Dr. Dunbar Answers The Top F.A.Qs


We asked new puppy owners from over 25 SIRIUS® puppy classes to list their most burning questions about raising a puppy. Below Dr. Dunbar answers the most frequently asked questions from our survey in rank order.  

1. How do I teach my dog to reliably come when called?

Thinking in terms of what interests your dog is the key to effective recall. Ask yourself, what’s distracting him or keeping him from coming when I call? Perhaps he’s found another dog to sniff, and he’d rather do that than come to you. To teach your dog to come reliably on cue, it is important to be more fun and interesting than competing distractions. Make yourself irresistible so your dog wants to come back to you! You can do this by using all of your dog’s favorite things in life as rewards for coming when called (treats, games, tugs, belly rubs, chase games, etc). When that doesn’t work, another thing you can do is use the distraction to your advantage and turn it into a reward.

To do this, you need to integrate training into play. For example, when your dog is off leash playing, conduct a very short training interlude every minute or two. Say, “Come here! Sit!” When he does, give him a pat on the head and a food treat, and then tell him, “Go play!” Playing and sniffing have just become rewards for coming when called. The more you do this exercise, the more reliable a dog you will have.

If the dog senses that you’re in any way impatient or annoyed, your tone and volume will tend to make the dog less inclined to come to you. An easier option is to teach your dog an emergency sit or down rather than to come when called. Why? Because sit, as opposed to come, is a much easier behavior to maintain when the cue is shouted. And when there’s an emergency, we tend to shout.

So, by integrating sit into the play session, ninety percent of the time you can follow your dog’s good behavior with “go play” – whether the he’s close by or at a distance, he’s immediately rewarded by the play session. Ten percent of the time, follow the sit by asking the dog to come. And he will come, because he’s acknowledged compliance by sitting, and it is likely the next verbal cue is going to work.

2. How do I stop my dog from running away?

That depends. Is he running away during off-leash walks? Or, is he escaping from the yard?

When you’re walking your dog off leash, many distractions – people, animals, other dogs – can trigger a running response. The nearer the distraction to your dog, the less control you have because instinct starts to take over, and the harder it is for learned behaviors to regain control. This is called instinctive drift.

Therefore it’s crucial to teach the emergency sit. Do this by integrating sit into play: During a play session, ask your dog to sit; then immediately let him go play. Now play – as opposed to the distraction – becomes the reward for sitting. Your dog no longer wants to run away because he knows sit doesn’t mean the end of the play session. Keep this idea top of mind by giving frequent commands when you’re out walking. Ask him to sit every minute or so.

If your dog is escaping from the yard, ask yourself, Why isn’t he inside with you? If it’s a housetraining or chewing issue, you need to revamp those training programs. And you must also make the yard an enjoyable place for the dog so that he doesn’t find his own entertainment: chewing plants, digging, barking, and escaping.

This means being inventive with chew toys: Stuff Kongs or Premiere Squirrel Dudes with different types of food. Feed the dog a portion of his morning meal this way and then hide the remaining portion in chew toys throughout the yard. He’ll enjoy hunting for his breakfast.

Or, tie the dry kibble-stuffed Kongs or Dudes upside down from a tree branch, just barely in reach; now he has to jump up to get his chew toys. Not only is this great exercise, eating breakfast is going to take him a good hour and a half. Afterward, he’ll snooze the rest of the day.

3. How do I teach my dog to stop jumping on people?

Dogs jump up primarily because we’ve trained them to from the time they were puppies. When they jumped up and put their little paws on our legs, we bent down and patted them on the head and said, “Oh good puppy!”

Now that the dog is fully grown, jumping up isn’t so cute, and we don’t want to reinforce the behavior. A smart approach is to think of what you’d like to see instead from your dog when he greets people, and train him to do it. Personally, I think sitting is a great way for dogs to say hello, and there’s a very simple way to teach it:

• Invite a group of friends to your house.
• Tell your friends to completely ignore everything your dog does (including barking and jumping up) to try to get attention.
• But, when the dog sits in front of or near one of your friends, instruct that person to quickly say, “Good boy!” and give your dog a reward and some positive attention.

