Category Archives: Canine Science

Meditation For Dogs?

Impulse control is one of the most common problems with “problematic dogs”.  They see the squirrel/postman/dog/bike, and they are gone. You do not exist to them anymore.

And, the typical training responses are:

A- Correct them big enough so they will listen

B-  If you get a high enough value treat, they would listen.

C- If they “respected” you, they would listen.

I’m sure there are more, but, you get the point.

Here are the problems with those.

They work. In the short term, they totally work.But they cost you in different ways.

A- You can correct the shit out of a dog and get it off of something. But….. Unless you have the hardest of the hard dogs, it going to damage the relationship. Never mind that it can damage the dog. But, you see this with old school trainers. Their dogs are obedient as hell, and totally under control. But, their squinting like they’re looking into a spotlight. Flattened dog. Not my idea of a good relationship.

B- You can put a handful of treats in the dogs face and “magnetically” draw them away from whatever got them nuts. Totally works. But you have to have higher value treats than the “distraction”. And you have to have them all the time. And your dog is excited by the food, and so you end up with this hyper, fat, stressed out dog. Not to mention the stressed out parents! There is a very familiar look on their face as the get to the bottom of the life saving bag of cheese.

C- If you live with the dog skillfully in your home. They wait for their food. They yield you space. They listen to you INSIDE. But….. OUTSIDE…… They’re a monster. I don’t think the problem is “respect”. If they didn’t respect you IN the house….. Maybe that argument would have legs. But, I see TONS of people who have angels in the house, and a devil on the streets. Those dogs (generally) don’t lack “respect” they lack impulse control. So, the “respect” camp will say “Rules, Boundaries, and “Limitations”. Obedience to correct behavior. And it sorta works. If they’re “downing” they aren’t chasing. But the problem comes with how you keep them doing these things when they get REALLY excited. And now we’re back to the bigger “Carrots and Sticks” issue of the above A, and B.

Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use food, or corrections. I use both. But you should use them to TEACH….. Not to “manage”. And that’s a HUGE difference.

Nice. Sounds good. So what.

Now that everyone is mad at me……

I’ll tell you what I do.

I teach my dogs to meditate.

Ok, that sounds like hippy shit….. But it’s kind of true.

The “Place” command is meditation for dogs.

The place command, is asking your dog to lay in a bed (or whatever) and stay there until you release them. But, it really goes much deeper than that. For them to be ABLE to stay in their spot, they have to have some self control. They have to be able to stay calm, even through temptations. Now, that is good for your ability to manage them. But, honestly, it’s really just good for them to have that kind of emotional control. Dogs are cute wound up, and playing…. But…. For their own sanity, and health, they really should be ABLE to bring it down for a bit. A long “stay” is a great way to develop those skills. They end up working the same kind of skills as people when we meditate. They learn to relax into this spot, and stop fighting the urge to get up. They learn to have a thought enter their head and try to steal their attention, and let it go without having it break them. They learn to center themselves, and allow distractions to come and then go. No shit, it is meditation for dogs.

Now, I chose “Place” and not a “Down” because I’m way more concerned with geographic location, and emotional state than a particular position. The “Place” command allows them to stand up. Stretch. Circle around. Whatever. Just stay on the bed, and stay cool. Now, they don’t have to stay there forever. But, should be able to stay there for at least 30 min. Then when they can manage that, you go to novel places or add other distractions!

Yes, you food and corrections to shape this skill, but the point is to get to as little food and corrections as possible. Ideally, I want the relationship (Social +R and -P if you want to get fancy) to be the motivator.

The whole point of this isn’t to have the “Place” as a management tool. That’s just a cool side effect.

The point is to help the dog literally increase their ability to SELF REGULATE. It is just like meditation for people.

And, just like meditation for people the benefits will show in areas off the Place/Meditation mats….

That improved impulse control can solve a ton of issues. From separation anxiety, to different types of reactivity.

It allows the dog to be able to display their respect for you, and listen to you ask them to ignore the squirrel/postman/dog/bike.

So,  teach your pup, the long “place”. Understand what it’s for.

