Buster goes to the Skatepark

Buster’s education continues.

Lunging and Barking

Buster has shown some “normal” herding behaviors. He is six months old and has lunged at and nipped, boys particularly. He went after a skateboarder recently and has also lunged at joggers on a narrow trail.

To correct these behaviors we want to work on getting him used to small, furry, fast-moving objects and teach him to have a thinking moment between the stimulation and his emotional autonomic reaction.

So we tried working in several environments that helped get him closer to the behavior we were wanting.

Then we moved on to the skate park. The skate park provides the stimulation required and allows us to use distance to manage the distraction intensity.

It is a relatively safe environment so that no one gets in trouble for being reactive. We don’t want him nipping anyone.

Boys sometimes think it is funny to tease the dog “by accident” getting closer and closer. So if you choose an open area, be very aware.

Here he is at the skate park. The boys are mostly in a cage so they are safe and so is Buster.

The fence provides us with a useful boundary, that we can use to move closer to or further away, to increase, or reduce, the intensity of the distraction.

I want to be clear to a casual viewer that I am moving in and out of the camera’s view as I increase the distance from the distraction and so reduce the intensity of Buster’s reaction to the stimulation. He “gathers himself” then we return closer to the distraction, I repeat this a couple of times. This way his performance improves. There is nothing magical happening out of camera shot.

There is no point staying so close to the distraction when he is lunging and barking.

I am frequently asked “What should I do when he lunges and barks” and the answer is “Absolutely nothing you say or do at that moment will change the behavior right then.

Why don’t I correct him?

I limit my communication to a serious voice tone, and the word “No” to describe the behavior that I don’t want. It is not intended as a correction, it is not very loud, it is firm. I do not expect the behavior to change right then, I am simply labelling inappropriate performance.

Not that, this!

Concentrating on marking and rewarding the behavior I prefer, even an approximation will elicit a reward at first then I fine tune the performance by rewarding only the improvement.

No amount of yelling, bullying or jerking on the leash or collar will change anything for the better.

You just become part of the problem. The behavior itself is so rewarding that we are reinforcing the behavior just by experiencing it.

If we get “excited” we also show our dog that “it” is worth getting excited about, as the only thing that changed was the new addition to the environment.

Most of the time the dog does not understand that it is his behavior that you are getting distressed over!

If we add anxiety, fear, stress or anger to the equation the performance will get worse not better.

Any physical correction does not teach the dog not to do the behavior or learn to cope, it will be a withdrawal of trust from the Emotional Bank Account. Even if you see some improvement in behavior it is not because the dog has learned a new skill, it has learned to fear you. The challenge with that acquisition is that it depends on you being there, the leash being on, the collar being on and your close enough to administer the punishment.

If you think about the effectiveness of speed limits. How many people exceed the speed limits? They know that if the policeman is not there they can speed and frequently do. If the policeman is there then they don’t speed. And they will probably look for the policeman next time they are in that particular place. But they don’t generalize it to don’t speed anywhere. If they get stopped for speeding they get mad at the policeman. The punishment is not consistent, not timely, and not effective in changing habitual and rewarding behavior. If they speed ten times in a row and don’t get caught then they are rewarded ten times. In effect the sense of heightened risk releases endorphins and chemically rewards the risk taking behavior.

The goal of this skill acquisition training is to teach the dog that the things that previously stimulated it can be tolerated easily with no negative consequences and in fact there are rewards for building coping mechanisms. This is termed systematic progressive desensitization. This is followed by counter-conditioning, where Buster actually welcomes the distraction that previously startled him, you can see this in the last few frames of the video where he looks at the skateboarder in the pipe and then looks back at me with a calm happy face and a soft relaxed down.  This acquisition of a coping skill is really important when a dog is not necessarily going to be closely supervised ( and who wants to have to do that for the dog’s lifetime?) It builds advanced performance and mutual trust.

So increase distance and reduce the stimulation, gather your big boy’s head and try again carefully, trying not to exceed his threshold.

If you watch Buster carefully you will see that he is still quite excited at first and his movements are hectic, his taking treats is very fast, a little ADD. He is very close to his threshold at first and working at this level of stimulation takes experience to make sure that the learning is both appropriate and intentional! You will see his ability improves dramatically as we continue working on the distraction.

If you work at a lower intensity you will achieve the same result, just a little slower.

It might take a couple of visits.

So if in doubt lower the level of distraction, increase the distance and work with his behaviors there. He will get better.

The skaters  in the park focus on enhancing their skills, a slightly OCD behavior, so their attention is inside the fence not outside. There is very little eye contact to concern Buster.

There is no point trying to work on this high level distraction until your dog has a foundation of training in “sit”, “down”, “stay” and “stop” in other less distracting environments.

I recommend some successful repetitions in gradually increasing intensity of distractions and different environments.

You don’t want him thinking that it only is important at the skate park. So this is advanced training, not basic training.


Punishment is NOT the answer.