It only takes a dozen or so repetitions before your dog gets it. And the beauty is, your dog thinks he’s training you: “Wow, all you have to do is sit in front of these people and they feed you food!”

I like to think about the dog’s feelings in this situation too. Dogs behave in a way they find enjoyable so we can assume dogs enjoy jumping up. So, put jumping up on cue: teach your dog to jump up and give a “hug” on request. The dog learns that the default setting is to sit, but if requested, he can jump up and give a hug. It’s a lovely way for you and your dog to greet each other, and your dog truly enjoys it.

4. How do I stop my dog from jumping on my child?

First and most importantly: Young children and dogs should never be alone together. Ever. That said, the easiest way to stop your dog from jumping on your child is to cue sit or off, whichever you prefer.  

That said, once your children are old enough – your daughter is three, your son three and a half – you can now teach them how to control the dog. Not only do children love being able to train a dog, it’s wonderful for their self-esteem. They learn to control the dogs’ behavior and the dogs love being trained by a child – everyone wins.

The way to do this is through lure-reward training:
1. Stand behind your child.
2. One of your child’s hands should be behind his back and the other should be holding a small food reward. (For protection, hold your hand around your child’s hand so that the dog can’t jump up and nip the child’s hand.)
3. Instruct the child to say, “Rover, sit!” while giving the hand signal for sit, using the food lure.
4. When the dog sits, prompt the child to say “Good dog!” and give him the reward.

Of course, children have physical and mental limitations in terms of timing and manual dexterity, so it’s important to practice this regularly in order for both of them to learn.

5. How do I stop my dog from jumping in our laps while we dine?

If there’s something you don’t like the dog doing, you have to ask yourself how you would prefer the dog to act in that situation. Since we’re generally sitting in chairs at the table when we dine, I’m guessing you’d like the dog to be stationary, preferably lying down on his bed.

These are mutually exclusive behaviors: If your dog is lying on his bed, he can’t be in your lap while you’re eating dinner. So, the first thing to do is fine-tune the basics: Practice sit-stay, down-stay, and stand-stay.

Then, teach your dog go to your bed: When your dog’s not looking, place a treat on his bed. It won’t take long before your dog goes there and gets the treat. Tell him, “Stay.” Every so often, go praise the dog and give him a treat for lying on his bed. Your dog may have thought he had to be pushy and near you to get food, but now he learns that lying down calmly earns him a treat.

6. How do I stop my dog from pulling on leash?

Pulling on leash is so enjoyable for dogs. They’re out front leading and they’re pulling you behind. And there’s no need to pay attention to your cues because they have, in effect, a direct line of communication to you.

So while this is a very common behavior problem, it has enormous repercussions: The dog pulls on leash, the owner finds it unpleasant to walk the dog, the owner stops walking the dog. The dog winds up with even more pent-up energy, and in looking to entertain himself, he’s bound to get into things like destructive chewing and recreational barking.

So, teach your dog to walk nicely on leash. This can’t be done, by the way, while you’re running an errand or going to the post office. This must be taught when you have time to exclusively train your dog to walk on leash. With a really bad puller, use reward training techniques.

Here’s how to begin:
1. Stand still – don’t even take a single step.
2. Wait for your dog to sit. When he does, praise him.
3. Then, praise for him staying and paying attention to you.
4. Finally, take one step.

You’ll find that your dog will explode with energy and take off, pulling the leash taut. Therefore, it’s crucial you take one step, not six or twelve, as that will energize the dog and unintentionally reinforce the pulling. So sit, praise, one step, stop. Sit, praise, one step, stop.

After about six repetitions, the dog sits immediately when you stop. So now, take two steps. Then three, four, six, ten, and so on. You’ll find your dog is walking on leash nicely, and when you stop, he sits.

7. How do I stop my dog from pulling on leash when greeting other dogs?

Resolving this problem requires planning. You won’t solve it in the course of everyday living because once your dog sees another dog, it’s too late: the moment he reaches that other dog, your dog’s going to be heavily rewarded for his pulling behavior, and therefore won’t learn not to do it. Yep, butt sniffing is the number one reward in domestic dogdom, and that’s the reward your dog gets when he pulls on leash to reach another dog.

