A Collaborative Goal-Oriented Approach to Dog Behavior Consulting.

How to book clients you love, get better outcomes, and make more money by reimagining your relationship with your clients.

Every time that I scroll through Facebook, I read stories of trainers’ burn out, imposter syndrome, frustration with clients, and financial struggles. It’s sad to see so many people so frustrated doing a job that brings me so much joy. It’s even sadder to see really good trainers leave the industry. Many factors contribute to high levels of dissatisfaction, but the biggest source seems to be our clients. I’ve seen the same complaints over and over for years:

  • Clients won’t commit to doing the work that it takes to help their dogs.
  • Clients don’t comply with our recommendations.
  • Clients make great progress only to drop off after a few lessons
  • Clients don’t respect boundaries and always want more.
  • Clients choose trainers who use punitive methods and promise quick fixes over positive trainers.

Many of us swing back and forth between blaming our clients for these problems and blaming ourselves. It’s not our clients’ fault. It’s not our fault as individuals either. The fault lies with huge blind spots in our professional culture that keep us from seeing what our clients need. It may not be our fault, but as the experts taking people’s money for our services, it’s our responsibility to fix it. Fortunately, other professions have faced very similar blind spots and developed systems to overcome them. We can all enjoy our clients a lot more, have better training outcomes, and make more money if we follow their lead.

Dog Training’s Blind Spot

Dog training culture fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the service we provide. This meme illustrates the problem perfectly.

Sure, it’s a joke, but it reflects what most of us think we need to be good trainers: expertise in dog behavior. That’s how it works for most services. When we hire someone to fix our car, build a deck, or take out our appendix; we know what we want and what to expect from the process. The work has a clear beginning and end. The people doing the work need very little from us to successfully complete it. Those realties mean that one can study just auto mechanics, carpentry, or medicine/surgery and then go out and do good work.

Dog training is different. Most of our clients have no clue what they really need, what’s possible, or what to expect from the process. We have to teach them what’s possible, and that often means rethinking their relationship with a cherished family member. We also need them to do most of the work and to get their entire family on the same page. That’s asking an awful lot of our clients. We need to ask more of ourselves to help them get there. Knowing dogs isn’t nearly enough. We need training systems informed by a deep understanding of human learning, communication, and motivation.

A blind spot for the client’s experience isn’t unique to dog trainers. We see it whenever highly educated specialists provide services to laypeople whose diverse needs, resources, and habits have a big impact on whether or not the work succeeds. Experts tend to think that we have all the answers if only or clients would listen. It’s not that simple. Experts never have all the answers in fields like ours.

Our biggest blind spot is that we think we know what our clients need. We don’t. Most trainers teach our clients to do what we would do. That’s not what they need. Dogs and training play vastly different roles in our lives than in most of theirs. Training’s much more than a job for most of us. It’s our hobby and our passion too. That makes us terrible role models for our clients. They don’t want to learn dog training. They just want to enjoy life with their dogs, and that usually looks a lot different to them than it does to us.

Every family has different experiences, knowledge, values, capabilities and resources that determine what they need from us, what they can realistically contribute to the process, and what success looks like to them. We need to understand all of that. It plays as important a role in shaping good training plans as analyzing the dog’s environment, learning history, genetics, and emotions. We as a community, however, spend exceedingly little time talking about that stuff. That needs to change.

Clients get confused and frustrated when we skip the work of understanding their needs and helping them understand how we can help meet them.  They often wind up bailing out of processes that they don’t understand and that often aren’t practical for them. When that happens, we tend to blame our clients’ “non-compliance” and they tend to blame us for not knowing our stuff. Everyone winds up confused, frustrated, and maybe even resentful. Structured processes that facilitate mutual understanding can solve this problem.

Examples of Doing It Better

I’m far from the first person to point out dog training’s blind spot for our clients’ experience, but I have a unique perspective on the problem. I’ve had 2 previous careers where I facilitated collaboration between experts and the people they serve. Both fields faced similar blind spots. My work in both of them centered on changing cultures and developing processes that helped experts better understand and serve our clients. We need similar changes in dog training. Well-structured processes can take a lot of the mystery and frustration out of client relations.

When I studied international development, I constantly encountered examples of Western experts giving truly terrible advice to African subsistence farmers because they didn’t understand the local climate, culture, history, and economics. They would fly into a capital city, do a little research in the library, and then go tell farmers to adopt Western industrial farming practices. It was a lot like dog trainers spending 30 minutes taking a history and then telling clients to train the way that we do. When farmers didn’t “comply” (my least favorite word in the industry), the experts seldom wondered what might be wrong with their advice. They blamed it on the laziness, ignorance, or superstition of the people that they were very sincerely trying to help, just like many dog trainers. The experts didn’t know what they didn’t know, and didn’t particularly care to find out.

In the 90s, a movement developed to better account for the big picture in development. Interdisciplinary teams did ground work before a project began to help assess local needs before specialists arrived. They took the radical step of asking local people what they needed and created processes to give locals a much greater role in planning and prioritizing projects. Many experts resisted. They viewed the preliminary work the same way that many of us view talking to clients before they book a program or consults that don’t get right to training: as a waste of time. When they started doing it, however, the results were dramatic. It led to more practical, sustainable, impactful, and less corrupt projects that accomplished more with less money.

I witnessed a similar dynamic working in IT during the dot com boom. Programmers would sit down for a few meetings with the suits about what new systems were going to look like, and then just start coding. Nobody wanted to “waste” too much time and money on defining the problem before getting down to doing the “real” work. Disaster often ensued. Countless 7 and 8 figure IT projects wound up being complete busts that customers couldn’t use because the programmers didn’t actually understand what the suits needed and the suits didn’t understand how programming worked.

