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Behavior Modification

Basic Obedience


New Dogs


9 Secrets to Transforming Your Life With Your Dog
*Throughout this document, I use “verbal cues” and “commands” interchangeably. 

1. Provide Physical Exercise

Mom, I’m bored. 

Dogs are a lot like children. If you don’t give them something fun to do, they will make their own fun—and often not in ways you approve of.

Give your dog plenty of physical and mental exercise, and you get a happier, healthier, better-behaved dog. Well-exercised dogs bark less, chew less, sleep more, and rest easier if left home alone. They are also much less likely to rummage through the trash or attack the couch cushions. 

Lack of adequate physical exercise is one of the biggest sources of behavioral problems in dogs, and will often undermine training progress. A dog who is bursting at the seams with energy is going to have a lot of trouble with behavioral inhibition. An under-exercised dog is also more likely to have difficulty doing any behavior that involves staying in one place, such as the “place” command, or being calm in a crate. 

What about leash walks?

Leash walks are great brainteasers because of all the sensory information dogs get from them, but they don’t count as aerobic exercise unless you are going at a very fast pace. Your dog needs to run, swim, or do something else that gets his heart pumping for at least 30 minutes every day. 

Many dogs require more than 30 minutes per day, and may even need several hours of vigorous cardio. If your dog is a breed or bloodline that was developed to do vigorous physical work or a particular task, then expect higher exercise needs. Take this into account if your dog is a mixed breed, as well. 

Workouts for the body.

Chasing a ball or Frisbee. Swimming. Playing tug. Active play with other dogs. Off-leash romps or hikes. 


2. Provide Mental Stimulation

Workouts for the brain

Work to eat. Biologically speaking, your dog is not supposed to have a bowl of kibble plunked down in front of him. He is a hunter by nature, meant to work for his keep. Mimic this by serving every meal in a Kong, Kong wobbler, or Toppl. Your dog will expend mental energy getting the food out. 

Toys galore. Toys are a great way to engage your dog’s brain. Dogs have distinctly individual toy preferences, depending on the day, time, and situation. Do some detective work and find out what truly tickles your dog.

The best toys have a purpose. They deliver food, present a challenge, squeak, or make themselves interesting in some other way. Some classics to consider: Rope toys, plush toys (with or without squeakers), Hide-A-Bee (Squirrel, Bird), tricky treat balls, soft rubber toys (vinyl), and hard rubber toys like Kongs, nyla bones, and bene bones.  

Once you have a good selection, develop a toy strategy. Designate a popular toy for use only during alone time, like when you need to leave your dog in his crate, confinement area, or a spare room. Then, rotate the other toys daily to keep the novelty factor high.

Decompression walks

All dogs need regular walks in which they can move around freely and sniff as much as they like. These are called decompression walks. To give freedom of movement to a dog who cannot safely be off leash, consider using a long line (training leash). Attach this to a back-attaching harness to signal to your dog that this is not a regular walk. Your dog will learn that the change in equipment (from a collar, etc. to back-attaching harness) means she can behave differently. It is important that your dog knows he does not have to be by your side for this walk- some pulling is ok. 

Sniffing is one of the best forms of mental exercise you can give to your dog. A dog’s sense of smell is one of her strongest senses, and dogs are much more mentally healthy when they are regularly allowed to sniff as much as they want. You will be amazed how much this will tire out your dog, too!


3. Learn How To Motivate Your Dog

What is Motivation?

Motivation is what makes your dog tick. It’s what drives him to do things, like respond to your cues and find doing so worthwhile. Motivation answers the question, “What’s in it for the dog?” 

Common canine motivators: Going for car rides, getting a ball tossed, going on walks, getting a leash clipped on or off, playing tug, access to other dogs, access to smells, and—the biggie—food. If you allow your dog to greet another dog after your dog has pulled you towards it, then you have most likely just rewarded the pulling! If your dog whines and then you give it food, then you have rewarded the whining. If your dog barks for your attention and you respond by looking at your dog, then you have just rewarded the barking, and you can expect to see more of it in the future. 

How to use it.

