Tackling The Extra Pounds

This was originally run in a shorter version in Northern Virginia Today


As a dog professional it is not uncommon for my clients to have chunky pets.  It is something I need to address because we use food and such to help develop behaviors we need.  Maybe you have decided your dog is little pudgy – or even obese – and you have decided to address this.  Maybe your veterinarian has brought this to your attention.

According to PetMD.com, obesity is when your dog has 10-15% excess body weight.  For a 10 pound dog this would be an extra 1.5 pounds and 15 lbs for a 100 lb dog. The first place I would begin a weight loss program would be with a vet consult.  Though the vast majority of obesity in pets is a direct result of the owner’s actions, you should still rule out the chance of things like thyroid issues that can affect weight loss. I have a senior, hypothyroid dog.  Foster’s ideal weight should be 16 – 17 lbs.  At his heaviest he was over 20 pounds and at one point pushing 25 – even on LOW rations. Along with seeing other changes and with strict diet failing, I had him checked out.  Yup, thyroid.  Once we got him on medications and made sure the dosage was what he needed, addressing his weight became easier.  Now, thyroid meds are not a magic weight loss potion removing the need for diet and lifestyle changes, but addressing Foster’s thyroid made getting his weight down easier.

Sarah Dog Show MKC

Foster in his chunkier days – this was around the time we learned he had a thyroid issue.

If your dog is fuzzy get under the fur.  A really fluffy dog may look fat when in reality he is OK.  Know your dog’s body type.  Sighthounds are a lean type of dog.  If we were to get enough weight on them to hide all their ribs and hips, they would be FAT. If your dog is a type that is a more stocky built make sure he is truly stocky and not fat.


Foster 01-27 Fast CAT 2 crop

Photo by Wayne Ramsey – Foster at age 10 1/2 and a much healthier weight


Why is being obese bad for your dog?  Obesity can cause or at least increase the risk of various problems including but not limited to:

  • less tolerant to heat
  • less tolerant to exercise – they tire out faster
  • high blood pressure
  • increased risk of diabetes
  • increased risk of lameness
  • increased risk if anesthesia ifneeded
  • skin folds can become irritated
  • difficulty breathing
  • back problems/disk issues
  • various masses and certain cancers
  • it makes an examination harder for your vet to perform

Since the vast majority of pudgy pooches is caused by humans, let’s address food and treats first.

Many foods and treats have extra and “hidden” sugars.  Some foods with extruded, formed bits (different from freeze-dried pieces) may be higher in sugars.  Foods too high in carbohydrates and fat can contribute to obesity.

You think your dog is active do you need a performance diet?  Your active pet dog does not need a performance food.    These foods are formulated for dogs who are hard-working on a regular basis such as sled dogs, dogs regularly training at high activity sports, etc.  Even at that, many truly active dogs do not need a performance diet. My dogs do several activities and they are not on a performance food. Coconut oil is NOT a medical miracle supplement and yes I have seen people suggest it for pet weight loss. I have seen overweight dogs that were fed diet foods (the dog was free fed and the bowl always filled when it emptied).  I have seen overweight dogs fed homemade food and raw diets.



Even Uhura who does coursing events and will be starting other sports hopefully does not need a performance dog diet.


Portion control is important to weight loss.  The recommended feeding amounts on a bag of food are often way too much.  For example, Foster, a 16 – 17 lbs Shetland Sheepdog, eats a total of 1/4 kibble in the morning (this includes what is scattered or put in a toy).  In the evening he gets 1/8 cup of kibble and 1/3 cup of a rice/veggie/canned mix.  According to many food bags Foster should be getting twice that food amount or more.  Even my younger dogs get far less than the recommendation on the bags.

Portion control includes accounting for training treats, food stuffed toys, edible chews like pig ears, etc.  I have known more than one morbidly obese dog that was eating diet food in carefully measured amounts. The dogs were getting a high amount of treats throughout the day – the owners mistook giving food with giving love. Also owners who forget to account for the food used in training to help reinforce behaviors we need increase the chance of pudgy dogs.  One thing I recommend to my clients is measure out the daily ration and if it is a high enough reinforcing food for behaviors, we can use that as our training rewards.  If not then we cut the food back to account for the food we use in training.

So how do we begin a weight loss program?  As already stated, with a trip to the vet.  Depending on how overweight your dog is will help determine where you begin.