Again, the problem was the system, not the individuals. The IT industry recognized the problem and embraced wonderful systems for gathering customers’ requirements and making sure that the end product met those needs. It turns out that investing the time at the beginning of any complex project to get everyone to agree on a definition of the problem and and how to solve it saves a ton of time, money, and frustration. Dog training is no different.

A Collaborative Goal-Oriented Model of Behavior Consulting

I’ve spent the last 12 years working to apply the lessons of IT and development work to dog training. My wife, our team, and I have created processes that help us to truly understand our clients’ needs, properly educate them on what’s possible, and get them to buy into our training plans. It works. Our clients commit to the amount of training that they need up front. They almost always complete their programs. They virtually never question our methods or expertise. We seldom have to enforce boundaries because they’re built into the system.

We still struggle to motivate some clients to do their homework, but they seldom blame us when that happens. It has been a commercial success too. In a city filled with franchises and punitive trainers promising quick fixes, we outcompete them all to keep 9 trainers busy primarily through previous client and veterinary referrals.

An ethos of service and collaboration guides our structured sales and training processes. Understanding and solving the client’s problems drives everything. We work in partnership with them to solve their problems rather than telling them “the right way” to do things. That doesn’t mean that we do whatever a client says or wants. We very much adhere to our ethics and our style of training. We just take some time to help a client truly understand how we could help them in order to determine whether we’re a good fit.

We have processes designed to help us understand clients’ needs, educate them on what’s possible, work together to set a plan, and keep it moving forward. It does take more time and effort up front. Many trainers recoil from that prospect, but it takes less time than you might think with a properly structured process. It’s a small price to pay for booking clients who share our ethics, respect our expertise, commit to and pay for the right-sized program up front, do their part, and honor our boundaries.

Our process has 4 key phases: Inquiry, Education, Goal-setting, and Assessment/Feedback. There aren’t always clear boundaries between the phases. It’s also not a linear sequence where you do 1, 2, 3, 4, and then you’re done. It’s an iterative process where we can revisit one or more phases throughout the training process.

Inquiry: What does the client need?

We want to know a lot about our clients as well as their dogs when they contact us. How many people live in the home? How old are their kids and how engaged are they with the dog? What’s their schedule like? What do they like to do with their dog? What dogs have they owned in the past? What training experience do they have? What are their pie-in-the-sky ideal goals for their dog’s behavior? What’s their budget? We use questions to drive the conversation and avoid getting trapped listening to long narratives.

The answers to these questions determine what sort of training program we suggest. Many trainers base their recommendations solely on the dog. Given the same dog, they suggest the same program for an active single 20-something with lots of free time and for a busy family with 4 young children. We pitch very different programs to those 2 clients because they have very different needs.

There are a lot of ways to get this information: emails, phone calls, questionnaires on your website, history forms, short in-person or virtual meet-and-greets, initial consults, etc. It’s all about structure. I seldom spend more than 15 minutes on the phone with a prospective client. If that’s not enough, my process allows me to steer them towards a paid consult to dig further into their case.

Clients want to know about us too. They want to know program details, what they can expect to achieve, what training methods we use, etc. There are lots of ways to provide this information too. For most of us, it starts on our website or Facebook page. Giving clients the information that they want online is critical, but most also want options to ask about their personal situation. The more we help clients understand what we do, the more likely we are to have a successful collaboration.

Any number of factors might stop a client from booking with us in the inquiry phase: price, scheduling, methods, or just a lack of rapport. We might also opt to refer them to someone else for a wide range of reasons. Either outcome is a good thing if the client wasn’t a good fit.

Education: Teach clients what we can offer

Once I know what a client wants and what they can contribute to the process; it’s time to educate them on what’s possible. I walk them through how what I learned in the inquiry will likely impact their training experience. I usually review more than one program with clients and try to paint as detailed a picture of what each might look like as I can. I go over what we will do, what we will need from them, what it usually looks like, what can go wrong, and how we’ll handle it if/when things go wrong.

Focusing on honest education takes all the yuckiness out of sales. My sales process is super low pressure. I might talk a client who needs basic obedience training through a $175 class, a $700 coaching package, a $1900 day training program, and a $2800 board and train program. Most of the time, I sincerely don’t care which one they choose. My goal is for them to make a truly informed choice where they understand what they’re getting into and can commit to what it demands of them.

Goal Setting: Creating a joint plan with everyone’s buy in

This one makes a lot of trainers nervous. Unscrupulous trainers who make ridiculous promises have made some trainers reluctant to talk about results at all. That does not help us compete with unethical trainers or to provide quality service. It requires a tremendous leap of faith to just hire someone at an hourly rate when they won’t tell you what you can hope to get out of it. People want solutions; not an open-ended commitment to learning a new skill.

Goals are at the absolute center of our process. In the inquiry phase, we find out what the client needs. In the education phase, we help them understand what it will take to get what they want. In the goal setting phase, we set specific objectives. It’s a collaborative process where we outline different strategies for reaching different goals and the trade-offs between each one. We give our clients choices and that gives them a sense of ownership over the training plan. It’s not just us telling them “the right way” and them “complying” with our advice. We create a plan together.

I try to only sell programs that will meet specific goals. Selling 4 sessions to someone who needs 8 demonstrates a lack of shared commitment to see the process through. That sets everyone up for failure. Clients are the experts on what they need from the dog, but we’re the experts on how to get there. If they won’t commit to a full program, then they’re not a good fit. Only booking clients who commit to do the work means that we make more money with fewer clients and less frustration.

We use training agreements written in plain English that describe our goals, our entire process, and clearly define everyone’s responsibilities. There’s no legalese. Our trainers write them and the style is friendly and explanatory. The agreements also describe how we will handle any difficulties meeting those goals. That leads to our final phase.

