Itza Rion Kennels

Canine Philosophy 101

by Brenda "Rion" Sewell

Gideon over the broad jump and retrieving over the high jump.

Pack Behavior
Tempering a Puppy's Bite
Working Out the Quirks
    Scared of the Vacuum
    Afraid of Thunderstorms
    Watch Me!!
Trickery Works Wonders
    Stealing Food from the Countertop
    Over Protective of Food Bowl

What is an Obedience Title Really?

Someone once told me, training a dog just takes too much time. I say .. an hour or two of training now will last the lifetime of the dog. Do you really want to spend the next ten to twelve years living with a dog with bad habits? The old saying, "A stitch in time saves nine." is so true when dealing with dogs. By teaching a puppy now to NOT bite the hand that feeds him, is  more agreeable than living with a dog that snips at you every chance he gets for the next ten years.

In working with dogs for over thirty years, in learning from other trainers, my method of training dogs has changed. In the early 1970's negative reinforcement was popular in the dog world. Now, a more positive approach in training methods has become popular. By implementing lessons and tricks from both training methods, training a dog has become easier.

If a trick works and you get a desired action, then use it. All is fair in love and war ... and dog training.

Pack Behavior:

I have been training dogs since the early 1970's.  I learned first from books and then by watching other trainers, then I was mentored by other dog trainers, by attending dog shows, and generally working with dogs on a day by day basis.

By asking questions of other trainers was the best way I found for learning.  Asking a question of a good dog trainer will usually get you a detailed answer.  A good dog trainer pays attention to details.  If she doesn't, she could get bit or the dog could be hurt by another dog.

Training a dog can be easy as long as you think like a dog, pay attention to the dog's body language, and use a firm, no-nonsense voice.  This voice does not have to be loud.  In fact, a soft guttural voice is what is needed in correcting a dog. 

The “growling” tones of the word, “Enough!” is a good correction to use on a dog that is misbehaving.  The word itself sounds like a growl.  Couple that sound with a hand held over and encircling the dog's muzzle is usually all that is needed to stop a barking dog.

Dog trainers have sat for hours watching the behavior of litters of puppies and how their dam deals with misbehavior.  As the puppies grow and begin to explore, the mother dog begins to use a little more discipline.  Her puppies have teeth now and are using them to chew up everything, including their mom.

When puppies are two to three weeks old, the mother dog is perfectly willing to lie down so that her puppies can suckle.  At four to five weeks old, the mother dog is beginning to dry up, there is not as much milk available, and the puppies now have sets of teeth.  When the puppies begin to suckle, they realize that the milk isn't coming quite as quickly as it had been.  They begin to tug on their mother's teats, tugging into her delicate skin with needle sharp puppy teeth.

The mother dog immediately stands up and takes the dinner away.  The next time the puppy suckles he will be a bit more careful about pulling the teat as he knows that if he bites, dinner leaves.  Sometimes a  puppy is determined to get more dinner. 

He will follow the mother dog while she is walking and jump to catch her teat, again with his needle sharp teeth.  This is a bit more than the mother dog can stand.  Turning quickly, she grabs the puppy by the muzzle and growls.  The puppy immediately goes belly up, “sorry mom .. sorry, mom .. won't do it again.”

Disciplining a dog does not have to be a brutal act of smacking the dog or by "stringing it up" by the collar. Sometimes all that is needed is to play mother dog. Grab the dog by the skin and hair on the neck behind its ears. Softly shake the dog and say "Enough" in a gutteral voice.

This action mimics a mother dog "scruffing" a puppy by grabbing the puppy by the scruff of the neck and growling a warning.

So, what does this behavior have to do with dog training?  By mimicking pack behavior, by emulating the actions of a mother dog, we as humans can become effective, better trainers.  When you have a biting dog, or a puppy that bites, if you copy a mother dog's action, you can cure the bad habit of biting before the dog needs to be euthanized for biting a child.

(Top of Page)

Tempering a Puppy's Bite:

A puppy bites because that is how he plays, with his mouth.  When we as humans take a puppy out of a litter at the age of six to eight weeks, we take him out of the best environment there is in teaching a puppy how to temper his bite, to teach him not to bite hard.  Puppies that play together will bite as they play and when they do, someone yelps and refuses to play anymore.  So the biter, who wants to play, tackles his litter mate again.  This time when he bites, he doesn't bite as hard as he wants his buddy to stay, play, and not to go away.

