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

Looking Back On: That Time I Failed

I’ve often heard that when you’re working on or with something that it’s good to keep a journal. Keeping a written record of your journey helps to show yourself how much progress you’ve made.  Especially when working with animals, it is essential to have the ability to look back after a training session that didn’t go so well and see all the victories you’ve made thus far. That way you aren’t too hard on yourself or your animal when things don’t go perfectly one time.

I am extremely lucky to have this blog to track my journey. With the click of a mouse I can access any date in the last 14+ months and see what I was up to on that exact day. Pretty cool, huh? What’s better is when I look back and see just how much I’ve learned.  It’s astonishing at times – I can’t believe where I was and where I went and where I am now.  And, just like I mentioned above, I sometimes find myself needing a little pick-me-up to remember just how far I’ve come (or, on same days, even just that I’ve come anywhere!).

Yesterday started my first week coaching a reactive dog class with Your Dog’s Friend.  As I listened to the instructor give a review to the students last week, I kept nodding in agreement to what she was teaching and thinking in my head, “Yes! Totally! Yes that’s the perfect thing to do!” for all these dog owners who have never learned a successful way to deal with their reactive dogs.  It really got me thinking: holy cow, I have learned so much in just the past few months. Since when did all of this become just engrained in my brain as common sense knowledge?

Just a few months ago I had a pretty rough run in with a reactive dog. Many of you might remember the post That Time I Failed (in fact, lots of you might remember it considering it’s gotten the most views of any of my entries – oy!) about a dog I was supposed to temporarily foster and had to bail on because he was reactive towards my dad and others. I talked about the reality that I didn’t know much about managing a reactive dog. Fast forward five months, and here I am helping to teach a class about it. So what changed?

What changed is that I learned about the way dogs think and why they act the way they do. I learned that reactivity is usually based in fear or frustration. I learned that most of the time when a dog is reacting, you cannot teach it anything because everything in that moment its brain has shut off except for what it’s focused on, and that you must remove the dog from the situation immediately. I learned that it makes total sense for a dog to be reactive towards something it doesn’t like, because when it barks and lunges the bad thing moves away. I learned that practiced behaviors get repeated. I learned SO MUCH and it all just seemed to click (no pun intended, hehe).


Because of all this, I feel the need to point out to myself (and whoever else cares to listen) what I did wrong with Mylo on the night that he lost it in front of my dad. So much of the way our dogs react is caused by the environment and circumstances around them, including their handler (and then of course their previous emotional opinions about things).  I’m glad I can now look back and see how badly I did not set Mylo up for success, and hopefully address these mess ups with any dogs I have in the future.

1.  I forgot to remember that change is scary for dogs.  I should have remembered how much transitions with a new dog can suck. Imagine being moved to a new place with new people you didn’t know – would you act like yourself?  We took Mylo away from his fosters, to Mark’s apartment and then to my home. Sounds like a plenty stressful situation to me, and certainly a good reason to act a bit unlike himself.

2.  I had him in a choke collar. I cringe even typing that. I had gotten instructions from his fosters to put him in a choke collar and, because I hadn’t learned much in the way of how to teach dogs to walk nicely using positive methods at this point, I went with it. Mylo had ZERO interest in letting this thing slow him down, so he was nearly choking himself the entire time. Discomfort adds to stress and can heighten a dog’s reactivity levels because they are redirecting their feelings about the pain.  If I had him today, I would have immediately put Mylo in a sense-ible harness to remove that element of stress.

3.  I introduced him to my dad in the dark and without any preparation. I will always and forever be more careful about introducing my pops to dogs because I have finally realized that when they don’t like him it’s not them, it’s him. He’s tall, he’s got a big beard, and he wears dark clothes. Recipe for disaster for a dog who is weary of large humans!  My poor dad – I didn’t give him any heads up about how to approach Mylo, so he went right up saying, “Hi doggy, hi doggy!” like he always does. Mylo didn’t like that.

Today, I would keep Mylo far enough away that my dad didn’t bother him (known as ‘below his threshold’), and then have my dad throw treats to him to show Mylo that father = yummy things (without putting the pressure on Mylo to approach my dad to take a treat from his hand!).  I would have told my dad to avoid eye contact or hovering over Mylo, and if he got to the point where Mylo wanted to say hi, to crouch down to his level without directly facing his body at Mylo – a much more inviting greeting for a dog!

4. I didn’t bring treats anywhere with me. Treats don’t solve everything, but they sure can get you out of a pinch when you need it.  A dog that’s focused on a high value treat isn’t as quick to focus on something else it might react to.  If I had treats from the get go, Mylo might have been more inclined to pay attention to me instead of his surroundings.

So I know that dwelling on the past isn’t always the best idea, but I think reflecting on it and reminding yourself of lessons learned can sometimes be very beneficial.  I would encourage you to start keeping a written log if you are on any sort of journeys of your own. I know there are plenty of times – even for non-animal related things like training for races – where I wished I could have written evidence of my accomplishments. Everyone deserves to give themselves a pat on the back every once in a while (or maybe get a high-five from your dog), and reflection can help to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to do so.