Assessment/Feedback: Keep making it better

A collaborative process acknowledges that no plan is perfect and creates a process for identifying and addressing problems. Building assessment and reevaluation into a structured process sets the expectation for struggles and adjustments. It sets the stage for friendly problem-solving conversations. Nobody needs to blame or judge anyone else. We’re just working together within a mutually agreed upon framework to solve complex sometimes unpredictable problems. Clients tend to be extremely understanding and flexible when problems are identified and discussed early and regularly.

How and when we assess depends on the type of service. The first few days of board and train, for example, involve significant assessment. We commit to tell clients by then if we expect big problems meeting any goals. If that happens, we give them choices. We might set a more modest goal, drop less important goals, extend the training period, or abort training and give the client a pro-rated refund. If we don’t’ catch a big problem early, we take responsibility and we usually do extra work for free.

For coaching plans, assessment happens at each lesson. We take some time to explicitly discuss whether we are on track to meet our goals. If we aren’t, we try to determine why. Is the dog harder to train than we expected? Do the clients have less time than they thought to practice? Is the family struggling to consistently follow management rules?

No matter how you do it, the important thing is that everyone knows that we might encounter bumps in the road and that we have a plan for handling them.

A Work in Progress:

Just like our training plans, our client collaboration process is always changing. When it was just me and my wife Mel, it was easy to do all of it ourselves. When we started hiring trainers, it got a little trickier. When COVID hit, our processes suffered too. We had more unhappy clients in 18 months than we would normally expect in 5 years. Many factors contributed to the problems. Fortunately, I didn’t blame the clients, my staff, or myself. I didn’t feel helpless. I just saw a need to review and revise our processes. Focusing on the process takes so much of the emotion out of it. It’s just another interesting problem to be solved, and that’s why I love my job.

The family that Zooms together, stays together!

Remote Training is Convenient, Effective, and Fun!

Are you looking for private coaching lessons to help you train your dog but find that most trainers are booking many weeks, if not months, out for lessons? Do you need to get help for your dog training challenges right away?

Training Tracks is proud to offer remote learning programs that can help you address a variety of training challenges
  • puppy nipping and chewing
  • potty training
  • conflict between dogs in the home
  • resource guarding
  • separation anxiety
  • crate training
  • counter surfing
  • focus and attention
  • jumping and other unwanted greeting behaviors
  • door dashing
  • and more!
We offer convenient and flexible scheduling options and can get most clients started in a customized learning program right away.

How does it work?

First, we get to know you and your dog. We want to know about your family and your goals for your dog. Then, we create a customized training program based on your goals! Next, we set up weekly Zoom meetings to check in on your progress and set new goals each week, assigning practice exercises. We encourage clients to check in between sessions, reviewing videos of your session together, giving feedback to keep you on track.

A happy success story

Our friends and clients Gayle and Bob, recently completed an online learning program. Here’s what Gayle had to say about their experience!

“My partner and I took on two mini-Aussie puppies in the midst of the pandemic. We had reached a point of frustration that had us on the brink of returning one of them to the breeders. Fortunately we were able to begin a series of remote sessions with Casey. Soon we were sending her videos of the two dogs’ negative interactions, zoom walk-throughs of our yard and crate arrangements, etc. She in turn was giving us demonstrations of the correct way to train and intervene,sometimes even using her own dogs to demonstrate. She sent us custom-chosen links to youtube trainers demonstrating exactly what we needed to learn, gave us play-by-play suggestions when house guests were about to arrive, sent recipes for homemade dog treats, encouraged us when we got discouraged. Thanks to Casey and the miracle of technology I’m happy to report that we are now a happy, stable family of four!”
We are super proud of the amazing progress this family made during our
work with them and are thankful that Bob, Gayle, Chewbacca, and Ruthie chose our training family to help theirs!

If you’d like us to help you train your dog to reach his or her ultimate “best friend” potential, please contact us at info@trainingtracks.com today to schedule your appointment!

Why More Trainers Should Embrace Positive Reinforcement Dog Board and Train

Board and Train Reinvented

Board and Train programs in general have a bad reputation, and for good reason. But are there ways to reinvent this service for the benefit of our clients, their dogs, and our businesses? We believe the answer is YES!

A veterinarian recently called to discuss our positive reinforcement dog board and train program in Cincinnati. She was skeptical after bad experiences her clients had in traditional programs, and she had strongly discouraged our mutual client from doing a board and train. I sympathized with her objections and explained how our services are different, suggesting she contact some of our partner vets as a reference. After learning about our programs, she is now happy to send us clients

Many R+ trainers have similar reservations about board and train, but trainers across the country are reinventing the service in exciting ways. I’m hoping that the trend catches on and that more positive dog trainers embrace it.

Traditional Models:
Where They Go Wrong

Why are so many animal care professionals skeptical about board and train?

  • Low Level of Care: Many board and train programs have one or two people responsible for the 24/7 care of at least 10-12 dogs. Dogs often spend 20 – 22 hours each day in a crate or kennel, leaving dogs unsupervised in commercial spaces for up to 12 hours overnight. Not surprisingly, stories of serious health crises and neglect in such programs abound. All of that kennel time can also stress dogs out and impede learning.
  • Lack of Transparency: Many programs ban owner visits with the false claim that it will impede training, sending few photos and videos, leaving owners in the dark about their pets.
  • Heavy-Handed Training Methods: Traditional board and train programs often rely on electronic training collars (aka e-collars or shock collars) or forceful corrections with metal training collars. Trainers often go overboard with these already-risky tools when facing the pressure of a deadline.
  • False Promises and Limited Human Training: Too many board and train programs talk about dogs like they are cars. They offer hollow guarantees. They give owners very limited instruction, leaving them unprepared to maintain the training.
  • Impractical Training: Old-school approaches typically rely on techniques used to train working police and military dogs who are always either “on duty” or in a kennel. These programs train dogs as staff, not family members. They don’t teach the sort of automatic practical manners that good family dogs who spend most of their lives not being under command.