When we bring a puppy home at eight weeks of age, the puppy is a biting demon.  Anything that comes within his range of sight is fair game to become a chew toy.  When we play with this set of teeth with legs, we usually end up with a bite that is hard enough to bring a bit of blood.  So, how do we teach this pup not to bite?  We play mother dog.

While playing with the puppy, let the puppy take your hand into his mouth.  The puppy in playing with you tries to hold onto you with his teeth.  As the puppy nibbles and plays, the FIRST time you feel the least bit of pain from him .. yelp .. say OW!  Yelp, OW!, pull your hand away from the puppy, turn around and leave him.  Nothing more .. no more punishment .. no more words .. nothing, just ignore him completely.

After about two minutes, go back to playing with the puppy and offer your hand as a toy again.  The puppy remembering your yelp will test your hand, not biting as hard as he did the last time.  He will nibble, nibble, nibble, BITE! He is testing you to see if he can get away with a bite.  When he bites, just repeat the scenario above .. yelp, OW!, pull away and ignore him.  If you punish him by slapping him, he will continue to bite as he will think that you are just playing a rough game of "bite the toy".

Each time you play this biting game, say OW! each time the puppy puts any pressure on your skin.  After several episodes of this, the puppy will think, “Hey, if I bite, my hand-toy gets taken away.  I don't want my toy taken away. I want to play with it.  Hmm, I must be stronger than I thought.”  So the puppy begins to bite softer and softer, until there are no more “ows” thrown at him.  He will bite softer and softer until all you can feel is his teeth brushing against your skin.

At this point, you have trained the puppy to temper his bite, and have gained a dog that will be less likely to bite the hand that feeds him.  The dog that has respect for his owner and has a tempered bite is the dog that does not require a trip to the animal shelter because he has a bad biting habit.

(Top of Page)


Why is socializing a puppy so important to his development?  A pup not used to loud noises will run away in terror when confronted with a group of loud boisterous children. A pup who has not been exposed to people will snip and bite when those same children corner the pup in the yard.  It is that pup we see being dropped off at an animal shelter because he has turned into a fear-biter. A dog that lashes out and bites when overwhelmed with stimuli is not welcome in any home.

Puppies are in the best environment for learning while they are still with their siblings and mother.  We take them out of the environment when we separate them at eight weeks of age.  So it is up to us to teach them and to socialize the puppy.

While the pup is very young, expose him to all sorts of stimuli.  Let him walk on different textures such as gravel, concrete, grass, carpet, or tile.  Expose him to different noises, such as hair dryers, loud music, television, the vacuum cleaner, an umbrella, a wheelchair, anything that you may think he will come into contact in your household or out in public.

I once was called in to evaluate a litter of German Shepherd puppies.  The puppies were eight weeks old, had never been out of the whelp box or kennel, and had been kept in the “quiet sanctuary” the owners deemed these puppies needed to thrive.  When I placed the pups one at a time on the grass and tried to call them to me, they were so terrified of the grass, they didn't move.  When I clapped my hands to test for deafness, they curled their ears back and crawled into the corner.

If anyone has ever seen a well adjusted German Shepherd puppy, you would realize this behavior was very wrong for the breed. These pups would be scarred for a long time by being deprived of stimulation.  I immediately proposed a plan of action for the owners to begin slowly stimulating the pups over a period of 3 weeks.  By the end of the time, the pups were beginning to act like normal, active, outgoing German Shepherd puppies and were no longer scared to death of everything that moved or made a sound.

The pup who is taken to the park and exposed to other dogs doesn't freak out and become aggressive when confronted with new stimuli. This is the well adjusted dog who becomes the valued family pet, not the feared dog who bites anything that moves.

(Top of Page)

Working Out the Quirks:

I go to people's houses and teach private lessons.  Many times the problem I am being called in for has been encouraged unknowingly by the owners.  It is only a matter of retraining the owner as well as the dog to assure a happy outcome.

Scared of the Vacuum:

One woman called me in tears wanting me to cure her dog as every time she used the vacuum, her dog would scream, terrified of the noise.  I suggested the next time she fed the dog in his normal place in the kitchen, she first turn on the vacuum in the far part of the house. If the dog became upset, she was told to ignore the dog and to just go about fixing his dinner as usual. She was told to do this every time the dog was fed. Every other day or so, she was told to move the vacuum closer to the kitchen by a few feet.

