Don’t Shame the Dog – Look at Yourself (addressing boredom and “bad dogs)

When I see various “dog shaming” posts online, I do not see bad dogs.   I see bored dogs not having physical and mental needs met.  Who is responsible for alleviating boredom?  Ultimately, the dog owner is responsible for addressing boredom in meaningful ways. Are you doing enough?

Take a look at the video. These dogs are not bad.  They are bored.  Nor are they feeling guilty, this is a response to what the humans are doing.  They dogs are indicating stress.  They are very perceptive.  So, this video is bored dogs, dog who were not well-managed, and dogs who are responding to what the humans are doing.  I am not going to discuss guilt in dogs.  Dogs do not feel guilt as humans define it.  They respond to what we do.  When we catch them at something, they respond to our behaviors and not what they were doing to cause them.  But that is another topic for a different blog entry!

When I am called to advise on a destructive dog, one of the first things I look for are things for the dog to do inside and outside.  Often destructive dogs are dogs needing more mental and physical activity.  Add in a lack of supervision and teaching dogs to seek out appropriate activities, and well, a lot of trouble can happen.  When we are not in a position to observe and teach, this is when we need a safe place for our dog to stay.  This safe spot must be carefully chosen.  If not, well, it is amazing what a bored Jack Russell Terrier puppy can do when he is confined to a bathroom and his toy of choice is that water pipe behind the toilet.  (Yes this happened to the cousin of a former client to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in damage to the house before she got home from work). I prefer to crate train my dogs who are not able to safely be out when I am not home or awake.  Crates are not cruel if used carefully.  You can also use a long-term confinement set up such as a small kennel set up with a potty spot, bed, and area for toys.  These areas should not take the place of proper supervision.  They are to keep your dog safe when you are truly unable to supervise your dog.

When I look at toys provided for the dog, I look at what behaviors do the toys encourage? Will they engage the body and mind to complete a task?  Are they toys that the dog seems to like and seek out? Toys and activities that engage body and mind are beneficial to all dogs.  Some of my favorite, easy games with dogs involve feeding times.  Toys like the Omega Paw Ball or Kong Wobbler for all dry meals gets the dog working to eat.  There are puzzle bowls that dogs have to work kibble and canned food through.  Buster Cubes, Squirrel Dudes, Tug-a-Jugs, and activities such as in the following video are great ideas.  Now with the video, you do not have to get that elaborate.  You can do things such as put the bottles between two cinder blocks for outside activities or hang the bar between a couple of chairs, etc.

Also, provide toys for your dogs to have quieter time with.  As I am typing this my dogs have come in from hanging outside and are working on bones.  As I edit this, they are now out back with my daughter as she cleans the yard.

Classic Kong toys are great for stuffing food inside.  There are other similar toys such as the Sumo.  I take canned food, pureed fruits and veggies, kibble, peanut butter, squirt cheese, etc, stuff the toy and freeze it.  One of my favorite things to keep on hand if needed in a pinch are Purina Beyong and ProPlan meal enhancers.  They are pureed foods in pounches.  No additives.  A few minutes is all it takes to squish some into a Kong, add some kibble and I run out.  The night before I am going to sub teach for a whole day, I layer the toys with things and freeze them.  My dogs will work on these for some time and then nap.  As the stuff inside thaws, they can work some more.

Since some dogs will become frustrated if the food does not work out easily, I will leave space at the large opening and before giving to my dogs, I will put some unfrozen food on top.  If you stuff your Kongs or similar toys and do not freeze them, that is fine too.  Make sure you do not pack them so tightly the dogs become frustrated and using the toy.  This can happen with dog cookies the dogs cannot work out.  I will take peanut butter or a little squirt cheese and coat the inside edge.  Then I will add some kibble, add a later of goopy stuff, a little more kibble and a later of something like peanut butter to hold it in.  I feed my dogs half of their breakfast this way.  They get a little kibble in their bowls.  Then more of their ration is scattered in the back yard for some great work sniffing out food, the rest is in a Kong they get when I leave.  If we are going out for an evening, they get a little kibble in a bowl, some food finding games outside and the rest in Kongs.

When buying toys for use with any food, make sure they have two holes.  If there is only one hole, the dog can build up suction while licking and do serious damage to his mouth and tongue.  You can always drill a hole to help reduce the risk of suction.  Choose carefully and observe your dog.

For outside activity, platforms the dogs can climb up, tunnels, ramps, tug ropes ties to posts, areas framed off with sandy soil for digging, wading pools, etc., can help alleviate boredom.  (Keep these things away from fences so your dogs do not use them to escape). Two of our dogs love the ramp to the playhouse and slide on our old swing set.  Uhura (the Standard Schnauzer), uses the play house on a daily basis. The human kids no longer use the swing set so we will be removing the swing section but leaving the ramp and slide.  The climbing rope will be removed and a tug station will be hung from where the rope ladder is.  Bungee cords holding the tug rope will give a good tug.  I have done similar tug set ups with tree branches and fence posts.  Get outside and teach the dog how to play with these areas.  The more you give your dog to do outside (and the more you teach him to use these areas), the happier he will be.  Make some agility equipment and get playing.


