The All Important SIT


By Valerie Barry, Professional Member APDT
In Partnership With Dogs

There are many skills that help your dog be well mannered and a pleasure to live with, but some things just stand out in importance.  The Sit is one of those critical skills.  It’s a polite choice for meeting people, a nice way to ask for something, a neutral way of greeting other dogs, and even life saving if it stops a mad rush across a busy road.

Strangely, even though the Sit is one of the first things a puppy learns, it’s one of the least practiced skills!  Puppies are taught to sit first by their moms and then later by other adult dogs.  The Sit is a neutral position and a polite choice either to a correction received by another dog, or as a way of asking for something that another dog has. I have a theory that because a Sit is often used as a response to conflict or confrontation from a more mature dog, puppies easily pop into a sit when we ask because of how we ask.  We’re usually standing in front of our pups, and we tend to lean forward as we ask, maybe using a stern tone.  Dogs are masters of body language, so if you’re a puppy used to dealing with confrontation by sitting, the answer is an easy one!

I often hear dog owners confidently say, “my dog knows how to sit” – but does he really? Try something new: lie down on your living room floor and ask your dog to Sit; or turn your back and ask your dog to Sit.  What happens?  Frequently, I find that owners and their dogs seem to have different meanings for Sit.  A Sit has a pretty simple criteria – “butt on the ground”.  But to a dog who isn’t consistently giving a Sit when asked, his criteria seems to be “when someone is standing in front of me sounding stern, play the odds and put the butt on the ground”.  Those are pretty different meanings! How do you teach your dog your criteria for Sit?

The answer is Practice!  You need to practice everywhere and every way you can so that it becomes clear that Sit is just “butt on the ground”. We need to help our dogs understand that it doesn’t matter whether we’re standing, sitting or lying down; whether we’re close by or further away; whether we’re sounding worried and upset or relaxed and happy; or even whether we’re moving or standing still – it’s simply “butt on the ground”.

In order to make your practice as effective and efficient as possible, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Give your cue only once – if you don’t get a Sit, then you need more practice you don’t need more intimidation or urgency in your request.
  • Mark it – make sure you give a Click or a verbal marker (“Great!”) as soon as the butt hits the ground so the goal is clear.
  • Pay generously – offer a treat, a toy or something your dog loves as a reward for each successful Sit.
  • Be successful more often than not – start your practice in areas that are easy for your dog, like the kitchen, and keep him on leash so he can’t just wander off.
  • Don’t rush the process – move on to new distractions gradually after getting frequent success at each point.
  • Be flexible – if your success rate goes down, scale down your expectations.  If necessary, go all the way back to using a treat lure at his nose to get a Sit and gradually work back up to a good response to a verbal cue.

Remember not to keep making the job harder – occasionally make it easier.  If you find a spot where you’re having trouble, there’s no need to get bigger or stronger.  This is your dog’s feedback that you may have upped the distractions too quickly, or maybe he just needs a mental break.

Keep your training sessions short and fun – that always makes the job go faster!

A Promise is a Promise

A Promise is a Promise


By Cheryl Thomas

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It was the month of June and I scheduled a trip to Cuba with a girlfriend. It was just beautiful when we arrived and we were greeted by hosts they were singing and dancing for us. After we checked into our hotel, we were waiting in the lobby where there was warm air flowing though the open setting. It was paradise. As we were waiting in line I looked over and there was a small dog laying there on the furniture all by himself. I was surprised as he appeared to be alone. Being an animal advocate and dog groomer I asked who the little dog belonged to? They said they didn’t know, and that there used to be three dogs but now there is just the one. I sat for a bit and played with the small puppy and then we went to our room for the night.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 9.41.48 PMWhen we came down to the lobby the next day the dog was not there, but the following morning there he was again. So I went over and spent some time with him. He was just so cute, about six months old, brown and black, with a small frame and long legs. From the side when I looked at him it looked like he was smiling. He almost looked like a baby deer. Since he had no owner and no name tags, we decided to call him Bambi. So we went about our day and then when we returned to the hotel there he was again. We began to worry about what he was eating as he was so small. From that point on I started feeding him. He was always so happy to see us and whenever we came back to the hotel from our daily outings there he was again. He was now becoming accustomed to us and the attention and love he was getting.

