Behavior Modification: Being Proactive vs. Reactive

ImageHow to Change Bad Habits in Dogs (Hint: It’s all about timing)

The potential to change an emotional response (excitement, fear, anxiety) and thereby change the consequent behavior (barking, biting, jumping) rests on A SINGLE MOMENT. Imagine a person walking a dog. Imagine that this dog is a dog-reactive-dog, he barks at any dog that comes within 25 feet. Imagine that on their walk the dog notices a dog 50 feet in the distance. The dog’s ears perk up, his body becomes tense, the distance narrows to 45 feet, the dog pulls into the leash, to 35 feet, the dog begins to whine with nervous excitement, and then 25 feet and the dog jumps to the end of the leash and starts barking uncontrollably. The person REACTS by scolding his dog for barking “bad dog,” the dog cowers, presses his ears back and the person incorrectly assumes, “that’ll teach him not to bark at the next dog.” 

Behavior modification relies on the ability to PREDICT future behavior, intervene and redirect BEFORE the dog is able to engage in an undesirable behavior. Once a dog has the opportunity to bark, jump, lunge, bite etc. – it’s more about management, than training. As the person and the dog close the distance between 50 feet to 25 feet there is a build up of emotion (excitement, fear, anxiety) that results in an undesirable behavior (pulling, whining and barking). Let’s rewind: a person is walking a dog. The dog notices another dog 50 feet in the distance, the dog’s ears perk. PAUSE. That’s the moment. That’s the trainable moment. At this point we have the opportunity to intervene and redirect the dog’s focus to produce an alternate emotional response. With repetition and consistent intervention, we can condition/train the dog to react calmly and attentively when in the presence of another dog by prompting the dog to develop new cognitive and behavioral patterns.

The difference between a trainer and the average pet owner is that the trainer is pro-active, and the average pet owner is re-active. A reactive response is usually born of frustration, and can make the behavior worse by increasing the dog’s stress levels. Behavior modification is about identifying and/or creating trainable moments, and using this moment to reprogram or counter-condition the dog’s underlying emotional response to one that is conducive to calm, attentive, relaxed behavior.


Your Training Toolbox: Food Reinforcement vs. Correction Collars: Food reinforcement is often times the most effective way to modify aggressive, excited, fearful or anxious behavior in dogs. This is because it is a vital component to every organism’s existence. It has the unequivocal power to change brain chemistry, create new neural pathways and manipulate physiological responses (ie. heart and respiratory rate). Punishment (yelling, prong collars, choke/ slip collars, e-collars) can suppress symptoms (stops barking, whining, jumping, reactivity), but it masks the underlying problem (stress and anxiety). This can have negative consequences on the mental and emotional health of your dog and can actually be dangerous when attempting to “correct” aggressive behavior. People will frequently punish dogs for barking, growling, snarling, air snapping which can effectively teach dogs to suppress warning signs – it WILL NOT resolve the underlying stress and anxiety that feeds aggressive behavior. Dogs that are punished for displaying warning signs of aggression can become “silent attackers” – those that bite without warning.


How to Raise a Legendary Puppy!

Six Pillars of Raising a Legendary Puppy:

1. Listen, Watch, Learn: Building a relationship built on trust, respect and communication can only begin once you consciously begin to learn about your puppy’s unique personality. Spend time observing her body language and facial expressions, and how she responds to various people, sounds, objects, activities. What does she love? What does she hate? What makes her excited? What makes her nervous? Does she enjoy being held, or does she squirm or bark until you let her down? Does she mind having her paws touched? How does she respond to loud noises? How does she respond to kids? Skateboards? How does she respond to men wearing funny hats? When she is scared; does she run, bark, startle or do a combination of the three? How long does it take her to recover if something scares her?

2. Develop Trust: Take time to ensure that your puppy feels comfortable being handled, restrained and examined. Routinely forcing your dog to do things that they are not comfortable doing can erode your dog’s sense of trust and compromises your relationship. Teach your dog to enjoy going into their crate, having their nails trimmed, having their collar grabbed, or placing their head through their harness. Taking the time to guide your dog through experiences that she might otherwise find undesirable is an important relationship builder.

