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Confession #2: How I Taught My Dog to Run Away When I Called

December 28, 2012

Confession- I taught my dog to run away sm
This is #2 in a series: “Dirty Secrets Revealed: Confessions of a Professional Dog Trainer”. You won’t want to miss Confession #1, “How I taught my dog to pee in the house”.

Haley enjoying a visit at a friends farm.Love at first sight.

I vividly remember the day I first met Haley. I was at the Quarter Horse Congress in Ohio and a woman had an expen full of fluffy bundles of sheltie love. The large female caught my attention right away as she stood on the backs of the other puppies to get to me first. A good fit with my male cattle dog, I thought. And so it was.

Haley and Blue got along great. Haley became my best friend, and I became her student. She was smart as can be, and learned everything I taught her in blazing fast time. Me, I wasn’t such a fast learner.

Our biggest challenge was Haley’s shyness with strangers. She never met a person who deserved her trust right off and only a handful of people earned the privilege of being in her inner circle of friends. In her first few months with me, she was terrorized by new people coming into our house. Blindly panicked, she would run as far away as she could, usually with instant shooting diarrhea as she ran. Buying a 16 week old puppy who had never been out of her kennel wasn’t the best idea, I guess. But it was meant to be. And, sometimes logical decisions just don’t cut it, right?

Off to puppy class we went. She was the star student. On to beginner obedience class, and again, she was the star, winning 1st place in the little class fun match we had graduation night. The ‘stand for exam’ was a problem, but she trusted me enough to hold her position, since I could stay really close at that baby level.

So, now you’re probably thinking: “so…where’s the running away thing?” I had the same thought too. Even back then. We were so close and such a good team, I can’t even imagine she would run away from me when I called. But she did.

It was a small issue of Trust in specific circumstances.

I was only trying to do my job of keeping her safe. And to properly socialize her. And to continue on with what I imagined would be a brilliant run in dog obedience trials. This would be my first try at dog performance, after many years of training and showing horses. I was an eager learner and jumped right in with both feet!

It started with me working at getting Haley comfortable with being close to strangers. I used lots of treats, play, praise, sweet talking and kind leadership. It’s hard to believe now, but the technique that I used was unheard of at the time. It was all about strict obedience back then. I was advised to put her on a leash, correct her when she did not do as I told her, and give her a ‘good girl’ and a cookie when she did. That I should ‘make her’ accept people and ‘force her’ to accept being petted because she was told to. Wow, right?

Using my love and kind respect for animals along with plain common sense, we blazed our own trail. As I worked on helping Haley to become comfortable with people, I would call her encouragingly towards me in order to get her closer to the people that were standing near me. The method I used allowed her to move in or not, and when she did, she was rewarded and praised. The one problem with this method was that I called her to move in towards me, instead of simply allowing her to move in at her own discretion.

Hmmm…did that enhance or diminish her trust in me?

Do you think that helped or hindered her willingness to always come when I called her? Yep, I was inadvertently teaching my dog NOT to come when I called her. I didn’t know!! Crazy, right? Details, details!!!

It had no effect on our “performance” recall. But a definite effect on our every day life. The really important part.

Haley photographed during play with her border collie friendsThen there was the horse chasing thing.

She was a herding breed dog. That means she was attracted to moving animals and had a desire to get them under control. Not such a good idea when the animals are horses, including mares protecting their foals and horses who don’t particularly care to be chased by a little dog and know how to use their hooves to express their opinion.

Our fencing at the time kept the horses in just fine, but did nothing to keep dogs out. At about 6 months old, Haley decided rounding up the horses was in her job description. As soon as any of the horses started to run, she took off like a shot, under the fence and into the pastures. Running, barking (she was a sheltie, what did you expect? they bark) and having a great time. And there I was, calling her back, yelling at her in my panic to keep her safe, all to no avail. She was busy and no way she could listen to me.

Besides, what kind of a choice was that: have fun chasing the horses or stop and go back to a crazy woman who is yelling and acting like a primate on a case of mountain dew?

