Chess and I have the most amazing connection, love, respect, communication, and adventures together. This trust and these behavioural patterns were mostly created in the very beginning. The start of your journey together sets the tone for the rest of your lives, it is an integral time in your relationship with your dog.
Did you know that owners can spend thousands doing everything they can to turn around
avoidable behaviours? The information following is the kind that will in essence slowly put people like myself out of a job. However if that were to happen, I’d rest easy knowing I’ve been successful in getting the right education out there (undoing the mess that is being taught by some well meaning but naive trainers).
During the past 7 years I’ve trained over1000 dogs; which has honed my experience, understanding, knowledge of dog language. I have seen time and time again where things typically go south for dog owners. These days my focus is more on what happens after things go sideways - typically just past the puppy stage and older.
If you are getting a puppy or have one, and are reading this, you’ve probably seen a lot of opposing opinions and information out there. Crate, don’t crate. Use a harness, no harness. Raw food or kibble. Positive only or balanced corrections. How do you make sense of it all? Buckle up folks because you’re about to get a master class in sifting through the bullshit and finding what works for you and your puppers.
Here is a look at Chess and my experience looking back through a now trained eye!
WHAT WE GOT RIGHT:
o Largely stayed away from the internet and did what made sense for us, him and our life.
o Trusted my instincts, common sense and used connection and play to teach (including
obedience), learning the way he thought and moved.
o Allowed him to spend time alone from the beginning, usually after exhausting his mind
and needing a big puppy nap.
o No day cares or kennel stays.
o Right from day one I made sure he knew he has to ask to sit on the couch/bed, that
jumping up on legs is invite only, that chickens, ducks and squirrels are to be loved not
o Started the process of play training like fetch right from the start.
o Allowed him to process through fearful moments without a word, or fuss from me. Watching him
come out the other side seeing that things were actually ok.
o Neutered him at 6 months.
o Crate trained (he learned the crate is his neutral zone, his safe space).
o Kept communication clear, simple and consistent. Never wavering on the rules and
boundaries – including when friends were interacting with him.
o I observed his body language in different situations, with different people and dogs.
o Looked at the world through his eyes as much as possible, seeing him learn, be curious.
We rolled around on the floor together, every day.
o Practiced him following me right from the start, with and without the lead.
o Making it normal and exciting to be close to me, not going too far away.
We didn’t really go anywhere for the first few weeks. Being such a baby at 9 weeks we mostly played on the floor together while establishing a routine that allowed house training to be very quick and easy. He found out right away what was his & what he was allowed to chew. We had challenges like apartment living. With commitment and learning each other’s language through connection/play it wasn’t long before he would start to tell me what he needed.
For those with kids who are looking into a family dog, I advise against getting the herding breeds. Ie) Shepherds, Collies, Australian Cattle Dogs or highly intelligent breeds who require a lot more mental stimulation than is typically possible with a busy family life (especially in the early stages). These kinds of dogs require a lot more one on one time. As well everyone in the home must be consistent with training and communication, including the children.
WHERE I FELL SHORT:
- Not understanding how to stay in control of Chess’ state of mind in more exciting situations,
which created some issues down the road.
- Going to dog parks – this was our main digs for play when living apartment life. I wouldn’t do
that again (dog parks)… Too many bad influences and poor behaviours to pick up on.
- Dog socialization – I had a lack of understanding around his frame of mind. I will be more
selective of who my puppy plays with next time. Choosing older more chill dogs. Also, not needing them to socialize with so many. A few reliable dogs is best.
- Not having any correction knowledge until almost a year in! We wouldn’t have needed much at
all, but it would have made a huge difference in a couple of situations. Using balanced corrections would.have nipped a few unwanted behaviours in the bud rather than wasting time later trying to
train those out.
- I failed to teach him to relax when people came over because I was enamoured and thought
everyone should be too. That created a learned pattern of high excitement around new people –
which was less than ideal!
- I didn’t understand to advocate for him and others in dog social settings early on.
- Used a choke chain as a corrective tool… I know now prong collars and e-collar training are
much kinder and fairer training tools (when used correctly by an experienced person).
- My lack of understanding around how trick training and using treats for too long was winding
him up, not actually reinforcing the behaviours I was trying to teach him. (this includes, agility etc as well).
Pairing constant high energy from me with never-ending treat training /trick training meant Chess was always hyped up and would never really chill out in the real world. I thought it was largely contained until he saw other dogs. Or we would run into friends he knew and loved and again he was sent over the edge. He meant well but it became “too much”. I lost control with overstimulation; his impeccable obedience flew out the window - treats didn’t matter and I didn’t exist. I’m thankful we didn’t end up in any dangerous situations, I didn’t realize how risky being in a perpetual state of excitement was. At the time I didn’t know about any of the tools available or how to use them effectively.
