Archives for posts with tag: Dog Smart: The Art of Training Your Dog

Wasn’t that part of an old commercial?  For us, how about is it dog training yet?  Does the dog, in other words, view what you are doing as work or as some sort of trick he can do when he feels like it?

Take a pill

Years ago I taught an intensive week-long graduate course in mystery writing at Manhattanville College and one of the most talented members of the class, a retired police officer, came for a conference with me about his writing.  Who’s your agent, he wanted to know.  Ha ha ha.  You’re not ready for an agent, I told him.  But but but – what he really wanted was my agent’s name.  What I really wanted was for him to take his writing seriously, to make it his job.  The technical problems he had could be overcome.  The fact that he didn’t consider writing to be his work could not, unless he began to view it differently.

OK, back to dogs.  The way I see it, most dogs are free, more or less, to do as they please for about 95 percent of the time.  For about 5 percent of the time, they may be asked to do your bidding AND if that is not their job, if that is not serious, if that is a trick and not dog training, they may or may not obey.  (OMG, politically incorrect!)  And when, for instance, a dog does not drop immediately when he gets an emergency down command, he may continue on the path he was taking which will lead him into traffic.

Ignoring bad behavior, some of which is self reinforcing so that the dog doesn’t give a hoot if you ignore him, or turning your back on bad behavior will not create a dog who listens when there is an emergency you understand but he doesn’t.  When you wouldn’t raise a child without saying NO sometimes, and if you did, God help us all, why would you raise a dog that way?

Saying NO is not abuse, it’s communication.  It’s clarity.  It can be life saving.  It can offer a dog an opportunity to see his training as his job.  Not that, this.  Good dog!


No matter the weather, my dog and I hike every day.  I almost never ask anything of her unless, for fun, I am teaching her something new.  I often ask her which way she’d like to go and follow behind her.  We have games she loves that we play on our way to the gym where I swim.  Her life is full of work she understands and loves, learning, play, rest, more play, kisses and great food.  But once in a while, when she’s being annoying (yup) or perhaps headed for danger, I give her a command and I expect her to obey it promptly without thinking over whether or not she should.

Had my Golden Retriever, Oliver, thought over the Down command on the two occasions when it saved his life, well, there only would have been one of those occasions.

Watch your dog’s eyes when you are working him.  Is he looking at you, waiting for a signal?  Is he waiting to see how many times he can get you to say a command before he obeys? Does he have an irresistible itch right when you say Come?  Is it soup yet?






Years ago, when I began dog training, Manhattan was full of trained dogs.  After all, you had to ride in an elevator with your dog and sometimes he wasn’t the only dog there.  You had to navigate streets full of people and other dogs.  You lived in an apartment where other dogs passed your door on their way home.  And you took your dog to the bank, the dry cleaner, the hardware store and to lunch at outdoor cafes.  So logic would have it that your dog needed really good manners, that he’d hardly ever misbehave.


Now I see people feeding their dogs.  Make a poop, have a treat.  Sit at the curb, here’s a cookie. Don’t jump up and try to steal food off the table at an outdoor cafe, here’s some other food instead.  But I don’t see trained dogs.  I see dogs looking at food pouches or pockets, not at the clues and emotions in their person’s face.  I see dogs who do not know how to work and I wonder, what happened to all those horrible, cruel trainers of yesteryear who turned out such happy, secure, well-behaved dogs, dogs who could be off leash in Central Park and come back when called, dogs who knew how to stitch together commands that made sense in context so that they weren’t just obeying, they were working.

Dog training, at its best, is a meeting of two minds.

Both photos from "Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?"

Both photos from “Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?”

Think about it – it is the meeting of two minds of two different species.  And it works.  It can be accomplished.   Start with your new puppy by walking around the house, asking your dog to follow you.  Use your voice to entice.  Use your body language.  Be inviting.  If your dog is older, a teen or an adult, add a leash and take the exercise out of doors.  From this gentle, good beginning, your dog learns to pay attention to you, to follow your lead, to watch your face and body language, to want to be with you, to be near you, for the pleasure of this relationship.  And take it from there.

Gadget-free dog training.  A meeting of two minds.  Where it’s at, folks.  Where it’s at.


If you take the information you have about dogs, imagine it as an onion, and start peeling, you will eventually come to “survival” as the root cause for just about everything.  Does your dog do something puzzling, something you can’t understand?  Perhaps it’s connected to staying alive, the way he managed to cope with the anxiety of an imperfect first home before getting a forever and better home. Perhaps it’s a twist on an old theme, protecting food or territory.  Maybe it has to do with keeping warm enough.  Or perhaps it’s the reason that, in most cases, bitches rule, because in order for the species to survive, a mother needs enough power to protect her pups.