If you control what motivates your dog, you give him good reason to pay attention to you, i.e. to want to do what you want him to do. It’s the equivalent of saying to your dog, “I’ll tell you what: If you sit, I’ll throw your ball” or “If you stop pulling on leash, I’ll let you go smell that fire hydrant.” You use what naturally motivates your dog to get the behaviors you want most.

Ways to increase motivation.

First, limit your dog’s access to the things he finds most motivating. Have a ball-crazy dog? Instead of leaving balls around the house at all times, carry them with you so you can whip one out as a way to reward your dog when he is getting something right.

Second, you can make an item more exciting by bringing it to life for your dog. Simply handing a dog a toy isn’t nearly as fun for either of you as shaking it about, playing peek-a-boo with it and then, at the height of excitement, asking for a behavior and rewarding it with a toss of the toy. And food sitting around in a bowl can’t equal the fun of kibble dished out during a fun training session.


Having trouble getting your dog’s attention? Be sure you are using the right motivators for the challenge. Kibble can’t compete with a treed squirrel. Always have an ultimate trump card—something your dog just can’t resist.

What if your dog isn’t food motivated? Well, he has to be—or he wouldn’t be alive. But if he blows off your treats, do these things:

  1. Significantly increase the value of the treats you offer. Don’t try dry foods, especially in high-distraction outdoor settings, unless your dog finds such food extremely motivating. Work to find a food (usually something meaty and greasy) that makes your dog go cross-eyed with glee. 

All dogs are different, but for most dogs, milk bones, most dry treats, and kibble are of low value. Even training treats like Zuke’s won’t cut it for a lot of dogs. Here is a list of treats that most dogs consider high value: Ziwi treats, Flourish freeze dried raw minnows, human-grade fish or meat, or freeze dried beef lung or liver. Happy Howie’s comes in rolls that can be sliced up with a vidalia onion slicer. If you want good results, do not train with low value treats. 

  1. Limit your dog’s access to his food. If your dog is constantly full, he will be less interested in what you have to offer. Do not free feed (where you leave food out throughout the day), and make sure to schedule feeding times for after training sessions and walks, instead of before. Also, the appropriate size of treat to use during training sessions is half the size of your pinky nail. If you use larger treats, your dog will fill up more quickly and won’t feel as motivated, and the training will suffer. 
  2. Try something else altogether. For example, if you have a ball-obsessed dog, you may have an easier time getting his attention with his favorite ball than with the leftover chicken from last night’s dinner.

4. Practice Good Timing and Consistency

Dogs live in the moment 

Dogs cannot connect events unless they happen within seconds of each other. If you come home and your dog has pooped on the floor, and you yell at your dog, your dog thinks she is being punished for whatever she was doing when you started yelling. If she was sitting quietly, then she thinks she is being punished for that. What looks like guilt is in fact a submissive display of facial expressions and behaviors. It’s your dog’s way of saying,  “You seem really angry, and I’m confused. Please don’t hurt me.” 

Good timing in training

Dogs also won’t learn as quickly, and will experience more confusion, if you don’t use a marker or verbal marker to help you with timing. With a marker, dogs can more easily figure out what exactly is being rewarded. More on this later.

When it comes to rules, dogs are black and white

Be consistent with rules. Dogs understand the world in black and white, and it isn’t fair to them to expect otherwise. If you allow your dog to jump up on you when you return home, you cannot then expect your dog to understand that it is bad to jump on you when you are wearing nice clothing, or to jump up and greet 100-year old Aunt Mildred. If you establish a rule for your dog, enforce it consistently, and make sure the other members of your household do the same. Otherwise, you are setting your dog up for confusion and feelings of frustration. 

Intermittent Reinforcement

Why do gamblers gamble? Sometimes, if you want a behavior to stick around, you can reward it only some of the time. A gambler can become addicted to playing the game even if the wins are only occasional. He knows that if he just holds out long enough, he might win something.

Dogs are the same way. Say your dog begs for food at the table because you reward him sometimes. You decide you’d like him to stop begging, so you stop rewarding with food, but to your amazement, he still begs. Why? He believes that if he just holds out long enough, he’ll get some food. It happened all those other times, right? Because that behavior was intermittently reinforced, it will take much longer to go away than if you had given your dog food from the table every single night. You’ve created a little gambler! 

