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

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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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Valuing Reinforcers

A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Think of a reinforcer as a paycheck. What would you do if your boss informed you all paychecks would stop? How long would you stay?

LHPR Summer 09 Agility class

Sarah at 6 and D’Argo  picture property of West Wind Dog Training

I am a positive reinforcement trainer. This means I add a desired reinforcer to help keep a behavior going. I can also remove the reinforcer to help stop undesired behaviors. For example, Sparky greets me by sitting, he gets a cookie or something that has meaning for him. This increases the likelihood of the behaviors continuing. “OOOOOO! I goes up to lady and sits, I gets good stuffs.” The more I practice and reinforce; the more Sparky will give the behavior. I am proactive with lessons. This means I teach what I need from the start instead of waiting for repeated mistakes and then addressing issues.

The value of a reinforcer is determined by the recipient. I teach this as Spinach vs Ice Cream Sundaes. Would the average person rather have spinach or a sundae? Most people may say sundae. What if you were severely lactose intolerant, would a sundae work? No. Why? Think about what happens to the body and how the body could be affected. What if I had a child who feared roller coasters, yet I was trying to teach him to wait in line? Would riding that roller coaster reinforce the desired behavior? What if I have a dog who is not comfortable with touch? Would a pat reinforce a desired behavior?

This is Roscoe – he had only been in his home a couple weeks when we started working.  He was very leash reactive.  I taught his human how to use a higher value reinforcement to keep the desired behaviors going.  Even when given a chance to stop and sniff, his owner was higher value due to what she had.  Roscoe does get regular sniff walks too!

Primary reinforcers are things organisms are born needing including food, drink, pleasure, touch. Think of going to a pool on a summer day. You are hot and miserable. The pool cools you and brings you comfort. Food is a primary reinforcer often used in animal work. Then there are secondary reinforcers. These are things that have no value unless paired with a primary reinforcer. Money is a great secondary reinforcer for us. With money we can buy food, drink, shelter, comfort, things that bring pleasure. If I have no outlets to but any of these, say stranded in the desert with nothing around, money would not reinforce. You have no way to use it. Verbal praise is another secondary reinforcer. It has no meaning unless paired with something of meaning.   So, when people say, “My dog should work because he loves me,” this may not be reinforcing to the dog.

How can you test a reinforcer? See what has most value to your pet. One of my past dogs was ball obsessed. Inside food was a good reinforcer. On walks, I could use food as well. In the backyard, however, if he saw his favorite ball, food was ignored. So, what would I use to reinforce behaviors at that point? The ball. Before my daughter enters the show ring with our dogs, she pulls out various foods. The one the dog turns on for the most is the one that comes into the ring. When I go to client homes, I bring a variety of foods in my bag to see what ones work the best. I want dogs to WANT to work with me because I am associated with good stuff.

Here is an example using various things a dog may like and how I would categorize them for value based on what reaction I got from the dog.

$100 – Slim Jim snacks, liver jerky, boiled liver slices,

$75 – Venison, Rabbit, Alligator, Duck, hot dog slices

$50 – Chicken jerky, Puperoni,

$25 – Fresh Pet food roll

$20 – Red barn food roll

$15 – Peanut butter treats

$10 – Sweet potato treats

$5 – Dog cookies

$1 – Cheerios

Your dog will be different from my dogs so make sure you test things!

You can do the same for games and such used to reinforce behaviors, patting, etc.

Use reinforcers for training. They work, they increase bonding, they increase the effectiveness of our work.

  • Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training
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I Will NOT Medicate!

Your pet has a bacterial infection and is feeling poorly. The vet prescribes medication. You willingly begin giving it. Your trainer is observing things that has him worried. It is recommended that a medical professional be called to discuss the possibility of medication. You balk at the idea. Why?

I asked people why they were or why they thought pet owners were reluctant to consider medication as a primary tool in training. The answers included the following: The stigma people have with mental health. Concerns medications will make their dogs zombies. The assumption that veterinarians are trying to take pet owners’ money. It may take too long to find the right medication and dose, people wanted faster results. Real trainers do not have to consider medication for animals so suggesting it means you are a bad trainer.

photo of dog sitting on pillow

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on

Almost two decades ago when I was getting my business off the ground, I thought medication was a last resort and we needed to try everything else first. When I started training in the 1980’s, the use of medications as tools in training was barely a blip on anyone’s radar. We were never taught the importance of medication with some cases. However, over the years I and many others have learned the importance of medication as a tool when working with some pets. To understand why medication should not be a last resort, we need to first look at stress and its effects on the body.

Simplistically, stress causes chemical changes in the body. The amygdala sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts upon glands that start to pump chemicals (like adrenaline) through the body to prepare for action. When the stress goes away, more chemicals are released to assist with recovery. However, if enough stress happens over a prolonged time the body can adjust its chemistry. This can result in stress chemicals staying higher and this can negatively affect behavior. Medications can help readjust the body chemicals and take the edge off things. This can increase the effectiveness of training and behavior modification.