Here’s what I have noticed and I would be remiss not to note that it is peculiar, to say the least.  In the house, bitches rule.  Out of doors, the bitch defers to the dog, letting him appear to be in charge.  Well, when you think about it, who cares what happens out of doors!  Once the puppies are old enough to go along on walks, they are eating the same food the adults eat.  The male has adjusted to having six or eight interlopers in his territory.  The bitch has weaned the pups and while she will keep a watchful eye over them as long as they are living with her – even if one stays forever – she is less frantic about it because they are less vulnerable.  But while the puppies are helpless, the bitch determines who comes close and who doesn’t.  And the power she is able to exert at that time stays with her.  Who knows, she might need to practice her skills by making sure she can have any resource she desires.  It’s kind of a version of “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” but with dogs.



I began drawing cartoons when I was a teacher, using a rabbit to express the feelings of the high school kids in my classes.  On a day when I was giving a test, I’d come in, plop my books down on the desk and draw a rabbit on the blackboard.  He might be lying on his back, holding a daisy, his eyes little crosses to show he’d died.  Or he might look worried and the balloon over his head would say, Oh, no, I forgot to study.  After a while, I began to put the rabbit right on the test and one morning when I was late and forgot the rabbit, the kids went on strike.  They wouldn’t take the test until I drew the rabbit on the board.

It was easy to see the power of cartoons, particularly ones that showed emotions not always that evident in “real life.”  But there was something else going on.  Because the rabbit stood alone against a plain background, because there were no extraneous distractions, the message was always clear and memorable.  More than that, it was funny, and humor, I discovered, is a great teaching tool.


It was natural to continue cartooning when I became a dog trainer and began to write articles and books about dogs. Here was a way to show the foibles of the human in a memorable and non-insulting way.  Here was a way to show the emotion a dog might be feeling to give the information more punch.  Here was a way to avoid the distraction of everything else that would be in a photo, things that had nothing to do with what I needed to say.  And here was a way to let the image do the talking – to remind dog owners, say, that a leash should be loose, not tight, by drawing it that way.  Or not. All the better when I made myself the human who was doing everything wrong.


The interesting thing about graphic presentation is that it requires a different kind of engagement from the reader.  It is more like a brain game, a game in which you need to see the elements in the drawing, the distractions the dog must ignore, the loose curve of the leash, the simple buckle collar, the body language of dog and human or dog and dog, the connections between species – mental, physical and emotional, the shared affection – now made visible in “art,” the humor involved in raising and training a dog, and the love, all clear if you take a moment to look.




Many years ago, when a friend got a Whippet, I set up a challenge to myself.  I planned an article for my column in the AKC Gazette called “How to Train a Whippet.”  The thing is, I had never been asked to train a Whippet.  Was this a problem?  I wasn’t sure.

Of course I started by reading and re-reading the breed standard, the blueprint for making the dog.  And then I interviewed as many Whippet people as I could.  I backed up and thought about not only the breed, but the group the breed was in.  And then I studied and thought about the body of the Whippet, because the body of the dog will give you an enormous amount of information about who inhabits such a body, about potential abilities, likes, dislikes. And then I read the breed standard again.  And again.

I did a lot of my interviews at Westminster.  Because it is a benched show, I had access to nearly everyone who was showing a Whippet.  And before you jump down my throat, as some of you are already dying to do, if you know how to interview, you can get the answers you need.  Period.  It didn’t matter that some of the people I spoke with did not live with a Whippet.  It didn’t matter that some of them only trained their Whippet for the show ring.  What did matter – good to know if you are looking for a new breed for yourself – is that I first asked “What are the (insert any number) best things about the Whippet?” and then let them talk for as long as they wanted to.  And then I asked, “What characteristics of the Whippet might be difficult for an inexperienced owner?”  And, happily, because I’d let people tell me all the things that were wonderful about the breed, they were very forthcoming about what might be a problem.  During one of the interviews, I had a Whippet asleep on my lap.  And that also told me a lot of what I needed to know.

