commitment than others.

puppy eating turkey

What needs to be considered before gifting a pet?

  • Can the recipient meet the physical, behavioral, financial, short and long term needs of the animal?
  • Is there a chance of a move in the future?
  • Are there plans to take in an ailing relative?
  • Have you considered allergies to the animal or an associated product?
  • Are there community restrictions about what type or size pet that can be owned?
  • What if the pet is not what the recipient wants or can sanely live with?
  • Are the parents fully on board with you giving their child a pet?
  • Does the person even want a pet at this point?
  • If the recipient cannot keep the pet for whatever reason what will happen to the animal?

Before you gift a pet make 100% certain the person is actively looking to add one. This goes for friends and relatives.  There can be NO surprises. What can happen if people do not consider the life of the recipients and that of the pet?

The recipient must choose the pet, the source and the timing. If any of these are wrong the outcome may not be favorable for owner or critter.  Here is an example:

A couple I worked with was thrilled to be retired and all their children had moved out.  They saw FREEDOM. To celebrate they made arrangements for a several month trip to travel the US. Reservations were made. An RV was rented. They were excited. Then the children decided Mom and Dad must be lonely and gave them a puppy.  The dog was physically and behaviorally a good match for the couple but the timing was horrible. None of the children were able to take the puppy for those months so the couple cancelled their plans.  All during sessions I heard how upset they were. They did not want a puppy at this point.  They made it work and grew to love the pup but there was loss of deposits from the trip. Now they had to figure out how to either travel with the dog, find someone to care for him, or not take their dream trip at all.  Not all places or RV rentals are pet friendly.  Travelling with a pet can affect how long you can stay out and where you can go.  By gifting a pup when they did the well-meaning children were selfish.  Their parents had been dreaming of this trip for years and now could not do what they wanted, how they wanted. They were not opposed to having a dog.  The timing was horrific.

When gifting a pet all you can be is the person who pays. This means the recipient makes ALL the decisions including no pet at all. However, if you know the animal is a poor match such as your brother wanting a bulldog for a long distance running buddy or the critter is not permitted in the community, then nothing is making you write that check.  It is OK to say “No.”

So, the recipient is 100% in agreement and actively looking for a pet. The desired critter is a good match for the potential new owner.  The source has been chosen and everything is set to go.  Can you now give a pet over the holidays? The answer is “It depends on what the holidays will be like.”

If the recipient hosts parties or has seasonal plans, wait. The recipient may not want to housetrain a puppy during the winter or worry about a kitten and that Christmas tree.   If the recipient is a homebody and has no plans to host or attend events then the timing may be better.  Again, it is up to the recipient so have careful conversations.

A friend of the family was actively looking for a pet.  She knew exactly what she wanted.  She was prepared to bring in the critter at any point.  She had the time and resources to make it work.  A friend of hers made all the arrangements and “surprised” her friend with the puppy she had been looking for.  In reality, it was all set to go.  It was simply a case of waiting for the puppy to be old enough to go to a new home.

Now on to you parents!

Your child is begging for a pet and is writing letters to Santa. He is driving you crazy! Should you get him that puppy he wants?  Stop and ask yourself “Do I want the responsibility?”  No matter how mature or responsible your child seems, no matter what he promises, the pet’s care is ultimately yours.  Do not forget that long term commitment. My Sheltie, Muffin was with me through the end of elementary school, middle school, high school, college, marriage and the purchase of our first home. When she was not able to be with me, who was responsible for her?  It is better to tell a child no than to make promises you have no intention on keeping or bring in an animal you will not care for.

My daughter wanted guinea pigs like her big brother had.  When the time was right I located a woman who was getting rid of her daughter’s guinea pig.  The pet was a gift from the parents and they assumed the child would be fully responsible.  Within a couple months the parents were doing all the work.  Instead of being responsible for the pet, they decided to get rid of it.  She lived with us for many years.