It is not about correcting or punishing him for wrong behavior, this is his natural emotional reaction to stimulation, his quick reactions are ones that we have carefully and selectively bred into the breed for hundreds of years to make a good herding dog. Now we want him as a household pet and to not herd the children or their friends.

So we want to train a thinking moment between the stimulation and the reaction and would like him to decide to override his automatic response with a calm self-controlled behavior.

Be very careful not to raise anxiety.

Do not add stress, fear or anger to the equation. In your dog or you.

Any increase in emotional response will hijack the decision-making process in humans and dogs. Think “road rage!”

Even when people think punishment is working it is rarely leading to a long-term permanent change in behavior.

Please, don’t do it!

Things to watch for

As you watch the video, pay attention to voice cues, (I am telling him what is ok and what is not ok) watch for hand cues that help him understand what I am looking for, listen for the clicker. Pay attention to the timing, it is very precise, I am marking the behavior we want for the long-term and especially watch how fast Buster learns and internalizes the new performance.

Dog reactive dogs and leash aggression.

If your dog is dog reactive, this clip will also be helpful to you. Just substitute a dog park with dogs inside for the skate park.

I just got a rescued dog – what do I do?

Safe and Caring Introduction

of a “new to you” rescued or shelter dog

into your home.



You are the parent, do whatever it takes to make it a success.

Parenting is not a popularity contest.

Be wise, set the dog up for success, do not overwhelm the dog or allow the dog to get into trouble because it does not know what you expect.

Reduce the stress as much as possible and allow the dog to become integrated into the environment, your home, your family and the neighborhood.

This is not compulsory, however it is the result of years of revolving door rescues and rehabilitation and the experience gained from making lots and lots of mistakes, some of them more than once!

I did mess up, sometimes in a big and scary way. I laughed when I heard someone remark recently that if you are in rescue you must have easygoing dogs! The truth is that we most frequently end up with the dogs no-one else wants. Mostly for very good reasons!  They were not bad dogs, they just needed someone patient enough to see them right. Young puppies, pissy teenagers and sick and angry dogs. I have the scars to prove it. I have loved old geriatrics, dogs no one else thought were redeemable or worth saving and many dogs who would never have made it to the adoptable list.

Now I share this accumulated wisdom with you so you don’t have to make the same mistakes with your new rescued dog.

If you are someone who can’t learn from other people’s mistakes, you have to make them all yourself, then go for it.

Just don’t blame the dog!

(Also bear in mind that if it turns into a dogfight with your existing dog because your new dog is unfamiliar with the environment, you did not do the work to ease the transition and your dog is playing ” I’m Lord of This Manor” with a little anxiety with the intruder don’t blame either of them!)

With or without other dogs present in the environment the first few weeks are often a stressful and difficult time for the new dog as everything around him changes again.

So here, with apologies to all my rescued dogs for the mistakes I made and grateful appreciation for the lessons I have learned, is a pocket guide to bringing your dog home.

Has he ever even been indoors?

10am and 108′ in the shade! Here is a dog who I don’t think had ever seen a house from the inside, he was so shy of people and very timid around other dogs.

He would not come in through a doorway voluntarily, for weeks. I clipped him on a  20 foot lunge line when I took him outside for potty breaks, worried that he might be a fence jumper in his anxiety, even when the other dogs were going in and out. Then one day he did come in on his own, tentatively darting in and having a quick look round and darting out.

Then one day he came in and sat on the dog bed.

It can be a quick change or a drawn out process!

After Rehabilitation, what a happy dog!

You frequently don’t get to choose, just try to be part of the solution not part of the problem!

Is he even remotely house trained?


If a dog has been a yard dog, kenneled in a yard kennel with poor hygiene or maintenance, on a chain, a stray or living in a shelter for a while, maybe there has been no potty instruction at all, maybe even forced to potty where he lived and slept. This can habituate them to soiling, turn them in to poop eaters or completely the opposite can make them avoid poop with a disgusted look on their face wherever they come across it!

Again, you don’t get to choose!

Take the dog as he is.

Train him for the habits that work for you and your home.

After – Run! Play! Wear yourselves out!

Several dogs we rescued were living in a fenced enclosure attached to a derelict trailer, they lived in the yard but used the trailer as the toilet! Piles of dog shit spaced six inches apart covered the floor of the trailer. Imagine his confusion when he came into a proper home!

Shelters as petri dishes for bugs.

Warm, frequently wet environment with stressed immuno compromised sick animals arriving daily? Perfect!

Is he on medication? Has he just been fixed?

Marcus. Arrives by transport after his neuter op at the shelter. They took him straight out of the operation and put him in a dirty wet kennel for three days. The wound was infected and the infection is just starting to rage. Off to the vet with you my boy!

Don’t be surprised if he arrives with a bladder infection or an upset stomach. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t pee or poop for a couple of days.

Stress does that too.

I have had dogs who won’t look at food, let alone eat, for five days straight, when they arrive.

Stress does that too.