2. Teach Her How to Behave in New Environments: Off-leash dog parks, on-leash walk in the park, a coffee shop, a pet shop, a book store, a friend’s house, the farmer’s market. First, imagine which behaviors or habits you would most like to see develop in these situations. Now prompt and/or reinforce (with food or toy rewards) behaviors that you find desirable in each specific environment. For example, practice a down-stay at a friend’s house. Practice heeling through a book store. Ask your friends or even strangers on the street to give her treats or a favorite toy for polite greetings. Teach her to be calm and relaxed before letting her off-leash at the dog park, reward her for checking in with you when she has free roam.

3. Impulse Control: A lot of nuisance behaviors stem from the fact that early on in a dog’s life they never learned how to handle frustration or delayed gratification. When a dog sees another dog walking on the street – they meet the dog (this can feed into leash pulling and reactivity). When they start to bark or cry – they get lots of attention. When a new person arrives in the house – they’re showered with attention (this can feed into excitable greetings). Make a list of the things that your puppy loves most in life: meeting new people, meeting new dogs, going for walks, playing games – now use these activities to reinforce calm behavior (for example, a sit or a down). In essence, your puppy is learning that sitting or lying down is synonymous to saying “please.”

4. How to Conquer Fear: As puppies move into adolescence they frequently go through “fear periods,” during  this time you might notice that noises, objects or activities that she had previously been comfortable with now evoke a fearful response. To help your puppy overcome these fears or uncertainties you should encourage curiosity. Allow your puppy the opportunity to sniff and/or investigate the fear inducing stimulus at her own pace. Use food or a favorite toy to create positive associations. For example, reward for sniffing or taking small steps in the direction of whatever it is that she might find scary. It is better for her to be rewarded for sniffing or looking in the direction of aversive stimulus, than it is to be physically forced to come in direct contact with that person, sound or object.

5. From 0 to 60, and Back Again: Once your puppy is fluent at responding to “sit” and “down” in low distraction, calm environments (ie. your living room), you want to begin to teach her to respond to those same cues when she is excited. To do this, incorporate training into playtime. Alternate between 30 seconds of calm behavior (sit-stay or down-stay) and then 30 seconds of playtime and then back to calm behavior. When she has mastered the art of transitioning between between calm and excited behavior you can begin generalizing this game to new environments: the backyard, the street, a friend’s house, the park.

By Alyssa Lapinel, CPDT

of Legends Dog Training: San Diego, California — http://www.legendsdogtraining.com


Five Secrets to Successful Adoptions!

It's up to you to set your dog up for success!

Beginning from the very FIRST SECOND that your dog enters your house they are absorbing information like a sponge. If you’re smart – you’ll take advantage of this time and get your dog off on the right paw. Here’s how:

#1: Housetraining – When bringing a new dog into your home NEVER assume that house training will carry over. (Dogs don’t generalize well) Allowing your dog the opportunity to have accidents in the house in the first few days may set the stage for months of potty problems. Get your dog on the right track on Day 1 by vowing to prevent any accidents from occurring. These next three tips may seem like a lot of work but will save you time and frustration in the long run! Here’s what you need to do for the first 2-3 days (minimum):

  • Go for for potty breaks outside (on leash) every half-an-hour
  • Praise and/or reward when they do their business in the appropriate place
  • Prevents accidents by keeping your dog on a leash or in a crate when they are in the house.

#2 Separation Preparation – It’s a great idea to adopt your dog when you have 2 or 3 days off to properly begin the bonding process. However, don’t make the classic mistake of spending every minute of those first three days with your dog. You could be setting them up for separation issues when it comes time for you to go back to work! We recommend using a crate to keep your dog safe while you are away. In order to help your dog feel happy and secure in their crate, and in your absence, you should do these three things:

  • Always be sure that your dog has been given the opportunity to potty and exercise before going into the crate.
  • Provide irresistible goodies only if/when they are in the crate
  • Introduce the crate beginning in short increments of time (5 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute), do this 5-6 times each day gradually building on duration.