Here is my take on using medications to help our pets. I want to consider the use of medications sooner rather than later in some cases. When I sit with a critter who is in distress, anxious, really in need, it is my job to look at all possibilities to increase the chance of some level of success. Medication is a tool. If I have something at my disposal that can help alleviate stress and make our work easier, why would I not want to use it if it is humane?

Along with the benefits of medication, owners need to understand what it is not. Medication is not a magic potion that will absolve you of work. Medication will not make your higher energy Border Collie lower energy like a Basset Hound. Medication is not always a fast or a short-term fix. Each situation is unique to that pet and situation. However, once the most effective medication and dosage is found it can be a great tool!

When I have a client, who is reluctant to consider medications, I set a time frame of a few weeks to a month. If within that time frame we are not seeing any meaningful changes and the owner can honestly state everything needed addressing is being done to the level needed, then we revisit medication.

Using medication is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is a sign of a greater understanding of how to best work with our pets.

  • Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training
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Age or Ability – Kids and Dog Walking

There are various lists about age appropriate chores for children. Some of the chores are pet-related. One list says a child of 12 should be walking the family dog. I am all for children learning to help care for pets. However, I am not a fan of the term “age-appropriate.” I prefer to think in terms of “ability-appropriate.” Ability-appropriate covers a wider range of considerations.

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Connor and D’Argo probably summer 2004 or 2005.  That was the trainer with them.

While at a busy intersection, I watched a girl who was around 10 – 12, struggling to walk a large dog. They were close enough that I could see the dog was wearing a prong collar. The dog was dragging the child along the sidewalk when something caught his attention. He pulled the struggling child into traffic. Even with the child violently yanking the collar, the dog ignored the pain to get at whatever caught his attention. This dog was completely ability inappropriate for the child.  There was no way this child was able to safely intervene and prevent the dog from entering the street.  What if the dog was going after another dog or a human? Could the child have prevented a bite? This child was completely unable to safely manage the dog she was walking. Luckily the dog decided to return to the sidewalk.  Well, you may think a better trained dog would have been a better fit.

No matter how well trained a dog is, we must remember that there will always be something that can and will cause a dog to not follow training.  This is an excerpt from another blog of mine to illustrate this:

One of my early clients tragically lost her dog. He was a sweet boy.  Very responsive, a dream to work with and the owner did her work. We had discussed safety, using leashes on walks, etc. over our sessions.  She liked to have her dogs off leash when she hiked.  Well I used to hike with my dogs, off leash, specific areas where it was allowed at the time, and my dogs had a lot of training, proofing and testing.  Even at that, often my dogs were on leash.  That was also over twenty years ago and I have changed my views a lot since then about general safety.  You see, I knew my dogs’ limits but I cannot control other elements such as oh…  Other loose animals.  So now, I keep my dogs on leash unless it is a competition requiring off leash work.

One weekend this owner took her dog hiking and decided to let him off leash.  Rufus was a young guy – not even a year old.  He had just begun training.  He was far from ready for any off leash work.  As luck would have it, Rufus saw something.  He took off in the direction of a parking lot and access road. No amount of calling got him to return. At that moment, another vehicle pulled into the lot. Rufus was killed.  – Deadly Trust

Even a well-trained dog is still capable of pulling a child over as he tries to get to something.  For sake of argument, let’s say the dog is very well mannered and ignores many things going on around him.  Is the child able to recognize potentially risky situations and avoid them?

With one case, a small dog that was not friendly to anyone except family was put in a bad spot. A teenage child was given clear instructions, numerous times, not to let the dog out of a back room if there were guests.  Mom and Dad were at work and the child brought friends home after school. The child decided to bring the dog out to meet her friends.  The dog panicked and badly bit one of the friends.  I had watched older kids not recognize stress behaviors in dogs and end up with their pets in other bad situations.

How many times do we see kids (and adults) fully engaged with their phones and ignoring everything around them? Part of safer dog walking is being unplugged and aware of your surroundings. Another case I advised on occurred when an older teen was walking the family dog. The boy was plugged in and oblivious to the dog’s behavior along with the surroundings. He missed the sounds of kids playing. He did not see the kids running around. The dog was on a retracting lead and had gotten to the full length of it. The teen walked into the line of play.  The dog was over 25 feet ahead of the boy.  He chased and bit a child.  Now, the dog was well within the physical ability of the teen.  The dog was also pretty well trained.  However, the dog was put into a dangerous situation because the teen was oblivious to his surroundings.  The teen, when I was in the house, was always on the phone.  His inability to be responsible (not to mention the chosen leash) resulted in injury.

When my children were little, I was very careful what dogs of ours they could walk with us and what dogs they could not.   My children were born in 1998 and 2004.  Just being kids of a dog trainer did not mean my kids could walk any of our dogs as they were growing up. Not all of my dogs were ability appropriate for my own children.

Ryker was my first serious show dog and was a therapy dog for several years.  He came to us in 1993.

Hunter was a big goof who had less self-control. There was a reason why his first owners gave him up.  He was 70+ pounds of impulsive lunacy.  He came to us in 1996 as a young adult.