Does breed matter?  Indeed it does.  Training a Whippet is not like training a Beagle or a Mastiff or a Border collie.  Training any dog means first understanding who he is and who he isn’t, how he moves, how he plays, whether or not he hunts and if so how, what he was bred for in the first place, what he feels like to your fingers, how sensitive he is, how he feels about his person.  Why just yesterday, a very nice man walking along West 23rd Street in New York City, where I was walking with my Border collie, Sky, asked if he were a Border collie.  “Yes, she is,” I replied.  “I can see,” he said.  “She’s herding.”  I smiled and continued on my way, not in the mood to tell a stranger something he probably didn’t want to know in the first place.  Sky was not herding me or anyone else.  In fact, what I saw as we headed home was not “eye” but tail as she used her sweet pointy nose as a wedge to cut through the humanity out walking on a beautiful day and make room for us to walk at her preferred speed and not just meander with the crowd.

So the lesson is, don’t stop at the most obvious fact you learn – Border collies herd.  Instead, dig deep.  I wrote my column and got more positive response than I expected, including a letter from a Whippet breeder in Florida who wrote, “Dear Carol, You must have been hiding in the bushes while I was training my dogs…”

Breed matters.  Studying the blueprint, the history, the body, then carefully observing the individual, always prepared to be surprised as you find out more and more about your best friend, your student, your sidekick.  The secret to training many, many breeds, as professionals are asked to do, is to do your homework and then allow the dog to fill in the blanks.  After you learn all you can, approach the dog empty, being open to what he can teach you before you jump in and start to teach him.  Individuals differ, but so do breeds, and that’s important to know before you begin to train.

I still have never trained a Whippet, but I feel the research I did and the observations I made would make a good beginning for a friendship that would lead to mutual education.  The better you understand your student, the deeper the friendship will be and the more he will be able to learn and to teach you back.  But don’t forget that generous praise…

Drawing from DOG SMART, The Art of Training Your Dog

Drawing from DOG SMART, The Art of Training Your Dog


Some people think they should wait until a pup is half grown to begin training.  But the time you miss is still training time for puppy.  He’s learning every day: that when you pick up his leash, it means he’s going out, that when you are not looking, he can grab a tasty shoe or have an “accident” on the rug, that “no” means “no,” or that it doesn’t.  He begins his education the moment he comes home, so best if you jump in early and get him started on the right track.  That’s a lot easier than changing his opinion later on.

What’s first?  A “Follow Me” game.  You want your puppy focused on you.  That focus helps create the bond that makes living with a dog not only delicious, but makes training easier and life with your dog more rewarding.  So, take a walk, in your house, and entice your pup to follow.  You will not need to use a leash and pup does not even need to be wearing a collar.  Just walk from room to room (or back and forth if you live in a studio apartment) and see if the puppy follows along.  If not, if he starts and stops, if he gets distracted along the way, no problem.  You can whistle, chirp, call him by name, sing “puppy, puppy, puppy, GOOD puppy.”  You can carry a little squeak toy and give a squeak when something else catches the pup’s attention.  You can move faster.  You can flop to the floor and let puppy catch you for kisses.  All in all, a few minutes is plenty, but try this game a few times a day.  This simple activity will teach the pup to keep his eye on you, a necessity before you teach anything else.

A simple game or teaching one new command, working for five minutes or less at a time at first, may tire out a little pup.  Working his mind will tire him more quickly than working his body and it’s just as important.


To help your new pup become more focused, more bonded to you, easier to train and smarter, a little game of follow the leader will do the trick.

Where do we go from there?  Easy.  I’ve got you covered.






Is the best reward for a dog’s good behavior a tidbit?  A pat?  A kiss on top of his head?  A sincere, “Good dog”?  A sigh?  Going out for a hike with you? The chance to sleep in your bed?  The fun of doing something whether it pleases you or not?  Yes.

If this all seems confusing, if you’d prefer one definitive answer, well, there is none.  Not on this blog.  Not in real life.  Dogs are complex, intuitive, thinking beings and they will all happily accept the rewards you offer and also invent and intuit some of their own.  So keep some things in mind as you work with and live with and love your dog.

Your dog’s mother gave him the absolutely most powerful rewards any dog was ever given.  Her teaching, much of it aimed at his safety, was precise, thoughtful, effective and humane and was almost always a done deal in one shot.  Your dog’s mother never gave or withheld food as a learning tool.  Instead, she rewarded him with a lick, a sound, her pleasure.  Translating the lick to a pat, these tools are available for teachers of another species to use.  Still, tidbits have a use – in animating a dog during trick training, to encourage a dog who is fearful out of doors, for teaching a dog to play catch and other games.  For the basics, I prefer to work as my dog’s mother did, with posture, voice, changes in breathing patterns, petting.  This keeps my dog’s focus on our relationship rather than on a disposable reward anyone could give her.