You could tell how delighted he was that someone was caring for him and that someone cared.

Well, I just couldn’t leave him in the lobby anymore. I wanted to bring him to our hotel room and I did! I gave him a bath and let me tell you it was like a bucking bronco, but he slept like a baby after. So now I started taking the dog with me everywhere and people would see me and say “So how is Bambi?” I would just say OK. I just could not get into my vacation as I was just so concerned about minding this little helpless puppy.

Then this little girl came up to me and said “Where is that small dog?”. I said he’s in my room. She asked if she could see him? I said sure. She was traveling with her dad, Mr. Green. Later I asked if she could ask her dad if she could watch him for the day while we took a day tour. From that point on they were also supporting me with Bambi.

The little girls name is Taylor. She said to me I wish my dad would let me have this dog and I said tell you what, if I can get this dog back to Canada I would give him to you, since this is part of what I do working with animals over the years finding good homes for dogs in need.

I then went on two different trips to see the local doctor in a taxi with one of the local tour hosts and we got the vaccination and the International Health Certificate that Bambi needed to come to Canada. I was so happy when I got back to the hotel I asked the representative of the tour bus to please find out if I can take him on the plane. They checked all airlines and they said no at this point it was high season and they didn’t accommodate people with pets. We had to return to Canada without him.

So one month later in July when school was out I booked another flight back to Cuba for my daughter and I. I had called the past month and my friend in Cuba (Myra) was keeping the dog at her moms house. I thought, how honourable she was to keep the dog until I could find a way to get him back to Canada. I was so excited to know I would see little Bambi again.

When we got back to Cuba I phoned my taxi driver friend that I knew and he picked us up and drove us to my friend’s house. I then also phoned Mr. Green and told him I was back in Cuba with Bambi. I just wondered what he was thinking about all this, but this was all because of a journey for Bambi, Taylor (the little girl) and I. We had made a promise to help Bambi, and we even did a pinky promise.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 9.42.24 PMWe arrived and were so excited. There she was at my friend’s house, there was Bambi. We spent our vacation together and then we returned to Vancouver on Westjet via Toronto. Monday morning the Green family had been leaving messages on my machine. I phoned back and I said YES – Bambi is here with me now and we met up that evening. Taylor was so excited and I gave her the puppy. I was a bit sad when I went into the house after all Bambi had felt like mine, but I knew he was going to a good home. They were so kind, and generous and they gave me a card, flowers, and a donation to help with my efforts. This was all just for Bambi, myself, and my new friend Taylor. A promise is a promise.

Dog Park 911

Dog Park 911


By Lisa Kerley BSc, KPA-CTP
Dog Days Daycare


For many people, going to the dog park is part of the fun of having a dog. It’s an opportunity for their dog to socialize, play, exercise and burn off some steam without a lot of effort. It seems like a win-win situation. Dog parks in concept, are a nice idea. In practice, however, they often create more problems than they are worth.

Most people know to stay clear of dog parks until their pup has completed early vaccinations. From a health perspective, parks aren’t safe and until a pup has a proper level of protection from illness, parks are not an appropriate place to be. The risks go far beyond health issues however, and its not just puppies that you need to worry about.

The atmosphere at a dog park can present social and behavioral risks as well. For young or immature dogs, ‘social immunity’ needs to be carefully developed through pleasant and appropriate experiences. As youngsters, dogs, like humans, need role models to
teach them good lessons and help develop good skills. For this to happen, appropriate play opportunities have to be set up with proper supervision by a knowledgeable human. Without this, inexperienced or insecure dogs will learn that other dogs can be scary and may result in them becoming reactive as a means to protect themselves.

