All the Things We’ve Learned

To say that Johnnie has come a long way from the day she stepped foot paw out of the shelter would be an understatement. Johnnie Cash, once thought to be out of control and insanely energetic, turned out to be very bright, a quick learner and a model student. Together we learned how to communicate with each other. Training is not a one way street – I have to figure out how to tell her what I want just as much as I have to figure out what she is trying to tell me. I have loved every minute of growing and learning with this little girl.

Here are two videos of some of our accomplishments. This first one is a demonstration of how lovely she is to take outside. She learned in probably the first twenty four hours what it took to be allowed to head out the open door, which was sitting quietly. The last thing I want is a dog who drags me around, especially out the door before I’m ready! All we had to do was slowly open the door while she was sitting, and immediately close it (gently, so we didn’t squish her!) if she moved towards it. Heading out without a release = door closing! As she progressed with the polite sitting, we began to ask for eye contact. Now we are – as shown in the video – to the point where we can have the door wide open before she heads out.

You can’t tell in the video because the door frame is in the way, but she is holding perfect eye contact until I release her.  Also, notice that I do not need to use treats for this. The simple release through the door is the reward, but only after the use of negative punishment, meaning we took the open door away (negative) to decrease the behavior (punishment) of moving towards it without release. Dogs learn what works for them, and Johnnie quickly learned that sitting and making eye contact meant she would be able to head out into the world, and jumping towards the door meant it would close and the fun things on the other side would go away.

This next video is a short compilation of some of the tricks that Johnnie has learned. She demonstrates sit pretty, touch, sit, high five, down, paw and say bye.  These tricks are great for so many things, like distracting her if I need to keep her mind busy, helping to win over the public, or teaching new behaviors. Plus, they’re fun and learning them together was a great bonding experience. At one point you’ll notice I ask her to sit from a down, but then I realize she doesn’t know that (yes, “sit” from a down is an entirely different behavior than sitting from a standing position!), so we moved to another cue.

In the video you see how she does most of the tricks without treats. I gave her one at the beginning, but then she performed the rest without a reward. So many people, when they are introduced to reward-based training, get frustrated about how much we use treats or other rewards. “Will I have to be giving my dogs treats and using the clicker for their whole life!” they ask. The answer is: not necessarily. We use a high rate of reinforcement when we are teaching new behaviors, but once the dog has learned and practiced the behavior, we move to rewarding only every once in a while (there are real scientific words for these different techniques but I have not mastered those yet – check out your high school psych textbook for more info, ha!).

This ends up being a fun game for the dog because they know that “one of these times she’s going to give me a treat!” – it’s just a matter of when. Johnnie is a pro at “sit” now, so I don’t have to reward her every time she sits when I give her the cue. But, to make sure she continues to be a pro, I reward her every once in a while. Make sense? Unfortunately it works the other way too: if your dog is able to snatch something off the counter 1 out of the 10 times he tries, he will continue counter surfing because he’s waiting for just that *one time* he hits the jackpot. Also like begging. If you give your dog food from the dinner table every once in a while, they will likely continue to beg all the time in hopes that it’s one of those special occasions where they get a taste. Animals are smart little beings!

So, who made it through all the training talk? If so, congrats – you now have a heads up that Johnnie has a special announcement to make tomorrow. She promises it is one you won’t want to miss :-).

Johnnie’s Jumping: Training the Humans

It’s been three weeks since Johnnie’s come into our home. She has improved on a remarkable amount of behaviors, but still has a ways to go in one category in particular: jumping up on people during greetings.

It is not uncommon for dogs that are easily excitable and/or love people to have a problem with jumping up. Johnnie’s excitement often gets the best of her and she springs her dainty little paws onto your belly in an attempt to show you just how happy she is to see you! While she’s improved significantly over the past three weeks with just management and some redirecting techniques, five months of having the behavior reinforced at the shelter is proving difficult to undo. Our biggest problem? Inconsistent reinforcement.

It’s sort of like those “My dog is friendly!”s you meet out on walks with your reactive dog: when Johnnie meets a new person and before I get a chance to say anything like, “Can you please wait, I’d like to get her to sit first” they’ve ran up to her and she’s already jumped up on them. Her new friend can then be found coo-ing at her, saying, “It’s okay, my dogs do it all the time. She’s sooo cute!” (similar to the below photo, except probably with more bouncing).  This is all fine and dandy, except that now Johnnie has gotten significant attention for jumping up.


There are two issues here, both with one thing in common: it’s the humans who need training. I need to figure out a way to let Johnnie meet new people without practicing her bad behavior of jumping, which means stepping in before she gets the opportunity to jump on them, but without making it seem like she’s not friendly. This is something I will need to get creative with and practice, because I’m not always very direct with people I don’t know – but I need to be an advocate for my dog! The second thing is getting greeters to understand that if she does jump up, don’t reinforce it. This is hard for people to wrap their head around, like I stated above. So many people don’t have a problem with it, especially since she’s so little and adorable, but it leads to an insane amount of inconsistency in her training, making it very difficult to break her of the habit.