Live and Learn, NOT Boot Camp

I agree with everyone who says that these sorts of board and train programs often do more harm than good, but we have reinvisioned board and train. Both we and our clients love it. What’s the difference?

So what do you look for in a good dog board and train program? It comes down to a few simple things:

  • High quality transparent care: Good board and train programs meet a dog’s needs for affection, exercise, play, and enrichment. We provide 24/7 care and help owners keep track of their dogs with photos and videos. We encourage visits. Dogs practice manners off-leash in home-like environments. They get playtime and cuddles. This level of care means higher staff costs than traditional programs, but it’s worth it.
  • Practical Training:   Quality board and train programs don’t follow a recipe. We teach what clients need. Families don’t need precision-trained working dogs who follow long lists of commands. They need low-maintenance default behaviors that work in real life without special equipment. They need dogs who don’t jump on kids, counter surf, or eat their stuff without needing to be leashed and “on task.” They want walks to be a fun, relaxing experience; not work. Skilled positive board and train delivers exactly those sorts of results.
  • Positive Reinforcement Board and Train: Contrary to what many trainers think, board and train complements positive training beautifully. It eliminates one of the bigger challenges positive trainers face:  getting clients to stick with the early foundation work long enough to see the payoff. Positive training is perfectly suited to teaching the sorts of practical default behaviors that family pets need precisely because of the time that we put into teaching foundation skills that foster communication and trust. That early work can be boring and difficult to master, especially for beginners working with unruly dogs. Owners may get discouraged or frustrated and give up on training, concluding “positive training doesn’t work.” Board and train lets us do that hard part for our clients, so that they will enjoy training their dogs when it’s their turn.

Our clients don’t want to become dog trainers. They just want a well-behaved dog and that’s OK. Pet owners don’t need to master learning theory, ethology and spend countless hours drilling behaviors to have a wonderful relationship with a great family dog. They do need to learn some of that, but they don’t need to be experts and they certainly don’t need to train an unruly dog from scratch.

Everybody wins when trainers do the hard part. We get to do more of what we love, do it right, and make more money doing it. Clients get much faster, better results without lots of boring repetitive work (and they’re more than happy to pay for it)! When you throw in that it’s more fun for the dogs and that – unlike traditional methods – kids as young as 7 or 8 can implement it, old school board and train can’t compete.

Focus on the People: Our clients don’t need to become amateur dogs trainers, but they do need training. Good board and train programs train dog owners just like any other training model. Learning to train with a dog who already knows how to learn, however, makes it so much easier for owners to master the skills they need. We can teach in a week what may take a busy client a month or more to train. This approach also allows us to solve problems which would be difficult if not impossible for many of our clients to achieve on their own.

Colleagues, if you’ve always dismissed board and train because you think it can only be done with harsh methods, that it won’t work because “owners have to do it themselves to learn to do it right,” or because you associate it with false promise, high-pressure sales pitches, I hope that you’ll take a second look at some of the innovative R+ programs out there today. If there’s one near you, they might be a great place to refer those clients who struggle to do the beginning work themselves. If there’s not one by you (and in too many cities there aren’t), maybe it’s a niche that you could fill.

Nice to meet you! A new team member intro

Hello friends!

If you’ve contacted Training Tracks lately and asked for a call back, you may have noticed an odd area code calling you back. If you answered, you may have noticed an even weirder person on the other end of the line. It’s me! Casey.

Back in the fall, Jeff had posted to his facebook page that Training Tracks was looking to bring on a new team member to help the business continue growing. Because of COVID, I’d lost my job as the general manager of a small brewery here in upstate New York and I’d been considering dipping my toes back into the dog training pond again. I responded, and Jeff and Mel welcomed me to the Training Tracks family back in September.

I live in upstate New York in a small city called Binghamton. It’s about an hour away from some other small cities (Syracuse, Ithaca, Scranton) which may be more familiar to you. I have a little house and two very fluffy rescued Chow Chows. They were rescued together from a place in Michigan and times were hard when they adjusted to life in a new home together. Years later, we have been able to go for years between fights, something I never imagined would be possible! (Note to self: training really works if you work on it!) They are naughty and delightful and have kept me going through difficult times. They’re my best friends, Austin DANGER Chowers and Mrs. Kensington (Missy). Austin is Jeff’s best buddy after Jeff and Mel’s visit last spring on their way to pick up Mel’s new girl, Nanshe, from an airport in NYC.

The nerd herd, Austin DANGER Chowers (a suspected Aussie Chow mix) and Mrs. Kensington (Missy), a pure bred Chow. Both rescued from Wild Pups Dog Rescue in Michigan

I’ve been lucky enough to mentor under my Karen Pryor Academy faculty member Steve Benjamin of Clicking with Canines since I started training. I had the great opportunity to assist him through many KPA workshops. Eventually, I began doing a lot of writing, editing, and publishing, so I’ve got quite a few articles out there and have either contributed to or edited a fair number of training books. I’ve served as the Director of Animal Behavior and Training Programs at a couple different animal shelters. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching dogs and their humans in lessons, seminars, and conferences in many cool places.

I met Jeff and Mel serving on the Board of Trustees for The Association of Professional Dog Trainers many moons ago. Over the years, I have enjoyed spending time with them in Cincinnati and spending time with them in their Oxford home, usually with a board and train puppy or two snoozing in the guest bed with me.