Ravyn sleeping on our teeter.


Splash hanging out in the play house.


Now, along with mental activity we must address exercise needs.  What is enough exercise?  This varies dog to dog.


For me, a good activity session is one where my pet is not looking for more to do. He is not so tired he cannot function and he becomes less tolerant of things in his exhaustion.  Nor is my dog manic, demanding more activity or destroying things out of boredom.  My dog is relaxed, may go rest or calmly find something else to do such as chewing a bone.  There are many ways to meet your pet’s physical needs:  free play with dogs he likes, swimming, formal activities like agility or nose work, chasing things (flirt pole work or formal lure coursing), hunting for kibble scattered through the yard or house (do not do this on chemically treated lawns) are a few ideas.


Old picture of Hunter and my son, Connor.  Hunter loved to swim.


What about walks?  Walks are important but your dog needs time to be a dog while on them.  I am not saying allow rude behavior like barking or lunging, etc., but allow your dog to poke at things, sniff and investigate.  Go to a safe place where he will not annoy people or get into danger, put him on a long leash and let him roam about.  Walk in new places.  This area has a host of county, state, and national parks with great trails.  Teach him to carry a backpack.  Look at urban mushing or skijoring!  Teach your dog to pull a cart.  Physical activity is more than tossing a ball in your back yard.

TN 2014 (11)

Sarah and Uhura when she was a pup, exploring in Tennessee.


Determining your dog’s physical needs is ultimately determined by your dog. To help determine daily needs I often recommend journaling the date, duration of the physical activity, type or activity, and how was the dog after.  Keeping track of things is important.  I had a client who was convinced her small dog was getting at least 30 minutes a walk.  This was twice a day.  This combined with games should have been adequate.  However, when my client began charting what her dog was getting for exercise in reality, and mental stimulation, it was a fraction of this.  When she began to increase what she was doing and changing up walk routes, different games and toys, etc., the dog became easier to work with.  Each dog is an individual when it comes to needs.  One person’s higher energy dog is the other person’s moderate energy dog. It is not fair to expect a higher energy dog to be a couch potato all day.  I have done evaluations where owners refused to understand the needs of a high energy, working breed.  It was assumed that all the dog needed was training in order to learn to be calm.  Well that and a large fenced yard, a couple hours of human-led activity a day, things to alleviate boredom in a breed bred to problem solve and ideally, a formal activity and owners willing to meet all his needs.  They insisted he was a bad dog and not trainable.  No, he was a dog and nothing more.  He was the exact dog you would see on dog shaming pages.

No pet is trying to be bad.  In the majority of cases I have found destructive dogs were bored and had energy to burn.  Dogs will work to meet their needs if we do not.  There is a good chance you may not like what the pet chooses to do.  Instead of shaming your dog, address what he needs instead.

Karen Peak is the owner of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, VA and the founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project.

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Why I Do Not Discipline with a Spray Bottle

A shorter version of this was in Inside NoVA/Prince William Edition in Oct 2016



free clip art


“If your cat scratches furniture, stop him with a mist from a spray bottle.” “Your dog keeps barking: spray him in the face with water.  He will learn to stop.” These are two very common training recommendations made by well-meaning veterinarians, trainers and other pet owners. In my early days as a trainer back in the 90’s ( I have been working with dogs since 1982 but began working towards my own business in the 90’s), I recommended squirt bottles.  Almost every trainer and even some behaviorists did too!  However, as we learned more about behavior and learning, many of us have stopped using averse training methods. Let us look at a couple of examples why using a water spray to discipline should be avoided.

Mr. Whiskers is happily amusing himself. Jane is not happy her cat is attacking her new fuzzy throw.  Mr. Whiskers is a cat.  Cats claw and scratch.  This fuzzy throw is just what the cat wants to engage with.  So Jane pulls out the spray bottle as recommended by her vet.   Hey, it works!  Jane squirts the cat and he stops mauling the throw.  However, Mr. Whiskers keeps attacking the fun, fuzzy throw but running away when he sees Jane approach.  Jane assumes he knows the throw is off-limits and is trying to sneak a scratch when her back is turned.  Over time, Jane notices Mr. Whiskers avoiding her.  He no longer sits on her lap or greets her after work.  He runs away from food when Jane is near.  She walks into a room and he scoots out. Mr. Whiskers has not learned the throw is not a toy. He has only learned Jane is not a person to be trusted. Jane has not taught Mr. Whiskers appropriate scratching toys.  She has damaged their relationship.

Alice uses a spray bottle to stop Angus’s barking. Every time Angus barks, Alice yells “NO” and mists him in the face.  Now, Alice grooms Angus herself.  Because of his coat type, she needs to mist his coat before brushing.  Over time, Angus begins to struggle and panic when Alice pulls out the spray bottle for grooming. Alice does not make the connection as to why Angus no longer likes being brushed.  She does not realize his grooming fears are related to how she disciplines.