So, troubleshoot! Invite a bunch of friends over who have the same problem (i.e., any other dog owner), and stage the situation:

1. Form two concentric circles of human-dog pairs: an inside small circle and large outer circle.

2. Instruct people in the outer circle to walk clockwise and people in the inner circle to walk counter clockwise. (Keep the dogs on the outside so that the humans are the ones meeting face to face as each pair circles).

3. When you meet the other couple, you ask your dog to sit. As he does, shake hands with the person.

4. Now, you decide if you want to let your dog sniff. If you do, tell the dog, “Say hello.” Sniffing the other dog is now the reward for a calm sit-stay.

When the dogs get good, reverse the direction of the circles. Repeat steps 3 and 4, though now when the pairs meet, the dogs are in the inside, face to face. Keep this up for twenty minutes, or about 60 practice introductions.

The dog learns that walking calmly on leash doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to say hello. On the contrary, if he walks calmly and sits, he’s rewarded with the chance to say hello (and sniff away at the other dog’s butt). If he does pull, gently pull him back, and he’ll learn he doesn’t get to greet that dog.

8. How can I stop my dog from snapping, biting at my clothes, or biting at my leg when I walk away?

This is a really bad habit that starts very early – it’s how puppies play. They run up to anything that moves and bite it, and we humans think it’s cute. When they get to be adolescents, however, this type of behavior is just not appreciated by people.

For some breeds, in fact, it’s instant damnation. People will think your pit bull or Rottweiler or shepherd is being aggressive. He’s probably not, but he is acting unmannerly, and in a fashion that’s downright dangerous for his health. All it takes is one person to report you have a dangerous dog and he becomes a legal entity. So regardless of his playful intentions, you must stop this.

So what do you do with this behavior? You say, “Stop!” Let him know this is inappropriate. There’s no need to shout or frighten the dog; there’s absolutely no need to hurt him. If necessary grab him by the collar, but only if necessary, as the last thing you want is your dog to develop a negative association with other people. Instead, praise your dog when he does act appropriately around people. Tell him, “Good boy! Yes, that’s the way to say hello!” It is also a good idea to give your dog a toy to carry in his mouth so he’s busy and less likely to try this behavior.

If you do have to reprimand the dog for lunging, snapping, or getting hold of people’s clothing, afterward cue the dog to sit. Then, ask the person if he wouldn’t mind giving the dog a treat. You can now have the dog approach the person in a mannerly fashion and sit, at which point the person gives him a treat. The dog learns he can say hello, as long as he does it in a fashion which is acceptable to humans.

9. How do I teach my puppy to stop biting and nipping?

Most puppies are virtual biting machines with needle-sharp tiny teeth, and they are going to grow up to be adult dogs with powerful jaws, so bite inhibition, or how to use their jaws gently, is the most important thing for them to learn.

Teach bite inhibition in two stages:
1. Limit the force of the puppy’s bite.
2. Inhibit the frequency.

It must be taught in this order; if you completely stop the puppy from biting too soon, he’ll never learn to inhibit the force of his bites. Why not simply teach him never to bite? As an adult, say someone steps on the dog and hurts or startles him while he’s sleeping or chewing a bone. His natural instinct will be to bite – hard. But if he’s learned never to hurt people, he’s likely to respond instead with just a growl, a snap, or a very gentle warning bite, rather than a damaging one.

So, to inhibit force: Play with your puppy, paying careful attention to his bites. When the bites don’t hurt, praise him. But, whenever a bite does hurt, freeze, then say, “Ow! Stop it, you worm!”  (or something disapproving like that) and take a two or three second timeout. The fun ceases, forcing the puppy to briefly stop and focus before playing resumes. The puppy learns that soft bites are ok, hard bites are not wanted and end the play session.

To inhibit the frequency: Once your puppy is only mouthing you gently in play, start to pretend that soft bites hurt too, even if they don’t. When he’s mouthing gently, praise him: “Good dog, that’s very gentle.” But when it gets a little harder, say, “Ow! That really hurt me!”  The puppy learns, These humans are soooo sensitive – I’ve got to be very careful when mouthing this guy.

Eventually, if you’d like, stop the play session if your puppy bites or mouths you at all.

