Monthly Archives: December 2015

Two Resolutions Every Dog Owner Should Make For 2016

A new year brings opportunities for change, growth and improvement – and most of us make New Year’s resolutions of some sort or another. If you’re like most of us, there’s only so much we can realistically follow through on, though, so we have to prioritize.

What’s important to you? What drives you, and gets you excited to face each new day? What role does your dog play in the aspirations you have for life?

At Western States K9 College, what drives us is seeing our clients build more meaningful relationships with their dogs. We’ve seen people blossom because they find strength and skill during the training journey they take with their dog. We’ve seen them discover a new clarity about who their dogs are, and how they can bring out the very best, most unique qualities in their dog. We’ve seen children discover respect and consideration for their dog as a valuable individual, and we’ve seen partners and families come together to help a dog in need of guidance.

This doesn’t just happen, though. These are people who commit, because they prioritize their relationship with the being they’ve welcomed into their home. They fully intend to include the dog as a full member of the family, and value the dog’s potential.

If this is YOUR goal, there are two resolutions we’d challenge you to take on for 2016. There are way more than two, but here are our two biggies for 2016:

(1) Resolve to be active with your dog, physically and mentally, every day. At minimum, do something together every day that gets your heart thumping and your brain working, for at least 20-30 minutes. That can be a walk, a structured game of tug, a recall game. But it should be something that strengthens core skills, not just exhausting your dog. If you’re on a walk, be working on leash manners, or building a habit of sitting when you stop, or improving your ability to successfully ask for your dog’s attention and focus during moments of distraction. If you’re playing fetch, ask your dog to sit and wait for your to throw the ball, and sprinkle in some recall drills.

(2) Resolve to create, clarify, and maintain routines. Our dogs are very adaptable, as long as they understand what’s going on and can take safety in patterns. Many times, we see behavioral issues arise when dogs are asked to make sense of what looks to them like chaos. If your dog becomes frantic at the sound of the doorbell, or the arrival of guests, find the routine that you can train and your dog can execute. Maybe it’s going to a specific place and waiting for guests to enter. Maybe your dog can accompany you to the door and take a seat by your side as you open the door and invite guests in. There is no single “right” way – it’s about finding what you’re willing to do and what your dog can learn to do, and putting them together into a routine you’re willing to practice over and over and over again.

So. If you only have room on your New Year’s Resolutions list for two dog-related goals, we recommend these. We know if you follow through on these two, you’ll see massive, foundation-level changes in your understanding of, and relationship with, your dog. Which is what having a dog is all about, right?


Walk the Walk: Choosing the Right Tool for Your Dog

Head to any pet supply store and you’ll see aisles of stuff you can use to walk your dog. In addition to the regular flat buckle collars and an array of clasp leashes, you’ll likely find:
*Harnesses – front clip and back clip, and some with front AND back clips
*Head halters – such as the Gentle Leader and Halti
*Prong collars
*Chain “choke” collars
*Retractable leashes
*Slip leads

At WSK9Co, we believe the vast majority of dogs can learn to walk politely on leash (see previous blog on the method we use to teach loose leash walking) with a regular, well-fitted flat buckle collar and 6-foot leash, or a British-style slip lead. We believe that most dogs just need consistent practice with a handler who is willing to follow through with the protocol to understand what walking on leash is all about. (See the first in the leash walking blog series to learn more about the WS philosophy.)

Flat buckle collar and leash. If you don’t already have one of each, we highly recommend getting them. A six-foot nylon leash should be sufficient. Collars come in an array of widths, and we’re typically fine with all but the very narrowest/widest. (Narrow collars may snap on a larger dog, and collars that are too wide tend to make pulling more tolerable for dogs.) What is most important is the fit. A properly fitted collar should be a little snug; snug enough so that it cannot slip up and over the dog’s head should the dog pull, or startle and bolt. Note: if you have a dog with a disproportionately-sized head, such as a greyhound or English Bulldog, a regular collar may not be the right choice for you.

A properly fitted collar should be this snug: you should just be able to fit two fingers between the collar and your dog’s neck
A properly fitting collar
This collar is too loose, and will slip over Mitt the Italian Greyhound’s head. This is a recipe for a lost dog!