Why do owners use spray bottles when behaviorists and good trainers advise against them?  I see three main reasons. First is water bottles are ingrained in our minds as being a safe and less damaging alternative.  People are afraid of change even when there are better ways. I know how hard it is to change minds.  But if I can learn newer and less behaviorally damaging ways, so can others. Second, people assume because a behavior stops when a pet is sprayed that he has learned the behavior is bad. The pet stops because the human is near and the pet is trying to avoid something that scary. When the human is bottle are gone, the behaviors are back.  The critter has learned a pattern and not one the owner wants. Third people owners are told to trust still recommend squirting.  Obviously if someone is a professional, they must know what they are talking about.  Again, if I as a canine professional for years can learn to change, so can’t others.  The way I trained in the 1980’s and early 90’s is much different than how I work now.  As a trainer it is my duty to stay current on science and learning.

I do not want my pets to fear me. I must teach desired behaviors and manage my pet’s environment as he learns.   Also, I need my pets to associate sprays with good.  Grooming, medicated sprays, dental sprays, etc all require pets to have positive associations with a spray bottle. How fair is it for me to demand they tolerate something also used for punishment?  It is not fair at all.

Now, how many people are aware for some pets – especially some dogs – spraying with water may positively reinforce the behavior you are trying to stop.  Say Sparky’s favorite thing to do is catch water sprays.  The hose, water pistols, he chases the sprinkler, Sparky loves chasing water sprays!  He revels in the spray!  How is spraying him in the face going to stop an undesired behavior?  Sparky may associate the behavior with the coming of his favorite game.  Now what?  You have reinforced something you do not want.


picture will be credited when credit can be found



There are methods to stop undesired behaviors that will not negatively affect your relationship with your pet. Please seek people out who will teach these better ways.  Leave the spray bottles out of it.

Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.

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Happy Holidays – now watch that door!

Between October and January, there are many days where festivities and family are focused upon. For many humans, celebrations will be in full swing over the coming months.  In the past I have covered the risks various holidays pose to our dogs (and cats).  This time, I want to focus on something that pet owners need to consider year-round: that opening door.


Door safety begins with management. Baby gates, crates, leashes, areas to secure pets are important.  Your pet cannot escape through the door if he cannot get to it. Set strict ground rules:  no one can come in unannounced; they must wait until you secure the pet before they leave.  It is better to hurt a few human feelings with rules than it is to recover a lot pet or cover bills when someone is injured by your pet racing out an open door.  Also, every time a dog is able to scoot out a door, it undoes previous training to various degrees. You need to set up for safety before you start training.

My first lessons are the behaviors I need before I can teach no door dashing. These often include good leash manners (leashes are important for safety and management) stay or wait in place, exiting through a door on cue, and impulse control. Training is done in stages and it takes time.  I often work first on teaching the leashed dog to walk to the door, sit, and walk away with me.  Then I work in the stay/wait as I open the door a little at a time.  I need to set the dog up for success.   Baby steps in training.  Do not rush it! My goal is to get him to wait at the door while guests come in OR until I tell him it is time to walk through the door.  Now I have to be realistic.  This is a dog, not a programmable robot.  Higher stress situations may require management instead of struggling to get the desired behaviors to happen. The rule of thumb with any training is: there is always something that will override training.  If you have any concerns, manage the situation instead of chancing it.  For example: Halloween night or Thanksgiving if you are hosting dinner are two times I personally, even as a trainer, would opt for management.

Even if your dog seems well trained to stay inside an open door until told to exit, do not assume he will always remember. Recently a dog of mine decided to happily greet the pizza delivery guy. You can read that blog here in Conversations With My Dogs For years this dog has waited at the threshold while we pay. Foster is a dog, he has a thought process, he thought, he acted.  Foster is 9 ½ years old and waiting at any door – including his crate, car doors, etc, is a behavior I am always reinforcing.  Even at that, this one day, with something that is a regular occurrence; Foster chose to walk out the door. Never put 100% if your trust in your dog – unless it is to trust 100% that he will behave like a dog!

Start training now for the upcoming festivities. If you are concerned you do not have the time now, opt for careful management then start training when the holiday season is past.

Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.

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Bare Naked Doggies (do they like to dress up)

Halloween is drawing close. Since Labor Day I have seen candy, decorations, and costumes on store shelves.  Some will decide to dress up their dogs (and cats).  Truthfully, the average pet does not enjoy being dressed up for Halloween.  They would much rather celebrate naked. Though naked partying may get us arrested, chances are your pets would prefer to be costume-free.

All over the internet we see videos of dogs and cats walking funny while wearing costumes. Look closely at the pet.  Some are standing frozen.  Others are whirling around trying to remove the clothing.  Yet others are sitting, head hung, not looking happy at all.  Many costumes are uncomfortable, cumbersome, and not designed to be easily maneuvered in.  These animals are showing signals of distress. If you still think it is funny, learn about pet body language then review the videos again.