Gifting a pet is much different from gifting a pair of socks. Close communication and consideration for both the critter and the recipient must be addressed.  I have known people who met all the criteria and the pet had a wonderful home.  The recipient was actively looking for a pet.  The giver knew what was wanted and the timing.  The recipient was 100% on board with the puppy. So it can work but there can be no surprises.  If you are not willing to follow the strict criteria about giving a pet, do not. Instead of giving a pet wait until the pet is acquired and give the gift of pet supplies and pet supply gift cards!

Karen Peak is the owner of West Wind Dog Training and the Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Virginia.

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100% Trained Myth


Uhura, Qualifying run at a Fast CAT trial.  Picture owned by West Wind Dog Training and taken by M. L. Baer


“We can train your dog to be reliable all the time!” Since I first started dog training in 1982 and began my path towards becoming a trainer, I have heard many variations of this.  However is 100% reliability a reality?

Decades ago my early mentors insisted we could get 100% reliability with animals if we trained hard and long enough.  I was young and watching these dogs early on made me want to believe my mentors.  However the more I was training with them I realized 100% reliability is a myth.  The longer I watched competitions, the more I saw their dogs making mistakes and not qualifying.  Years later I attended a lecture weekend put on by a guide dog organization.  One of the speakers discussed how even highly trained dogs could fail in their work as service dogs. It was an eye-opening lecture.  It mirrored what I had been seeing in the competition ring.  I was seeing this in pet dogs coming from other programs.  Owners were upset they had gone through all these classes or sent the dog off to be trained yet the dog still ran off or bit someone or jumped on an elderly relative, etc.  They assumed sessions would make a dog 100% reliably trained.

I have friends who are horse people. They know practice and refreshers are needed. Zoos are always reinforcing the behaviors needed in their animals.  I love watching handlers at good zoos working with animals, refreshing training, etc.  Even with all the work they do I have yet to speak to a horse person or zoo keeper who will state their animals are 100% reliable 100% of the time.

When my son was doing therapeutic riding he was paired with a pony used for many children with special needs.  My son had ridden her numerous times, groomed her and helped get her tack on.  He was being led around the ring and the pony wanted a roll in the dust.  So the pony rolled.  Before she even hit the dirt the staff had my son off the pony.  He was right back on shortly after. The staff was apologetic but I knew from years of working with animals that things can and will happen.  Therapeutic riding is safer with good animals and good staff but not 100% risk-free.  People seem to understand this with horses and other animals yet insist 100% reliability will happen with dogs.  When people believe this they may become complacent.


Connor doing therapeutic riding to help with balance.  (c) West Wind Dog Training


Sadly I have seen dog owners with well-trained dogs begin ignoring basic safety. I had a client who had an extremely dog-fearful dog.  After months of work he was able to walk around well-behaved, leashed dogs without trying to attack.  This dog was doing wonderfully in situations where other dogs around him were controlled. He was happier and relaxed.  I said never assume his level of training would override his fears in all situations.  He could never be trusted at dog parks or in group play sessions. However the behaviors achieved made one of the humans in his life complacent.  Over time both began to assume since the dog was not reacting when around other dogs on walks that he was now friendly with other dogs. My lessons to the humans were forgotten and the dog taken to a dog park.  The dog mauled another dog who was behaving in what should have been a non-threatening manner – play bows and puppy games.

Another dog I knew who was HIGHLY trained had a momentary lapse.  Now this was a dog who was out often for refreshers.  He was a competition dog.  He was often placing high in his classes and had many titles.  He was also an older dog owned by an experienced handler with decades of experience.  Sadly the dog had that momentary lapse.  He was doing something he often did with his handler out in a field.  No one knows what triggered the lapse in years of training and practice. All his handler knows is the dog decided to ignore his training that one day.  The dog ran off and was tragically killed.

Animals are not robots. They are creatures with thought processes.  Animals learn, they forget, they decide to follow training or not to follow.  It is our job to practice, refresh and even retrain if needed.  Be reasonable.  Do not knowingly put your animals in harm’s way and hope their training will override all their emotions.  Remember these are animals and at any point could respond as an animal.  The hope is between good training and observation we reduce the risks of training lapses and incidents happening.

Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training

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Adoption Adjustment


Hunter, my carefully chosen and much beloved and sadly missed rescue dog.


There is always an adjustment period when we adopt a dog. We need to remember before adoption this dog had another life.  Then there was his time at the rescue or foster home. Now he is in a new home and has to adapt yet again to a new life.  It is common for owners to forget this: before us, the dog had a life.

It is also common for owners to jump headlong into an exciting life with their new dogs.  “Let’s go to Uncle Clyde’s Holiday party!  We must check out the dog park so you can make new friends.  Oh shopping – we must buy doggie things!”  It is tempting to want to take your new best friend out the day he comes home.  Ignore the impulse to have your new buddy go everywhere with you the moment you bring him home.  It takes time to help a newly adopted dog adjust to his new human and home. Your first priority should be bonding and not forcing him to be an immediate social butterfly.

When you bring in a new dog no matter what you were told about previous behaviors expect regressions. Housetraining may have been great in his previous home, but that was his previous home.  He needs to learn potty skills for your home.  He may try counter surfing or chewing your shoes.  He may jump on people when it was said he was well-mannered, etc.  This is normal!  The good news is the majority of behaviors owners of newly adopted dogs complain about can often be worked through.

I would keep the first few days quiet and low stress. Over the next several weeks I would closely observe and gently work with the dog.  I would avoid overwhelming areas.  The more trust you build and the care with how you start early training makes a big difference.  It may be a prudent idea to hire a private trainer for a few one on one sessions to help you start off of the right foot.  A good, positive trainer who understands the care needed with helping a newly adopted dog adapt is an asset.

You have gone slowly for the first weeks. You are easing more things with your dog.  Life seems to be going great so you ease back on the work you are doing. Now behaviors are regressing.  This is when we need to keep working.  A few days of good behaviors does not mean the dog is all set with his new life.  In reality all it means is the dog had a few good days.  We need to keep working.  If we stop working now there is a solid chance the old behaviors will return.  Another reality is dogs are always learning.  Even with well behaved dogs trainers know we are always working on some level to keep the behaviors we want going.  A few good days or weeks does not a fully trained dog make.  In reality, you will never completely stop training your dog. Every interaction a dog has with his environment is a learning experience.  Learning is ongoing.

How long will it take for your newly adopted dog to settle in? There is no exact answer covering all dogs.  Many variables play into how fast a dog adapts including; background of the dog, the quality and quantity of the work done, environment and genetics.  Be prepared to spend several months or more if needed to helping your newly adopted dog adjust to your home.  Have patience, go slowly, be respectful of the dog’s needs and you increase the chances of success.

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Can Dogs Adapt to a New Name?

Why would someone change a dog’s name? Won’t this confuse the dog?  There are various reasons to consider changing a dog’s name.  Think the rescue dog who cowers whenever his name is called.  A dog like this may have a negative association with his name.  The name evokes a fear response.  Some dogs never properly learned their name in their previous home.  My old Seven came from a house that never properly taught her a name.  She had been returned to the breeder when the family lost their farm.  Seen was a working farm dog helping protect livestock.  The parents called her one name, the kids they learned did not like it so were calling her something different. When called, there was no real response.  What if you do not like the name your new dog has?  A woman I trained with took a dog from her son.  He named the young pit bull “Satan”.  Mom said he was not ready to have a dog and removed the dog from his care.  Mom refused to keep the name the son chose.

Seven Ag June 030001

My old Seven – she did not respond well at all to what her family named her so after she came to us, we changed her name.


Before you teach a dog a new name, remember these ground rules. First: do not call the name if you are not in a position to reinforce a response.  If I walk around saying my dog’s name without reinforcing a response, how I can make sure my dog is learning it?  I do not want his name to become ignored background noise. Second: never put a negative association with the name. This means never saying the dog’s name as a precursor to punishment.  How can my dog learn his name is good when I say it and then do something bad? Giving my dog’s name negativity affects our relationship. Now let’s look at the process.