So now that J Cash has had three weeks to settle in, it’s time for a four-on-the-floor boot camp to help her with her urge to jump. I am going to try my best to teach her an alternative to bouncing her little front paws off the ground when she meets new people – hopefully finding a way to make it her idea to stay calm during greetings instead of making it something she’s forced into, which might not be as reliable of a long-term solution. I will keep you all updated about how it goes, with the end goal for introductions being something like the below photo.  Stay tuned!


To adopt your very own Johnnie Cash, a dog that you’ll have a lot of fun training together with, email

Helping Johnnie Decide to Be a Good Dog

The way animals learned is explained by science, based on how our brains works, and Johnnie is no different. We use three tools – management, positive reinforcement and negative punishment – to help Johnnie Cash be the best dog she can be.

When Johnnie does a behavior we like, we reward her. We often use a clicker to mark the desired behavior, followed with a treat. Her reward can also be attention, like only being acknowledged or petted when she is calm and not jumping up on you.  I also use toys as a reward. When we play fetch, I’ll only throw her ball or toy after she’s sat nicely waiting for it and not tried to grab it out of my hands. This teaches her that she’ll only get her toy if she sits politely, which translates into impulse control as well. Rewarding desired behaviors is our effort to show Johnnie what we DO want from her, instead of just trying to show her what we don’t want without offering her an alternative option.

Consider this scenario, common to many of us dog owners: guests coming over to your home. Think of all the things you don’t want your dog to do: jump up, bark, run around, etc. – there are so many behaviors you can come up with, right? Now think about what you do want your dog to do: sit or lie nicely as people come in the door. Much easier to focus on the one behavior you want than the dozens you don’t want, right? So teach that behavior! Set your dog up for success by showing them what you want them to do, not by making them guess what you don’t want.

Negative punishment is a part of the four quadrants of learning, and it means that you take something good away (negative) to decrease the likelihood of a behavior (punishment). When Johnnie becomes mouthy during play, we stop the game. She learns that being mouthy = fun game ending. When we ask Johnnie to sit and wait for her dinner, every time her butt comes off the ground as the food bowl lowers the ground, we pick the bowl back up again. Johnnie quickly learns that moving towards the bowl = bowl (food) going away.

It is remarkable how quickly these basic principles can help a dog figure out what we want from them WITHOUT the use of harsh corrections like yelling, using a spray bottle, leash jerks, etc (these fall under the category of ‘positive punishment’ – adding something undesirable to decrease a behavior). Johnnie is a sensitive dog and, like many dogs, would deteriorate under aversive correction methods. There’s the chance she would form bad associations with whatever is present at the time of the correction, which could create worse problems for the future. Operating under the “do this, or else” mentality of aversive corrections has the possibility to make her shut down and stop being her happy, fun self – all in an attempt to avoid the corrections. Plus, these punishments often only address the symptoms of an issue, not the root of the problem. Often times the anxiety, fear or discomfort is still there, despite the lack of exhibited behavior, and it will likely resurface in a worse way down the road.

I would love to elaborate on the negative effects of aversive punishment methods, but I’ll leave that to the experts. Here is a fabulous post by Love and a Six-Foot Leash about why intimidation tactics can be harmful to your relationship with your dog.  I also recommending checking out Jasmine’s House’s take on why you should address fear or reactivity issues with your dog in a positive way.  Lastly, Your Dog’s Friend has some really great resources about positive versus “traditional” training.

In just two weeks with us, Johnnie has, for the most part, picked up on a bunch of house rules. For example: self-control during play time, waiting to go out the door until released, waiting for her food bowl, not jumping on us when we come home, not getting on the furniture, walking calmly past other dogs and strangers, and more.  This was all done through rewarding the behavior we wanted and teaching alternatives to the behaviors we didn’t want. This has made learning fun for Johnnie and she trusts us. She thinks, “What can I do next that will get me a treat!?” That usually translates into a whole lot of sitting and staring at me, which is fine – especially when we’re out and about!  It comes down to the fact that she makes the decision to perform desired behaviors because she’s realized the rewards make it worth it.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed. We're lucky with her because she's already got an affinity for her bed - some dogs will need to learn a "go to bed" cue or will need a kong to keep them occupied while on their bed.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed, NOT when she was staring at us eating. We’re lucky with her because she’s already got an affinity for her bed – some dogs will need to learn a “go to bed” cue or will need a stuffed Kong to keep them occupied while on their bed during a meal. It is very important that no one reinforces a dog’s begging, even once, or else it will be harder and harder to teach them otherwise. Practiced behaviors get reinforced, and reinforced behaviors get repeated – good or bad!

Johnnie is only going to continue to improve, so I’ll keep you updated on her progress! Week two at the Foster Dog Alliance class had me beaming at how much she improved over last week, but also brought up new challenges for us – so stay tuned! I’m sure we’ll have a lot to report over the next few weeks.

To adopt your very own star student Johnnie Cash, email