To even better control his mouthing behavior, teach him the cue off and practice this exercise: Let the puppy mouth you, and then tell him, “Off.” When he releases, say “Good boy!” and give him a reward. Then, let him mouth again. To ensure the dog always maintains a soft mouth, continue these exercises into adulthood. Also teach him the rules of tug.

10. How do I stop my dog from stealing things, like bath towels or tissues?

If you don’t want your dog stealing tissues, flush them down the toilet or keep your waste basket out of reach. It’s that simple. Or, iff your dog really gets his jollies over a used Kleenex, use it in training: “Sit. Good boy. Here’s your Kleenex.” One Kleenex a day won’t kill him.

The secret, simply, is keep your house clean. With a puppy, everything should be out of reach until he’s trained how to behave in your household. Restrict access to the bathroom if toilet paper is tempting or to the kitchen if there are scraps on the floor. And of course, put away what you don’t want your puppy to play with: shoes, books, remote control – prime targets for chewing.

Simultaneously, cultivate his interest in appropriate chew toys. You can actually turn your dog into a chew-toy-aholic by feeding him all his food in these addictive gizmos. At night, weigh out his daily allotment of kibble for the next day, moisten it, stuff the mixture into Kongs, and freeze them. Now the dog has a play object far more interesting than used Kleenex. After a week of this, the dog really does become a Kong-aholic. If you’d prefer not to go to the trouble of wetting your dog’s kibble and mushing it daily, use the Premiere Busy Buddy line of toys to keep your dog busy with his dry kibble.

Additionally, teach him fun games, games other than the hilarious Catch Me If You Can. (You know the one: The dog takes an object he isn’t supposed to have and you chase him all around the house for it.) Use his desire to play chase to your advantage: Say, “Puppy, come here!” and tap him on the head. Then tease him with animated threats of “I’m going to get you!” as you monster-walk chasing him around the table. The key? Periodically stop, call the puppy to you, ask him to sit, and then return to playing. This way, you maintain control during the game, and the game rewards the sit-stay.

11. How do I stop my dog from barking?

This question always cracks me up. It’s like asking, How do I stop my dog from wagging his tail? Cows moo. Cats meow. Dogs bark. So instead of stopping your dog from barking, teach him when to bark – and when not to. The only way to do this is to teach your dog to bark on cue.

I know that sounds crazy, but here’s the logic: You can’t teach the dog to stop barking unless he is barking. When he’s barking because he’s all worked up – and he’s undoubtedly barking because he is worked up -- that’s the worst possible training scenario. So, teach him to bark on cue so that you can teach him to be quiet under controllable circumstances you can practice at will.

How do you do this? Easy, but you’ll need an accomplice.
1. Ask your accomplice to stand outside your front door.
2. Say, “Rover, speak!”
3. Your accomplice rings the door bell.
4. Your dog woofs.
5. You say “Good boy!”

After about six to eight repetitions, your dog’s going to anticipate the door bell ringing after you say, “Rover, speak.” So now when you say “Rover, speak,” your dog barks on cue.

Now you can teach him to shush on cue:
1. First, cue your dog to bark: “Rover, bark!”
2. Say, “Rover, shush!”
3. Waggle a delicious food treat in front of his nose. (He’ll sniff the food treat and stop barking because he can’t sniff and bark at the same time.)
4. The dog shushes.
5. You say, “Good shush!” but don’t give the treat. The longer you hold on to the treat and the dog sniffs it, the longer he will be quiet.

Repeat the woof-shush sequence over and over so that the dog learns to woof on cue and to shush on cue.

12. How do I get my dog’s attention when he’s distracted?

If you want to get your dog’s attention, pay attention and give feedback to your dog.

I recommend the all or none technique: First, practice walking around the block when there are no distractions. Every 25 yards, stop and wait for your dog to look at you. Don’t ask him to look or lure him with food – just stand there. The walk has stopped and the only way to get moving again is for the dog to look at you. The dog will look around, sniff, and strain his neck. Eventually, though, he’ll quickly glance at you as if to say, What’s going on? The instant he looks at you, say “Good boy!” and start walking.