Let’s think of behavioral fallout. Consider the “Dog walks funny in boots” videos.  If you have not watched the video above, please do so.  All it takes is one bad experience to create an aversion to something.  Here is someone slapping things a dog normally would not wear onto the creature’s feet.  The dog is not happy and the owner is laughing and carrying on.  How does this teach the dog to trust humans handling his feet?  Now, owners and others need to trim nails, treat infections, injuries, and other things requiring foot and body handling.  Why would I want to make foot handling unpleasant? I have rehabilitated dogs with foot handling aversions; it is easier said than done.  Two dogs were mine who had bad foot experiences with other people.  Unless you are willing to take the time and make the effort to help your pet enjoy wearing costumes (and respect it if they do not), leave outfits on the store shelves.

Now onto some general Halloween safety!


My house!

What about animals around our festivities?  Humans in costume can be frightening. Decorations at many houses (like mine) can be overwhelming.  Since Halloween is only once a year, it is safest to keep your pets away from festivities.  Baby gates, crates and closed doors are important. A barking dog lunging at the door can be very scary for children.  My cats have safe areas where they can escape in the house. I would rather them hide in the house than dash out the front door as they panic. My dogs are crated in a quieter room, with food releasing toys.  Kong and similar toys stuffed with food.  This year I will be freezing the Kongs so they last longer.

Leave your pet at home if you go out with your kids.  There are many stressors with Halloween that can trigger reactions we do not want.  When the triggers pile up too much, they become more than the pet can manage.  This is when trouble may happen. Never assume your pet will be fine.  It is not worth the risk.  If your pet is very stressed during this time, consult with a trainer to create a plan to help get through this night.


Finally, chocolate and many of the treats children will be looking for can make your pet quite sick. Decorations can be chewed and cause intestinal damage. Keep these all away from your critters.

I love Halloween; however, some of my pets do not. I must respect that the costumes, parties, and ghouls are not in their best interest.

Karen Peak is the owner and operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County and owner of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project

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13 Tips to Improve Working with a Dog Trainer

This is based on what I expect my clients to do and understand.  It was made into a more generic handout and blogged.  No matter how good the trainer is, you are an important aspect in how effective the dog training program for your dog is.  Please note, there are always cases that cannot or should not be resolved for a host of reasons.  And of course, be reasonable. Are your expectations really in the best interest of the dog?



  1. Be honest about why you are contacting us. We need the truth – even if it seems embarrassing. It takes a lot to embarrass a dog trainer!
  2. Fill out all necessary paperwork (such as history forms) and return it to the trainer at least 2 days before the session. Some trainers will do a phone interview instead of a written intake form, so please see #1.
  3. Try to have the whole family present at as many sessions as possible, this helps keep everyone on the same track.
  4. Follow all protocols outlined. Various things are put in place to facilitate training, behavior modification and safety. What is recommended will depend on your specific situation.
  5. If you are finding something hard, let your trainer know immediately. Some things can be adapted.
  6. Do your homework. This includes management and practice. Not doing this can have negative effects on the program your trainer is developing.
  7. Let your trainer know about successes – even if small – and setbacks. This is important information.
  8. Even if you think you can go faster, follow the pace your trainer requests. Do not push things further than instructed without consulting the trainer. You could accidentally undo the current progress.
  9. Others can undo all your hard work! Have your trainer help to practice advocating for the needs of your dog if you are unsure of doing this.
  10. Keep various logs and video sessions if asked. This provides needed information. Feel free to do this even if you were not asked! Again, this provides needed information.
  11. A good trainer knows his/her skill set and may refer to someone whose skill sets are better in line with what you need. If this happens, please follow through!
  12. Give at least 24 hours if you have to reschedule. Trainers have other clients who need their time too. Be respectful of the trainer’s time. Frequent rescheduling may make it harder for the trainer to fit you around other clients.
  13. Finally, a few sessions with a trainer will not mean your dog fully trained or “fixed.” Learning is a lifelong endeavor. There are no crystal balls to determine time frames, ultimate outcomes, etc. Be patient and partner with your trainer to get the job done!

Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, VA and founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project. This may be reproduced in its entirety for educational purposes only with credit given.

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Creating a Socializing Plan

This is going to be a chapter in my second book which I hope to have published late 2016/early 2017 if the weather ever cooperates enough for me to get the last few sections of pictures done!  I will update this blog when it is published.

I still have edits and rewrites to do on the book but I wanted to share this part on my blog.

(c) Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training – all images and such on this entry are my property unless otherwise noted


Socializing begins at birth.  This blog entry will explain it  Social Butterflies

TN 2014 (2)

Uhura and Sarah on a warm summer night observing Gatlinburg, TN in 2014.  Picture by West Wind Dog Training.

As new owners, you will be told two main things (1) do not socialize your puppy until 14 – 16 weeks of age and (2) to get that dog every place and everywhere, the busier the better.


Both of these are wrong.  Read Social Butterflies linked above.  It addresses safer socializing with young puppies.  Waiting until a puppy is 14 – 16 weeks is like waiting until a human child is 5 – 6 years old before starting to teach him about life an manners.  Human manners training starts at birth.  Puppy socializing starts at birth.  Now to look at #2.  With socializing we have to look at each dog individually. What works for one dog in a socializing plan could be detrimental to the dog next to him.