When I’m not training, I’m probably knitting, listening to books or podcasts, or playing video games. I like swimming and fresh air and sunshine. My favorite human is my mom. I like drinking tea and my dogs have recently discovered the joys of chamomile. I miss hugging people, visiting breweries, and live music. I miss scratching puppy bellies in class. I’m terrified of needles unless they are for tattoos and never imagined I’d be so excited to someday get a vaccine.

I’m really excited to be a part of the Training Tracks family and to work with such an amazing group of people who love dogs but most importantly, love our clients and helping them build better friendships and relationships with their dogs through the power of positive reinforcement training. I’m thankful for our clients who have been so patient with me as I learn more about your community and botch attempts at pretending I understand the lay of the land surrounding both of our locations. Hopefully soon the weather and public health situation will improve so I can come back for a visit and learn more about both of the communities we serve.

I’m hard at work developing some new programs for Training Tracks so we can serve you and your family better in these difficult times. I understand there are very real challenges facing pet owners during this public health crisis and have been collaborating with colleagues to create innovative solutions to problems unlike those we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes.

At the end of the day, we all need a best friend to get through this, and I’m thankful for the chance to help you teach yours how to reach his or her full bestie potential.

Best wishes to all of you, and stay safe out there. I’m looking forward to working together.

Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP

Pandemic Puppy School!

New Year, New Puppy? Join Pandemic Puppy School!

Are you struggling with a new puppy at home? Would you like a friendly place to vent about your challenges, receive support from other owners who are going through the same experiences and advice from expert puppy trainers? If so, we would love to welcome you to our new group Pandemic Puppy School! We are hard at work developing some new and creative programs that will help our clients continue to raise puppies that mature into well-adjusted, great family dogs. We will be announcing those new programs as they launch here on the website but the first is up and running and we would love to welcome you!

Many families have welcomed puppies into their homes to bring a bit of joy to these trying times. We have launched a Facebook group free for all puppy owners to join and get tips, videos, blogs, and general puppy raising advice. We’ll be covering topics including biting, nipping, potty training, DIY toys and enrichment, dog play and socialization, body language, basic manners, you name it! We will continue to offer individualized training and popular programs like Puppy Camp – Total Immersion Board and Train and our Puppy Training Day School for clients who would like personalized coaching and a customized training plan.

Online dog training

You can join us at Pandemic Puppy School so you don’t miss any of the fun! Membership is open to any puppy owners, anywhere, so feel free to invite your friends. Post pictures of your puppies, talk about any training challenges your facing with our trainers and with other puppy owners who also have holes in their clothes and pants from those sharp puppy teeth!

I’m going to be posting some blogs here on the Training Tracks website that will also be shared in the group, but for the full content, follow us on Facebook.

The Training Tracks family wishes you a safe and happy new year. Thank you for entrusting us with your best friend’s education!

Dog Training Tips for Stopping Pulling on Leash

Ah, spring. That time when a dog lover’s fancy turns to long walks with his best friend and dog trainers phones start ringing off the hook. A long winter can wreak havoc on a dog’s leash manners, so now is a good time to do a little refresher training to ensure that both you and your dog enjoy walking together. Here are a few simple tips for brushing up on your dog’s manners.

Don’t let your dog become magnetized to people or other dogs:

Dogs get into all kinds of trouble when they expect to greet every persons and dog that they meet. Dogs who see a walk down the street as a social affair also tend to be dogs that pull on leash, dogs that jump on people, and dogs that ignore their owners. In extreme cases, dogs who are magnetized to strange people can become so frustrated by their inability to get to those people or dogs that they develop leash aggression. We teach a specialty class for leash aggressive dogs at Training Tracks and it’s never busier than in the first few warm days of spring.

One simple technique can prevent your dog from becoming magnetized, decrease pulling, and stop jumping on strangers. With the “park-it” command we teach our dogs to sit at our side, look at us, and wait for permission to say hello to people and dogs we meet. The best part is that it takes very little focus or effort from you. As you approach someone, simply tell your dog “park it,” and step on your leash to take away the option to run up to people and jump all over them. Next, have your dog sit and treat him while he holds the sit. Once he calms down, you can tell him to “say hi” if and when you wish.

You can see one of our board and train dogs learning this technique in this video:

Train your dog to stop pulling and walk on a loose leash

Walking your dog should be a cooperative endeavor, not an endurance event where your dog pulls you down the street and you do your best to hold on. Your dog should keep the leash loose instead of pulling and check in with you regularly as you enjoy your walk together. The biggest barrier to a nice relaxing walks is a dog’s opposition reflex. Dogs are hard-wired so that when we pull them one way, they fight it and pull the other. When your dog drags down you down the street with a taut leash, this reflex gets stronger and stronger. Polite leash walking start with reprogramming that reflex.

The early exercises for teaching loose leash walking are boring and repetitive, but they work. Find a place with few distractions (like your driveway), mark out a straight line about 30 – 50 feet long, and walk back and forth in a straight line. Whenever your dog hits the end of the leash, use a cue like “uh-oh” and do a 180 degree turn and resume walking in the opposite direction. This teaches that dog that when he hits the end of the leash that pulling isn’t an option. Instead, he should check in to see what you are doing and adjust his pace to yours. It doesn’t take long for most dogs to figure out that paying attention to you makes walks more fun.

You can see one of our board and train dogs, Indy, get his very first lesson to stop pulling on leash here. Indy pulled Lindsay down the street like a maniac on his way to this first session, but you can see that he starts paying attention pretty quickly. Note that we are in the middle of the blacktop driveway far away from distractions to make it easy.