#3 Establish Rules – Everybody wants to spoil their new rescue dog with love and luxuries, but it takes more than that to help a dog adjust to major life changes. Dogs thrive when given structure and clear-cut expectations. Sit down with your whole family and write up a list of “house rules” – your dog will thank-you for it! Here are some basic rules to consider implementing with your new dog.

  • Big or small – don’t reward your dog with attention when they jump for greetings.
  • Don’t be so quick to allow access to furniture (ie. couch and bed). Wait 2 months, at least, and even then it should be reserved for “invitation only.”
  • Be careful not to encourage barking! Small dogs that bark at big dogs, big dogs that bark “protectively,” or any dog that barks for attention usually gets their fair share of encouragement. Over time something that starts off as a minor bark can develop into a major problem.
  • Don’t be rowdy in the house. Provide plenty of exercise and playtime outside, but always encourage calm behavior inside the house.
  • Create a feeding schedule! Don’t leave food out throughout the day! Why? 1. It makes your dog less interested in his food. (Imagine if someone converted your house into a 24/7 chinese buffet. You’d probably wind up hating Chinese food!) 2. Scheduled feeding also allows you to monitor your dog’s appetite. If you free feed it’s impossible to know how much your dog is eating or not eating. 3. It deprives your dog of a critical relationship building opportunity, that time where they learn that you are the bearer of all-things-good!

#4 Learn About Your Dog - Read their body language, and take note of how your dog responds to different people, places, noises, environments etc. If your dog appears fearful, nervous, anxious, aggressive around specific stimuli you should consider talking to a Certified Professional Dog Trainer to learn more about the behavior and how to address it before it develops into a serious behavioral issue! Remember that the majority of aggressive behavior is based in fear, if you notice that your dog is shy, timid, nervous or fearful you should be proactive about helping them to overcome their uncertainties.

#5 Socialize Your Dog – Daily social interactions provides necessary mental stimulation. Once you begin to get a better idea of who your dog is, and how they will react to the “unfamiliar” you can begin providing opportunities for your dog to socialize. Consult a trainer if you are uncertain about how to introduce your dog to unfamiliar dogs, to unfamiliar people, kids, new environments, dog parks etc in a safe and effective manner.

Written by Alyssa Lapinel, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Behavior Specialist. Alyssa owns and operates Legends Dog Training, based in San Diego, California.

If you have questions or would like to set up a consultation for your new adoption dog you can contact us at legendsdogtrainer@gmail.com or by calling 646-315-4475, to learn more about the services we offer you can go to www.legendsdogtraining.com


Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Dogs to Become Friends

For serious aggression issues contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or Animal Behaviorist for a private consultation. If you live in San Diego go to: http://www.legendsdogtraining.com

This article applies to initial dog-dog introductions, as well as, those dogs that need “relationship therapy.”

Neutrality: Minimize friction by being proactive. Put away the toys, keep bones in the cabinet, block access to socially significant areas (ie. sofas and beds), and avoid giving attention that could potentially spur conflict. Preventing fights through management is just as important as the next step: forging a bond.

Forging a Bond: Take them for long walks in places that neither one of them has ever been (the more often you do this, the better). Not only are they less likely to get into fights when they are on neutral ground, but it will also help them to become friends. Migrating, sniffing and exploring new territory will make them feel like a pack.

Developing Positive Associations: Positive reinforcement training that rewards sitting, lying down, and “going to place” helps us and our dogs focus on desirable behavior, and can simultaneously condition these dogs to feel calm, comfortable and relaxed in each other’s presence.

What to do if and when you notice tension (ie. a hard stare, growling, snarling): Be Calm: Yelling, screaming, reprimanding or frenzied actions will make matters worse. Aggression stems from stress, if you are feeling nervous or uneasy you are likely going to feed into your dog’s aggressive behavior. Be Prepared: Have dogs drag a short leash at home (when supervised). Now if you notice tension you can calmly walk up to the dog, pick up the leash and call him (or lead him) away from the other dog. Abruptly grabbing a dog’s collar is often a sure fire way to start a fight.