I like to use several things when I am working on a socializing plan with a client.  I use these concepts for a host of things from working with a new puppy, a scared dog, or an over excited goofball with few social graces.  THAT SAID – if the dog is one with significant concerns, as a trainer is it my duty to help find a veterinary behaviorist if needed. 

I like working with a couple concepts with my owners:

Counter Conditioning is giving a positive association to something that once had a negative effect on the dog (or any animal).  For example, if Ivan Pavlov used an electric shock following a bell ring instead of present the dogs with food, the dogs would associate the sound of the bell with pain and become stressed when they heard the bell ring – even if no shock followed.  The dogs would have been conditioned to associate the bell with pain.  Now, if that shock was taken away and food introduced, the bell would eventually be associated with good. This is a simple explanation of counter conditioning. HOWEVER, the full sound of the bell may be too much for the dog, so we would add in desensitization.

Desensitizing is adding in small doses of what is bothering the dog while counter conditioning.  So, I would take that bell sound and lower the volume and/or move the dog away from it.  I would do this until the point where the dog was paying attention to the bell but not in full panic or even showing stressed behaviors.  I would want him to look up but be able to recover quickly from hearing the sound. Now I begin pairing things that are pleasant for my dog with the soft bell ring: food, play, etc. When the dog could care less about the bell, I would stop that session.  I would repeat this a few times until the dog just does not care about the bell at that volume and ideally is associating the sound with good things.  Now I would increase the volume slightly or move the dog closer to the sound and start that positive association.  My goal is to be able to have the bell sound at normal volume in the same room and have the dog either ignore it or look for good things to follow the sound.  If the dog begins to respond negatively, I step back, lower the volume and/or increase the distance, maybe get a higher value treat and start again.

I like Counter Conditioning and Desensitizing as I have found  they are easy for dog owners to understand and perform. Add in reasonable expectations (just because you feel your dog should do something does not mean it is in the best interest of your dog) and managing the environment (such as preventing people from being rude to your dog or being able to undo your work) and a well applied CC/DS program can be very beneficial.

Now I add in careful observation of my dog.  I use different mental images to help my clients:

Levels and Zones

We want to keep dogs below threshold/sub-threshold. This means the dog feels low to no threat if he is scared or not so excited that he is out of control and developing frustration behaviors if he is an over excited goofball.

Use street light meanings as a guide to help you observe your dog.

Street lights

Green – OK – go but always be aware of situations around you. Just because green means go when we are driving, does not mean someone will stop at the red light on the other side.  When you think your dog is giving you the greed light that he is OK in a situation, always be aware of your surroundings.  You never know when a driver will ignore a red light and put you in danger.

Yellow – CAUTION – be very aware of what is going on around and with your dog. What does a yellow light mean for drivers?  Be careful.  There is a potential for a situation.  Watch your dog’s body language even when you are in green light situations.  They could change to yellow light fast.  Many conditions are yellow light until we and our dog determines if they are heading to green or red.

Red – STOP – get out of there, no meaningful work can happen as your dog is too scared or frustrated. You do not want to run a red light with your car nor do you want to enter a risky situation with your dog.

Now rank your dog’s reactions to things:

Give your dog’s reactions a number. 1 is the lowest and 10 is where he cannot function, cannot revert to you, does not care about the food, voice or anything except running from, getting to or taking on the stressor.

The first four numbers should indicate the dog is below threshold. This is provided the dog has not been taught to suppress body language which can make it more difficult to read what your dog is saying. Below threshold means the dog does not feel the need to react in a way we do not like.  He is not concerned enough to be overly afraid or have an over excited goofball outburst triggered.  Think of the threshold as a door threshold.  As long as your dog is on the opposite side of the door, he is OK.  The closer to the door, the more stressed or excited he becomes.  If he is allowed or forced through the door and over the threshold, he will react.

From 1 – 4, your dog is not really reacting adversely and is easy to work with using counter conditioning and desensitizing.   The dog reverts back to you, is easy to distract and redirect his attention back on you when he is between numbers 1 – 4.  Think of this as a green light.  It is OK to work and maybe even get closer.

1, 2 –      Dog is fine with whatever stressor/distraction.  He may even seem not to notice it.

3, 4 –      Dog is showing interest and is not upset but more curious.

After 1 – 4, the dog is beginning to get close to that that threshold and is upset/anxious/etc.   You need to stop getting any closer to the distraction or allowing it to come closer.  Your dog is harder to get to redirect back to you.   Remember to look for subtleties such as tension in the face and body, lip licking, looking anxiously about like a cheerleader in a slasher movie, panting, whining whites of eyes showing and other stress indicators.   If he is an over excited goofball he may be whining, wiggling, trying to pull against the lead, acting anxious as he wants to see that thing on the other side of the invisible door.   If you see these behaviors, your dog may be outside the first four numbers and into 5 and 6.  This is your yellow light – caution.  You are getting close to the dog’s threshold, he will soon lose his ability to handle the situation and you are leaving the zone where you can best work with your dog and entering the zone where he is too upset to work.