If your dog is doing something you don’t want her to do, say, barking on and on at the door, and you choose to extinguish that behavior by ignoring it, as is sometimes advised, please keep in mind that some of the behaviors we find annoying dogs find pleasurable.  And when that’s true, when the behavior you dislike is self rewarding, you can ignore it until the cows come home without extinguishing it.  Better to offer a replacement behavior and reinforce that with praise, a favorite game, a pat on the head.  Allowing behavior approves of behavior – so if you want to stop a bad habit, replace it with a good one.

Training in a way that leans on the bond you and your dog form with each other increases that bond.  So you can not only reward your dog with a long hike, you can train your dog on a long hike.  What better way to teach than to integrate the work with your daily life – practice the sit when ready to put down the food bowl, practice on, over, under, off using the benches in your local park.  Teach your dog to be attentive by signaling him with a hand or a nod of your head which way you wish to go when there’s a fork in the road.  Offer a great variety of venues for your adventures together and to make sure your dog will pay attention when you need him to, practice what he knows and teach new things in all those venues.

A reward is anything your dog enjoys – a word to the wise: even barking at the door.  By watching your dog and seeing what animates her, what pleases her, what she understands, and what keeps her mind on the job at hand, you can add variety not only to your training venues but to your rewards, telling her “Good dog,” when she’s some distance away, petting when she is close by, sighing with pleasure when she’s really close.


When I was leaving the High Line the other day after a cold but lovely walk with my service dog, Sky, someone called out to me, “Pretty dog!”  I hear this all the time, maybe because in places where pet dogs are not allowed, Sky is the only dog there.  Maybe it happens because when the bright, winter sun hits her coat, you can see how thick and shiny it is.  Maybe it’s because she’s so attentive, so present in the moment.  And maybe it’s just because she’s a really pretty little dog.


As a trainer, my favorite moment was always the moment when the dog got it, when he understood, for the first time in his life, that words had meaning, that they had consequences, that understanding words was a reward unto itself.  At that moment, the dog’s face would change, and if you were looking, and if you were training that dog you were surely looking, you couldn’t miss it.  Nothing was taken away – ever.  The trained dog does not lose the desire to play, the urge to be silly, his love of a good joke, his energy, his spirit.  What happens is that the trained dog gains something, something beautiful.  The new knowledge, the sudden understanding, the key to being a good and happy companion, those are all visible in the dog’s face.  There’s the aha moment.  There’s attentiveness.  There’s curiosity.  There’s the desire to learn more.  And there’s serenity, the “I got it!” kind.  To me, that was the moment, the reason that dog training was endlessly fascinating and totally rewarding.  And at that very moment, that dog, any dog “getting it,” becomes more beautiful.  No matter what he looked like before, the aha moment makes the dog pretty.  And the more he learns, the prettier he gets.

Pretty is herding sheep, fetching a downed duck, finding a lost child.  Pretty is understanding a partnership and keeping a loving, attentive eye on your person.  Pretty is being gentle with a child, coming when called, understanding the meaning of wait, down, good dog.  Pretty is as pretty does.  What have you taught your dog lately?




Dexter was nearly a blank slate when he came home to live with me so many years ago.  Of course he had inherited traits from his parents, but because he was dumped at the side of a busy road, along with four litter mates, at three weeks of age, he didn’t have his mother with him to teach him the important lessons he needed to learn in order to live a good, happy and productive life.  And because he was at the ASPCA for the next three weeks, it’s unlikely anyone had the time to work with him, to carry him around, to roll a ball for him to pounce on, to give him a name.  While other dogs his age, luckier dogs, were getting enrichment, he wasn’t getting much.  But fortunately, he wasn’t alone.  He had his litter mates with him.  And unfortunately, someone had given the pups even more company.  Another litter was in the same cage, and they were all sick.

Once Dexter came home with me, initially as a foster dog because he was too young to adopt, and once we got rid of the infection he has picked up from the other puppies, two things happened.  First, my German Shepherd, Scarlet, decided that she must have given birth, because, lo and behold, there was a puppy in the house.  Scarlet began to take care of Dexter and to teach him the things his mother would have taught him, to pay attention to his elders, both human and canine, to play gently, to follow her wherever she went and, of course, to worship and adore her.  And second, I had Dexter in a safe area in my office and would stop writing whenever he woke up and work and play with him.  At first, he couldn’t track a ball rolled five inches.  But then he could.  And then if I rolled it under something or tossed it over something, Dexter would know how to find it.  He learned his name quickly and learned to follow me as I called Puppy, Puppy, Puppy and walked around the house.  He learned to sit before I put down his bowl and to lie down when I patted the floor.  He learned to listen to words.  He began to learn to think.