When I am working to get a little chunk off my dogs I begin with portion control and activity.  My dogs are fed two meals a day.  Only part of it comes from bowls (two of my dogs are on medication).  They rest they work for. In the morning they get partial rations.  A little of the kibble is scattered in the yard for them to hunt. Then they get the rest in toys meant to be stuffed with food. Read this for information on toys you can stuff with food. Different food games also helps meet a dog’s mental and behavioral needs.  Read this for more information on playing with food. I cut rations and replace with other foods.  Every night my dogs get a mixture of rice, green beans or peas (sometimes I use squash or pumpkin as a change), canned food and sometimes plain gelatin I mix in with the water or sodium free stock I make the rice with.  Make sure you use plain, unflavored gelatin because other types may have Xylitol which can be deadly to dogs.  A couple of times a week I make this mix and keep it refrigerated in a large container.  I do 2 cups of rice, 1/2-1 bag frozen vegetables, a can of dog food, a packet of gelatin.

I also account for things my dogs get to chew like bones.  When my dogs get natural bones I make sure I remove as much fat as possible  I adjust their meal intake on days they get things that are edible toys. Those nights their meal may only be the rice mixture and a find the kibble game with less kibble used.

A note on find the kibble games – if you have multiple dogs you may have issues with one dog getting more kibble than needed so keep an eye on your dogs. Watch for things like one dog watching where the others go and then forcing them away from the find. Alternatively give each dog a food releasing toy and supervise the activity or put them in separate rooms. 

Increased activity helps with weight loss.  If your pet is morbidly obese discuss an exercise program with your vet. Even if your dog is just a little pudgy, be careful when starting an exercise regiment, pushing too hard, too fast can cause damage.  Look for lower impact exercise options like swimming. Walk on sand or other softer surfaces.  Does your dog fetch?  Throw a ball up a hill (dogs tend to run faster after a ball and return slower – you want the faster run to be up the hill for increased safety).  Hide your dog’s kibble throughout the house and yard.  Use food releasing toys that encourage movement to eat.  Do sniff walks – put your dog on a long line (not a retractable lead) and allow him to roam around you, poke and sniff.

Finally track your pet’s weight loss.  This may mean weekly weight-ins at your vet.  You should not be charged for these if all you are doing is going in and using the scale.

Obesity is a problem with dogs in America.  However it is preventable and reversible.  Please do not take offense if a pet professional mentions your dog’s weight.  It is never nice to hear but for the health of our dogs, maintaining a healthy weight is important.

  • Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training
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Dog Trainer Google

This is an expanded version of a piece printed in Northern Virginia Today


Early on in my career I was helping moderate a dog information message board.  A woman came to the page wanting a fast and easy way to fix developing aggressions in one of her dogs towards another household dog. The owner complained about the cost of trainers which was why she was seeking internet advice.

Several of us explained why the dog needed to be worked with in person.  Unless we saw the dog, ethically all we could do was outline a management protocol to reduce the risk of incidents while working to locate someone to help her one on one.  That is when another person claiming to be a trainer chimed in and outlined a plan of behavioral action.  This is where trouble started.

The information given was old school and not science-based. The owner was told to put the dog on a long leash and every time she aggressed towards anything, let her run to the end and then yank hard while yelling “NO!”.  The owner was told to harshly show the dog the owner did not like what she was doing and had to stop.  Obviously the dog was stubborn and needed to be shown who called the shots in the house.

We all knew he dog would most likely develop worse behaviors even if there was the illusion of improvement. The dog may stop the outward signs of what the owner called aggression but the dog would still have issues.  What if the dog began associating the other dog with bad things coming and decided to really drive the dog away to keep herself safe? The owner was given articles from behaviorists regarding why certain methods of training worse aggressions. We located several trainers in her area. We prayed she would contact one of them for one on one work.  We even explained why one on one work in the home was vital.

A few months later the dog owner posted back with an update. She followed the free advice.  The worst case happened.  She corrected the dog for snarling at the other dog.  The growling and aggressing towards the other dog in the home stopped.  She assumed her dog was cured and knew not to go after the other dog. She let the dogs off leash together in the yard.  In a heartbeat there was a fight and the “cured” dog killed the other dog. The owner was furious with us for giving her bad advice.  We reminded her that many of us explained what needed to be done for management and we found trainers in her area to assist her.  We explained why what she was told by the other person was dangerous.  She chose to ignore us.

Another reason trainers cannot effectively work without seeing the dog is owners may miss things trainers will observe.  Here are a couple cases I worked with.

During a phone history, a client reported issues when she wanted to walk or play with her younger dog.  He was snarky and snappy during these times. During my initial evaluation I noticed something odd about the dog’s movement. I explained my concerns to the owner and asked her to have him checked before our next session.  The owner said she saw nothing concerning but followed up with her vet.  The vet discovered the dog had a luxating patella.  He was acting up because he was in pain.  Walks and play worsened the discomfort.