Warning Signs are Good! Be thankful for growling, snarling and air snaps; this is a dog’s way of communicating that they are feeling stressed, and is the perfect time to calmly diffuse the situation. Many people want to “correct” their dog for  exhibiting these signs, and believe that this is the best way to “teach a dog not to be aggressive.” In reality, they are only addressing the symptoms not the underlying cause of the problem. The other most unfortunate side-effect of “correcting” warning signs is that your dog will learn to suppress warning signs, and go straight into fight mode. Have you ever heard people say “There was no warning, my dog just attacked!”? Corrections can teach dogs to suppress the symptoms of aggression, but will NOT teach your dog not to be aggressive.

What to Do If Your Dogs Fight: Break the fight up, and separate the dogs for 2 or 3 minutes (or until they are calm) – now take them for a walk. Reintroducing dogs in a calm, controlled, positive fashion will ensure that neither dog will harbor resentment and make the rivalry worse.

by Alyssa Lapinel, Certified Professional Dog Trainer

Trainers Alyssa Lapinel and Joel Smith own and operate Legends Dog Training, based in San Diego, California. Check out their website: http://www.legendsdogtraining.com


Flight or Fight! Fear Response in Dogs.

 This article is about how to recognize the body language of a fearful or anxious dog, and what you should do to minimize stress and aggressive responses. If you would like more information write to us at: legendsdogtrainer@gmail.com.

A fearful or anxious dog is likely to exhibit at least one or two of the following signals: flattened ears, excessive panting, tense body posture, excessive lip licking, tucked tail, cowering, slow motion movements, moving away from an extended hand, pacing, hyper-vigilance, sudden loss of appetite. They may even offer more ambiguous submissive gestures: they may roll onto their back, lick your hand, involuntarily urinate or wag their tail. Various breeds and individual dogs will have their own way of expressing anxiety. Spend time observing your dog’s body language, and always step in and deter people from forcing unwanted petting/attention. Unsolicited attention will cause aggression and unnecessary stress.

Once you identify a dog as being fearful or anxious, you should:

1. RESPECT their space: let them approach you.

2. Do not attempt to pet the dog even if they do walk up to you.

3. Make the experience rewarding. The use of primary reinforcement in training is invaluable. Toss high value treats on the ground: don’t attempt to hand a fearful dog food.

In the video below you can see that these two dogs react to fear/anxiety inducing stimuli in two completely different ways. It is common for people to peg Martini (the short haired dachshund mix) as being fearful, but are likely to see Harvey (the terrier mix) as being maliciously aggressive.  BOTH dogs are reacting because they are uncomfortable meeting new people but one dog responds passively and the other aggressively. It is common for people to recognize fear when a dog chooses the “flight” response but fail to recognize it when a dog chooses to “fight” instead.

For more information on rehabilitating dogs with behavioral issues (fear, aggression, anxiety) write to us at legendsdogtrainer@gmail.com. Check out our website: http://www.legendsdogtraining.com

Written by Alyssa Lapinel, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Behavior Specialist.

Training by Joel Smith and Alyssa Lapinel – Certified Professional Dog Trainers and Behavior Specialists


Secret to Teaching Your Dog Not To Jump

(Video Demonstration at the bottom of this article)

This article pertains to dogs that jump excitedly during greetings. Try as you might, dogs are not likely to listen to the verbal cue “sit” when they are overly excited. Dogs are more visual than they are auditory, therefore, the easiest and most effective way of stopping your dog from jumping when you arrive home is to teach your dog that an opening door is actually an environmental cue to sit, here’s how:

Step 1 – Teach your dog an automatic sit. Stand with your back to the front door (dog facing you) holding a handful of treats or your dog’s favorite toy.  Wait for your dog to sit. Don’t give a verbal cue “sit,” let them work it out. Ignore jumping, whining and barking. The moment that your dog’s bottom touches the floor tell him “good!” and reward. Repeat this 10-15 times or until your dog understands the rule of the game.