5, 6 –      Dog is slightly stressing/exciting but still reverts to owner human with just a voice cue, shows interest and not panicking or lunging.  Your dog may be getting visibly upset but can still redirect his attention to you though may not be able to keep his attention on you for long.

Dogs should not be allowed to get past their threshold: I never want a dog to get past 1 – 4. Levels 5 and 6 should be avoided.  Now we go on to what would be a red light area for your dog.

A dog who is 7 or above is above threshold and you cannot really redirect this dog. You are driving him through a red light and putting him and even others at risk.  You have shoved him or allowed him through that invisible door and over that threshold.  You must become happy, encouraging and get him out of there.  Trying to call your dog away often does no good especially if the dog is stressed and unable to respond. If your dog is barking and lunging at something, do not stand an allow him to do it.  Do not punish the behaviors. Do not yell, panic or “freak,” just get happy and get out of there – you help him escape.

7 –           Dog is entering fear/stress/excitable zone, harder to get to revert, keeps looking back to the stressor/distraction, even when owner has food or a toy present.  Still maintaining some level of control but it is not much.

8, 9 –      Dog is reacting in a way we do not want and almost no redirection possible.  He may quickly look at us but is more focused on the distraction.

10 –         Dog is now in full-blown terror/aggressions/hyper-excited and cannot redirect at all.

Keep notes on your dog’s progress. Remember that the closer or louder a distraction is, the harder it may be for your dog to handle it.  If I cannot happily say my dog’s name and have him look at me and wait for instruction or he keeps looking at me and then going back to the behaviors I do not like, the dog is not ready for that level of stimulus at this point.  I have to make it easier for the dog.

I like a dog to recover fast – within moments if possible. Recovery means the dog settles down, is not trying to escape or charge the stressor, he can respond to his name, focus on you and be back under control, his body language is calm. He may not be accepting of the situation at this time but you have him back and responsive to you on a solid level.  However, since I am working to keep my dog below threshold, I should not be putting him in stressing situations over and over so he feels the need to react in a serious manner.  By reading body language I can do this.

Here is an entry with body language information – read the second part which is linked to the bottom.

Remember, there will always be things that some dogs may not be able to handle. There will always be distractions or stressor that no matter what work is done that the individual dog may be too overwhelmed when presented with the stressor. It is your job to indentify these things, see how far you can safely bring your dog to be able to handle the situations and sometimes just avoid it altogether.  Taking notes, keeping a log and monitoring progress is important.  Also, trainers need this information to help adapt whatever program they developed.

I recommend keeping another chart to see if triggers for the fear or over excitement can be discovered. If triggers can be identified, the situation is easier to work with because I can set up scenarios to help the dog.  Sometimes there are no discernible triggers.  This means we have to be seriously vigilant and watching our dog’s body language.

Please remember, that just because I am helping a dog learn more self control or to better handle fears, I am NOT guaranteeing he will be perfect and able to handle anything. Just because your dog is not panicking at the sight of playing children, for example, does not mean he will tolerate a child running up to give a hug.  Do not ever mistake the ability to handle a certain situation with a dog being accepting of everything.

Here is a sample of a chart  to keep track of my dog’s reactions to different stimuli.


Stressor/Distraction Dog’s Level

(1 – 10)

Dog’s Reaction/Body Language Human’s Reaction Recovery Time
Child ran around corner of his house, screaming, firing a water gun 7/ 8 Dog panicked and tried to escape, ears pinned, tail tucked Walked dog across street and kept going until dog stopped trying to run and began looking back at child without panicking, stayed quiet, allowed dog to observe child from distance while feeding him treats when he looked at child About 2 min from point we stopped to where dog was looking at child’s house and not worrying
Or for a goofball


Dog saw person with a dog


6 Wagging tail, ears up, bouncing, excited yips, dancing at end of lead. Walked dog across the street, had him sit and focus on me and a treat. Immediately


How humans respond when their dogs are reacting in an undesired way is crucial to the final outcome. When we react in ways that increase stress and anxiety or cause frustration, we can worsen the dog’s emotional state and thus worsen how the dog will react next time.  For example, a dog behaving in a way we call aggressing towards another dog is an indication of some form of stress.  When we punish the dog, yank his leash and yell, we increase the chance he will escalate his aggressing next time.  Alternatively we run the risk of the dog ceasing his body language while still emotionally agitated therefore increasing the future risk of the dog being put into a position where he will explode behaviorally because we no longer see any definitive body language.  We also run the risk of taking the overexcited and happy goof ball and make a dog that no longer has a positive association with the distraction and begins to dislike it.  When we keep a dog exhibiting fear in that state of fear by forcing him to face things head on, we increase the chance of an increased fear reaction, even the dog attempting to fight next time instead of trying to escape. Just because a dog stops responding does not mean he is OK.  The dog may have shut down.  Nothing works, therefore he stops. He is not better, he has just stopped responding.