Suppose you have some company over, and someone gives your begging dog some food from the table. Unfortunately, your friend just undid all of your hard work. Furthermore, your dog has learned an unfortunate lesson: although it might take a super long time, his begging will eventually pay off. This time, it may take even longer for the behavior to go away.

Sometimes, it gets worse before it gets better

What happens if your dog is used to being reinforced for a behavior, and you suddenly stop rewarding him? He might experience an extinction burst. For example, imagine your dog whines so that you will pet him, and you stop rewarding the whining. There’s a good chance he will wonder why whining isn’t working anymore. He may then whine more loudly, or may even bark. If he just tries hard enough, he’ll get what he wants, right? 

This is called an extinction burst, and it basically means that things can get worse before they get better. Depending on how entrenched the behavior is, extinction bursts can last days, or more than a week. In the above example, if your dog has only been rewarded for whining sometimes (intermittent reinforcement), the extinction burst may last quite a while. 

The worst thing you can do during an extinction burst is to finally give in. Then, you’ll be back to square one, but worse- your dog will have now learned that persistence pays off!


5. Use Clear Communication

When it comes to communication, it is important to remember that dogs don’t speak English. To them, the words we say are just collections of sounds. For human English speakers, the tone in which a word is spoken does not affect the meaning of the word. In contrast, for people who speak Mandarin Chinese, tone totally changes the meaning of a word. Dogs are the same, and often pay more attention to the tone of a word than to the actual word being spoken.

For example, imagine that your dog walks over and puts her front paws on you. You respond by saying, in a conversational tone of voice, “No, no, let’s not do that, no, come on now, let’s put those feet on the ground.” Your dog doesn’t understand English, but she is paying attention to your tone. All she knows is that you are looking at her and talking a lot- two things she finds very rewarding. She now knows that putting her feet on you is a great way to earn something she wants, and she’ll be sure to do it again next time! 

Training is like a foreign language for dogs. We can help our dogs learn more quickly if we speak clearly, rather than mumble, and if we are consistent with the words we use. Imagine if you were trying to learn a foreign language and the person said a slightly different word each time. Sometimes you call your dog over using, “Come, Fido,” sometimes you say, “Fido, C’mere,” or “Here, Fido,” and at other times you say,  “Come on, Fi.” To a dog, you have said four very different things: “kuhmfido,” “fidokuhmear,” “heerfido,” “kuhmonfigh.” Make learning easier for your dog by using the same exact words every time, and aim for similar tone and intonation.


6. Educate Yourself on Dog Body Language

“Dogs talk to us all the time. We just don’t listen.” -Dog Trainer Denise Fenzi

Did you know that a wagging tail does not necessarily indicate that a dog is feeling happy or friendly, and can even occur before a dog bites someone? Did you know that a dog rolling over on its back may want a belly rub, but may also be signaling that it wants to be left alone? 

Just as training teaches dogs to understand some words of our language, it also works best when we seek to understand our dogs’ language. Most canine language is nonverbal, and can be easily missed unless one knows what to look for. It requires being mentally present while spending time with your dog, rather than distracted or on your phone. Learn to pay attention to your dog’s whispers, and you won’t force your dog to shout. 

Many obnoxious, fearful, and aggressive behaviors in dogs can be prevented if you become more skilled at reading dog body language. Training will progress more smoothly, too, because you will better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. 

For a quick primer on body language basics, check out the 2 videos in the portal. You’ll be amazed at all the things your dog has been trying to tell you!


7. Catch Them When They’re Good

One of the biggest secrets to having a well-behaved dog is noticing and rewarding good behavior. It’s just that the behaviors we want are often more difficult to notice than the ones we don’t want. For instance, your dog may sit next to you and look up at your face if he wants attention. If you don’t give him any, he’ll be forced to communicate with you in other ways- by barking, pawing, or whining at you. If you’d prefer for your dog to sit and look at you instead, then make sure to reward that polite behavior with attention. 

If you train yourself to notice and reward calm behaviors, your dog will start to do more of them! For instance, if your dog is lying quietly on the floor doing nothing, and you like that behavior, then go reward your dog with a small treat or attention. And remember- a lack of behavior is often rewardable. A dog who normally barks or jumps in a certain situation should be rewarded for not doing so.