British slip lead. A slip lead is essentially an all-in-one leash/collar. It slips over your dog’s head and is secured via a stopper. If the dog pulls, the leash/collar tightens, and then loosens to the stopper when pulling stops. It is popular among trainers and other dog handlers – and we like them a lot – for a few reasons: properly fitted, it is virtually impossible for a dog to slip out of; and when there is no pulling, the dog shouldn’t feel much, if anything, around her neck.

Athena the Rottweiler mix is wearing a properly-fitted slip lead. Note the placement of the stopper, which prevents the lead from loosening to the point where Athena could escape. However, under normal conditions, she feels no pressure around her neck – the only time she feels pressure is when she pulls.

A PLACE FOR TOOLS. There are absolutely some dogs who are working through leash-related issues who may benefit from the use of some of the other tools listed above. We have worked with owners to train dogs to walk nicely on leash using head halters, prong collars, and front-clip harnesses, for example. But use of these tools is dog-determined – we customize each behavior modification plan, which includes figuring out which tool will best help a dog progress. But again, these are largely behavior modification cases, where dogs are learning to work through specific issues, have specific triggers, and need very specific help.

THE NO’S: With a few exceptions, we recommend against the use of chain collars, back clip harnesses, and retractable leashes. (We’ve recommended back clip harnesses for dogs who have physical limitations, for example. Jen’s dog Sally, a dachshund who suffers from Intervertebral Disk Disease, wore a harness for much of her rehabilitation several years ago because it put less pressure on the damaged disks.) These are tools that either present health risks (such as the choke chain), or actually ENCOURAGE pulling (back-clip harness and retractable leash). These tools, particularly the last two, were designed largely to make walking easier for the owner. They aren’t teaching tools, and actually can work against the owner who is trying to work with her dog to have a nice walk.

WHERE TO BUY: You may not find the slip leads in your average big-box pet supplier. Here in the Salt Lake City area, we buy ours at The Dog’s Meow on 3300 South, and at Barley’s Canine Rec Center on 2300 East. They can also be purchased online. We like JJPet Supply, and 1-800-Pet Supplies. m/

Why We Train the WSK9CO Way

If you’ve looked into dog training at all, you’ve no doubt found that there are many different schools of thought – about the “best” way to create harmony and address discord. There are trainers whose language/approach addresses “positive reinforcement” and “dominance,” employing “force-free” and “leadership-driven” methods – all advocating the most effective way to motivate, teach, and change our dogs’ behavior.

There are dog trainers whose primary teaching tools utilize food, devices (from clickers to training collars), and “protocols.” Strategies focus on everything from shaping skills to strict structure. And all along the way, trainers are passionate in their belief that adherence to a certain strategy or philosophy will yield better results (a more well-behaved, even happy dog).

Our approach to dog training stems from our own experience: what we’ve learned from our own dogs and the many we’ve met and trained with over the past quarter century. Which is this: not only are all dogs individuals, but also all their people and the experiences that have shaped their lives. What works for one dog and her person may not work as well for that person and her second dog; and what works for one client may well be very different from the approach we took with the client we met with an hour before. But EACH plan or approach will be based on (1) our clients’ needs and goals, (2) their abilities, (3) the dog’s state of mind, (4) the dog’s key learning motivators. It will be crafted based on what we (trainer, client, dog) agree we can do together so that learning progresses and relationships strengthen.

Boss, a 10-month-old pitbull is with us for a two-week board and train program, needing a basic foundation of skills. He struggled with many issues typical of dogs his age: destructiveness when left alone, an inability to focus, and inconsistent responsiveness to his owners’ requests. His owners had done some studying and tried to teach him, but just weren’t seeing the progress they’d hoped for.

Boss, left, working on holding his “place” command with distractions

During his initial training sessions after coming into the board and train program, WSK9Co trainer Jen tried shaping a “sit”, then added some guidance via a leash, and then brought out a clicker. She found that Boss became more enthusiastic about learning his “sit” with a clicker/treats, but that he rocked his “down” cue using food/shaping and some leash guidance. His recall started using a squeaky toy. He is also learning to see his crate as a safe space, a place to relax.