After about six times, up the ante. Now the dog has to look at you for one second before you move on. Then for two, three, four, et cetera. After one walk, stopping every 25 yards, you’ll find your dog now looks at you and maintains eye contact until you start moving again. Occasionally reward him for being so wonderfully attentive.

Once he has this down, troubleshoot the exercise around other dogs. Invite over a few friends with dogs, and have them spread out and walk their dogs clockwise around the block. At the same time, walk your dog around the block counterclockwise. When you see a human-canine pair approaching, stand still. Have your friend stand still too (be sure to set this up ahead of time). Your dog will strain his head and sniff, but you’ll ignore this behavior as you wait for your dog to look at you. When he does look at you, say, “Good boy!” and allow him to say hello to the other dog. By the 3rd lap, you’ll have your dog’s undivided attention at every stop.

13. How do I get my dog to stay?

Normally when people ask this, what they really want to know is how to get the dog to stay reliably, particularly with distractions around.

First, you want to train your dog to stay when it’s just you two – no distractions. Ask your dog for a down and see how long he maintains it. A second? A half second? Time it, and whatever it is, that’s your record.

Now, beat that record. Ask your dog for a down. Lure him, if necessary, and give him feedback: “Rover, great job!” If he tries to break the down-stay, immediately say, “Rover, down.” You’re using the instruction down as an instructive reprimand (your tone should be urgent, not scary). Your dog may be confused, but since he knows the word down, he knows how to get back on track. Remember, the minute he starts to look away, tell him down – otherwise, you’ll lose his attention – and then praise him.  Practice sit-stays and stand-stays too.

Once your dog can down-stay for a couple minutes, bring in distractions one by one. The distraction can be movement, noises, toys, or even bits of food. Monitor your dog’s behavior and praise him for his good down-stays.

Now bring in another distraction, like a person or two. Have competitions. Ask your friends to try to break your dog’s down-stay. No touching him, frightening him, or saying his name, but everything else is game. Bounce tennis balls, throw food treats, roll on the ground. The dog should ignore all verbal cues unless they’re preceded by his name. If he gets up just put him back with an instructive reprimand as mentioned above. Don’t worry if he breaks his stay a few times, as long as you put him back right away this is part of the learning process.  

Finally, use other dogs as distractions. Invite another dog over to play and every couple minutes, ask your dog to sit-stay. Three seconds, then he can go play. Then five seconds, then ten, then twenty. The result? A dog with a rock solid stay.

14. How do I get my dog to calm down?

Firstly, give your dog positive feedback when it’s warranted. Every five minutes or so, ask the question: Is my dog being calm? If so, go to him and say very quietly and slowly, “Goooood boy.” Humans, unfortunately, tend to do the opposite. We ignore dogs – and children – who are calmly entertaining themselves, yet we respond right away as soon as their activity increases. So, be communicative. Praise your dog for behavior you do want to see, don’t take it for granted.

On walks, there are many more reasons for your dog to get amped up, so it’s important to praise your him when he is calm. The more you walk, though, the more you energize him and the more hyperactive and less attentive he becomes. So, stop every 25 yards and wait for him to sit and look at you. Every hundred yards, stop completely so your dog can settle down and relax for a few minutes. Now you can reward the dog for remaining calm in a busy, distracting environment.

Another approach is to just confront the beast: put hyperactivity on cue. Tell the dog, “Be silly!” and then do whatever you can to get him to bark and bounce. Run around, make noise, and praise him when he joins in the silliness. After five or ten seconds, very calmly say, “Rover, lie down.” He probably won’t do it on the first request, but keep repeating it. Slowly, calmly, insistently. When he does, calmly praise him and give him a treat. After 30 seconds say, “Rover, be silly!” and again go crazy. Jazz up, settle down. Jazz up, settle down. And remember: It’s not that you want the dog to settle down for hours on end; you just want to be able to settle the dog quickly when he’s jazzed up.

15. My puppy cries and carries on when I leave. What do I do?

It’s logical to think that if the dog is whining, reassuring him – or even just paying attention to him – is going to unintentionally reinforce the whining behavior. (Whining is almost always unintentionally reinforced by owners.) But we need to think a little about the dog’s feelings. Obviously the dog is upset, has a need (i.e., he’s hungry, thirsty, needs to pee, etc.), or he’s lonely, scared, or bored. There is a fine line here because you do want your puppy to notify you if he’s got an elimination emergency. If you completely train out any vocalizations while crated, you may end up with a very stressed and messy dog.