Get a handful of high value treats. Begin in a quiet, low distraction area.  This increases the chance of the dog not getting distracted and increases the chance of a response.  In a pleasant, happy voice, say the new name.  Do not use the treat to get his attention.  Do not wiggle it in front of his nose first.  Keep it hidden. Simply say his name and when he looks, treat.  If he does not look at you, wait a few seconds and try again.  If he still does not look, try getting closer or moving to an area of less distraction. The moment he looks at you after you say his name, reinforce it with a treat. Once he starts reliably responding to his name, increase the distractions a little.  As you increase distractions you must increase the value of the food you are using.

Move around the dog and call. Every time he looks at you, reinforce it. Go to different areas of the house and your community to practice.  This is important as you need your dog to respond to his name in a host of different situations. Along with high value food, use games such as fetch or tug of war to help reinforce the name.  If your dog enjoys being handled, you can do this at times.  Use a host of things to reinforce a response. How often do you need to play the games?

Every interaction I have with any of my pets is a learning experience for them – even if I do not think it is. If my dog has any negative association with his name, it affects my relationship with him.  Therefore I always work on some level to keep the name meaning good things.  When I am in higher distraction situations I will play name games – even with my older dogs. What if you have a new puppy or a different species?  The same concepts apply.

Finally, having a dog who responds reliably and happily to a name lays the foundation for teaching other behaviors.

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Octogrefest and Pool Water

Conversations With My Dogs

It is my favorite time of year.  Also stressing as the pool gets closed.  We opt to have a company do this do if there is a problem with draining a line and it freezes, it is on them.  This was the day we drained the pool.  All I wanted to do was watch a horror movie and chill while waiting for the guys.  Nope… 

IMG_1599Our pumpkins from 2016.

Uhura: Lady, lady, lady, lady….. laaaaaady….

Me: What?

Uhura: We need talks.

Me: What did Foster do now?

Uhura: We need talks. WE NEED TALKS!  TALKS TALKS TALKS!!!!

Me: I heard you, settle down.  What did Foster do now?

Uhura: It be Octogrefests.

Me: You mean Octoberfest?

Uhura: Nopes.  It be falldowns and monsters and happyparties timeys.  Pretty sure Octogrefests.  Be scary time of da year for doggies and chaseycats.  Fings smells goods and punkiny and crunch leaves but…

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When Someone Loses a Pet

This was published in a shorter version in Northern Virginia Today – it did not make it to the paper’s website so I am blogging it.  The loss of a beloved pet is never easy.  However, what you do as a friend or relative of someone who has makes a huge difference.  What should you do when someone loses a pet?  Note, though I discuss mainly dogs, the information goes for all animals.



D’Argo, (c) West Wind Dog Training

After the loss of a pet it is not uncommon for people to weigh in with what they think you should do. You may get advice on when to get another pet. You may be grilled on where you should get your pet. You may get “guilt-trip” messages on social media about pets needing homes and you needing a pet.  If you have lost a pet take this to heart.

Only you know what is best for you.  You need to make that choice, no one else.

For those who may do the pushing, please take this to heart.

You may mean well but your actions, may make things worse. 

It is not fair to push someone to “replace” a lost pet when they are not ready. Your social media posts to that person and comments “Look who needs a home” may push the person who suffered the loss into adopting a pet they really are not prepared to have.  People who are grieving may not always think with their heads.  The hole in their heart may speak louder.  Well that may not be a good thing.  What if that critter(s) you keep pushing on them have medical or behavioral concerns that have not shown up or you are not aware of?  It is fair to push an animal on someone who may not be in a position for whatever reason own one?  You mean well and you want that animal to have a home and you know your friend is hurting, but is pushing and posting and “suggesting” the best thing to do?  No.

The timing of when to bring in a new animal is up to the owner suffering the loss, if the person decides to get another pet at all. The reasons not to get another pet will vary. There may be financial concerns.  Some may not want to suffer the emotional toll of another loss.  Pets can be a huge time commitment.  The person may need some freedom.  The choice of timing is personal.  Your job as a friend is to support the choice even if it would not work for you.  What do I mean by this?