Teach your dog to meditate.

Hell, you could learn how and do it with them.

Probably wouldn’t kill you to learn to relax a little yourself!

The Only Rehabilitation Philosophy You’ll Ever Need

From the Pack To Basics Facebook page:

There is lot of talk about dog rehabilitation these days. We used to just call it dog training, but now we have a fancier word for it; makes it sound more important, difficult and complex I suppose. Nothing wrong with that. But in the end, no matter what methods you are using the approach is ultimately the same. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself positive based, or balanced. It doesn’t matter if you use clickers or ecollars. If you speak of “extinction” or “punishment” or even “dominance” if your rehab is to work in the long term you have to follow this process (whether you know that’s what you are doing or not). It’s simple (though not always easy) and if you succeed, your rehab will also succeed. If you fail, then ultimately, the rehab will too.

I call it The Golden Road to Rehabilitation and it goes like this: Let the old path become overgrown and difficult to navigate while making the new (preferred) path easier and more accessible.

This may sound trite at first, but this simple expression contains a complex and far-reaching truth. As you will see, we are not merely dealing with things on behavioral level. This approach actually approaches rehabilitation on a physiological level.

This Golden Road requires that we deal with two powerful motivating factors. Most behavior modification approaches focus on the fact that most beings will consistently seek out the path of least resistance. But there is one significant exception to that principle which can throw a serious wrench in that approach. That is when we are dealing with habitual behavior. We will often cling to habits that are inefficient and create more stress and chaos because, well, that’s the nature of habits. Habits become ingrained physiologically in a specific part of our brain and become somewhat involuntary. For example, people will often reach for a light switch in a room and flip it a few times even if they know that the bulb is burnt out. Or in another situation, stand outside an elevator and see how many people press the button when it is already lit. So we cannot rely on simply creating an easier path to the desired goal when the problem is habitual.

This is why the first component of the Golden Road is “Let the old path become overgrown.” You see, this “path” is not merely a metaphor. I am speaking of neurological pathways. As behaviors are reinforced and practiced they change the physical characteristics of the brain. So when we are changing habits we are re-organizing the brain. By denying the use of specific neural pathways we literally make it more difficult to perform the undesired behavior. When I say to let the path become overgrown this is what I mean. We stop traffic down those neural pathways (as much as we can) in order to diminish their usability.

There are a number of ways we can do this, but the consistent thread must be that the dog (at the very least) can no longer engage in the unwanted behavior. That may mean we anything from simply taking away the opportunity, to interrupting each attempt to the application of an appropriate aversive. Whatever the situation calls for and whatever you, as a trainer/handler are comfortable with.

Rarely are aversives necessary in this process, and strong aversives even less so. This is especially true if the first path you steer the dog away from is the path of adrenaline and instability. I point this out because it was solving the adrenaline paradigm that forced me to realize that the two-fold approach is the most effective way to get the job done. The adrenaline pattern isn’t strictly a behavior issue, nor is it an entirely voluntary process for the dog, and it is almost always habitual by the time the dog gets to see me. So we are dealing with a strong, largely involuntary habit that is not about a specific behavior but about a state of mind. To successfully and consistently deal with this issue, requires a good understanding of the Golden Road (if only an intuitive one). As I started to really get into this process the details became more clear and my intuitive understanding of the give and take of these two goals grew. But it wasn’t until I was reading a book about behavior on a neurological level that an intellectual understanding became more clear.

I used to say behavior modification was all about changing habits, “The first thing you have to do to stop smoking is to stop lighting cigarettes. Until you do that, you haven’t begun to quit. And the moment you start lighting them, you’ve stopped quitting.” This approach served me well for years. And I helped a number of dogs and dog owners by simply getting their dogs out of the old habit. The problem with that is that habits take time to break. It worked, but it required a lot of persistent management from my clients. A few moments of lapsed attention could set them back weeks because the dog had no internal motivation to change and plenty of motivation (habit) to revert to the old behavior.

So while the first step is to weaken the power of habitual behavior, making it easier for the dog to choose an easier path, simply weakening the habit will not finish the job in many cases. We need to add another process.