Boss has only been in our program for a few days, but he’s making nice progress, and is becoming more and more excited to learn. His focus is improving, and we’re building on it every day. We’re hopeful that when he returns to his family, they’ll see a dog who sees value, meaningfulness, and fulfillment in connecting with humans, who is able to understand and engage more fully in his family’s routines.

Jack, a young Bernese Mountain Dog, once pulled his owner down while on a walk, lunging and barking at other dogs he’d encounter. When we met him, his behavior was dangerous, not only to his people, but everyone around him. He’s not mean, but he is big and strong, and needed help remembering that he wasn’t out there alone – that his people were there with him and THEY could be trusted to handle any threats that arose. His owners needed to feel confident they could communicate with Jack and help him through situations that made him uncomfortable. Our strategy, tailored to their needs (physical and tactical), included desensitization, confidence building, socialization in a safe environment with balanced dogs – and a prong collar. We found that when the excitement level peaked in Jack, a wiggle of the collar was a novel enough sensation to interrupt the building adrenaline and allow Jack to hear his owners again. Desensitization, positive exposure, and patience are key to helping Jack succeed. But at this time, so is the collar. We are unapologetic about it, and encourage his people to feel likewise.

Jack, practice calm behavior on the elevator. Jack used to bark and lunge at fellow passengers.

Let us be clear: we do not advocate inhumane training approaches, or strategies that involve creating fear in dogs. We believe firmly, however, in finding the approach that works best for clients and their dogs – the approach that facilitates a continually-growing relationship between them, and encourages both dog and human to find joy in the process. These are each individual personalities. The training approach should reflect this.

That’s the core of Western States K9 College. It’s why our trainers are practiced in a range of training techniques, and continue to learn about and implement new advances and approaches. Our mission is to understand our clients – their personalities and strengths – and their dogs, and use everything at our disposal to help plot a path forward that they can take together. A path that is confidently, proudly, uniquely theirs.

From Monster Puller to Perfect Heel

here are a lot of different ways to teach a dog to walk a dog on a loose leash. At Western States K9 College, our method is rooted in the belief that an on-leash walk with our dogs is a purposeful activity, far and beyond exercising bodies and getting outside.

We believe walking on a leash provides our domesticated dogs – most of whom come from bloodlines honed over generations for work – with a job to do. Most Australian shepherds, heelers, and border collies we meet don’t have daily access to livestock to herd; most labradors, pointers, and terriers aren’t in the field hunting. Most families we meet bring dogs into their home as companions, which is wonderful. However, it doesn’t change the fact that dogs thrive when they have opportunities to feel and achieve a purpose. Which is what a walk can be, and we believe it’s what we should offer them.

During an on-leash walk, the dog’s job is to keep you walking, and the way that happens is if the leash is nice and loose. Here’s a brief explanation of how we teach loose leash walking. It’s a process, taking weeks (or longer) to perfect – be patient, persistent, and determined. We designed it this way not just to help you and your dog learn a new skill; we teach it this way to help build your relationship. (Note: We’ve broken the steps down into a five-week plan, but your dog may progress faster/less fast. Take things as they come, and go at your own pace – just keep going!)

Week One – During the walk, when you are moving forward, keep your leash in your dominant hand and keep it centered. This way if your dog pulls, she doesn’t have the opportunity to use your strength to pull more. If they decide to push ahead, let them reach the end of the leash, back up, and then use your non-dominant hand to guide them to your side. Be sure to guide them with the leash so they turn in to you, so the last thing they see before moving forward again is YOU, and which signals that they are disconnected from external distractions. When they get back to your side and are connected with you, start moving forward again. Don’t ever stop completely.

The first week of practicing, be prepared to do a lot of backing up!

When you are first learning loose leash walking, we recommend selecting a “comfort block.” This is a route you know well, a relatively low-traffic area where you know the distractions. Work this route in sections, adding distance as your dog is able to keep that leash loose.

Week Two – During about the second week of working on leash manners, you’ll likely see your dog self-managing more. They’ll scoot back to your side as soon as you stop. To help push them further, start backing up before they get to the end of the leash. This will teach them that they shouldn’t be getting that far in front of you in the first place and will begin to teach them to stay closer to you.