If you want your dog to do more of it, reward it!


8. Have Realistic Expectations

Know that change often happens slowly.

Behavioral change happens much more slowly than we usually expect it to. Have faith and give it time. Your dog is a totally different species living in a human world. To train reliable behaviors, you need hundreds of repetitions in many locations, with many different distractions, and at many different distances. 

Expect dogs to be dogs. 

Dogs have intellectual abilities similar to that of a 2 or 2 ½ year old child. They regularly have terrible judgement, and fail to plan ahead. A dog who steals a pizza from the countertop is not making a well thought-out decision to do something they know is wrong. That dog is just living in the moment. If your dog misbehaves, take responsibility and learn from the situation, rather than blaming the dog. Keep food off of counters or keep the dog out of the kitchen. If you don’t, your dog will more than likely keep stealing food from the countertops. 

Know that the training is never really done. 

Dog training is a lot like parenting. How often does a parent have to actively parent in order to raise well-behaved and happy child? All the time. Truly successful dog training happens in little moments throughout the day, and you should always be prepared to reward or manage behaviors. 

Dogs will also forget what they’ve learned unless they practice it regularly. If you want skills to stick, then find ways to weave them into your everyday life so that you don’t have to think about them as much. Dogs also learn better with multiple brief lessons during the day (often 5-10 minutes each), rather than with one long one. 


9. Use Verbal Cues (Commands) Responsibly

Expect your dog to succeed only when you’ve prepared him to.

Never issue a verbal cue unless you are pretty certain your dog is capable of succeeding in that situation. For example, if the only place your dog has ever practiced coming when called is inside your distraction-free home, then don’t expect him to do it off-leash in your backyard. 

In the early phases of training, restrict your use of actual verbal cues to training sessions and times when you can guarantee your dog will be successful. Do not use them in places with higher levels of distraction. If you do, you are just giving your dog a chance to practice ignoring verbal cues, and your dog will view them as optional. Use management strategies (such as a leash, drag leash, crate, x-pen, or long line) outside of training sessions. This approach will set your dog up for success.

Mean what you say

It is similarly important to be intentional with verbal cues. Never issue a verbal cue to your dog unless you are committed to helping your dog understand it, and plan to follow it up with a reward. If you say, “Fido, sit” and your dog does not sit, and you do not help your dog follow through, then your dog has just learned that this verbal cue is optional. You will then end up with a dog who often ignores you. Always reward a desired behavior, and be prepared to provide a negative consequence for an undesired behavior, such as temporarily withdrawing attention from a dog who is barking for attention (followed by a reward for doing the correct thing). 

Informal or optional verbal cues

If you are not sure you can get your dog to follow through with a verbal cue in a given environment, don’t erode the integrity of the cue by using it then. Instead, use a slightly different one. The same goes for situations in which you want to give your dog an option to do something. 

For example, if I am sitting on the couch, and would like my dog to come sit next to me, I might pat the spot next to me with my hand, or casually say a few words. I have decided that it’s fine for my dog to have a choice in this situation- nothing lost if he isn’t in the mood for a cuddle. I haven’t taught him these cues, but he may have some idea of what I’m hinting at. However, suppose for some reason I absolutely must have my dog come sit on the couch next to me, and I don’t want him to view it as optional. In that situation, I would use my formal verbal cue (“Load up”) that I’ve already taught my dog, and I would make sure he followed through and did as asked. I would then reward him with attention, a treat, or some other reward.

Use discretion when issuing verbal cues

Once your dog understands certain verbal cues, how often should you use them? Regularly, but not excessively. If your dog’s needs are being met, and you have done the work of training, then your dog is likely pretty well-behaved anyway, and probably won’t need to be given verbal cues over and over throughout the day. However, keep your dog fluent in the foreign language of English by practicing each verbal cue regularly. For instance, you could ask your dog to sit before receiving her dinner, or to go to her bed during your dinner. 

What not to do

If you stop during a walk to have a conversation with someone, and your dog wants to sniff the ground, then don’t ask your dog repeatedly to sit, just because. If your dog wants to jump on the person, and knows how to sit, then ask for a sit so your dog can earn attention politely. But don’t issue commands willy-nilly, just because you can. 