This is where”Do this instead” comes into play. We teach the dog an easier path to gain what he wants. This is a valuable tool, but on it’s own, it can’t always break a habit. Without the first part, it may not do anything at all.

Regardless of how hard we try to slow traffic down those neural pathways or deny the intended reward if we don’t build that new path, we may never get rid of the old habit. Consider the habit of looking at your watch to check the time. I haven’t worn a watch in years, but I still find myself looking at my wrist from time to time especially if I am wearing a wrist band of some sort. This is because habits are not always diminished when the reward is diminished or removed. However, I have a new habit that is more prevalent. I search my pockets for my phone. This is a much more complicated ritual than looking at my wrist, and if both produced equal results looking at my wrist would be superior by far. But the the former doesn’t produce the desired result so it has stopped being the default. However, if I didn’t have the phone, I would likely still be looking at my wrist every time I wanted to know the time.

In this case, we are adjusting the the neural pathways in the brain through consistent use. We are making the desired behavior not merely more desirable, but physiologically easier to perform.

As you can see, the combination of these two valuable principles creates a situation that will ultimately result in the dog choosing a different set of behaviors when faced with old triggers.

The dynamics of the process will vary from dog to dog, case to case, and trainer to trainer, but these two goals are at the heart of all successful rehabilitation regardless of the method or approach used, and regardless of whether the rehabilitator understands them on more than an intuitive level. With a full understanding of the principles of the Golden Road, and the resolve to succeed, there are few problems that are unsolvable.

Calming Signal Or Stress Signal

Apparently, there’s a little “controversy” going on regarding “calming” signals.

Some people call them calming signals, and mean that they are signals that the dog is calming down. As in, they are self soothing, and those are the “tells”.

Other people say that they are “stress” signals. As in, the dog is worried and feeling anxious, and those signs are their “tells”. I’m not talking about ALL “stress signals”. I’m talking about the overlapping ones. Obviously, “Whale Eye” isn’t a “Calming Signal”. The arguments occur in the overlapping ones. “Yawning”, “Shake Offs”, Etc…..

Still, other people say that they are trying to calm other beings down. This is popular socialization circles. They see the dog doing “Shake Offs” and feel like it’s not a “tell” of their feelings, but that they are actually trying to signal the other dog to calm down.

These discussions can get heated.

(Of course….. everything gets heated on the internet)

So…. Who’s right?

They all are.

Dogs use signals for all of those reasons.

Communication evolves. And here is my opinion of how these developed.

Dogs naturally display certain indicators of relaxation. These are the classic indicator type of calming signals. The dog isn’t consciously doing them. They are “tells” of their deepening relaxation.

When this is done enough….. Dogs have trained themselves in conditioned relaxation. As in, they associate those actions with a deepening sense of relaxation, and when they start feeling stressed, they do them in an attempt to induce the sensation associated with it. It’s the same signals designed to self soothe. Same signals….. Drastically different causes.

This happens when they interact with other Dogs. They feel stressed, and so they display those signals. The other dogs see this and (if they aren’t rude little shits) back off a bit. Dogs see the pattern, and realize that those signals can induce relaxation in others. Now they are using them as a communication. Same signals…. Another TOTALLY different cause.


That doesn’t seem helpful.

If they can mean all three things, how are you supposed to know what they mean?

Ah….. The same way that you know your wife is pissed, before she says a word. The same way you know your best friend has a secret they’re just dying to tell you. You get to fucking know your dog!

The same expression can mean they are getting calm, and that calm is leaking out. They’re getting stressed and trying to self regulate. Hell, they can literally be asking you for help with that same signal! As in “Mom….. help! I’m scared of that!”.

Your main job in this relationship (hell in ANY relationship) is to learn their communication. It’s about very subtle differences, and context.

If my dog is laying in front of a fire place and yawns….. He’s probably deepening into “relaxed”. That’s a calming signal.

If I’m having him face some of his issues during training and he yawns. He’s probably self soothing. And that’s a stress signal.