Right, no real choice there at all. Again, I was ‘teaching’ her not to come when I called her every time I yelled out her name. <sigh>

Even though our obedience recall was awesome, our obedience training did have an undesired effect on our life. There’s that trust thing again. The stand for exam was an important element of getting a CD title at that time. Hard for a dog that doesn’t particularly like strangers getting that close, much less touching her.

At one point, we had a major setback.

I had worked so carefully to build up her trust in me, so that she could use that trust as her courage to stand strong while allowing a stranger to touch her. I remember the day so clearly. The obedience instructor said it was time to teach her not to lean away or step back from his approach on the touching part of the stand for exam. So he said I should support her under her flank to hold her steady, preventing her from leaning away. She had been standing in place, but leaned back, shrinking away from the touch while holding her feet in place. Apparently, not acceptable.

So, I held her in place with a second leash wrapped around her flank while he approached. When she leaned away as she always did, she felt me holding her in the back and then she panicked. That was the first time she felt trapped and she instantly tried to flee. Bucking and twisting against the pressure front and back. It was only for 2 seconds, but the expression on her face is one that I remember clearly to this day, 20+ years later.

I had resisted all of the other advice that was thrown at me up to that point. “Why didn’t I foresee how she would react to this?”, “Why did I decide to do this?”, I asked myself over and over. I cried for two weeks about the decision I made to take that advice. And, I cried for the loss of trust between me and my beautiful, sensitive dog.

Then, I pulled my head out of my ass, wiped the dirt off my face and got back to having fun with my dog.

It came back. The trust, I mean. We worked it out and went on to get our CD with beautiful mid to high 190’s … in spite of the small leaning back from the judge during the stand for exam. I accepted that as part of who she was. A very brave, very young dog who was courageous enough to stand there in spite of her discomfort. Take the points off. We are so happy to give up those points!

Oh, and let’s not forget another part of the ‘Run Away’ story: me being the fun spoiler. You know: those times when your dogs are happily running around, playing, chasing, wrestling and otherwise enjoying life…but you need them in the house because you have to go to work or something. So you stand at the back door and call them in, indicating urgency with your unpleasant tone of voice and demeanor. One quick glance in your direction, and any fun-loving puppy just spins off in the opposite direction, right?

Haley enjoying a walk in the woodsThank goodness Haley and I had a solid thing going on for the most part. Haley came to me when I called most of the time, because she really wanted to be with me. But some times, always when it was most important, I would catch that brief glance in my direction just before she turned and ran in the other direction to do her own thing. Chase horses. Play keep away. Run away from people I wanted her to meet. Stay out longer. That was my girl. Doing exactly what I taught her.


Eventually everything worked out.

At 8 or 9, Haley became the official greeter of visitors to our farm, eagerly running up to everyone and politely but insistently requesting a cookie or some petting. No more running away from strangers!

I could count on Haley to come when I called her over the years, but that was mostly because I learned not to call her unless I was sure she would come. No point in creating a sure-to-fail situation, right? Yep, I learned that setting up my dog and myself for success made life much easier for everyone!

Haley was my companion for 17 glorious years. I say that she stayed around so long because I was such a tough nut to crack. Sometimes it just takes longer for some people to learn, ya know? Of course, deep in my heart, I hope she stayed because she loved her life with me and was happy.

Her last couple of years she couldn’t hear, and her sight was diminished. She wore a bell on her collar so I would know if she was on the move and in which direction. I spent quite a bit of time running after her, arms outstretched, thankful she was slowing down in her old age so that I could reach her and guide her to go in a safer direction. It was so funny.

I would hear her bell: tink, tink, tink and see her softly trotting the wrong way down the trail on our morning walks because she didn’t know which way we went.

There I’d go, jogging towards her, arms reaching out, trying to touch her butt so she would know where I was.  I still chuckle when I picture myself hurrying to catch up with her several times each day. And I still miss her so!

Haley enjoying the day at nearly 17 years old.