At the end of a month, the dog was completely calm, though watchful, while the vacuum was running.  By feeding the dog while the vacuum was running, and ignoring his cries, she did two things.  The dog began to associate the sound of the vacuum with a good thing .. food! By ignoring his cries, she was showing him she was not afraid and there was nothing wrong.

When you pet and comfort a dog when he is afraid, or when he is crying out because of a vacuum noise, essentially you are praising him for being afraid. If the dog cries and you tell him, “It's ok” and pet him, you have just given him a positive reinforcement for crying out.  Thus he begins to associate crying with petting .. the more he cries .. the more he is petted. You have just taught him crying gets him petted.

Instead I encourage my dogs to “check it out!” when they are confronted with a new stimuli.  Even if the dog makes a small gesture, such as moving one foot towards the new item, or approaching the item on his own, he is praised .. “That's it .. good dog!” and then I rough house with the dog.  Thumping the dog on the side or on his chest in a boisterous manner assures the dog, where tentative petting while pushing and urging a dog to go forward only tells the dog, you are afraid as well and want him to touch it first.

Assertiveness is a must in dog training. When giving a command, you tell the dog what to do. You never tentatively ask a dog to do something.  Tone of voice is imperative.  The voice need not be loud or the command yelled out.  I have found a quiet firm command gets a better result than yelling. Losing your temper never accomplishes anything except giving you a headache.

Afraid of Thunderstorms:

Some dogs show no sign of fear when a storm approaches, while others become quivering piles of melted dog.  Some of these dogs can be rehabilitated with a little training, while others may need a calming drug to calm them down.

When you first bring home your puppy, expose him to all kinds of noises, including the sound of thunder and rain.  You can obtain cassette tapes with the sound of rainstorms, complete with crashing thunder, from any audio store. Play these tapes periodically while the puppy is eating his meal. Soon the pup will associate his food (a good thing) with thunder and will show no fear of it when the real storm comes along.

This method will sometimes work for the older dog as well.  For those dogs that fail the rehabilitation process, there is always the stand-by calming medications available from over the counter as well as veterinarian prescribed drugs.  Please note: before dosing your dog with any medications, please have the dog's physical health checked out by your vet to alleviate any health problems that would be escalated by medication.

Watch Me!!:

One of the first things I teach new dogs is to "watch me". I establish a habit of eye contact with the dog. Why? It is the dog that is watching you that will hear your commands in a noisy environment such as a walk through downtown streets. It is the dog that is watching you that will see your silent hand signals, whether you are in a show ring, or in your own front yard.

I begin teaching the command to "Watch Me" at the puppy's first meal. While the dog is on a short leash, I sit on the floor with the dog as I hold his dinner out of his reach. I will feed one piece of dog kibble at a time. I hold the food in my fingertips, showing the dog the food so he knows he is going to get a treat.

Once the dog knows you have the food in your fingers, he will follow your hand with his eyes. The trick is to get him to focus his eyes, not on your hands, but on your eyes. You should sit very still with no words being spoken to the dog. The dog will try his best to get the food from your fingers. DO NOT let him get the food.

As he struggles to obtain the food, he will finally glance at you wondering why you wont share that tasty morsel of food. AS SOON as he glances at you and has eye contact with you, give him the food and say the words "Watch Me". Repeat this exercise over and over until each piece of the dog's dinner is gone.

Hold the food .. wait for him to glance at you .. feed. Soon the dog will realize all he has to do is look at you and you will give him the food. Now the dog knows the words "Watch Me" are soon followed by a piece of food.

Now for step two:
At the next meal, start with "watch me" and feed the morsel immediately upon eye contact. As soon as the dog is steady in keeping eye contact as soon as you say "watch me" you will begin step two.

Say the words "watch me" and wait a couple of seconds before handing over the food. Gradually lengthen the time between the words "watch me" and giving the food. The ideal is to have the dog continue to have eye contact with you for about 30 seconds to a minute.

This exercise will take time. I have found most dogs get the idea after only two or three meals, while others take a few days to grasp the idea. The reward to you is worth the time spent. Now when you walk your dog and he is not paying attention, you can say "watch me" and regain control. Now when you are walking and see a cat or a squirrel, you can tell the dog "watch me"; he will not see the distraction and become a barking maniac on the end of the leash. Now when you are walking your dog and come face to face with another dog, you can say "watch me" and the dog will be watching you rather than getting eye contact with the other dog .. thus diverting his attention and hopefully a dog fight.

"Watch Me" is a good command to learn in beginning to gain control over a dog who is aggressive to other dogs or people.