If he’s playing in the yard with dogs, and yawns out of nowhere, and that’s just before play stopped for a second. That was a calming signal as in “hey let’s take it down a notch”.

You have to go through training and life experiences with your dog until you “know” what they’re saying.

So, they’re all right.

Pay attention to your dog, and let them tell you what they mean.

Next time you are on the internet with someone over the meaning of dog signals….

Quickly look over your shoulder and see if your dogs isn’t sitting there just trying to tell you something.

It’s a relationship. Go relate.

Freeeeeedom (think braveheart)

Chad Mackin, renowned dog rehabilitation expert, told me once that “The slack leash should be the primary reinforcer”.

I know from my stints of wasted time at the various correctional facilities of my youth, that being restrained is infuriating.

The problem is, the way most people use the leash, it is strictly a device of restraint. It keeps them from getting to things they find interesting. So, the leash is a source of serious frustration and stress.

Here’s the real problem…. We aren’t even consistent with that!!!!!!! Sometimes, we give up because the leash frustrates us as much as it frustrates them. So…. We say “screw it”, and give up on restraining them just let them pull us to whatever it is.

That is HORRIBLE!!!!!

That’s because studies show that intermittent reinforcement INCREASES motivation!!!

Yep. That’s right. It’s like lottery tickets. If you win just often enough…. It keeps you playing.

So the way it plays out is this:

The dog wants to get to something and is restrained. This creates huge frustration….. So he tries really really hard. And sometimes….. Sometimes….

Sometimes, it works if he just pulls HARD ENOUGH.

That makes him more motivated to pull, and when he is not successful, he gets even more frustrated…… and yep…..

pulls harder….. and gets MORE FRUSTRATED!!!



Well, neato, that’s what’s wrong. What the hell do you do about it.

You have to change how you see the leash. It isn’t a handcuff on a rope. It’s the “string between two cans” we use to listen to our dogs.


You, AND your dog have to view the leash as the way you communicate, and navigate.

The biggest reward you can give a dog (or a person for that matter) is freedom, and autonomy.

You have to TEACH them how to make the right choices. And the leash helps you do that. The leash used masterfully, reduces frustration. It’s a beautiful thing to see. Here’s a clip of Chad working with a dog at a socialization seminar. Watch the details. It’s super subtle. But man it’s profound.

I have been studying and practicing this method religiously for a few months now, and the improvement in my dogs, and the dogs I work with has been nothing short of miraculous.

If you want help with your leash skills and you’re in Maine, contact me and I’ll try to help. And if you want to learn from the master….. Check out Chad at Pack To Basics!!!

I’ve Changed My View On Pit Bulls And Dog Aggression

Ok. Ring the bells. Blow smoke out of the chimney….

I’ve changed my mind about something.

Now, if you know me, you realize how big a deal that is. I’m a tad stubborn. But, I think it’s only a fool that keeps their old position in the face of new evidence. So here is my revelation:

All Pit Bulls are not genetically dog aggressive!!! 

(Not all pit bulls are genetically predisposed towards aggression. And, while it may be more prevalent in this breed, it is still extremely rare. They aren’t ALL born to fight.)

Now, in the world of dog rescue, this has been the accepted position for a LONG time. And I have always disagreed. And it’s started a lot of “discussions”.

See, I grew up around the world of fighting dogs. And what I saw, was dogs that were clearly aggro to dogs and totally cool to people. So, when I went into rescue, I was in the position of convincing people that “just because they are aggressive to dogs, doesn’t mean they are aggressive to people”.

But, then as I got more into rescue circles I saw MANY Pits that fought, socialize with other dogs. I couldn’t resolve that in my head. Of course, and no one in rescue likes to admit this, but….. There IS a higher predilection for fighting with bullies than other breeds. And their play style is OBVIOUSLY harder. So…. There is a difference. But…… How to wrap my brain around it?

I think I figured it out.

Their communication sucks.

Wait…. No….. That’s not it.

Well, it is technically, but I figured out the reason their communication sucks!