Instead, use commands the same way you might with a child. Although it’s important for a child to be able to, say, pass the mashed potatoes during dinner, you would not then ask the child to do so many things that she becomes more of a waitress than a dinner guest. On the other hand, you would expect the child to pass the mashed potatoes when asked.

Dog Body Language

General Body Language

Dog/dog Play

The Important of Humans Participating

Red Alert Behavior

Healthy play signals to look for

Body Language Breakdown, dog park miscommunications

Body Language Breakdown, healthy play

Body Language Breakdown, humans managing play


Dog/Dog Play Article:

Success Around Distractions

Success around distractions

Whenever you are training your dog to do something, start in an easy environment, and when your dog is successful in that context, make things slightly more difficult. One of the biggest issues with which people struggle is progressing in a manner that is gradual enough for our dogs. We get impatient, or we fail to recognize how hard a given situation is for our dogs. 

The following list is just an example, so remember that your dog may be different. Some dogs live to chase squirrels, while others don’t find them to be a big deal. Think about your individual dog, and come up with a list like this, from easy to hard. Once you have it, only move to the next level when your dog has repeatedly been successful at a previous level. 

Having such a list will help make training more enjoyable and successful for you. It’s how you eventually get a dog who comes when called not only in your house but also at the beach, surrounded by dogs and people. 

Push Drop Stick

I’d also highly recommend following the “Push Drop Stick” rule, as follows:

Train in sets of 5. 

  • If the dog gets 4 or 5 correct in a set, push to the next level of difficulty
  • If the dog gets 3 out of 5 correct, repeat (stick) to the same difficulty level
  • If the dog gets 2 or fewer correct, drop to the previous (easier) step

For example, say I am teaching my dog to come when called around other dogs, and we are working outside the dog park fence. If my dog comes when called 4 or 5 out of 5 times, I might move a little bit closer to the fence. If he comes when called 3 out of 5 times, I would stay in the same spot. If he only comes 0, 1, or 2 times out of 5, I’d move further away from the fence- being so close to the fence is too hard for him.

A sample list

The following list was taken from Patricia McConnell’s book “Feisty Fido,” which is an excellent book about dogs who bark, lunge, or act wild (are reactive) when they see other dogs on walks. This list is specifically for walking a reactive dog, but gives you an idea of challenge level, regardless of what command you are working on.


  • In the kitchen before dinner, no one else home (easiest).
  • In the backyard on a quiet morning, no one in sight (a little harder than the kitchen, because the great outside always has at least interesting smells around, but still relatively easy.)


  • In the backyard, when Muffin sees a squirrel three houses away.
  • In the kitchen, when the kids are home from school.
  • In the front yard, with people (who Muffin loves) walking across the street.
  • In the parking lot of the training center, where Muffin is 50 yards away from the path of another dog.
  • On the sidewalk, as Muffin sees a dog who she’s charged at numerous times in the past, who is two blocks away.


  • In the backyard, when Muffin flushes a squirrel just ten feet away that dashes up the tree.
  • On the sidewalk, when Muffin wants to greet her doggy buddy who is just 3 feet away and play bowing.
  • On the sidewalk, when Muffin looks at an unfamiliar dog who is 30 feet away, and walking toward you both. 
  • On the sidewalk, when Muffin sees a dog who’s a third of a block away that she’s charged at before.

Really Hard:

  • On the sidewalk, when an unfamiliar dog walks by within a few feet.
  • At the vet clinic, 10 feet away from two other dogs, who are barking.
  • At the training center, 2-3 feet off line from the path of dogs going to the training room.
  • On a walk when two off-leash dogs run up to your dog and try sniffing her while their owner grins from a block away saying “It’s Okay! My dogs LOVE other dogs!!”
How Dogs Learn + Marker Training

1. Dogs learn by association (by emotional response). 

Human example: We humans learn by association, too. When you meet someone for the first time you come away with an association—positive, negative, or neutral. If you really enjoyed the interaction, you are likely to be happy to see that person again. If you found the person difficult or argumentative, you might get that little pit of dread in your belly when you see him or her again—you have formed a negative association with that person.


