Nicole S. Silvers

Nicole started her animal-related career after quitting 3 frustrating years of classroom teaching.  Toying with the idea of pursuing a veterinary career, she spent 6 months working as a Pet Nurse at a retail veterinary chain. She then realized that animal behavior was her real interest. Accredited as a dog trainer by PetSmart in 2003, she spent 3 years teaching group classes for the retail chain, then moved to another small "positive-only" training organization, and off on her own.  And so it begins...

Nicole currently lives surrounded by dogs on 40 secluded acres, just north of Fairbanks, AK. Exactly how many of the 24 resident dogs are hers and how many are her husband's depend on which one you ask, and why!  Nicole stays busy operating a small board & train facility also offering day camp. 

Some previous essays are available at  

Blog posts by Nicole S. Silvers

Holidays are supposed to be FUN, Right?

Holidays, with their non-routine nature, have many related experiences, objects, and interactions that are novel (new, strange, unfamiliar, unpredictable, unexpected, highly stimulating).  Acclimatizing dogs to accept novelty without stress is the function of good socialization.  However, with adolescents, whether newly acquired, or seeing the holiday season for the first time, holidays can be a test of socialization, rather than a deliberate learning experience.  Couple this with the fatigued owner who may not have given the typical walking, exercise, or play routine, and we have a recipe for potential disaster!

"I could have told you that..." and "I'm not that surprised that..." are my 2 least favorite things to say to clients.  Dog trainers know that November thru January is busy season.  Dog owners with 20/20 hindsight (they and their dogs already made the mistakes in the past) also know that the holidays have potential for "incidents".


Assessing a Social Interaction

Social interactions seems to generate significant anxiety among dog owners, and even some trainers.   Reducing anxiety is not an easy task, whether in humans or dogs!  I believe (though I have no research yet to support this claim) that the anxiety of the human can be misread by the dog.  Humans under stress exhibit a few physiological "tells" that dogs may be able to identify:  increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, increased perspiration, as well as unique patterns of movement -- stiffer, more awkward, more hesitations. 

Unfortunately, very rarely will you get to observe your dog in a social situation without YOU! 

When a leashed social interaction takes place, there are at least 4 variables, not the commonly recognized 2.  There are at least 2 humans, and at least 2 dogs.  ALL of these components are present.


"But isn't that pain?":Re-defining 'punishment'

A dog ALWAYS has free choice. A dog can ALWAYS choose all "bad" behaviors, including biting. No amount of training reward or punishment will ever remove a dog's opportunity to choose.

There are trainers who report that they can. These people are fools, at best, who really believe that such a cognitive overhaul is possible. These people are slick salesmen, at worst, telling people what they want to hear in the interest of selling something, even though it isn't actually true!


Leadership versus Dominance

Leadership is a grossly misunderstood concept. Leadership is often associated with words like “dominance”, “alpha”, “authority”, “respect”, and “challenge”. Rarely, if ever, is it associated with the word “trust”. Which may explain the tremendous lack of demonstrated leadership present in today’s human society!

Leadership is a role that requires the earning of trust from followers. Trust cannot be demanded. Force (the tool of the Dominator) creates resistance. Trust can only be given, not taken. Leadership, unlike "dominance", requires followers to CHOOSE to follow. Trust is broken in a heartbeat, but repaired, re-earned, only over a long period of time--not hours, but days, weeks, even months or years. Sometimes, it's irreparably broken.



"Grading" is a great way to keep a dog interested when you are escalating criteria (making things harder).  Frustration of a failed exercise, particularly one that used to be good enough, is difficult to deal with, and can even make some dogs shut down.

And, in contrast with not coming at all, is a slow recall really such a huge failure, in the big scheme of things?

I use two types of grading.  One is with kibble.  I grade every repetition on a scale of 1 - 20.  That number tells me how many pieces of kibble to feed -- one at a time lets the dog "account" exactly how many pieces.

For example, a super-sprinting, right dead on to me, slamming into a sit recall -- well, that's definitely a 20.  If I have to distract you a million times before you get to me, that's a 1.  And there is a lot of variation in between.  Do I lay out an exact list?  Nah.  I just eyeball it. 


Market Norms versus Social Norms

Dan Ariely's book "Predictably Irrational" is a fascinating one for those of us interested in behavior.  (He also offers a fascinating podcast called "Arming the Donkeys" where he interviews researchers about their work and a riveting blog at  

In Chapter 4 of this book, "The Cost of Social Norms", he explores the effect on humans of assigning a market value to social norm behaviors. 

He examines the results of a study done by Gneezy and Rustichini there is a Israeli day care whose students are picked up by their parents at the end of the day.  Inevitably, there are some students whose parents pick them up late.  The staff, understandably taxed by having to wait with the students instead of going home themselves, attempt to curb the late-arrival behavior by instituting a fee for late pick-up. 


Pro-Pibble? Grow a Thick Skin.

**"Pibble", by the way, is my favorite term for my favorite, much-maligned breed--the American Pit Bull Terrier.  (I didn't invent it.  Google "Pibble Power", if you have interest.)

Walk down any street with a charming, happy well-behaved Labrador, and watch the faces light up.  Even people who are otherwise stoic or even non-responsive to you, the human, will respond to a Labrador.

Same person, same clothes, same street, identical charming, happy well-behaved behavior -- but in a pibble suit?  You are glared at, intentionally avoided, and doors will literally slam in your face.  It's tough to face the reception handlers of these dogs receive. 


Changing Perceptions

Perception is very powerful.  In the sales & marketing industry, they say, "Perception is reality".  From the perspective of the perceiver, it IS reality.  Your dog may perceive that sitting opens the door of her crate.  That IS her reality. 

In the perception of new dog owners, "dog training" is concept closely related to "problems". 

  • "I train my dog to prevent problems."
  • "We're working on a problem with [insert issue]."
  • "If I lived on a 1,000-acre ranch, I wouldn't have to train." i.e., NO problems.

No surprise, then, that dog training is viewed as a burdensome obligation.  It's what "the responsible owners do", motivated by those owners' debt to society, not necessarily any debt to their dog.



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