In hindsight, I would have loved to know about the pinch collar as well as what the high-octane type of training we were doing was creating (an excitable pup with poor listening skills). In fact, I may have never even needed the pinch collar if I wasn’t so set on teaching obedience by treats for so long. Later on, after I clued in he really started understanding what the behaviours were that I was asking for. I can still see the change in him these days at 8 years old. When training or doing tricks now he’s in a different zone.
I would like to share with you some tips to help you avoid needing to hire a trainer. There was a lot I did when Chess was a puppy that I look back on now and pat my new puppy owner on the back for. I largely brought Chess up using my instincts & play while not fighting his natural body movements. There were definitely things that I fell short on. To name a big one - I didn’t realize I needed to manage his energy/excitement levels! Which would have been really helpful since Chess is a Stafford. That terrier mixed with the bull kinda created a lil Tasmanian devil when over excited.
If you are struggling with behaviours and need help, or there are some “strange” behaviours, please seek help. This isn't suggesting not to hire if needed.
It’s your responsibility to create a canine good citizen, regardless of breed, size, genetics and
temperament. It’s your job to lead these magical little beings through our world guiding them,
challenging them, and building them up. Our human ways and world are unnatural to dogs. To be a good leader means clear communication, clear boundaries, knowing who you're leading and being generally balanced in your emotions/energy while interacting with them. A good leader creates a trusting and respectful follower. Love, affection and connection are also incredibly important. When our dog feels our softness and our love for them there is a togetherness that strengthens the bond between owner and fur friend.
Our playtime from 9 weeks on looked like us sitting on the floor with toys and creating games that were geared to him. Born from observing the way he moved or the seeming silliness we enjoyed together. There are games that he and I play still that make no sense to others, especially dogs. We started the process of fetch while he was excited about a particular toy we were using - I’d throw it above his head and watch him pounce on it. As he would pick it up, I’d show glee and excitement which made him look my way while mirroring my excitement. At the same time I’d stay engaged and playful , waiting until he'd naturally drop the toy (repeating the cycle over and over). The connection with me, the excitement for the toy and the rewarding behaviour would have him learn that dropping the toy also equals joy.
Learning starts right from the first interactions. Dogs learn in baby steps. To get to an outcome we are looking for there may be 3 steps or 8 depending on the dog and the degree of difficulty in the task. As he starts to tire out or show less interest in the toys, I bring out the treats and with the same kind of playfulness we start to learn the basics of obedience. Sit, Down, Heel, Follow Me and Come were all taught early, just like a game. As the obedience started to be useful later, he still really enjoys playing our little games. He had so much pride in his Heeling with the cutest little staffy butt strut. ♥
Something I didn’t do much of was search the internet on how to do things. I knew the basic things that were important in behaviours. Getting him to do them (in fun) right from the beginning by using
connection and his natural ways of moving. There was no need for me to see how other trainers would teach a dog to sit, with intuition and observation it just came naturally to us. In learning to read him I saw his “weak” areas. For example, he was a little afraid of being on his back so
with the energy and fun of game time, he started to learn Roll Over - this was a great help to moving past such things, and as a bonus was the base of many future ticks.
Sometimes, things like Roll Over needed a lighting quick helping hand to move him through that scary moment, then with a lot of praise and a treat on the other side it became fun instead of worrisome.
Games early are not just about “play”. When playing, be weird and a little erratic, imagine down the road being at the playground around kids, and how that might look. Mimic those kinds of potential behaviours and situations in your training/play. You are starting to build their confidence in themselves and you for when you inevitably encounter unpredictable situations, people or atmospheres. Stick your fingers in their ears, touch their nose, (gently) pull their tail, their ears, roughhouse with them a little (mindfully). Grab at their feet, push them away, pull them in. All these done while throwing the toy or rolling around, in moments that make sense. These are where silly unique to you two kind of games start to form.
When doing this from early on, all these things though important are just naturally normal and create comfort in touching, poking, pulling etc. Not only is it helpful for regular social, but it also helps with things like going to the vet.
If you find there are areas of training that are particularly nerve racking or frustrating for you, reach out for support. You and your pup can figure ways to make those lessons more pleasing for both of you. It’s going to be easier to change things up and make corrections as a wee baby versus at 6 months, or 2 years when “behavioural issues” have become a learned pattern.
Stopping puppy biting and teaching things like “gentle” are easiest to curb AS the behaviour begin.
Remember, things aren’t cute forever! Like when puppy Chess was jumping up on my legs to get pets, I created a cue so he knew when he was allowed to jump. Gently correcting the jumping behaviour when he would do it without the cue, he started to learn that it was only ok to jump up on myself or other people when the cue was given.
Until they get their shots there isn’t much to do outside in the real world, so use this time wisely, you
will be set up for success when you start to explore more. With your strong bond and connection
created moving out into the world of new experiences, people, places, noises and other dogs you will have a good understanding of your puppy, their cues and how to handle anything that may arise. Ie) If something seems scary to puppy you will see it and understand they don’t need coddling through it. They need you to wait and allow them to move through the perceived fear, realizing death to you or them did not occur - therefor building confidence.