(Top of Page)

Trickery Works Wonders:

Sometimes trickery is used to break a bad habit.  If trickery will work, I say use it.  All's far in love and war .. and dog training. If a trick will keep a dog from being sent to the pound, then I say use it.

Stealing Food from the Countertop:

Nothing is worse than to place a frozen steak on the counter to thaw, only to come back later and find no steak, but a dog with a very satisfied look on his face. To cure this bad habit, a bit of trickery works wonders.

Place a very delectable morsel on the edge of the counter. I like using ham bones. First take empty, partially crushed tin cans, and tie a dozen of them together. Then tie the cans onto the bone, pushing the cans to the back of the counter, then leave the room but stay within close proximity.  When the dog snatches the bone from the counter, the cans will come flying after him in all their clanking glory.

When you hear this noise, run into the kitchen, and holler “Leave it!”  I like to put punctuation on my tin cans.  I enter the kitchen with a wooden spoon and an empty metal bowl or pot, clanging the two together.  It only takes one or two trials, before the dog is thinking twice about snitching food from the counter.

Over Protective of Food Bowl:

Frank had a beautiful Labrador named Gordy.  Outgoing, happy-go-lucky, tail always wagging, Gordy was everyone's best buddy -- until it came time for dinner. Then Gordy became his own evil twin, snarling at anyone who even came near his bowl. Trying to retrieve his bowl got to be a task for only those brave at heart. Even Frank was being bit and it had to stop.

Gordy was a chow hound.  Loved food, lived for food, the typical Labrador, he was very intense about his food. I visited Frank and Gordy at dinner time so I could observe the dog.  I told Frank to go about dinner time just as if I was not there, but to only put a quarter of the dog's normal ration of kibble in the bowl.

Frank quickly snatched up the dog bowl when Gordy was not looking.  When Gordy heard Frank dumping the dry kibble in the bowl, he went ballistic. While dancing around in the kitchen, barking and snarling, he had worked himself into a lather.  Frank tossed the food bowl down on the floor while Gordy jumped and skittered about the kitchen.  When I asked Frank to take the bowl from Gordy, the dog planted himself over the bowl growling, whereupon Frank raised his hands in disgust and left the dog by himself in the kitchen.

I told Frank he needed to change the dinner routine immediately.  I asked him if Gordy would sit and stay on command.  Gordy would.  One step towards the cure was taken.

By this time, Gordy had finished his kibble and came prancing out of the kitchen.  When I entered the kitchen, Gordy immediately ran over and stood over his bowl, guarding the now empty bowl.

I ignored him.  I took two identical metal bowls from my bag of tricks, placing one inside the other. Walking past Gordy as if he were not even there, I waited for him to snatch out at me, which he did. Sidestepping him, I kept walking but in a natural motion caught Gordy on top of the head with the bowls, still ignoring him and not saying a word.

Returning to the kitchen, I walked past Gordy who was still guarding his bowl.  He was now watching my hands intently, waiting for the bowls to make contact with his head again.  I put the bowls on the counter top and now began talking to Gordy.  I took a biscuit from my bag and showed it to Gordy at the same time telling him to sit.  As soon as he sat, I said, “Good boy!” and tossed the biscuit to him, purposely tossing the biscuit behind him. Gordy turned to chase his reward, while I quickly picked up his bowl and placed it in the sink out of sight.

I took bacon bits, liver scraps, and a cup of his kibble and placed them on the counter top along with the two metal bowls still tucked one inside the other. Then I began talking to Gordy in a soft undertone, asking him if he wanted a treat.  “Are you ready to eat?” When I heard his feet begin to scrabble on the floor, I would turn my back on him and stop all movement until he became calm.  As soon as he remained still for a couple of seconds, I would take a tiny scrap of bacon, turn to him, tell him to sit and when he did, I gave him the treat.

We did this several times over the next fifteen minutes, until Gordy finally got the idea that he must become quiet on his own before I would pay attention to him, tell him to sit, and give him the treat.  After fifteen minutes, Gordy was quiet and sitting instead of scrabbling around like a mad dog.

This exercise taught Gordy several things:
1) he received nothing .. no attention, no treats .. while he was scrabbling around in the kitchen;
2) he taught himself to quiet down because only when he was quiet and still, did I turn and give him attention. If he began to dance around, I just turned my back on him, ignoring him;
3)  he soon learned the only time I gave him a treat was when he was sitting and quiet.