D’Argo, even as a pup, was laid back.  Adolescence with him was easy.  D’Argo was slow to rile up and handled life with ease.   He came to us in 2000.

Seven was a great dog but as a livestock guarding breed, she was large and strong. She would go on guard and alert frequently. She came to us in 2001 as a young adult.

What of these four dogs would be ability appropriate for the kids?  Ryker and D’Argo.

How can you start kids out walking dogs?  You walk the dogs and they help.

In the beginning, we would have the kids hold the leash with us. Then we went to two leashes on Ryker or D’Argo. After that they would be able to control the leash themselves, but we were always with them. Connor and Sarah started learning how to train and show dogs with D’Argo. He was an ability appropriate dog for both kids to get their feet wet.

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Sarah and D’Argo – Agility 2009

As parents and dog owners, it is our responsibility to recognize the various abilities our children have. We need to be mindful of situations they may encounter when walking our dogs. It is our duty to work to keep them safe. Know your child, your dog, and keep things ability appropriate with supervision.


  • Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training
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Ankle Biters

The things many little dogs endure. People behaving rudely towards them. Body language and stress signals ignored as they are passed around like novelties to visitors. They are toted around like an accessory. Forced to wear clothes that may be uncomfortable. They are teased to make them growl as people think aggressive responses from little dogs are funny.  All you have to do is watch shows like America’s Funniest Videos or go to YouTube and you will see exactly what I mean.  Eventually the little ones start to react even before anything is done. Finally, they are labeled “Ankle Biters.”


Mrs. Jones loved luxurious things. She saw pictures of small, elegant dogs and felt one would complete her image. This was the extent of canine research she did: what style of dog she thought would best compliment her appearance and her museum quality home. After going through, and getting rid of, several dogs who were not what she wanted, Mrs. Jones obtained a Yorkshire Terrier.  She had seen pictures of these dogs in full show coat and paintings and…  You get the idea.  The pup was named Annabelle.


The dog renamed Annabelle for this entry. Picture (c) West Wind Dog Training

Annabelle was expected to lie quietly on cushions. Barking was forbidden. She was carried around like a toy. Annabelle was not allowed to play or get dirty. When she tried to hunt crickets and grasshoppers in the yard, Annabelle was punished. Forget digging!  That was a big no.

Annabelle was expected to tolerate Mrs. Jones’s nieces dressing her up and pushing her around in a stroller. Then the constant being hauled up and loads of kisses and silliness as Mrs. Jones got in her face.  Annabelle was learning to hate being picked up. Annabelle was not allowed to be what she was at all: a dog. Annabelle started to respond in ways Mrs. Jones did not like.  This was when her veterinarian suggested Mrs. Jones call me.

When I am working with small dogs, I ask people to step into the dog’s collar. When you are tiny, the world can be a big, scary place. I ask humans to lie on the floor with their heads at the same height as their dogs’. Have people walk around. and rush into your face as if they are going to scoop you up. Now, think about what it is like to be disturbed while you are sleeping, dressed up, treated like a stuffed animal, poked and teased to get a reaction. Behavior is a response. How would you respond? Annabelle responded by becoming an Ankle Biter.

Understand that no matter how small and cute, behaviorally these are dogs. Research the history of the type of small dog you are considering. This means understanding what the breed was designed to do. In Annabelle’s case, Yorkshire Terriers were originally bred to eradicate vermin from farms and mines. They were working terriers. Take the time for appropriate socializing. Insist all those interacting with your dog treat her with respect. Be a mindful, thoughtful owner. Annabelle wanted to do what her instinct was telling her to do as a small terrier.  She was becoming frustrated. 

I put things like being picked up on a cue.  Work is done to help the small dog associate the cue and being picked up with good things.  There is never any sudden grabbing.  I have humans get to the dog’s level with training.  Hovering over any dog is scary.  Imagine what it is like when you are tiny. We need to respect small dogs.  I outlined a program that would meet Annabelle’s needs.  With those needs met and training, Annabelle had a good chance of becoming a fun dog to live with.

After weeks of working with Mrs. Jones and Annabelle, Mrs. Jones decided Annabelle would never be what she wanted. Mrs. Jones acquired yet another small dog to focus her attention on. Annabelle was relegated to the garage where I found her one of our sessions. I asked Mrs. Jones if she would like me to help place Annabelle. A week later, I acted as an agent for a breed rescue and Annabelle was surrendered.

The days she was with us before transporting to her foster home, Annabelle got to be a dog. She interacted with respectful children and played with our dogs. She relaxed. She learned to enjoy being picked up.  She could hunt bugs. Annabelle was really a great little dog.  Had we not been at our legal limit for dogs, my husband (who is not a little dog person) said we would have applied to adopt Annabelle.

Though occasionally we do get dogs with a predisposition to concerning behaviors, most Ankle Biting behavior is a response to what is happening to the dog. When we bring in a little dog, it is our duty to be respectful. We need to do what we can to reduce the chance of Ankle Biter Syndrome beginning.


  •  This may be reproduced with credit given – West Wind Dog Training, Karen Peak
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