Once your dog learns not to pull on leash in a boring environment, you can take him to a busier area with more distractions. In this video, another board and train dog, Jedi, showing off what the process looks like after 4 or 5 sessions:

It takes a couple of weeks of this repetitive back and forth training to train your dog not to pull at all, but it’s worth it. Walking with a dog who doesn’t pull on leash and pays attention to you is safer and a lot more fun.

Don’t let your dog meet strange dogs on leash, but if you must, do it this way:

Ask any dog trainer, and they’ll tell you not to introduce your dog to strange dogs on leash. Meeting on leash causes all kinds of problems. For starters, when a leashed dog feels threatened or afraid, he doesn’t have the option to run away from another dog. Fight or flight no longer applies. If the dog feels that he must protect himself, aggression is his only option. Another big problem with on leash meeting is that dogs who haven’t been taught to “park it” and have become magnetized to strange dogs are often frustrated and behave rudely when they finally approach another dog. Finally, if you don’t know someone, you can’t trust their word that their dog isn’t aggressive. Some people are in denial, some dogs are just developing aggressive behavior (this is particularly common in the spring with dogs who haven’t been for walks in a couple of months), and some people will lie. I’m going to repeat my advice. Don’t let your dog meet strange dogs on leash.

After 20 years of dog trainer, I have unfortunately learned that this advice very often goes ignored. People introduce strange dogs on leash all the time in spite of trainers’ warnings. If you insist on doing this, take some precautions. Teach your dog to “park it” and have him do so for a a bit before saying hi. When you do let the dogs interact, make sure not to let their leashes become tangled.

For the purposes of this blog post, we let the stars of the videos above meet for the first time on leash. We normally would never introduce dog like this, but we wanted to demonstrate a very important safety principle. When introducing dogs on leash, be very careful not let their leashes become tangled. If a fight breaks out when the leashes are entwined, things can get very ugly. Make sure to circle your dogs as they interact so that there is always a straight line of you, your dog, the other dog, the other handler and leashes stay apart as demonstrated in this video

The Importance of Puppy Socialization

Did you know that the period of 7-16 weeks of age is crucial to your puppy’s proper development? Extensive socialization during this period may be the most important thing you can do for your puppy!

What is socialization?

Dogs aren’t born loving and trusting people. They learn it. Most adult animals are naturally suspicious of anything unfamiliar. Young animals, however, have a period of openness and curiosity as they how their world works. During this “critical socialization window” puppies learn to accept the sites, sounds, and people in their environment. It’s critically important that they have a wide variety of safe positive experiences with people, sights, sounds, and environments during this time.

Why is it so important to socialize my puppy?

Poor socialization poses a huge threat to your dog’s well-being. Shelters report that behavior problems have become the number one cause of pet relinquishment. Thousands of families each year relinquish dogs to shelters due to behavior problems. Most of these problems could have been easily prevented by proper socialization and a bit of early training. Reasons to socialize include:

  • Balanced Personality: Well-socialized dogs are more comfortable and friendly in different situations.
  • Preventing Aggression: Objects, people, places, and noises a dog is not socialized to can create fear and/or aggression. Dogs isolated during the optimal socialization period will encounter many new things as adults that can cause behavior problems. While people offer a wide variety of explanations for the behavior of dogs that are fearful or aggressive, the vast majority are simply under-socialized.
  • Quality Healthcare: Poorly socialized dogs can be difficult (even dangerous) to handle. Regardless of your veterinarian’s skills, it is difficult to deliver optimal care to a fearful or aggressive dog.
  • No Do-Overs: The optimal socialization window begins closing quickly. Dogs can still be socialized afterwards, but it requires much more work. You cannot procrastinate with socialization!

What does good socialization look like?

Give your puppy the widest possible variety of positive experiences. You want to teach him, “New is good. New won’t hurt me. I shouldn’t be scared of New.”

  • Saftey First: Until your puppy is fully vaccinated, it’s safest to avoid areas that might be frequented by unvaccinated dogs. Dog parks or even parks with lots of people walking their dogs are out. Shopping centers are great, but avoid those with pet related businesses.
  • People: Expose your puppy to people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and races. Anything that makes a person move differently (bikes, roller blades, wheel chairs, crutches, a limp, etc.) is good for your puppy to encounter. So is anything that makes a face look different (hats, hoods, sunglasses, scarves, etc.) Toddlers and elderly people are particularly important for puppies to encounter if they aren’t part of your daily life.
  • Sounds: Expose your puppy to a wide varity of sounds like traffic, heavy machinery, the vacuum, grocery carts, etc.
  • Surfaces: Teach your puppy to climb on things and make sure that they have good experiences with grass, gravel, wood, conrete, the table at the vet’s office, etc.
  • Let Your Puppy Set the Pace: Never force or even coax your puppy to approach something when he doesn’t want to. He’ll overcome his shyness much more quickly if he can approach on his own terms.
  • Manners Matter: While it’s good for your puppy to meet a large number of people, it’s also important for him to learn to ignore people and other dogs. We don’t want puppies being magnetized to every person and dog that they see in public. When you’re out in public, your puppy should be focused on you most of the time and ignoring most people. You should keep your pup close to you when first encountering new people and only let them say hello with persmission.

Socialization and problem prevention at home

Socializing a puppy also means teaching him to accept and even love things that aren’t necessarily natural for dogs to tolerate:

  • Food Bowl Exercises: Dogs don’t generally share food and bones, and food guarding is the most common kind of aggression that most dog trainers see. If we start before they are 16 weeks old, however, we can teach them to love giving things up to us.
  • Handling and grooming: Puppies usually love being picked up and cuddled, but adult dogs naturally do not. Proper socialization will teach a puppy to allow handling for veterinary care, grooming, or whenever you need it.
  • Easy resolution of problems: Genetic predispositions can contribute to a variety of serious behavior problems, but we can often solve these problems easily if we can catch the warning signs in a young puppy. By 5 or 6 months of age, problems like aggression, separation anxiety, and shyness can already take several times as long to address as it would for a puppy under 16 weeks.