My new mentor, Chad Mackin, is one of the most respected experts in rehabilitative socialization. And he said “Aggression is not a trait….. It’s a behavior“. That BLEW MY MIND. Because I had always thought the increased dog aggression I saw in Pits was genetic. But in the last few years I’ve successfully integrated multiple Pits with aggressive histories into my home. And I thought I had just  been “managing and preventing” their fighting. But after reading about Chad’s work in socializing….. I knew there was more to it.

So…. What are the traits that we bred into them that created the aggression behavior.

Well, we bred them with a SUPER high pain threshold. And Lot’s of drive (they adrenalize easily). So. So what? Why would that make them fight?

Well, fights are painful. So fear of injury and pain are a deterrent for most animals. But we bred Pits to have crazy high pain tolerance. So, we removed one barrier.

Now, we get interesting. In the wild…. Fights are expensive. If you get a cut…. You can die of an infection. If you get a broken leg, you can be killed by a predator. Or not hunt. Not good. So smart animals avoid fights. Problem is When you’re in adrenaline mode, your ability to make choices goes way down. Chad likes to say that “dogs can’t make the right choices, unless they’re in the frame of mind that allows the to make choices”.  He means, that when a dog is adrenalized, he CAN’T make choices. He reacts. Well, we bred these guys to be “drivey”, “motivated”, whatever. What that means is we bred them to get into the frame of mind that stops thinking about the cost of what they’re about to do is. And that removes the last reason.

And that’s how fights happen.

The “calming signals” that dogs throw at one another are designed to let the other dog know, that they don’t want a problem. But these signals are also called “stress signals”! And that’s accurate. See, when a dog feels wary of a possible fight…. They feel stressed. And they throw those signals. The other dog sees them and throws their own. Then both see the other as wanting to avoid the fight.

Here’s a super common “Pit Bull gets in a fight” scenario:

Pitty runs up to another dog throwing ZERO calming signals, because he doesn’t feel like it’s necessary. After all, he’s not scared. Then, the other dog starts throwing signals, and the Pit doesn’t recognize them because he’s either never been around other dogs, or at least other non-bullies. So, he doesn’t have much experience reading them. So he keeps being “rude”. The other dog goes up the continuum and gives some “warning signals”. The Pitty has no idea what this dog is “getting aggressive” for and goes into adrenaline, which renders him unable to consider the risk reward of a fight. Boom…. Fight happens.

If that happens enough. The Pit will get conditioned to go into adrenaline habitually around other dogs. Now you have an “aggressive” dog.

Looking back to my childhood, Dogmen were adamant about not letting game dogs around other dogs out of the pit. They always said it was because they COULDN’T be around other dogs. But maybe (even if subconsciously) they just didn’t want them to learn how to socialize. Dogs that read signals don’t habitually adrenalize. And a thinking dog may choose to turn. In a pit you can’t afford to have your dog “considering” whether of not it “wants” to fight. If your dog hesitates…… Doesn’t IMMEDIATELY scratch…. The fight is over. So I think their segregation from other dogs was more of a cause than a symptom of aggression.

Great….. But what do we do about it?

Well, if you catch a dog before they are habitually adrenalized around dogs, you just have to teach them how to communicate. That means spending time with them socializing and being the moderator, or bouncer. You have to watch the other dog for those signals, and enforce them. I watch for the other dog to give a lip lick or what not, and I will go in and split them. Gently. Not loud or fast. Just enforce the signal. I praise (calmly) for good signals. Hell I praise for good reading! And as I gently lead them they slowly learn how to communicate, and I intervene less.

(Now, that is GROSS oversimplification. If you’re serious about learning how to do this right, attend one of Chad’s Socialization Seminars. Or, talk to me about private training)

If they’re already HABITUALLY adrenalizing….. You have to get them balanced enough around other dogs that the above process will even have a chance to work!

That’s gonna be a project unto itself. But it’s doable.

My two males have hospitalized each other a few times, and were BOTH habitually adrenalizing on sight. It took me 4-5 months. But now…. They play, and lounge together. They sleep on the couch together. They even wrestle, and play. Hard. And they give signals!