Human-dog comparison: Dogs experience the world this way, too, perhaps more strongly than we humans because dogs lack the filter of rational thought. They are constantly forming emotional associations—safe, dangerous, good for me, bad for me, neutral. These associations inform the decisions dogs make and the reactions they have to various situations and things in their environment.


Dog example: A common example of associative learning in dogs is their reaction to the sight of a food bowl. Dogs love ceramics. Pull out the right bowl and the average dog will jump into fits of joy. This is because dogs have come to learn that this particular bowl always predicts mealtime. Food is tasty so we love food bowls. In other words, dogs associate bowls with eating.


The amazing thing is that we can manipulate dogs’ associations to things. For example, new puppies generally find leashes inconsequential; when first shown a 6-foot length of nylon with a clip at the end they have a neutral association to it. But find a way to make a dog associate one thing with another thing he loves and you can teach him to love that, too. How? Clip-on the leash and give him treats or take him for a walk. Every time you leash him, either take him for a walk or give him treats until you take the leash back off. Pretty soon the puppy figures out that the leash means fun and, bingo. You have a dog that loves leashes.


The unfortunate thing is that learning by association also works in reverse. You could teach a dog to hate or fear leashes by repeatedly hitting him with one.

What does this mean to us?

The implications are huge. Everything you do around your dog influences the associations he makes. This is a potential drawback of using punishment—if the dog does not understand exactly why he is being punished, then the punishment can have unintended side effects. For example, it can build a negative association with the punisher, affecting the bond between person and dog. It is not that punishment doesn’t work—it is that learning by association or emotion can come along for the ride, if we aren’t careful. Thus, we don’t generally use punishment unless we have thoroughly exhausted our other options. 


What might I do if my dog growls and lunges when he sees another dog? Reverse his negative association with other dogs. Treats are a good way to do this, but my dog might be too upset to take the treats. Put a spider right in front of an arachnophobe, and she will have a hard time listening to instructions to sit down and stop screaming. But keep the spider twenty feet away, only show it for short periods of time, and distract the phobic person with conversation or chocolate, and there will probably be a better outcome.


The process is the same for dogs who are scared of or upset by something. It is called desensitization and involves the 3 Ds: distance, duration, and distraction. We move the dog farther away from the upsetting object, try to keep the situation brief, and distract with cheerful voices and treats.


Remember, we are not rewarding the dog for his ugly display; he is too upset to control his behavior. We are trying to affect his emotional state so he feels no need to act that way and we can then ask for a different behavior. 

2. Dogs learn by consequence (by what comes after they do something).

Human example: I can tell a school-age child that I will take him out for ice cream when I see him next week to celebrate his good report card. When he eats the ice cream, he understands he’s being rewarded for grades he got a week ago, and he got those grades for work he did over several months.


Human-dog comparison: A dog could never understand this—it is way beyond his ability to connect events. Dogs learn by consequence like we do, but for dogs, the consequence has to be immediate.


Dog example: Say I lure a dog into a sit with my hand. Then I rummage around for the treat. By the time I deliver the treat five seconds later, the impact is lost because in those five seconds, the dog sneezed, sniffed the ground, and looked left. All of a sudden a treat appeared. As far as the dog is concerned, he got it for looking left. You will eventually teach that dog to sit, but it will take a while. Or you might end up with a dog that sits and looks left as a matter of course. 

What does this mean to us?

***That we need precision and immediacy to train dogs.*** This is why we use a marker. A marker is a sound- typically the sound of a clicker or the word “yes,” -that tells the dog the precise moment he won the treat. The sound of a clicker or the word “yes” marks the moment. Once we have marked, it doesn’t matter if it takes us a few seconds to deliver the treat because the dog knows what he is getting the treat for. To teach the dog that the marker means a treat is coming, we use learning by association—we pair the sound of the marker with food rewards. Every time the dog hears the marker, he gets a treat. Pretty soon the dog understands that the marker predicts a treat.

A dog’s view of the world:

So, dogs learn in two ways—by association/emotion and by consequence/doing. And because of these two ways of learning, dogs see the world in two ways: What is safe/good for me vs. what is dangerous/bad and what works vs. what doesn’t.