When Should I Spay or Neuter My Dog?

spay-neuterOne of the trickiest questions that I get from my dog training clients has little to do with dog training, but people are asking me more and more often: “When should I spay or neuter my dog?” My answer generally boils down to “It’s complicated. Talk to your vet. Do some research.” It’s not just a coincidence that more and more people are asking this question. Recent research into the health effects of early spay neuter has reopened debate about the long-standing consensus in favor of early spay/neuter among animal professionals in the US. Some of these studies suggest that early spay and neuter can have a variety of negative impacts on our dogs’ health, but the issue is far from settled.

As a dog trainer, I’m reluctant to answer these questions for my clients. I’m not a vet, and I have no special expertise on health matters. Fortunately, I now have somewhere to send all of you who have asked me about this. Dr. Patricia McConnell has tackled the subject on her blog. I couldn’t be happier about that. Trisha has an unparalleled ability to present complicated scientific questions in an entertaining and accessible manner without sacrificing detail or complexity. Whether you want to dig into the details of the studies informing this renewed debate or just read a good summary from one of the smartest people in dogdom, check out this article for both links and analysis.

As with any health issues, discuss when you should spay or neuter your dog with your vet. I’m a huge advocate of pet owners making informed decisions for their pets. I spend a lot of time educating myself, but – in the end – I don’t have the training necessary to put everything that I read into perspective or to understand how it might apply to my individual dog. I rely on my vet to do that for me. I will only take my pets to a vet who keeps up with developments in the field and is willing to explain my pets’ health issues and options to my satisfaction. I do research so that I can ask the right questions and understand the answers, but I ultimately rely on the the trained professional who knows my dog to help me make the right decisions.

Why Does My Dog Ignore Me?

Three Things You Must Understand to Get Your Dog to Listen to You

ignore-dogWhy does my dog ignore me?Does your dog ignore you when you call him to come or give him a command? “Why does my dog ignore me?” is one of the most common questions I hear from week 1 students in my dog obedience training classes. Some of them take being ignored as a challenge to their authority. Others get their feelings hurt and worry that their dog doesn’t love them. In reality, most people whose dogs ignore them have unwittingly trained them to do so.
Dog training comes down to one simple principle: The behavior that is rewarded gets repeated. Set your dog’s life up so that behavior you want leads to Good Things for Dogs and behavior you don’t want doesn’t, and you will have a well-behaved dog. Simple, right? It can be, but first you have to understand how to make your dog connect rewards with the right behavior. To do that, you must understand 3 key differences between our brains and dogs’ brains.

Silence is golden

Your dog thinks you talk too much. Trust me. He does. Friends and family may hang on your every word, but not your dog. Dogs have their own natural “language,”, but it doesn’t have words. Dog language is visual. They communicate volumes with their posture, their tails, their eyes, and their ears. For this reason, their first instinct when trying to figure out what we want is to watch us; not to listen to us. Our constant talking is just noise to them.

Try following this simple rule. If you tell your dog to do something 5 times and he doesn’t do it 4 of those times, stop telling him to do it. Training happens every time we interact with our dogs, whether we notice it or not. If you keep calling your dog or telling him to get off the counter and he doesn’t listen, then you are actively training him to ignore you. We need to make our words count in dog training. So what do you do if you can’t repeat a command to a dog who is ignoring you? You change your focus, which leads to our second big difference between how dogs and humans experience the world. Learn more.

Timing is everything

When we get hung up on what we can do or say to prompt our dogs to behave, we have it backwards. Remember the first principle of dog training? The behavior that is rewarded gets repeated. The consequences of a dog’s behavior determine how much of that behavior we’ll see in the future. If good things tend to follow a behavior, a dog will do more of it. If they don’t, he’ll do less of it. We create motivation by controlling what follows behavior. Once we motivate a dog to do something, putting it on cue is the easy part.

Proximity in time matters almost as much as order. Dogs are truly creatures of the moment. Our own brains stay busy analyzing past events and contemplating the future. Not our dogs. They live completely in the now. To communicate effectively with them, we must learn to do the same. Our feedback on their behavior must always be about what they are doing RIGHT NOW. When your dog does something, you have about 2 seconds to weigh in on it, and that’s if you’re lucky. If, for example, your dog sits when you ask him to, but then jumps up on you before you’ve had a chance to deliver a reward, you’ve lost your chance.

The hardest time to follow the rule that our feedback must always be about the dog is doing right now is when our dogs make us angry. When you displease us, we humans want to tell you about it … and tell you about it … and then make sure you really understand. A dog’s reprimands, on the other hand, stop when the offending behavior stops. If you want to make sense to your dog, you must learn to change direction on a dime. If your dog strands you at the dog park for an extra hour by refusing to come when called, for example, you’re going to be really frustrated. No matter how angry you are, you must praise and reward that dog when he finally comes. Because he associates your behavior with what he is doing right now, scolding will only make him less likely to come next time.

It all depends

I only ban one phrase in my dog training classes, “He knows this. He does it at home.” People are almost always wrong when they say this. It’s a natural thing to assume. If my dog lies down whenever I ask him to at home, but won’t do it in class, then he must be ignoring me or challenging my authority, right? Wrong.