Step 2 – Now do the same exact exercise, but walk through the door first. Repeat this until your dog sits as soon as the door begins to open.  An opening door has now become an environmental cue to sit.

Step 3 – Once your dog has an almost seamless understanding of how this game works you should ask a couple of  friends/family members to come over and do the same exercise so that your dog can begin to generalize this behavior to anyone that they see come through the door.

Step 4 – Be consistent. Keep a mason jar filled with treats or a basket filled with toys outside your front door so that you can practice this automatic sit each and every time you arrive home. With time and repetition this calm, controlled behavior will become your dog’s new default behavior.

Try this with your dog and keep us posted on your progress! We can always help troubleshoot if training isn’t going as smoothly as you would like. : )

written by Alyssa Lapinel, CPDT-KA

The video below demonstrates how we applied Step 2 and 3 (above) to one of our board and train dogs – a 1 y/o Golden Retriever named Blue! Leave questions and comments below! http://www.legendsdogtraining.com


Leash Walking – Part III (Aggression)

“About Piggy (the dog on the video) I walk her when I’m volunteering at the shelter, and she has this terrible habit that she likes to lung on people passing by, so what do you think, what is the best way to avoid this? I mean not just taking her the other side of the street… What i do is i usually start our walk with going to that little grass area and i play with her there for like 20 min to make her tired, and then i walk her while I’m constantly occupying her with treats or toys (after sit and/or lay), but she still get distracted by people passing by, so i also keep her in a very tight leash. If you have time could you please write about the whole lunging thing and what is the best way to avoid it?” – Rita (volunteer at ACQ)

(Above video: Trainer Alyssa Lapinel working with Piggy – a rescue dog currently at the Animal Shelter of Queens in Rego Park, New York)

Note: If you feel your dog poses a threat to people or other dogs you should seek assistance from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, a Veterinary Behaviorist, or a  Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.

The first step to working with a reactive or aggressive dog is to devise a plan that will allow you to feel confident and in control.  When we do not feel that we have full control of our dog we are likely to give unintended cues that trigger reactive/aggressive behavior. The worst of these cues: we keep our dog on a tight leash.  Head halters help. We use halters on horses because they are an effective way of managing a very powerful animal. Canine halters are a proactive approach to managing high levels of reactivity and aggression and give us a foundation by which we can positively influence our dog’s behavior.

Important! Watch the video below BEFORE attempting to put a head halter on a dog. It demonstrates the proper way to condition a dog to a head halter. If a dog is not properly conditioned to wearing a head halter it can adversely effect training by creating more stress and more frustration.  Also be aware that a head halter is NOT the same as a muzzle, dogs can still bite when wearing a halter so be sure to avoid putting a dog in any situation where they could potentially cause injury.


Use a head halter (or muzzle for maximum safety) and always keep a safe distance from people. Next, focus on teaching your dog proper leash walking skills when people are NOT present.  Make walking into a game where your dog learns that if she keeps her eyes glued on you, great things happen.

When your dog begins to progress and you can feel her eyes  glued on you and your every step, you can begin to build on distractions (ie. focus on walking in closer proximity to people).  For this part of the training food is recommended over toy rewards since we want to keep the dogs arousal level low.

Your ultimate goal is to rewire her brain and establish new ideas about what she should think and do when she sees a person on the street.  You need to teach Piggy that pedestrians are actually an environmental cue that means “look at me!” and “sit.” Every time Piggy sees a person call her name and ask her for a sit.  Reward her generously the moment she gives you eye contact and the moment she gives you an attentive sit.  You might need to go through 20-30 repetitions but you should see that after a few days she will automatically offer eye contact and/or a sit without being asked. Be aware, if this is a “hard wired habit” it might take months of training before these new behaviors become second nature.

A more detailed behavioral assessment should determine if this is a leash issue or a social issue, in either case, her behavior will improve with sufficient training and mental/physical stimulation.

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