Safe vs. dangerous. This outlook on life comes from learning by association. When dogs gets punished for peeing on the carpet in front of you, they don’t learn inside/outside—they learn that it is not safe to pee in front of you, but it is safe to pee when you are not there.

Works vs. doesn’t work. This outlook on life comes from learning by consequence. All dogs try staring at the refrigerator as a strategy to get it to open. After a time they give up because it doesn’t work; the fridge never opens. They also try staring at their people at the dinner table. Every once in a while someone gives in and shares a bite. Staring at people while they eat often works, so dogs continue to do it.

What does this mean to us?

Dogs don’t do things we dislike to get back at us or be stubborn or naughty. This is a myth. To dogs the world is either safe or dangerous and things either work or they don’t. Right or wrong never enters into it, because dogs do not have the capacity for that kind of abstract thought.

Dogs do what is safe and what works. That’s all.

If a dog barks at you to throw the ball and you throw it, rest assured he will do that again. If you ignore the barking he will eventually give up and try something else. He is not trying to be obnoxious; he is just doing what works. If you ask a dog to sit and he doesn’t, he is not being stubborn; you just haven’t trained him well enough yet.

In other words, dogs are dogs, not people. Be patient with your dog and careful about what you pay attention to and what you ignore, and you will soon have a relaxed, content, and well-trained dog.


Why Use a Marker?

Earlier, in “The Two Ways Dogs Learn,” you read that dogs learn in 2 ways: 

  1. by association (emotional response)
  2. by consequence (by what comes after they do something)

You also learned that we must have precision and immediacy to train dogs. That’s where the marker comes in!

What is it?

Marker training means using a sound (a marker) to communicate with your dog. Clickers, a type of marker, have been in use for more than forty years. This method is best known from the world of marine animal training, where people need a way to communicate with animals like dolphins and orcas that can’t be controlled physically. 

Depending on what we have talked about, you will be using either a clicker or the word “yes” as your marker. The video that goes with this reading talks about using a clicker, but you can train a dog to understand “yes” in just the same way. When the trainer says, “click,” just pretend she’s saying, “say yes.” For simplicity, the following is written as if you are using the marker word “yes.”

How does it work?

It is fabulously simple. First, we teach the dog that the sound of the marker “yes” means he has won a treat. Then we use “yes” to tell the dog when he has done something we like. 

Essentially: When your dog does what you want him to do—like a sit or a down—you mark (say “yes”) and give him a treat. This gives your dog instant, specific feedback. 

You can tell a child you will take him out for ice cream tomorrow because he earned good grades today. A dog, on the other hand, needs immediate pointers to help him understand what behavior he is being rewarded for. A marker is the perfect tool for this.

In this document, Marker=the word “yes” and Mark=say “yes.” 

How to charge the marker (or teach that marker means treat):

Grab a handful of really yummy treats cut into small pieces (or kibble, depending on what we’ve discussed) 

  • Every time you say “yes,” give your dog a treat (be careful not to mark and treat at the same time; the treat must follow the mark, not precede or coincide with it). 
  • Do this standing up, sitting down, while moving about, indoors, outdoors. Basically, make sure your dog understands that the marker means treat in all situations.
  • Do the exercise a few times a day for a few minutes at a time until, when you mark, you notice that your dog is eagerly anticipating the treat. You will know your dog understands the sound of the marker when you mark, and he immediately whips his head around toward you. 

Don’t give away that a treat is coming except with the marker. For example, be careful not to reach for a treat, point the clicker toward the dog, or reach toward him with the treat before you mark. Train yourself to insert a count or a word before you hand over the treat: Mark. One one thousand. Treat.

Marker rules:

Mark only once.

If you mark, you must treat.

The marker is not a remote control. Don’t use it to call your dog to you.


Teaching Your Dog to Respond Without Food + Say Please

Why fade the food?

Because no one wants to carry around food all the time, and we want dogs to respond regardless of whether food is present.

How to do it.

Step 1. Use life rewards early on when you train a new behavior. As soon as you are getting a reliable response to a new cue—a solid four out of every five trials—start interspersing non-food rewards with food rewards. For example, throw a ball or bring out a favorite squeaky toy to reward your dog occasionally, while continuing to use food rewards for the rest of your dog’s responses. See the next section, “Say Please,” for more information.