Humans excel at abstraction and generalization. The gift of language allows us to effortlessly understand that the word “sit” applies to planting our rear ends on the ground, on the couch, on a bar stool, etc. Dogs don’t think that way. For them, everything is context specific. Just because that funny “sit” sound that you make predicts Good Things for Dogs who plant their butts at home doesn’t mean that it applies in other venues. When our dogs fail to comply with commands in new situations, it’s not defiance. They honestly don’t get it. I prefer to think of mistakes as questions. Do I have to sit when you make that noise in class? What about when the doorbell rings? What about when…Squirrel!!!

For this reason, I also like to think of training as more like exercise than like teaching commands. In weight lifting, you start with a weight that’s a bit of a struggle and lift it repeatedly until it’s easy. Then you add more weight. In dog training, we break our ultimate goal down into little pieces, start with something slightly challenging, and do repetitions until it’s easy. Then we make it a little harder. Asking my dog to sit when we’re alone in the kitchen is like asking him to lift 5 pounds. Asking him to sit when the pizza delivery guy rings the doorbell, gets everyone barking, and stands outside smelling amazing is like asking him to lift 500 pounds. You don’t get from 5 pounds to 500 pounds overnight. You have to do lots of repetitions at ever-increasing levels of difficulty to get there.

You’ll learn numerous training techniques in obedience class, but you will apply them more effectively if you remember 3 things: every word counts, timing is everything, and it all depends (on the context). Happy training!

How to Politely Greet a Dog

Dogs, dogs everywhere!

Now that the weather is finally nice, dogs are enjoying lots of outings with their owners. And they’re all so adorable – it’s human nature to want to pet and interact with each and every one of them :-).


However, some dogs are bashful and need some time to feel comfortable before allowing you to touch them, and others might not want to be petted by strangers. What’s the best way to ensure a safe, fun interaction for all involved, and what are some signs that the dog might not appreciate the attention?
Here are some tips on How to Greet A Dog!

1) First, ASK the owner and WAIT to hear the complete answer.

Ask from a distance (in case the dog is scared of strangers), and WAIT to hear the answer before charging up. Often, people just assume the answer will be yes, and the question is just asked “because that’s what you should do to be polite”. Give the owner time to answer first. The answer may be “yes”, but it might also be “yes, but …” Wait to hear what’s on the other side of the “but”. The dog may have to sit to earn the opportunity to greet, or there may be other rules attached (such as “don’t pet her if she jumps”). Or, there may be other important instructions from the owner (such as “please let her approach you – it might take her a moment or two”, or “please pet her under the chin, not over the head”).

For example, if you see Mel uptown with a board-and-train dog, she will likely say, “yes, but… he has to sit first, and be released to go say hi”. We have noticed that most people only hear the “yes”, and as she is trying to get the dog to sit, the person charges up and starts petting. It’s a frustrating situation for the person trying to train the dog, and confusing for the dog who is trying to learn the rules.


2) If the owner says yes, then ASK the dog.

Be polite – the dog will be much more likely to want to interact with you.

  • Rule 1: Do not stick your hand in a dog’s face so he can sniff you. He could smell you long before you got that close. Sticking your hand out can be considered a threatening gesture for a fearful dog, and it’s just not necessary. Everybody does it, but dogs do not appreciate it. And we’ve seen people get bitten that way. Instead, stand where you are, with your hands at your side, and let the dog come to you.
  • Rule 2: If the dog does not come to you, accept that. Instead, talk to the owner about her dog. Ask his name, what his breed is, or what his favorite activity is. Perhaps with some time the dog will approach you, but if he doesn’t, he is giving you useful information – he is telling you he is not interested in interacting right now. Be polite, respect the dog’s desire for distance, and don’t push the issue.
  • Rule 3: Pay attention to the dog’s body language. Learn to read canine communication — their body language will tell you if they are comfortable or not. Signs of stress can include tongue flicks, yawning, and turning away. Also, be aware that a wagging tail does not always indicate friendliness. Here is a great video on canine body language — watch it and learn how to read what dogs are telling you!

3) If the owner says no, please respect that.

And don’t get offended, or say something passive-aggressive about how if the dog can’t be petted it shouldn’t be out and about. Dogs are not public property. You have no more of a “right” to go up and pet any dog in public than you do to hug someone’s child. There are many valid reasons an owner may say no:

  • The dog may be shy and learning to be comfortable in public, and trying to pet the dog might scare him and set back his behavior modification program.
  • The dog may be a service dog doing his job, or a service dog in training, and should not be distracted.
  • The dog may be in training, learning to ignore the distractions around him (including friendly strangers).
  • The dog may not feel well, and may not be in the mood for interactions with strangers.
  • The dog may be tolerant of touching by strangers, but might simply not enjoy it.

4) When the dog approaches you, pet him on the chin or chest – not on top of the head.

Use proper dog-greeting etiquette! Most dogs aren’t comfortable with hands reaching over their heads. It’s the way humans tend to pet, but it’s not the way dogs would prefer to be petted. If you do it anyway because you forgot and the dog pulls his head away, don’t do it again – instead, try reaching under the chin and then working around towards the ears or to the chest. Also, don’t loom over the dog – they can find that scary. Bend at the knees, not at the waist.


5) Follow the 5-second rule.

Pet the dog for 5 seconds, and then stop. WAIT and see if he asks for more. If not – respect that. Some dogs want only a small amount of touching from strangers, and then they’re done – if they retreat, they’re telling you they don’t want more petting at the moment. Don’t walk after the dog to pet him more – wait until he approaches you again. If he does not, see #2 above.

If you follow the rules above, you can help dogs feel at ease, and you will also greatly reduce the chance of a bite. As a bonus, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many dogs choose to approach you for petting, and at how many owners say “wow, Fido doesn’t approach many people – he must really like you!”