Week Three – With practice, you’ll notice your dog doing some “testing.” They’ve stopped pulling on leash for the most part, but may be hovering a bit in front. They’re clarifying in their minds what their bubble is. This is where you can start introducing the “heel” command and working on more formal leash manners. To get the heel position, take treats with you. Take off with your left foot and say lets go. When the dog is right at your side and looking up at you, treat them. If they stay looking up at you, keep treating them and give them positive verbal feedback. A couple days into this, start saying the word “heel” each time you give them a treat, and remember to say “heel” when you start off, again with your left foot.

Dancing! This exercise helps sharpen your dog’s responses, and really gets you moving together as a team. To begin, practice taking steps forward, backward, to the left, and to the right, using the leash to guide your dog as needed to maintain position beside you. As your dog’s focus and responses improve, vary your pace, speeding up and slowing down.

Weeks Four and Five – Keep working on the formal ‘heel’ command, and making more complex “dances.” Also start shortening up the leash and giving them less room to work with. This will help get them in a firmer and tighter position.

For a FREE video lesson demonstrating the WSK9Co way to learn loose leash walking, visit:

Check back for our next blog, which will cover the gear we typically use when training and walking our dogs!

Learn to Walk the WSK9CO Way!

Nature prepares dogs for a lot of stuff: finding nourishment, fending off threats, finding/creating safe living spaces, even play. These things find corollaries when we bring them into our homes; they learn where their food comes from, where they should sleep, etc.
One thing nature does not help them with, however, is going for a nice, loose-leash walk with their person. Everything about the experience is unnatural for both dog and human – to be tethered together, bi-ped and quadri-ped, neither pulling the other. Learning to walk together is a skill that both must learn and practice and appreciate. It’s hard, which is why so many people fail; but it’s also worth it.
WHY walks? We hear all the time people excusing/explaining their dog’s behavior on leash. They concede getting pulled around by their dogs is unpleasant, and that the experience makes them less than excited to get out and walk their dogs on a regular basis. It’s so unfortunate, because walking with our dogs is one of the best ways to bond with them, and they with us.
Walking with our dogs pairs several of our dogs’ “life imperatives” – physical activity, mental stimulation, and socialization – and links them together with people. As our dogs’ friend and guardian, we want to maximize every opportunity to reiterate to our dogs that we’re there for them, and that we’re in this thing together. That’s what builds trust, which is the foundation of any healthy relationship.
Asking our dogs to walk WITH us asks them to assume a very different mindset than the one that allows them to pull, mark on trees and bushes, and yell at other dogs/people. The dogs who do those things barely acknowledge their person’s presence, let alone their key role in their life. And the more our dogs practice forgetting us, dismissing us, or even lashing out at us, the more that mindset becomes a part of their understanding of their relationship with us. Which is not ideal.
Asking our dog to walk WITH us is about building a partnership, experiencing together, moving as a single unit. It asks our dog to exercise her mind to keep pace with us, and have the discipline to behave calmly amid distractions and prioritize our company over anything else. It’s hard work – which is what makes a 30-minute structured walk so much more useful for the average companion dog than just about any other activity. Body and mind, activity and restraint. Working all at the same time – it’s a big deal.
Asking our dog to walk with us on a loose leash doesn’t mean you’re asking your dog to be any less of a dog – dogs need romping time, fetch time, hiking time, playgroup time. Dogs should have all of those things to be fulfilled and balanced. But when that leash goes on, that’s YOUR time together. It should bring you closer.
I walk all 8 of my dogs together every day. Some of them are captured in the photo above. We’re quite a spectacle, I’m sure: seven littles, a pitbull, and me. We take up the whole sidewalk. But for us, it’s pretty zen. Everyone learns to manage their leash and each takes a place in the pack walk, either to my side or behind. It’s very quiet, except for the times I praise them and tell them how proud I am of them, or give them information (“cross here,” “walk up”, etc.). I have dogs ages 4-16 years, and we all go at least 2 miles every day. It’s my time with them, and they know I’m there for them. It’s a really precious ritual for me, and I’m pretty sure for them, too.
If you’re looking for a way to strengthen your relationship with your dog, I promise that learning to walk together is one of the very most effective ways.
Sing up for one of our memberships to learn how to teach loose leash walking to your dog, the gear we use to train and walk our client and personal dogs, and how to handle leash reactivity and other on-leash issues.