Step 2. Begin asking for more tricks per treat. In the beginning, when your dog is learning something new, you should reward each right response. But once he has the hang of it, start asking him to do several cues in a row before he gets a treat, so you start establishing the idea that he doesn’t get something every time.

Step 3. Vary how often you reinforce, and what you use to reinforce. You might give a treat for a single response, then a treat after three responses, then a ball toss after two responses, and so on.

Eventually, use more and more life rewards and fewer treats. Keep it varied to keep your dog guessing—it’s exciting not to know when the next reward will come and what it will be.

Once your dog reliably responds to a cue, become more random. Avoid reward patterns such as ball toss, ball toss, treat. Also avoid reinforcement patterns such as giving a reward for every fifth response. Dogs quickly pick up on such patterns, and the training suffers accordingly.

Should I ever completely stop giving treats/rewards? 

No- to do so would be unfair to your dog. Imagine starting a job, and getting regular paychecks. If you trusted your boss to pay you, and one day your paycheck was a day late, then you’d probably still come to work. Now, imagine that once you got really good at your job, you completely stopped getting paychecks! You’d probably stop working, wouldn’t you? 

In the same way, we should never completely stop giving our dogs toy/food rewards. Eventually, you want your dog to be able to do as you ask even if you don’t have such rewards. But always give your dog something, like verbal praise, petting, or access to something your dog values in the environment (like going outside). It’s the human way to say “Thank you” to your dog for doing something you like. Make sure to reward using food or toys some of the time, too. 


If your dog’s behavior starts to break down and become less reliable, that’s a clear sign you are getting too stingy. Be sure to reinforce more often and with better rewards. Check that the rewards you use are actually interesting to your dog. It’s not reinforcement if the rewards used aren’t rewarding.


Say Please: How to Make Time for Training, Teach Your Dog Not to Rely on Treats, and Empower Your Dog to Ask for What He or She Wants

What is it?

A training strategy that uses everyday situations to reward good manners and practice obedience without setting aside hours of special practice time. In training, you are basically teaching your dog a foreign language, and without regular practice, your dog will forget what was learned. This is also a great way to get your dog to do as you ask, regardless of whether or not you have food. 


Applying the principle of Say Please is simple. Whenever your dog wants something, you have an opportunity to ask him to do something first. Before you open the door to go for a walk, throw a toy, and so on, you can ask your dog to say please by sitting, doing a down, spinning or performing whatever trick he knows. Make sure to only ask your dog for things that he truly knows (i.e. has a history of doing upon request, 80% of the time, in the environment you are in).


With this strategy, you and your dog both win. You get a well-trained, polite dog, and he gets what he wants (his belly rubbed, his leash taken off at the park). What’s more, you have laid the foundation for an enjoyable relationship for a lifetime. With practice, your dog will learn how to ask politely for what he or she wants, so this strategy empowers your dog as well. Wouldn’t you like your dog to sit in front of you when she wants something, rather than whining or pawing at you? 

How to use it.

Step 1. Make a list of all the things your dog wants and enjoys. 

Step 2. Decide which of those things you will no longer give away for free. See them all as training opportunities, and ask your dog for an obedience behavior or trick you want strengthened. 

Step 3. Give him what he wants as a reward for that behavior.

Step 4. Repeat, every day, in the situations you have decided upon. 

Ideas for when to use it:

Before throwing a ball, Frisbee, rope-toy, etc.

Before giving him a toy.

Before putting the food bowl down.

Before handing over a treat or chewie.

Before opening a door.

Before putting on a leash to go for a walk.

Before taking off a leash at the park or beach.

Before dishing out a belly rub or good ear scratch.

Before hopping into or out of the car.

Before allowing your dog onto the couch with you.

Training Tip: Be patient. Practicing cues in new situations can be a challenge. For instance, a sit at the door when your dog is eager to get out for a walk is harder than a sit in front of you.

Behavior Modification

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Basic Obedience

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New Dogs

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North Shore Dog Training Services

Located on the North Shore of Massachusetts, The Mindful Dog offers thoughtful, effective training for a variety of behavioral issues.