What if the person cannot live with the hole in their lives and the next day is searching for another pet?  Just because you think the person did not mourn long enough please do not accuse them of replacing a pet as they would a pair of shoes.  It is not disrespectful to the departed pet.  It is what the person needs.  Hold your opinions about when the person decides to bring in another pet.   I am more concerned that the person is choosing a good match for him/her instead of how fast they are “replacing” the lost pet.  For example, a laid back, not active person recently lost a small, low-key dog and they adopt a larger, high energy dog in their grief. If they know what they are getting and what the dog needs and will be able to sanely own the dog, this is where my concerns are.  Timing is personal.  It is not my decision to make nor my place to judge.  My job is to support them when they decide to bring in a new pet.

What if the person decides not to bring in a new pet?  That is fine!  It is the person’s choice, not yours!  I have spoken to people whose friends were very upset because they made the decision not to bring in a new pet after suffering a loss. Yes they were lonely and missed a companion but the people were making the best decision for them.  They did not like people pushing them to get a new pet. The pressure others put on them to replace the lost pet was draining.  If you are doing this, even if you mean well, stop.  Just stop.  You may pressure someone into getting a pet they really do not want at this time.  Yes, people will give into pressure.  It takes a lot to tell someone to stop.  The person may not want to hurt your feelings or affect your friendship therefore will not tell you to quit it.  However, in talking to people I have learned the pressure is painful and not respectful.

Do not judge the source of the new pet. Do not tell people choosing to adopt that these animals have too much baggage and are not good pets.  Do not tell people choosing to go to a breeder that they are condemning a shelter animal to death.  No matter how you feel about the source of the pet, it is not your decision.  Years ago I used to be very judgemental of where people went for pets.  However, over the years I have mellowed and gotten a different perspective.  This perspective came through years of experience and talking with people about the reasons behind the source of any pet. Though I may not agree with the source, the decision is not mine.  I should be more concerned about the ability of the owner to care for the critter as that is what really matters.  If I am asked my opinion of sources I will give the pros and cons of each.  Even at that the ultimate decision is not mine.

What about surprising the person with a pet? You may mean well by gifting a pet to fill that void, but is it a good idea? What if the timing is not right? What if the owner cannot keep the pet or afford the pet?  What if the animal is not what they want? It may make you feel really warm and fuzzy, but the recipient may not be ready.   It is really fair to the human or the animal to do this?

I had a client couple who lost a pet, their kids were all grown and the last one had moved, the two were recently retired.  Though they missed the pet and the kids, the couple was happy.  In fact they had made plans to travel in an RV all over the US.  The trip was going to last about six months or more. They had NO pressure for anything now.  Without asking, the kids surprised Mom and Dad with a puppy.  The parents were not happy at all.  Here they were having to change months of travel plans.  They could not rent an RV as planned because many do not allow pets, etc.  None of the kids were able to keep the puppy for the duration of the trip.  So here the couple was, with a puppy they did not want and having to give up a trip they had planned for months.  Luckily this worked out and they turned out to be great owners BUT it was FAR from what they wanted.   In other situations the gifted pet was not as lucky.

Lastly, please never say “It was just a pet”, “Not like you lost a relative” or “You can always get another.” Studies have shown the loss of a pet can hit people harder than the loss of a relative.  You may have an idea how important the animal was but you are not that person.  Though you may be trying to ease the pain or think you are putting things in perspective, pet owners who lost pets have told me these are some of the most upsetting comments people make.

What should you do when someone loses a pet? A simple “I’m sorry” may mean a lot.  Take the person out for coffee, dinners, heck even a drink. Be a shoulder to cry on. Give a listening ear. That is often all someone who has lost a pet wants.  In simple terms: be a friend.

Karen Peak is owner of West Wind Dog Training in Northern Virginia and developer of the Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project.

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