By having an owner track stress levels, stressors, reactions and such, I can look for patterns to help create a program for the dog and owner.

In or Out of the Zone

Now that you have begun to identify what stresses your dog and the severity, distances you need to be from the stressors, etc. need to be added into a counter conditioning and desensitizing program. Different things will elicit different responses at different times and distances.  Your dog may be able to handle a bike at 50 feet away but a dog at 20 sends him into a frenzy of barking.

Break your distance from the stressor into zones. The closer your dog is, the harder it will be to work with the dog while desensitizing and counter conditioning. 

[STRESSOR] —-  Zone 1 —- | ———–  Zone 2 ———– | —— Zone 3

When a dog is in Zone 1, he is too close, he is reacting, and you will get a 7 – 10 reaction from the dog.

When a dog is in Zone 2, he should be anywhere from a 3 – 7 depending on how close you are. The further away from Zone 1, the easier it will be to get your dog to respond.

When a dog is in Zone 3, he is able to look at the distraction, not be bothered and even ignore it.

The goal with desensitizing and counter conditioning is to reduce the size of Zone 1 while increasing Zones 2 and 3 by using the 1 – 10 stress levels.

Again, we need to be rational. Expecting a dog to love all dogs, all people, be able to tolerate every child racing into his face to give a hug, etc., is irresponsible.   If your dog is not dog friendly, I would not expect him to be able to walk in a dog dense area when everyone is out for walks.   If your dog is intolerant of children, I would not walk him through a play ground, take him to a school bus stop or your nephew’s football practice.  By charting and reviewing progress, we can determine if our dog is ready to move on to the next stage of work.  When your dog is handling something well (low stress levels) at one zone, start moving closer – but just a little bit!  Look at your dog’s reactions and continue until your dog begins to enter stress levels 5/6.  STOP, and begin working with your dog to give a positive association.  You will combine the stress levels and zones to help change your dog’s emotional response to various situations.  At some point, you may notice your dog not improving, you may have hit the level of your dog’s tolerance or you may be pushing things too fast and your dog developing a negative association with the stressors.

Finally, some dogs are always in such a high state of stress that they may have undergone physiological changes and need medications to help get over that emotional hump while using behavior modification.   This needs to be discussed carefully with me (if you are a client of mine) or a good trainer or behaviorist (if you are not a client of mine) and your vet.  Pills are not a magic cure for stress and anxiety.  Medication needs to be combined with behavioral work to achieve the best response.  If your dog is severe, you may be referred to a veterinarian behaviorist.  This is someone who can apply both medical and behavioral work together at a level the average trainer and veterinarian cannot.  This would be like a well-trained psychiatrist in humans:  trained in both medicine and behavior.  If you are referred to one, please take it seriously and make an appointment.  If there is not one in your area, ask your veterinarian to contact the closest one and ask for advice. Have this advice given to the trainer so we can all work together.

(please see (c) note above)

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Examining Bite Severity

I have been lucky to see Dr. Ian Dunbar lecture a couple of times.  One lecture topic dealt with bite severity and the willingness/ability for a dog to control his jaw strength.  Understanding bite levels and severity is important for trainers, owners, rescuers, and veterinarians.  This is based on Dr. Dunbar’s work and how I apply it in my program.  Then the late Dr. Sophia Yin built upon Dr. Dunbar.  She added great graphics too.  When typing this, I looked on-line for pictures showing different bite levels.  Some of the Level 4 – 5 bite pictures were horrific.  Therefore I decided not to add them.  However, I do have Dr. Yin’s great dog bite poster which is a lot less disturbing to look at.  I have taken parts of it to illustrate this blog.  The entire poster is available on her site for anyone to download for free.


This piece will help you determine the ability of a dog to control his jaw strength during any situation. It does not matter if you are breaking up a fight, playing or have tripped over your dog and were nipped.  A dog needs to learn how to control his jaws.  This happens at puppyhood with littermates and the mother first and with the first humans in a dog’s life.  The younger a dog is when he learns to control his jaws, the better.  It becomes harder as a dog grows to teach good and more reliable bite inhibition.

This scale goes for bites to humans and other animals when we look at severity.  Now, if you have a dog that is aggressive towards other animals, he can still live a good life as simply your companion.  Dogs do NOT need to be in the company of other dogs in order to live a full life.  If your dog is animal aggressive, be realistic.  Understand that places like dog parks and dog dense activities are not a good idea.  If you are willing to accept and understand how to teach him good manners while walking (which does not mean he will nicely greet other dogs, it means that my goal is I can walk my dog on one side of the street, pass a dog on the other and my dog does not try to go after the other dog).

Also muzzle training with dogs who are biters is important.  All dogs should learn to wear a muzzle just in case…  Please visit the Muzzle Up Project for more on muzzles.

On to looking at bite levels and how I apply them in my business.