DogPark911-2Without the proper choice of playmates and adequate supervision, young dogs can learn that being rough and ignoring other dogs’ signals to back off, is OK. This is how bullies get created. During adolescence, increased size, confidence and hormones can often lead to rough and inappropriate play. To discourage these behaviors from being reinforced and becoming a habit, it is important that your young dog has play time with dogs that have great play and social skills. Just as with puppies, it is vital that they have good role models and appropriate supervision.

Even adult dogs can be at risk at the park. Dogs often group themselves and multiple dogs can ‘gang up’ on one dog. Small dogs are often placed in danger when they mix with bigger dogs in an uncontrolled setting. Aroused play can quickly turn into something dangerous.

Park guidelines (if there even are any) usually indicate that dogs must be “well-behaved” to be allowed. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as most dog owners don’t know what inappropriate behavior looks like. Many don’t think there’s a problem unless a dog is obviously aggressive or one is traumatized to an extreme extent. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the only way you realize that any particular dog should not be present is after there has been a problem and some poor dog gets injured or traumatized. Unfortunately, most parks have no supervision, leaving no one regulating the dogs that are allowed to be there.

Additionally, dogs at parks are typically left to play for too long. Skilled play involves lots of breaks. They may not be long – just time enough for a shake off, sniff, a piddle or drink of water, but they allow for one or both of the dogs to calm down or recover and keep the play at an appropriate level. Dogs that just keep going until they drop, are not learning the subtleties of good social interaction. Over time these dogs will often ignore their playmates signals to ease up, only paying attention when the other dog finally has to lose his temper to get a break.

Remember, socializing and play isn’t a benefit unless it is done well in your young dog’s life.

DogPari911-3Even if you are well-schooled in understanding body language and the nuances of dog interactions, that still doesn’t mean your dog will be safe. It’s common practice for dogs to be unsupervised while at the park, with parents collected somewhere in the distance, busy chit-chatting or having a latte. Many parks are too big to allow parents to stay near their dogs and be ready to step in, if necessary. We’ve even seen dogs being let out of their vehicle at one end of a park, the parent driving to the other end and waiting to pick the dog up. Others are let out of the vehicle to run free and out of sight while the parent stays in the vehicle. This lack of supervision may leave you having to step in unassisted to split up a tussle with another dog to keep yours safe or comfortable. Are you confident that you can manage unfamiliar dogs that are aroused or aggressing?

If you are not convinced and choose to take your dog to a dog park, there are some things to keep in mind that can help to lower the risks.

1. Educate yourself.

Do you know how to do a “consent check” to ensure the dogs want to continue playing together?

Do you know three ways that dogs show they don’t want to interact or need a break (other than growling or snapping)?

Can you recognize more than five body language signals that indicate stress?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these, then you would benefit from the advice of a skilled positive trainer before supervising your young dog’s playtimes on your own.

An informed handler understands what good play looks like and allows interactions only with dogs that are skilled and appropriate with their dog. They recognize signs of stress, and can identify when a dog is unsure or uncomfortable, and step in to help out. They are aware of signs of aroused, asocial or inappropriate behavior and keep their dog safe by avoiding these dogs. Dogs need frequent breaks to keep play appropriate and establish good play habits. A skilled handler will regularly interrupt play to help keep play at an
acceptable level and prevent interactions from getting out of hand.

What does good play look like?

Observing and supervising play is a big part of my day job. After 15 years, you get pretty good at recognizing the subtleties of canine body language, interaction and play. Dogs that frequent dog parks are pretty easy to pick out at my facility. Their play is rough or intense; they get stuck on a certain behavior, such as chasing or playing on top of other dogs; they don’t acknowledge signals from other dogs to stop or slow down; and often get upset when another dog finally resorts to a more intense request to take a break. Unskilled dogs usually have an agenda and their own set of rules. Good play is more like a dance. It may be intense at times, but both of the dogs involved are active participants. One dog is not just doing stuff to the other.