I was called regarding increasingly aggressive behavior between a younger dog and an older dog. The owner insisted it was not bad and I could fix it over a phone call. I convinced the owner to let me evaluate the situation in person. This is what I observed. The owner felt the younger dog was getting too rambunctious for the older dog.  The owner began using a shock fence to confine the younger dog to part of the yard.  If the younger dog followed the older dog across the yard, he got a shock.  The younger dog associated the older dog with pain.  He was trying to keep the older dog away. The owner had no idea the shock fence could lead to aggressions so did not tell me about it when I took an initial phone history.

Good trainers know the importance of first-hand evaluation. Even videos limits what we can do.  They show us some of the story but not enough.  Additionally, we cannot observe what you are doing for work if we are not working directly with you.  Yes, when we leave your house, or you leave our classes, we have no control over what you do.  However, during the times we are together we can get and give valuable feedback.

Just like a veterinarian cannot diagnose your pet without an exam and tests, anyone doing animal work ideally needs to see your critter first hand. When you see a problem arising, be responsible and get someone who can help you directly.


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Practice, keep those skills sharp

This was printed in a shorter version Northern Virginia Today and was published in April 2018.

dog holding a newspaper in mouth clipart

I was subbing in a fifth-grade class when a student asked me the time.  I suggested he check the clock above the door. The student informed me he could not read (analog) clocks.  This student has been in the school since Kindergarten.  I know telling time with an analog clock is taught there.  I have taught these lessons many times as a sub. I have used other skills kids knew to show them how to apply it to telling time: half and quarter circles for quarter, half, and three-quarter hours, counting by fives around the face then by ones to get to times like 3:48, etc.  By the time I was done with these lessons I was able to get most students able to correctly complete worksheets and play “Tell the time” games. I have even given assessments where analog clocks were a part.  I also learned why this student could no longer tell time with an analog clock.  I will get to that in a moment.

A parent with a child between my two in age and in the same school system complained to me how upset he was certain things were not being taught anymore. He had a laundry list of things he wanted the schools to teach.  Well my son graduated in 2017 and my daughter at the time of writing this is in middle school but taking one high school class in the mornings.  I got my hands on the curriculum (all online and easy to find) and shared the highlights with him. Based on the grade, this child had already covered many lessons Dad insisted he had not. I talked to my daughter who told me she learned many of the things the father insisted were not being taught when she was in 7th grade.  Since she is two years ahead of peers in math, she said the student would have gotten the lessons in 9th grade.   The father’s kid was in 11h grade. The rest of the topics would be covered the next school year. The more we talked the reason why the child could not do these basic skills that had already been taught became clear.

Let’s look closer at the two students and learn just why the issues happened.

The fifth-grader admitted to not using analog clocks outside class.  He passed the assessments and stopped using those skills.  His parents never had him use analog clocks outside of school.  He always used digital.  Once he passed assessments he did not think knowing how to use analog clocks was important.  Analog clocks are still in use in many areas.  I see them all the time in schools, hospitals, various buildings, etc.  Kids need to keep these skills sharp as they grow.

The father admitted he had no idea what the kid was learning so he was not able to reinforce practical lessons outside of school. He never checked the syllabi for his child’s classes.  He did not go to open house nights and listen to what was being covered that school year.  He did not go to parent-teacher conferences. He did not ask to look at homework, etc.  He had no idea what the kid was learning.  Therefore him attacking the schools was out of line.  Why?  He has NO idea what was going in.  I told him then he had no right to be able to spout off when it was HIS job to know what the child was doing in school and HIS job to make sure his child was able to apply lessons outside of class.

Now, I am not a perfect parent but I know the importance of practicing skills.  I also know the more work I do as a parent the easier it is for the schools.  Therefore, I worked with many lessons even before the kids were in the grades the skills would be taight.  Even in early elementary school we discussed budgets, taxes, how to calculate sales tax, the risks of credit cards, etc.  We practiced cursive writing.  Yes this is not taught to the level it was when I was a kid, but many teachers are trying to address cursive if time allows.  If not practiced, the kids will lose these skills.

It has been over 35 years since I played violin, I cannot play it now.  Why?  I lost those skills.  However, I can drive a car though it has been over thirty years since I took driver’s ed.  Why?  I drive almost every day. I am always using these skills.

Now apply this to dogs.

A former client called to complain about his untrained dog. The dog last saw me when he was about 16 weeks old.  It was now five years later. I encourage owners to keep practicing even when the dog appears to know what is expected.  Sadly, once the lessons are over I have no control over what owners practice, or not. When I asked questions, I learned the couple had not practiced leash skills for five years.  The dog forgot all his leash manners. The wife was told to start exercising for her health and decided to walk the now larger, adult dog.  She was pulled over.

Another client was not practicing between sessions and was upset her dog was not improving.  Not only that but she did not do the needed management of the environment to prevent the dog from performing these behaviors while we worked through them.  There is no way a dog can learn and retain the lessons if we are not doing the work.

A mistake many make is stopping all practice when behaviors have been given a few times with one or two cues.  A few sits the first time cued after a couple of sessions does not mean your dog knows what is expected and when.  Completing a course of training classes does not mean your dog is trained. This is the time we need to keep working.

Work the behaviors in to your daily routine. Determine how you want the behaviors molded into good manners such as not jumping for greetings. Take your dog to other places for quiet practice. Highly reinforce when the dog gives you the behavior when you did not ask.  Make sure you go back and refresh if you see the beginnings of the behaviors slipping.

My oldest dog is going to be 11 in May of 2018.  Even he gets lessons refreshed every now and then.  Yes, things he has been solid with for years we still brush up.  This is why he has remained solid with these behaviors for years.

The old saying “Practice makes perfect” is inaccurate because nothing is perfect.  However, practice helps keep needed skills in place and improving.  If you do not practice, refresh and apply needed skills to daily life, do not be shocked when the behaviors are not there when you need them.

Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training.

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Safety During Hunting Seasons

When I first wrote this, deer season was in full swing.  All over along the road side in areas of my county I would see the vehicles of hunters.  Many of us want to walk our dogs in the woods and may go where hunting is allowed.  During hunting seasons I often see stories shared of dogs shot by hunters or caught in leg hold traps. How can we be safer during hunting season?


Always remember safety is a two way street.  Let me make an analogy to cyclists.  No matter how safe car drivers attempt to be, if cyclists are being reckless they can compromise their safety.   It takes a couple seconds for even an alert driver to process and act on a situation.  Depending on road conditions, vehicle weight and speed it can take some distance for a vehicle to stop.  When cyclists run red lights and stop signs, dart into busy traffic, swerve dangerously around cars, cut off vehicles while making left turns, and fail to signal when they are turning, etc., cyclists increase their own risk. Cyclists need to take some responsibility for their safety.  Similarly, when we are out in areas where hunting and trapping is permitted during hunting season we need to work to increase our safety and that of our dogs.

Knowing hunting seasons and permitted hunting locations is the first step.  In Virginia check the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website.  https://www.dgif.virginia.gov   Click on “hunting” in the menu bar.  Some county websites also have hunting information specific to them.  Whenever possible it is best to avoid areas where hunting is permitted during hunting season.  Luckily in this region it is pretty easy to find alternative areas to walk. If you still choose to go into areas where hunting is allowed you need to take precautions.  

For readers who are not in Virginia, check your state Department of Fish and Game websites for hunting season information.

Though the majority of hunters try to recognize their target before firing, things may look different depending on environmental conditions.  When it is darker, foggy, lots of dense brush, etc., you and your dog’s appearance may be altered.  Then yes, there is the risk of a few less than responsible hunters.  Hunters who may be new, excited and a bit fast to fire, ones who are overtired or yes, those who may be under the influence of something may not be as aware of what they are firing at. If you go walking in areas where hunting is permitted you and your dog must be highly visible.

There is a reason hunters wear blaze orange, or should: it stands out.  Blaze orange clothing is easy to get.  Many stores carry various blaze orange clothing as does Amazon. Your dogs should be in a blaze orange jacket or at bare minimum a reflective orange collar.  Go all out with the orange!

You may want to let Sparky run loose in the woods.  What dog would not love a good romp amongst the trees, the ability to chase squirrels or bunnies?   It is best to keep your dog on leash during all walks.  There are leash laws in all National parks and Forests as well as in most counties.  Also your dog may be mistaken for animals such as a coyote.  Never hope a hunter will see you far behind your dog.  Do not use long lines or extending leads when walking in hunting areas for the same reason.  Dogs that are ranging out are at risk of being snared in traps.  Yes, many areas still permit their use.

I remember a furious rant by a dog owner whose dog was badly injured by a leg hold trap.  I asked her was she walking in an area where trapping was permitted.  Yes.  Was her dog off leash.  Yes.  So she was allowing her dog to be loose in an area with permitted trapping and she was angry at the trappers.  Her dog’s risk would have been reduced had be been on a six foot lead and/or had the owner chosen to walk in an areas where trapping was not allowed.  It is the owner’s responsibility to know what is allowed, when and where.  This dog owner knew she was letting him run loose in a trapping area during trapping season. Yes, there will always be some hunter or trapper who hunts or traps in areas where it is not allowed.  However, dog owners have the responsibility of knowing what is allowed, where, and when.

As dog owners we are ultimately responsible for the safety of our dogs and the safety of those around us.  If you like to be out in the woods with your dogs, take a few minutes and research different hunting laws and times where you live.


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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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