Moral of this story:

We CAN recover from mistakes. Sometimes patience and allowing time to do it’s magic is the best training tool we have. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. “The Journey” is where our successes are found, and where our learning takes place.

With a trusting partnership, anything is possible!


Kathy and 16 year old Haley, with young Luc looking up.

After Haley and I earned that very special CD, we ended our ‘obedience’ career. There was no help available for someone who refused to use prong collars, ear pinches and corrections. The next step required dumbbell work. If you’ve never seen the (old school) methods to “properly” train the dumbbell and article work, count yourself lucky. It involved pinching your dog’s ear until they cried out, then shoving the dumbbell into their open mouth. Hold the mouth closed and praise. Repeat. Add the command to the process and there ya go. I hear that some folks still use these methods today. Hard to believe.

Haley and I went on to have a fun and successful agility career. We were amongst the first wave of agility pioneers in the U.S. It was a blast! Boxes of ribbons and trophies have gathered dust in the attic from those days.

I went on to learn from the sea animal trainer folks who did clicker training. Much better! I did find a woman who was breaking trail, teaching obedience work using R+ (positive reinforcement) and I worked with her for a bit, just to learn more about the training methods, even though I had lost my taste for obedience work.

We, as a community, still have lots of pavement ahead of us.

Positive Reinforcement isn’t an end to the evolution of dog training, it’s a beginning.

Partnership-driven training for dogs and their people is on the horizon. I’m on a mission from DOG … to make the world a better place for dogs and for people too!

There’s something liberating about being in the front line with the wind blowing through your hair, you know what I mean?

Your Turn.

Mistakes? Recovery? An interesting journey? Share your story. It’s OK. Mistakes mean learning is happening. Be brave!

Dirty Secrets Revealed: Confessions of a Professional Dog Trainer

December 14, 2012

Or: How I (almost) Wrecked My Dogs…

Kathy's dogs looking up at her attentivelyThere’s one thing that I’ve learned from all of my years of living with and training dogs that stands head and shoulders above the rest:

If you don’t have a good sense of humor, you might as well just throw in the towel and live a boring and sterile dogless life that features light carpeting, upholstered furniture, and a nice car that you are not embarrassed to have your mother or your boss ride in.

No, that’s not for me. Laughing at myself and my ineptness as a dog trainer – then sharing that with the world – way more fun. Who doesn’t need a little humility to keep things in balance?



Sue at 5 weeks old.

Confession #1:

How I Taught My Dog to Pee in the House. (and in other inconvenient places)

It’s really easy to house train a puppy. It is. I have a simple system that I use and teach to my clients, have for years. A no brainer. A 3 year old could do this. All of my dogs have easily learned to pee outside.

Then came Sue. She was about 90% house trained by 8 weeks old. The puppies in the litter were eager to move away from their sleeping area to potty by 3 weeks old and I made sure that was easy for them.

I thought to myself: “this will be the easiest house training job ever.” Right.

Sue was the sweetest puppy. Everything was going just fine. Clearly, she understood that potty happened outside, she always peed when I took her out and said my usual “go potty”. I was on top of taking her out at the usual times, staying attentive to any signs she needed to pee, and doing my best to stay focused any time she had house freedom.

The first time ‘it’ happened I was so surprised.

There was sweet Sue, looking up at me with those beautiful dark brown puppy eyes…I was looking adoringly back at her, smiling and letting her know how much I loved her. All this love flowing between us…as the pee flowed right out of Sue onto the floor. What??? I could not believe it.

As I cleaned up the mess on the floor, I had time to contemplate what had happened.

Did she have a bladder infection? Did she think that pee happened in a position relative to me? Did she just suddenly realize she had to pee and couldn’t hold it any longer? She was just a little puppy, after all.

I decided that I needed to pay more attention, stay more focused, do a better job at getting her outside. All good…no pee in the house for a couple of weeks. Whew. Then, “it” happened again. Sue and I lovingly gazing into one another’s eyes. I’m thinking about how much I love her and what a good, smart puppy she is. And Sue pees. Right there in front of me, looking up at me while I sweet talked to her. What the heck??? I’m even more shocked than the first time.