Now came part two of the dinner time lesson.  I began talking to Gordy in an animated voice as I mixed the bacon, the liver, and the kibble in the bowl.  Now Gordy already knew I had bacon as he had received it as a treat.  Now he could see and smell that I was mixing up a delicious repast for him.

Unbeknownst to him, it was trickery time.  I placed all of the food in the top bowl, and placed two single pieces of kibble in the bottom bowl.  Turning to him, I asked him to sit; then asked him “are you hungry?” and when he sat I put down the bowl with the two pieces of kibble in it.

Gordy immediately dove, growling, into the bowl expecting good smelly liver and bacon bits.  His look of surprise when he found there was nothing, but two pieces of kibble was worth a thousand dollars! I waited until he was finished, turned to him and said .. “You want some more? Well, then Sit!”.  He immediately sat and I took up his bowl at the same time giving him a bacon treat for sitting.

I then placed a couple more pieces of kibble in the bowl, plus a piece or two of bacon and liver.  Turning to him, I told him to sit, and gave him his bowl.  Again he dove, growling, into his bowl.  Only to find just a tad bit more than the last time, but there was a slight wag to the tail as he gobbled the liver.

We repeated this exercise, over and over, until he realized, “Hey .. it is not so bad when she takes my bowl. She gives it right back and there is always something better in it each time!” By the end of the session, I was able to place the food bowl on the floor and he was showing no animosity towards me.  I was the “great procurer of liver and bacon bits”.. he wanted me to take his bowl away, so he could get more. His growling was a thing of the past.

Frank had watched this exercise as it dragged out over forty-five minutes. He was amazed that I could now reach down and take the bowl out from under Gordy’s nose without fear of being bit. When all the food was gone, I took Gordy’s bowl and placed it up off the floor.  I then told Frank, “Do not leave his bowl on the floor.  That leaves his bowl in HIS territory.  Keep the bowl in YOUR territory.  It is YOUR bowl, not his.  You are just letting him eat out of it while you share YOUR food with him.”  By doing this, you keep the upper hand, you remain in the alpha position, you remain in charge.

After a month, I stopped in at Frank's house at dinnertime.  I watched him feed a now patiently sitting Gordy, reach down and take up his bowl, and replace it without Gordy growling or trying to bite.  Gordy has relinquished his bowl to Frank, knowing full well doing so was to his advantage, and in doing so, became submissive to Frank.

Frank had unknowingly escalated the problem with his own reactions to the dog.  When he fed the dog, he left. This action gave the dog domain over the kitchen, it became his territory. When the dog growled and Frank left, Gordy believed he had defended his territory successfully.  Gordy had become top dog and Frank had become his second. By re-establishing his rank as top dog, Frank would now find his relationship a more pleasant experience.

(Top of Page)

What is an Obedience Title Really?

Not just a brag, not just a stepping stone to a higher title, not just an adjunct to competitive scores: a title is a tribute to the dog that bears it, a way to honor the dog, an ultimate memorial.  It will remain in the record and in the memory, for about as long as anything in this world can remain.  And, though the dog himself doesn't know or care that this achievement has been noted, a title says many things in the world of humans, where such things count.

A title says your dog was intelligent, adaptable and good-natured.  It says that your dog loved you enough to do the things that pleased you, however crazy they may have sometimes seemed.  In addition, a title says that you love your dog.  That you loved to spend time with him because he was a good dog and that you believed in him enough to give him yet another chance when he failed, and in the end your faith was justified.

A title proves that your dog inspired you to that special relationship enjoyed by so few: that in a world of disposable creatures, this dog with a title was greatly loved, and loved greatly in return.  And when that dear, short life is over, the title remains as a memorial of the finest kind, the best you can give to a deserving friend.  Volumes of praise in one small set of initials after the name.  An Obedience title is nothing less than true love and respect, given and received, and recorded permanently.

Author Unknown
(from the American Miniature Schnauzer monthly newsletter)

(Top of Page)

More training tips can be found here:

Dogs and Kids ... Minimizing the Risk of Dog Bites

The American Kennel Club

Itza Rion Kennels
German Shepherds
Belgian Sheepdogs

Emergency Dog Links

All literary works and original artwork by Rion on this page,
unless otherwise noted, are the sole property of Brenda Sewell.
I do not mind sharing but please ask me first.
© 1998 - 2004 Brenda "Rion" Sewell

brendarion at cfl.rr.com