When we went out, I put him in my jacket and zipped it up so that only his face was showing and that way, with Dexter listening to the beat of my heart, we went everywhere.  He was too young to put down for the first couple of weeks, but at an arts and crafts fair, a nice lady put down a section of The Times for him – which he made good use of – and then took off her lovely bracelet and gave it to him to play with.  From the safety of my jacket, Dexter saw and heard the world.  And so when it was time for his tiny feet to hit the pavement, he was a city dog, raring to go.

The nice folks at the A, as it is called, said he was part Jack Russell or part Smooth Fox Terrier and that he’d grow up to be a 15 pound dog.  All my dog trainer friends agreed, 15 pounds, maybe 18 pounds.  He gained two pounds a week, growing bigger and stronger and smarter every day.  In the end, he weighed 84 pounds and though we were surprised, we loved every single one of them.

As he matured, I continued teaching him, new words, new games, some tricks, all the basics and then some.  But he has some tricks of his own up his sleeve.  Dexter knew when I was in pain, something that happened too frequently because I have Crohn’s disease, and he knew exactly what to do when that happened.  He would lie next to me, pressing tight against me, the furnace-like heat of those 84 pounds soothing the pain away and his presence helping me to release the good chemistry that chases away pain.  Eventually, Dexter became my service dog, the first ever for Crohn’s disease.

As I continued to teach Dexter new things, some for fun, some because we needed them for his job, he became more and more capable of learning, a far cry from the nearly blank little puppy I’d adopted.  Teaching a dog gently and slowly, adding activities, games, commands, words for everything, hand signals, whistle signals, anything interesting you can think of will expand his mind and make him a better companion and a more interesting friend.  And paying attention to what he knows on his own and to what he is doing, will do the same for you.  Beyond that, the message is clear.  If you rescue a dog, he will rescue you right back.  And amen to that.

Do you have a new pup you’d like to train to sit on command, come when called, play with her toys and not your shoes?  Do you have a rescue dog with issues?  He’s destructive, doesn’t come, pulls on the leash?  Do you have a pretty good dog you’d like to teach some games or tricks and aren’t sure how to go about it?  Are you wondering, can I get help from a training book?

Like any good course, a good dog training book should be organized so that if you start at the beginning and do all the suggested exercises, you will end up with a trained dog.  It should start with some basics, how to get your dog’s attention, how to understand your dog’s natural language, how to communicate in a way your dog will understand, how to begin training in a way that is kind yet effective, sort of the way a mother dog teaches her pups.

Along the way, as your dog learns to pay attention to your words and your body language, as the two of you come to a closer understanding and form a tighter bond, you will be able to teach more complex things and your dog will be able to understand and deliver what you want.  Little by little, your dog should go from understanding separate words to being able to work, to seam together a series of behaviors and to execute them accurately and with pride.  He should know when you are pleased not only because you say so, but because his attention is on you and understanding how you feel is an inate skill, passed down to his kind for all of their history.  And in the end, you might add to the commands you use for safety’s sake.  You might teach some games and use them not only to exercise your dog’s mind and body, but for mutual fun.  You might even teach some tricks, because, well, why not?  Your dog will love amazing people and making them laugh.  And you will love being part of that.

But suppose you only want the tricks?  Or you only want your dog to come when called when he is off leash?  Or you only want to teach your dog not to nip and so you skip to this part or that?  A training course is built on a foundation.  The step by step instructions build more than a command, they build a relationship.  They build the ability to think, to work, to have self control and patience, to listen and understand.  So if you only want the tricks or the come off leash or the not nipping, you must still start at the beginning and do the work that will make those things doable, that will make you a successful trainer and your dog a successful student.

Yes, if you use a training book the way it was meant to be used, you will be able to use it to train your dog.  If you are very experienced, you may go quickly through the initial chapters.  Perhaps your dog already knows all those things.  Perhaps he is already very attentive.  But if not, if you don’t have the foundation you need, it would be like skipping a few steps in a recipe, expecting beautiful cupcakes to come out of the oven anyway.

Readers are commenting:

“Simple, straight-forward instructions for making your life and your dog’s life more enjoyable.”  Richard

“Quick and crystal clear!”  Cassi

“Year in and year out, Carol’s are the books that break it down in a way that’s sure to better the lives of you and your dog.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.  And I doubt it ever will.”  Gina

“Carol Benjamin has managed to regale the reader with a feast of delicious drawings brimming with humor, intelligence and wisdom.  Who would NOT want to join in the fun of becoming ‘dog smart’?  Maxine

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