Sue at 7 weeks old, sitting ... and oh, so cute!Then, the same thing happened a month later.

This time we were on the couch. Yes, peed right there, looking into my eyes, standing on the couch next to me. OMG! Flurry of activity ensued. Thank god I have blankets on the couch, I’m thinking, as I rip them off before the pee can soak into the upholstery. By this time, Sue is 5 or 6 months old and she pees A LOT. Is it possible to be even more shocked than the last time? Yes. I’m sure I stood there with my mouth wide open for some time. I know I was shaking my head in disbelief as I sprayed nature’s miracle on the couch, hoping to quickly render the pee odorless.

Now, I’m completely dumbfounded. What the heck is going on? Why is she doing this? It’s so random, so sporadic, so incredibly puzzling. So freakin weird. Did she pee on the couch because it’s a soft place that will soak up pee, like a rug or grass? Again, I re-commit to being even more vigilant about watching for signs.

“It” didn’t happen again. For a couple of months, I mean. I absolutely could not believe “it” was possible. Exact repeat of the couch pee incident. Sue, eyes, sweet talk, pee. There I am, madly ripping blankets, pillows, dogs and dog toys off the couch. This is crazy. I’m a little pissed.

And, suddenly, it hits me. I mean SLAM. Whacked on top of the head.

That sweet, penetrating, imploring, relentless gaze from Sue? THAT is her signal to me that she needs to go potty. What a dumbass I am. All this time, I’m thinking that she is simply connecting to me…wants to engage, wants to be loved. No. That is not a gaze of love. That is a look of “I have to pee right now, you crazy distracted person. Would you PLEASE open the door for me? If you don’t open the door for me right now, I’m gonna have to pee right here, because I can’t hold it any more”.

Yeah. Sometimes it takes a flood of information before learning takes place for humans. Pun intended.

I’d love to report that my big “aha” after the 2nd couch pee means that was the last time Sue and I had a communication failure. But, sadly, that is not the case.

Well, to be accurate, that was the last time it happened during waking hours. The next big hurdle was overnight. Now that Sue was a ‘big girl’ and all grown up, she had bed privileges overnight. In the house, in the RV, and in the occasional motel room.

Now, you need to understand that Sue is a sweet and loving dog who likes to snuggle, and gives great doggy kisses. Really, how was I to know that she was laying on top of me in bed, licking my face and staring into my closed eyes because she had to pee? Seriously, how was I to know? Yep. Peed on the bed. Wake up Joe. Frantically rip off comforter, blanket and sheets from our organic cotton and wool mattress. Thank goodness…it didn’t soak thru. Close call.

That fun scenario happened twice more, in the camper. If you happened to walk past my camper at a herding trial a couple of years ago and saw bedding hanging out to dry and wondered why, now you know. I did not pee in the bed. It was Sue. Really. The bed pee phase coincided with Sue coming into season for the first time. So I guess her bladder was extra sensitive or something. She felt bloated and desperate to pee, poor thing. I know just how that feels.


Sue at 3 months old.OK, so how many times does it take a border collie to pee on your bed before you realize that she does NOT want to snuggle, but really needs to go pee and is trying to make you get up? Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!! I know the answer to that question!!!

Four! That is the magic number, friends. Four times. The last time (please, God) was the best. It got my attention. Finally. I apparently am way more dense than I seem. We were traveling with Nancy and her dogs for a quick trip to a herding trial and decided to stay in a motel, rather than bring the camper. Sue was still in season so the boys went into the crates in the room and the girls had bed privileges.

I was really tired. A long day outdoors at a trial.

Middle of the night, sleeping. Sue on me…licking my face. I open my eyes to see her staring at me, just inches away..looking deeply into my eyes. Go to sleep, Sue, I tell her. She does. 1/2 hr later, I open my eyes to find Sue staring at me again. Go to sleep, Sue, I say again. She moves to the foot of the bed. A few minutes later, she lays on top of me again. I don’t even open my eyes this time. Go to sleep Sue, I insist. She goes to the foot of the bed and I feel warm wetness soaking onto my feet.