Not all dog owners will understand this but one of the coolest things I started to do when walking the streets and seeing new things for the first time - I really tried to view those moments through Chess’ eyes. His wonder, his fear, his joy. I didn’t try change it, or control it, I was right there with him. Gaining a deeper understanding of him and how he see/reacts to the world allowed me to be more in tune with his needs while we are out. I can quickly assess situations and decide what to do with his best interests in mind.
Crate training was great, especially after playing those directed games. Exhausted and fallen asleep in my lap I’d get up and pop him in the crate – a space that was already set up comfy for him. I’d watch as his sleepy eyes would close again and I’d quietly close the door to allow him to nap. When they are young and you are really stretching their minds in those play times, they will sleep like a log a few times a day. As I heard him starting to wake and stretch - before there is any time to signal wanting out, I would have opened the door and he would sleepily wander out. This way there was no need to escape, run out, whine/bark etc. After a couple of days consistently practicing this the crate becomes the safe neutral place. The relaxing place. The nap of a lifetime place. He knows he can come here any time he wants to relax or feel safe.
As soon as he’s out of the crate and his little body is waking up, I pick him up and take him outside
knowing he’s going to need to go potty. I would take him to the same spot and once he goes I tell him what a great job he’s done. This is how you start to house train. Same routine waking in the morning, after eating, before & after sleeping etc, in the first few days you have already taught them what is accepted as “normal”.
In the first couple of months by using treats, toys as redirection, and giving them quiet time in the crate you have started your little friend off on the right foot.
Chess really was a dream puppy, in part that was his nature and the rest was because of the above. By the time he had bigger things to learn and deal with, we had trust, we had communication, we had respect and unconditional love (which saved his life ultimately). From the very beginning, we had learned each others body language, what our noises meant and because I didn’t use a lot of words in play, the ones I did use became known and understood very quickly. When saying “Chessie” in a firm “Oh no, what did you do?” kind of tone he knew his behaviour wasn’t ok. Or that my body positioned in a certain way was a communication to do something specific. While keeping my body language natural I stayed aware of my own movements, building words and tones in with the physical communication.
From my self perspective now, one of the big the things I didn’t know then that would have been helpful was energy control. Doing tricks and lots of treat training, and being a terrier, he could become pretty wound up. So, as he started to get older he began to throw his weight around in situations or generally get over excited. I wasn’t in control of his state of mind. Which meant sometimes I was that fool at the beach trying to stop my dog from being a tool and having him not listen. We had some embarrassing moments through his teen years because of this for sure.
The command “Place” would have been a wonderful thing to have known about to teach calm,
especially given we did a lot of high energy state of mind play like tricks. Tricks, agility, tracking etc are all things that create drive but if you miss training the other side of the spectrum (calm), you will have a bit of a nut on your hands! All high energy training can create anxiety, silly choices, over excitement, lack of ability to self soothe and the like. This is often the place leash reactivity is born, or dog fights, or not listening (can’t hear you), chasing things etc. Imagine you have to learn something new for work but you just drank a couple energy drinks and there are lasers with loud music playing – how well do you think you’re going to absorb to instruction? This is how it can feel to our fur friends when they’re highly stimulated.
This was the biggest place I failed us. If you have any kind of excitable, neurotic, or driven breed or dog, you may already know exactly what I’m talking about! You can create drive in dogs that are not naturally driven; and you can relax naturally driven dogs. A nervous dog can also be bossy; and a bossy dog can be quite amenable. You can turn any dog into a biter. You can create anxiety in the most relaxed dog.
To avoid these, lead your dog, know your dog, advocate for your dog. If your dog lacks social etiquette with other dogs, calling them hyper and allowing the continuance of it will be your undoing. Behaviours and states of mind build if not corrected. Guaranteed! A puppy’s crappy behaviour won’t just go away as they age, as they age the crappy behaviour is your reality just in a bigger, stronger, more willful body.
Don’t expect them to hold your big emotions for you. Or know what to do with them.
If you have mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, anxiety etc, be aware that these cute little beings turn into bigger protective beings who grew up believing that you require their assistance in places that you may not have intended. They may move people, kids, partners, or dogs away from you or your space. This will come in the form of “dog” (otherwise explained as “behavioural issues”)…meaning they will growl, show teeth and potentially end up biting unsuspecting perceived threats.
Love, snuggles and lounging with our dog are important parts of dog ownership; however when the line between leader and follower is blurred, you are putting too much responsibility on your dog. By modelling good behaviour and maintaining leadership your dog will understand what you are asking of it. By putting in the work now you are setting yourself up for success. Meaning you and your dog will live happy, healthy lives together.