The following levels are pretty easy to work with if the owner is willing to do the work.  If a dog is worked with in a meaningful way from the moment the behaviors are seen, these levels can be handled.    I would rather a dog with 100 Level 1 or 2 bites to his name than one with a couple of level 3 and above. The dog with more lower level incidents is showing me he is willing and able to control his bite.  This is a good thing.

Level 1 – Air snap, dog has great inhibition, he is warning, he is withholding his bite.  A dog can move much faster than a human.  If a dog wishes to connect and do damage, he will.  You did not move faster than the dog, he CHOSE not to bite or connect.  Getting help at the air snap/pre-bite level increases the chance of successfully working with the dog – provided all protocols are followed.

LVL 1 bite

Level 2 – Connected, small marks left, no skin breaks or minor scratching in one direction caused as the human pulled away, the dog was pulled away or a small dog slipped off the victim due to gravity. You need to work with dogs when this level is seen.  Do not wait for the dog to escalate or see if he does it again. Once the bites escalate past Level 2, it gets more difficult.

LVL 2 bite


This next level is a gray area. The dog has less bite inhibition and has done damage and probably will again.  If there are children in the house, this dog should not be in the house.  Placing a dog like this is a high liability.

However if there are no children in the home, if all adults are willing to follow protocol, etc., this dog may be able to stay in the home depending on the management and work done.  By able to stay in the home I do not mean he will fully rehabilitate and be a best buddy to all.  I only mean he may be a dog you can adjust to live with as long as you are understanding, willing to keep up with management and work.  If you are unwilling to do the work then the dog should not stay in the house.  Again, remember placing a dog like this is a liability for all involved.  Make your decision what to do carefully.  This is from a rescue website about the issue with biting dogs and rescue.

Level 3 – One to four punctures and no puncture is deeper than 1/2 the length of the canine. There may be tearing in one direction as the victim pulled away, the dog was pulled off or a small dog fell off due to gravity.  Basket muzzles are a necessity for safety.

LVL 3 bite


In my opinion, these last three levels should not be worked with by the average to even above average dog owner.  The liability and risk are too high.  Management needed will make you all but a prisoner in your home.  These dogs have done significant damage and euthanasia is recommended. The bite of this severity or worse may happen again.  Sadly there are rescuers and owners willing to place dogs who have done such serious damage in homes.  These are not suitable for pet homes.  These are what some call “project dogs.”  These are the dogs that are best owned by a serious trainer with the ability to protect society from the dog while still meeting the dog’s individual needs in a humane way.  This is not an easy home to find.  A little love and caring will not cut it.

These dogs need owners who are willing to make the property a fortress if needed, forgo visitors if needed, use crates, gates, muzzles, and whatever is needed for safety. Again, these dogs need to be owned by good, professional dog trainers or an owner who is willing to develop the skills needed for the life of the dog in order to keep the dog and society safe.  The cost is high both financially and emotionally with these dogs.

Yes sadly, and frighteningly there are rescue groups in far too great a number that are trying to adopt out dogs with the next three levels of bite.  There are owners who are willing to lie about bite severity in order to get a dog rehomed.  Not all dogs will show the behaviors for which they were given up when in a rescue situation.  Please, if you are the owner of a dog who has bitten to any of these levels, do not rehome him.  The risk is too great.  I have sat with clients as they agonized over what to do with a dog who is a severe biter.  I have spoken to vets who feel if a dog is physically healthy, save the dog.  Well, mental health is a major concern and a dog who is willing to inflict serious damage is not a dog that is a safe or sane companion.  Also local laws play a factor.  That next bite may be the one that the law steps in and takes any option you have away.  Would you rather be with your dog at the end or have the dog put down by someone else?   This is a good piece I ask you to read.

Now on to the last three levels of bite:

Level 4 – One to four punctures, with at least one being deeper then 1/2 the length of the canine tooth, with or without tearing. Tearing is in both directions from the wound as the dog shook his head.  May have deep bruising, the dog bore down.LVL 4 bite

Level 5 – Multiple level 4 bites to one or more victims.LVL 5 biteLevel 6 – Fatality.LVL 6 bite******

I will state I have angered people when I discuss what to do with a dog that bites.  I have several rescuers who are so angry with me that they refuse to send clients my way.  However, they are not the ones sitting with a client forced to make the hard decision because the dog they recently adopted has begun biting seriously. I have sat and listened to owners who felt a dog that had mauled several people – sending two to the hospital – would be a fine pet for a different owner if they could get a child to let them give up the dog.  I am an obligation not only to my client but to the rest of the community.  If a dog is a danger, I need to make that known.  I need to counsel owners about the liability, work needed and risks when a dog bites.

Proper choice of the best dog for you, careful choice of the source of your dog, careful training and socializing will all help reduce the risk of a dog bite.  Having those interacting with your dog do so in good ways will reduce the risk of a dog bite.  Understanding stress signals in dogs and being willing to advocate for your dog’s behavioral needs will reduce the risk of a bite.

Dogs are dogs.  They will bite if they feel the need to.  We need to work to prevent bites, address concerns sooner rather than later and be willing to make that hard decision when we are faced with a seriously biting animal.

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

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