No way!! Panic ensues. Wildly throwing covers off the bed, desperate to keep the mattress dry. And the smell. OMG. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being in a closed room filled with the scent of girl in season pee, you have not lived! No wonder the boy dogs are crazed by that musky scent. Not many places to put soiled stinky bedding in a motel room, finally landed on the shower. Perfect!

Now, I’m REALLY tired.

2 am. Tired. Took the comforter off of Nancy’s bed to cover myself up. Back to sleep. I know this will be nearly impossible for you to believe, but it happened again that night. Apparently Sue only peed enough the first time to make herself comfortable, because at 5 am the whole thing was repeated. Yes, including me telling her to “go to sleep”…I guess I thought she was eager to get a fun day started really early. Never considered she had to pee again. I know, I know.

Now we have 2 really stinky comforters in the shower along with a blanket and a sheet. Time to check out. I left an apologetic note for the housekeepers, along with $20, hoping they would forgive me the extra work. All the way home, I was thinking I should have left them way more.

Four time’s a charm. Finally I get it: Sue does not wake me up to snuggle in the middle of the night.

She wakes me up to pee. No matter how tired I am, or how great that dream I’m having is…if Sue stares at me through my closed eyelids, I know it. And I get up.

You gotta love the clever ways a border collie uses their ‘eye’. Even sheep are smarter than some humans, if you know what I mean.

 Sue working sheep at 18 months old.

Moral of this story:

Meaningful dialog between species is always possible. Sometimes it just takes a while to learn the others language.

And, it is always a worthwhile endeavor to dialog with our dogs. They have so much great stuff to tell us. Sue and I now have a wonderful language worked out.

For ‘Yes/No’ questions we have a 3 part system.

Step 1. We gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes.

Step 2. I ask her a question:  (like: “Sue, do you have to go potty?”)

Step 3. Sue answers. If it’s a NO, she takes one step backwards. If it’s a YES, she steps towards me.

All the while, she maintains direct eye contact. Using her ‘eye’ to keep me under control and focused. That’s a good thing. There are lots of BSO’s. Everywhere, if you know what I’m sayin’.  😉


Raven at 9 weeks old. Sue hasn’t peed in the house since that last time in the motel, several years ago. Her daughter Raven, at 10 months old, had a similar style of communicating “I have to potty”. Raven runs halfway up the stairway near the door, and stares at me through the spaces in the railing.

Of course, I’m not usually in a place where I can see her staring out.

That could have been a problem, but thanks to the training I got from Sue, it only took me one time of having her pee upstairs to learn about her signal. I am now tuned in to the sound of paws on the stairs. Day or Night.

Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?


Your Action Steps:

  1.  Read my confession above and read, re-read (or remember) my 5 Step Formula for Dog Training Success book. This time, as you read the 5 Step book, focus on communication, dialog, understanding and misunderstanding. What additional layers can you learn about communication?
  2. Every day, try to pick out 3-5 ways your dog is communicating with you that you did not notice before. Look for subtle body language, posture, expression. Write them down in a journal or notebook.
  3. Every day, try to communicate ONE thing to your dog in the most subtle way you can think of. Tiny movements. Subtle expressions. No (or very little) talking or verbalizing from you…use mostly body language, facial expression, tiny hand movements.  Really subtle. Write down how it went for you, and for your dog.
  4. After a week, notice how much more you and your dog are paying attention to one another, and how much more you understand each other. And notice how this has influenced your dogs behavior, training, engagement, work.

In no time at all, you will be a master communicator and a person your dog can really understand!


Coming up: Confession #2 … Let’s just say that I am sure you will relate to the next story.  🙂

In the  meantime…

Share YOUR confessions. Don’t be afraid. We’ll be laughing with you (not at you.)  Ha!  😉