Make sure your dog’s needs are all met before you put him in the crate for any significant length of time and keep track of the amount of time he’s left in the crate so you can let him out preemptively, before any new needs arise (and he’s got to whine to let you know) – beat your pup to the punch to avoid whining in the crate.

So, approach this by wearing two different psychologists’ hats. Become an operant psychologist and do a little behavior modification, but also wear your cognitive psychologist’s hat and delve inside the dog’s mind.

First, the cognitive approach: If, for example, your dog is in his crate whining, briefly check on him every five minutes and softly tell him, “It’s ok. I’m right here.” (An alternative is to go to the door, or just out of sight, and reassure him with your voice.) This will reinforce the whining to some degree, but you want to make sure the dog is ok, or that if he has a need, you take care of it.

Here’s where behavior modification comes in: When you go in for your five-minute check and you find the dog has stopped whining, go to him and spend five minutes stroking him. It sounds scary – people think that with puppies and babies you don’t go in and disturb them after they’ve finally quieted down because it may start all over again! But over a few trials it works, because now, you’re rewarding the dog when he’s being quiet and he’ll catch on to that fact. Again, try not to let your pup out of his crate when he’s whining unless you think there is a toilet emergency.

Finally, I don’t recommend punishing a dog for whining. Generally he’s whining because he wants something tangible – food, water, toilet access, or even you – and it’s not fair to tell him to be quiet when he’s trying to communicate his needs and desires.  

On the other hand, do your best to assure you dog enjoys being in his crate as his special chew toy time and you may find the whining stops altogether.

16. When does the whining end?

A better question is, How can I teach my dog to stop whining? This is a wonderful theoretical question to ask because it has behavior modification psychologists caught between a rock and a hard place: You can’t reassure the dog, as that would reinforce the whining, but neither can you reprimand the dog because that would give him two reasons to whine. So how do you deal with this?

It’s the same problem in dogs, interestingly, as it is in children – or even husbands! There is no appropriate or effective feedback you can give that won’t make the whining worse. There is only one solution for getting rid of this behavior, and that is to wait for it to stop. I don’t know when it will stop, but it always does. And when the whining stops, that’s when you give the whinee, lots of good, genuine attention.

Basically, you need to imagine your dog has a split personality: There’s Whining Dog and there’s Hush Dog. Totally ignore Whining Dog. But to Hush Dog, pay lots of attention. And the quicker you pay attention to Hush Dog – and remember, he becomes Hush Dog the minute he stops whining – the quicker this technique will work. Before you know it Whining Dog will move along leaving you to live with Hush dog for a lifetime.

18. When should I use clicker training?

I personally would use clicker training in three cases. The first, when teaching complicated exercises or lengthy routines. The second, when trying to refine a behavior, like getting an ultra-straight sit. The third, when working with a novice owner on his timing. For most pet dog training, we have far more time-efficient, easier methods.

The simplest training is all-or-none reward training. It’s similar to clicker training in that we don’t give prompts or cues, we just wait for the dog to do it and then we reward him. The difference is that we’re dealing with all-or-none behaviors: Either the dog sits or he doesn’t. He lies down or he doesn’t. You wait for the behavior to happen – we know it will – and when it does, reward the dog. There’s no need to use clicker training to reward successive approximations to the desired behavior – you either have the behavior or you don’t.

The fastest method is lure-reward training. Right away, the puppy gets a good idea of what sit, stay, heel, etc. mean because you’re luring him (with a treat or ball or whatever) to do something specific. Because you’re controlling the lure, you can predict when the dog will act, and you can bring in the command words from the beginning. That’s important because human language is the hardest thing for the dog to learn.

With puppies, I use lure-reward training. With adolescent dogs, I use all-or-none reward training until they calm down, and then lure-reward training. I prefer it to clicker training because I’m trying to teach the owner to have a dialogue with their dog. I want the dog to understand the words the owner says, the tones used, and the nuances of expression and body language, as opposed to simply responding to a click.

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