One of my rescued dogs came from a shelter with a wedge of treatment papers over a year, nearly two inches thick, detailing persistent and repeated treatment (mostly antibiotics but de-worming almost monthly as well) for loose stools.

Stress does that to people too!

Don’t be surprised if he poops or pees right in the middle of the kitchen! Maybe he has diarrhea. Maybe he is constipated. He is not a bad dog. It is just shit. Shit happens.

“Train something different” might mean take him out for a potty break as if he was a four month old puppy, every twenty minutes if necessary, whatever it takes!

Has he ever been crated?

Content! Not sad!

Now is a great time to teach him that he has a safe den, a refuge from the chaos that is a normal home. Somewhere comfortable, warm and dry to rest and sleep and eat his meals without being disturbed. A den should be a place of rest. This is intended to be used wisely as part of a structured introduction, not as an excuse or reason to ignore your dog. This is not isolation or punishment.

If you set up a timetable that fits in with your normal routines but adds sensible and regular exercise, regular feeding at the same time every day, time for grooming, petting, massage, and some “down time” during the day you can very quickly have a dog who gets the picture that there are times for work, rest and play.

This will very quickly allow you to go to the store for groceries, spend a couple of hours at your computer or go see a football game at the high school without your dog having a panic attack and destroying your drapes, disemboweling the throw pillows off your sofa or digging and chewing a hole in the wall of your house looking for an imaginary rat.

It also will mean that when you want to do meditation or yoga he is not trying to hump you, or biting your wrists, to get you to play. Just being a dog!

The crate can be in the kitchen or family room during the day if that is where you spend most of your time, somewhere where he gets to observe from a safe distance the comings and goings, the relationships between the members of his new pack. He will observe your relationship with your family members and your spouse, and other dogs, cats and birds for example.

You can have another comfortable crate in the office if you work from home, then he can be lying by you inside the crate. Even one outside in the yard for when you are pottering around in the yard if you are a gardener or just like to sit on the deck watching the birds he can get used to lying calmly not digging up your drip irrigation system behind you.

Another accessory that can really help and can be used instead of, or as a supplement to, the crate for some of these scenarios, is a three foot leash attached to a strong leather belt around your waist. You need to be hands free as you do your chores and also you don’t want to be using the leash for correction at all. Taking that into account the purpose is just for the dog to follow you around for a while and get used to you doing normal stuff! Stopping when you stop, going when you go. Don’t pay a whole heap of attention to the dog, you might make him nervous, you can praise him gently when he does something you like and label the behavior when he is doing it. “Stand still”, “This way”, “Stop”, “Let’s Go”, “Where’s Timmy?” whatever you think is useful for the rest of his life. If he sits, say “sit”, wait a second, then praise “good boy”, if he lies down, say “down”, wait a second, then praise, “good boy”.   Be consistent. Don’t be telling him “sit” when he is standing, or “down” when he is jumping on you! You get the picture?

Practicing calmness – time to add labels to the behavior.

This protocol is not for ever, but it can be. If you get used to it and your dog becomes accustomed to a nice clear structure, rituals and routines you may find you prefer to continue for a while.

Set him up for success.

Maybe your new rescued dog is the one in a million who is happy go lucky and just fits in straight away? The perfect dog from day one?

Here is the thing, it is so much easier for you, less stress, less conflict, more joy to do this protocol and coach the habits and behaviors you want now than it is to come back and try and correct stuff later, so why not make it easy for him and set him up for success rather than failure.

Remember this is my work as well as my passion. It is what I get paid for, trust me on this!

Remember also that the goal is a happy, healthy, relaxed dog with whom you can build a long term loving relationship. Don’t rush it.

This is a gentle, caring, loving introduction to your home and family. You can continue for as long as you feel it takes your dog to settle in to your home. My recommendation is for at least three weeks, most dogs will come out of their shell in three weeks, you will find the dog settles into the routine and so will you. You will know the dogs tendencies and sensitivities, what needs work and what you are happy with.

However there is no harm in continuing for a longer period!

You are taking care of all the dogs essential needs, he is starting to feel secure in his home. He has a special safe place, can start to predict certain things, walks and playtime the same time every day, regular nutritious meals, a loving affectionate parent who is not stressed or unpredictably angry for inexplicable reasons. He is not overwhelmed, he can learn and adapt at his own pace. Trust grows.

I have had dogs who take six months or more to settle in, or who have attitudes that need adjusting and who need to be kept safe while the training and rehabilitation is in process.

PS. I have seen a protocol called a “two week shutdown” several websites promote. Some rescues insist on it for all adopters. There seems to be some debate over it’s worth. Some people swear by it, some people swear at it.

I don’t see the benefit in any form of isolation, the feeling of abandonment and separation from the pack is probably in my view one of the most painful and emotionally punishing ways to distress a dog, a pack animal.

Do not isolate the dog in the back yard, or the laundry room, or the spare bedroom either. Spend loving time growing your new dog to be the best he can be.