And more importantly……. They listen to them!!!!


Just wanted to say that I have changed my view. Pit Bulls are NOT naturally dog aggressive.

They are naturally bad communicators, and that leads to fights. And they adrenalize easy, and if that becomes habit the will BEHAVE aggressively habitually. You still have to take more care with them than most other breeds. But they are not born wanting to fight.

“Aggression is a behavior. Not a trait.” -Chad Mackin

Those simple words changed my understanding of my beloved breed.

Tyler Muto: Conversational Leash Work Explained

This was taken from Tylers site. He is an AWESOME trainer!!! Check out his material. This is a post of his on his method of leash work. Really cool.-

If You Aren’t Listening, It’s Just A Lecture

Around this time last year, I coined a term, and a system I called Conversational Leash Work™. The idea behind this approach to leash handling is to utilize the leash to have an entire conversation with the dog, to guide her through her choices and give feedback about those choices both good and bad in a non-confrontational manner.

Since then, I have seen many people use the term Conversational Leash Work™ in reference to handling that does not exactly fit the principals of my system. The average professional that I have seen state that they are doing Conversational Leash Work™ is actually doing nothing more than traditional leash pressure work.

There is nothing new about Leash pressure work, or the idea of conditioning a dog to give-in to leash pressure rather than oppose it. This system allows the dog to learn to accept the leash as negative reinforcement, and teach her that she has the ability to control whether that pressure is “on” or “off”.

Typical leash pressure work goes like this:

1)   The handler puts a slight pressure on the leash in a certain direction and waits. (The dog typically shows a bit of initial resistance)

2)   The dog eventually gives in to the pressure and moves into the leash, thus making the pressure go away.

3)   The handler praises the dog and (optional) marks the behavior and gives a reward of a treat or toy.

The treat/toy reward of step 3 is optional because the release of pressure is the initial reinforcement. There is no need for further reward for the system to work.

What is happening here with the leash is essentially a lecture. The handler speaks (adds pressure). The dog listens and takes notes (moves into pressure. The handler then praises the audience for being such good listeners and moves on to the next bit of the lecture.

Conversational Leash Work™ takes the leash handling one step further.


Quite Possibly The Best Post Ever On Operant Conditioning

Wow. Scientific information, AND, Southpark?!?!

That, my friends, is a hard combination to beat.

Check out this amazing post on TerrierMans Daily Dose. It is really something special. It has a layman’s description of operant conditioning that actually works. It has references to Cesar Milan, who as cliche’ as this sounds, was one of my big inspirations for starting this dog journey of mine. And it has Southpark! Arguably, one of the best shows of all times. Hell, It’s a Southpark clip ABOUT Cesar Milan……. I mean, how could this be better! Check it out- Jay

The Three Parts of Operant Conditioning

What we call “dog training” is also called “operant conditioning.”

For all the mumbo-jumbo you hear about dog training, there are are only three basic parts to it: positive reinforcement, aversive reinforcement, and extinction.

Positive reinforcement is any kind of consequence that causes a behavior to occur more often. Examples include food, praise, and play. In some situations, positive reinforcement can be the removal of an aversive reinforcement.

Aversive reinforcement is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur less often. Examples include a leash pop, a harsh sound, or any kind of nonverbal aversive communication made through body movement or positioning. In some situations, punishment can also be the removal of a (positive) reinforcement.

Extinction is simply a complete lack of response. The nonresponse should be total — no eye contact, no noise or sound triggered by the dog, and no responsive body movement. The dog is invisible.


Watch the short animated clip above, and you will note that the cartoon Cesar Millan uses all three methods to train South Park’s Eric Cartman after “Super Nanny” collapses and goes insane in the face of the trials and tribulations of this spoiled-rotten child.

Step one in the Cesar Millan bag of tricks is to extinguish Cartman’s negative behavior.

What Millan is doing by ignoring Cartman is signaling that a “new sheriff” is in town — one that will not be overly reactive.

When Millan talks about “calm, assertive energy” what he is really saying is that the owners have to react less.