A skilled player:

  • adjusts his play to accommodate the skill, style and confidence of his play partner.
  • uses lots of body language to reassure the other dog that his antics are all in fun.
  • offers a variety of play behavior versus just doing the same thing over and over.
  • is happy to give and take. This means that even though he may love to chase and does
  • it frequently, he is able to accept being chased as well. Another example is being on top or on the bottom in play.
  • initiates breaks and is happy to accept requests for breaks from other dogs.

2. Be choosy

Many people choose a particular park based solely on convenience or proximity to home. There are more important considerations that should factor into the ones you choose.

Parks get reputations, just like other kinds of hangouts can. A particular park in our area is known as the ‘gangster park’. There are more dogs roaming around that apparently have no parent present; more rough, unsocial dogs; and a higher incidence of fights. Although many have frequented the park without a problem, why take the risk? Remember that a traumatizing social interaction in a young dog’s life can have a serious
impact on future socializing and confidence.

You should also be selective about the physical setup of the park itself. Ideally, a dog park should be completely fenced and have a double-gate for security. If not, it should be located away from roads or other local dangers. Every spring there are a number of dogs in our area that are swept away in the fast-moving waters at one local park! If the ground is mucky or has a lot of standing water you might be exposing your dog to giardia or various other pathogens. Parks that are heavily used by large volumes of dogs will build up residual fecal matter – also a health risk.

There should be separate areas where small dogs, more timid dogs and younger dogs can play safely away from the more intense activity. Is the area small enough that you can stay near your dog as they move about? If you can’t stay close at hand,  you won’t be able to supervise them properly or help them if they are in trouble. The park should not be over crowded. As the volume of dogs at any one time goes up, so does the chance for problems.

3. Be involved

Remember what makes for great play? Good playmates and an involved, skilled handler. Ensure your dog is having a good experience by:

  • choosing an area of the park where there are only a few dogs.
  • checking that all dogs are accounted for. Do they have a guardian with them who can
  • advocate for them when they need a hand or step in when they are being inappropriate?
  • choosing appropriate playmates for your dog. Pick confident but calm playmates if you have a rowdy dog. This will discourage him from bullying and help him learn to control his excitement during playtime. Choose gentle, careful playmates for a shy dog. This will allow him to develop confidence.
  • monitoring your dog and watching for signs of stress, or alternatively, for signs of arousal.
  • ensuring he has regular breaks throughout the play.
  • keeping an eye on what’s happening around you. Stay clear of over-aroused, rough play, or bigger groupings of dogs. If something is developing, get your dog, secure him and move to another area.
  • finding other parents who are interested in creating good play opportunities with proper supervision (and with an appropriate dog!) This is invaluable and if you come across them, take advantage and set up more play times together.

Being involved in your dog’s interactions will have an additional benefit beyond safety and creating a socially skilled dog. Typically, once parents let their dogs off-leash, they don’t interact until it’s time to go. The dog is having a good time on his own, when suddenly the parent appears and the fun ends. Not really the association we want! By staying involved, you can harness the power of play as a meaningful reinforcer. You will also help your dog to learn how to work with you around a big distraction.

You might have the impression that I’m not a big fan of dog parks. There are safer, more appropriate ways to socialize and exercise dogs, so I don’t recommend them to my clients. It’s interesting that most professional dog people don’t go near dog parks with their own dogs. Considerations for health and safety, along with social and behavioral well-being (for dogs of all ages) are typically compromised there. I hope that this information will help you and your dog stay safe and have great experiences.

For more valuable information on keeping your dog safe at the dog park, check out these 2 videos from Sue Sternberg:

At the Dog Park – The Importance of Participating:

At the Dog Park – Red Alert Behavior Series:

For more information on body language, signs of stress and maximizing your young
dog’s positive experiences, please visit: