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Author Archives: Ottawa Canine School

Dog Park


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Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Dog parks attended by well informed, responsible dog owners can certainly be a fun place for all.

The reality is that not all dogs enjoy the dog park. Many dogs, once they have reached social maturity lose interest in interacting with other dogs. When my dog Everest started spending most of his time at the dog park keeping an eye on the more exuberant dogs, interrupting their play and being the Fun Police, I knew it was time to retire him from the dog park and find him another activity. The dog park had ceased being a place where his mental and social needs were being met.

Is your dog truly enjoying the dog park? Notice where your dog is choosing to spend his or her time. Is Rover taking off into the woods to sniff, as a strategy to avoid all interactions with other canines?  Or is Rover sticking close to you the entire time, because he is very shy and nervous?

Not all dogs behave well at the park. Some dogs are modelling appropriate behaviour, but some dogs are most definitely not. From overly aroused, impolite and uninhibited dogs, to resource guarders, the dog park has seen them all. If your dog guards sticks, balls and toys, is very nervous around other dogs, or very bold and defensive, you may want to consider going to the dog park with a small group of other dogs, or skipping the dog park altogether.

To help make your dog park experience as dreamy as possible, actively supervise your dog. If your dog appears to be having fun, it doesn’t mean you should stop paying attention to him. Things can change quickly in the dog park. Behaviour exists on a continuum. Therefore, what may look safe one moment, can turn nasty in the next.

Help your dog remain a good role model at the dog park. Step in and interrupt any humping. If your is dog barking incessantly or excessively, give him a short break to settle back down. If your dog likes to steal toys, teach your dog the “drop it” cue. Why not step it up and teach him a wonderful recall? Then your dog can fetch the toy, return it to you, drop it and you can return the toy to its rightful owner.

If your dog is a puppy and your goal is to socialize your dog, you may wish to consider attending a playdate with dogs that are good role models. Puppies can learn so much from older dogs, but a dog park is an uncontrolled environment.

If your goal is to try to teach your unsocialized adult dog to enjoy being with dogs, then low-pressure interactions with calm known dogs are a good place to start.

Dog parks are a great place for some dogs. It certainly can be a wonderful way to allow your dog to get exercise. That young adolescent dog with a surplus of energy can benefit from a good run at the park! Dog parks can also be a wonderful place for people. Many folks meet up there for a regular dose of socialization.

But remember, you do not need to take your dog to the dog park to be a good dog owner.

Mat Training

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Wouldn’t you just love to have a dog that settled on a mat, no matter where that mat was?

Teaching the settle on the mat is wonderful for all dogs, particularly the excited, anxious, nervous and energetic ones. Imagine enjoying a lovely tête-à-tête with your loved one instead of trying to manage a dog begging and barking at the table. Can you picture your dog chilling out on his mat while you work out in your home gym? Or how about simply being able to prepare a meal without having your furry companion in the way?

Everest offers a yawn as he adjusts to his new environment

With just a little bit of effort, your dog can learn to settle on a mat no matter where you are – the veterinarian’s, the car, the dog training school, or the dog sitter’s. We recently took our dog Everest to my parents’ place for the weekend. He had a wonderful weekend and I believe it was mostly thanks to mat training. Because it was a new environment for him, the weekend could have been a stressful, unpleasant and exhausting experience for everyone. Instead, it was quite the opposite. The “magic” ingredient was a comfy mat that he’d learn to chill out on. It allowed him to have his safe place in a house where nothing was familiar to him. Instead of pacing back and forth, or following us around, he just hung out on his mat. Instead of getting in the way, he relaxed on his mat and chewed on his bone. Instead of getting into things he shouldn’t be getting into, you guessed it! he took a long nap on his mat. After we left, we received a message from the hosts (my parents) saying that Everest had an open invitation to come anytime and lie down on his mat. 

Everest starting to get more comfortable in his new environment, thanks to his mat

Teaching your dog to enjoy being on his mat is easy and it will pay off. If you’re starting from scratch, your first task is to teach your dog to go over to the mat.  You can point to the mat, then reward generously once your dog is on it. You can then increase the distance from which you stop, aiming to be at least 5 feet away and able to send your dog to the mat. The next step is to wait for your dog to lie down.  This can be prompted once or twice, but if you have also been doing a lot of down stays, it should come fairly easily.  If it doesn’t, then you know what you’ll need to practice! 

Once your dog is going happily to the mat and lying down, you’re ready to work on building the duration of the stay. Stay close to the dog during this training phase . Once your dog can stay on the mat for a minute or two, then you can start working on increasing the distance. Make the training fun, include mini training breaks, play sessions and a general attitude of lighthearted enjoyment rather than a drill-instructor attitude.  

More than just teaching the dog to lie down on a mat, the goal of mat training is to teach the dog to be super relaxed when on the mat. I call this part the “do nothing” exercise. It may feel a bit awkward, but getting comfortable sending your dog to his mat to do nothing is a key to helping him settle down. Mat training is a wonderful way to work on impulse control, as well as teaching the dog to be calm. 

Everest completely relaxed on his mat

I can assure you that investing a bit of time teaching your dog to relax on his or her mat is something you won’t regret doing.

A dog’s state of mind

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Dogs are constantly forming emotional associations that inform their decisions. Is it safe, unsafe, dangerous, good, bad or neutral ?  This associative learning is also called classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, named after Ivan Pavlov, the Russian scientist who accidentally discovered that dogs learn through association.

All animals learn through classical conditioning, all the time. Some associations can be quite helpful or simply benign. For example, if a dog enters the Ottawa Canine School for the first time and I offer him a fun toy to play with, the dog will likely associate the training school as a safe, good and fun place.

Learning through play

The exciting thing about classical conditioning is that we can manipulate a dog’s associations to things. We can use classical conditioning to teach a puppy to enjoy being groomed by creating a positive association with the grooming tools.  We show the puppy the nail clipper and then offer the puppy yummy treats.  After several repetitions, the nail clipper will become the predictor of yummy treats.

Some associations, however, can be harmful.  A dog may associate a certain object, smell, person or animal with an unpleasant experience. Take the common leash for example. It can either elicits jumps of joy if the dog has associated it with fun walks in the fresh air, or it can be a frightening object for the dog who has associated it with corrections or with being tied up outside on his own.

leash = good things happen

A few years ago I worked with a dog who was home alone when the house alarm went off. A few beeps turned into sirens blasting throughout the house. The dog, in a state of frenzy,  attempted to eat his way out of the house. The beeps preceded the terrifying noises and just like that, the association was made. Beeping sounds were scary, dangerous and unsafe. 

The couple could no longer set their alarm before leaving the house because of the beeping it made when they pushed the buttons. It was not only their house alarm that was a problem – the beeping sound of a car being locked or unlocked, a microwave announcing the meal was ready, the beeps of an oven being pre-heated, the reminder that the fridge door wasn’t closed properly would make this dog anxious and stressed. 

It is harder to teach an animal that experiences fear, stress and anxiety new behaviours. We must change the animals’ emotional state first, before asking for a different behaviour. If a dog is too distraught, it cannot control its behaviour.

Dogs that are too distraught cannot control their behaviour

It isn’t as simple as using treats to help the dog form positive associations.

In the case of the dog who had developed a negative emotional response to beeping sounds, we could not simply just feed him treats while the beeping happens. We started with the dog outside and far from the house, while the alarm was being set. This allowed the dog to have some distance from the noise. The beeping came first, then the extra yummy treats appeared. After many repetitions, the dog could be closer to the noise. Eventually, the beeping becomes the predictor of the extra special treats.

In order to change the association, the order in which things happen is important. The neutral or scary thing must be presented first, without provoking a fearful response from the dog. Then, the yummy treat is presented. This order matters. If you present the yummy treat before the scary thing, your dog may develop an unpleasant association to the treat. 

Fear not, you are not going to reinforce the unwanted behaviour, by offering your dog treats. The goal is to change the emotional response, which is no easy feat since emotions are beyond the animal’s control.

Trainers with a solid understanding of learning theory are able to creatively and humanely influence dog behaviours. 

Happy Training!

Board & Train

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If you google “Board & Train“, you’ll find everything from compelling reasons why it’s a brilliant idea to strong deterrents aimed at showing why it’s a waste of your hard earned money.

When you are dealing with challenging behaviours, the thought of sending your dog to a professional sounds delightful. You are likely exhausted, possibly at wit’s end, maybe even wondering how much longer you can keep going on. Sometimes, a little respite in the form of “Board & Train” or “Doggy Bootcamp” is all we feel we need to get that second wind.

I often think that Board & Train is a bit like a rehab facility. The client does quite well while he or she is in their new environment. I’ve had clients where the problematic behaviour never happened when the dog was in my home… It’s not because I have any magical powers, but what I don’t have is the same history with the dog.  Also, the environment is set up in a way that makes success easier to achieve because the dog is not surrounded by his or her usual triggers.

Because dogs don’t generalize very well, what they learn at “rehab” will not necessarily translate to their home life. Once the dog returns to their usual environment, if the family hasn’t learned how to keep the momentum going and hasn’t also changed, then the behaviour is likely to come roaring back after a few days.

Many board and train facilities offer a transfer session, where the lessons are transferred to the client. This is an important step in helping the lessons stick.

How long does board and train usually last? I’ve seen them range from 2 weeks to 2 months. Sometimes even longer. Ethically, we cannot put a timeline or deadline on when a dog will be “fixed”. Just because you gave someone 2 weeks and a lot of money doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog is also on the same timeline. We can’t force, push, stress your dog so that it learns faster. We won’t. In fact, we have moved away from offering Board and Train, in favour of Doggy homeschool.

We believe that if a dog is mostly trained in his or her own home, the lessons will stick better.

Stay tuned, the next post will be all about our newest service: Doggy Homeschool!

If you are going to entertain the idea of sending your dog to boarding, or doggy bootcamp, then make sure you understand which methods will be used, as well as the consequences of those methods. If you are looking for recommendations for excellent, ethical, effective board and train solutions, I would have happy to send you a list of trusted trainers.


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I’m sorting through binders and binders of notes taken at various conferences I attended in the last decade. Some of the information is now dated and some is still quite relevant.

I stumble upon notes taken during a talk by Dr. Patricia McConnell. Her topic was about trauma and PTSD in dogs. She goes into quite a bit of detail about how dogs can suffer from PTSD, what that looks like and what we can do to help these dogs.

I reread these notes carefully, thoughtfully, and with a new appreciation for how close she was to the subject. What I didn’t know, back when I heard her speak, was how that topic was close to her heart. In her latest book The Education of Will, Dr. McConnell opens up and shares her own trauma, how she suffered from PTSD and how her dog Will was her partner throughout it all. Will, she discovers, also knew what it was like to startle easily, to be tense and on edge, to have difficulty sleeping, to be emotionally numb and to experience anxiety. 

Those that have reactive dogs, will likely relate quite well to Will !

It’s one of those rare books that allow you to come close to understanding what a dog is going through. And not in a Disney Movie kind of way, but from the perspective of a highly trained, highly skilled dog trainer and professional behaviourist. Plus, it’s a riveting, compelling read.

Here’s more about Dr. Patricia McConnell’s journey that she shares in her book.

PS: Not 24 hours after writing this blog, I have learned that Willie has metastatic pulmonary adenocarcinoma. Dr. Patricia McConnell shares this news with all of us on her blog

Here is an excerpt:

I am sorry to have to tell you that Willie, my Silly Billie Willie Boy, has metatastic pulmonary adenocarcinoma. Lung cancer. Chemo might slow its progression, but can’t cure it. Surgery isn’t an option.

I thought you would want to know. So many of us here have become a close village of dog lovers, and have followed each other’s dogs for years. Many of you have read about Willie’s challenges in The Education of Will. I didn’t want to blindside you with the end of his life, which is predicted to come in two to six months. In my experience, people don’t want to be protected, they want to be informed.

Read more here

What does REACTIVE mean?

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You’ve heard folks talk about their reactive dog. Maybe you’ve spotted our Reactive Rover class while perusing our class offerings. Perhaps you’re more familiar with the term “Feisty Fido” or, perhaps, you really don’t know what a reactive dog is.

A reactive dog is not necessarily an aggressive dog

Reactivity is a behaviour and manifests itself as an overreaction to stimuli. That stimuli may be a person, another dog a specific breed or colour of dog, a noise, a movement (things with wheels!), men with beards or a combination of all of the above. This reactivity may be an inherited trait, a product of their environment or even a learned behaviour.

Some breeds are designed to react quickly. Think of the German Shepherd Dog, for example. Reactivity is a benefit for detection. Many working dogs wouldn’t be as effective if they weren’t wired to react quickly to all manner of stimuli ! Can you imagine a herding breed who doesn’t react quickly to its environment ? Reactivity can be an important ingredient for working dogs and sporting dogs.

Most of the reactive dogs we work with at the Ottawa Canine School, however, are easily excited and frustrated. In fact, many times I’ve heard folks tell me that their dog is really friendly! Rover is just pulling them towards the other dog. In some cases, this is true: the dog is over excited and anxious to get to the other dog. Others, on the other hand, have learned that lashing out gets them the space they crave. The dog lunges and barks as an attempt to make the scary thing go away. In both cases, the behaviour is usually unwanted.

Some dogs learn that barking and lunging can make the scary thing go away!

Hemingway, our Great Dane, would never hurt a fly. He was kind and gentle but boy-oh-boy was he a project ! At the sight of another dog, he would leap in the air, drag me towards the other dog while barking incessantly. If the thought of a 140 lb dog bouncing and barking towards you isn’t scary enough, imagine Great Dane sized drool flying around his head. After an “episode”, I’d literally have to wipe all the drool off of his face. He was excitable and had little impulse control. One trainer, after meeting Hemi, told me “He is SO RUDE.”. I knew I had my work cut out for me, and work hard we did. I am proud to say that Hemi responded well to training and became a joy to walk in the neighbourhood. He became a more polite dog that didn’t get carried away by his emotions.

My other dog, Everest, is a very different dog. He likes his space and would never try to excitedly drag me over to go see another dog. His behaviour towards other dogs changed (and not for the better) after a specific incident and he started barking in a threatening and unfriendly manner when he saw large dark coloured dogs. Today, he very rarely reacts to another dog being in his space. I manage his environment and, every chance I get I reinforce that other dogs mean good things happen. The last time we were at the veterinarian’s office, for example, we played a game where every time he looked at another dog then looked back at me, he got a piece of tasty kangaroo (his favourite!).

Context is key

The tricky part is that some of these reactive behaviours are normal canine behaviours. Is the dog barking or is the dog reactive? Is the dog friendly and enthusiastic or is he reactive? How can we tell ? The answer is to look at the context of when the behaviour happens. It is normal for a dog to get all excited when he sees a squirrel. It is not normal, however, for my dog to bark incessantly when he sees a 10 year old child. It is normal for my dog to bark excitedly in a flyball tournament. It is not normal for my dog to bark and lunge at other dogs I pass by on the street. Context is key.

New Curricula ! One curriculum, two curricula

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“Our Puppy Classes are built with you and your puppy in mind, using science-based methods and inspired by the latest research on puppy training.”

We are proud and excited to offer you a brand positively spanking new Puppy Kindergarten curriculum.  You spoke, we listened! and now, our puppy classes boast a thoroughly redone format and updated content.

When we first started offering puppy kindergarten classes, over a decade ago, the course itself was about 4 weeks long and it was for all dogs 6 months or less. Fast forward to today, and our puppy classes have been extended to a 6 week course and, inspired by a seminar given by Dr. Ian Dunbar highlighting the importance of separating the younger puppies from the older puppies,  a Puppy Kindergarten I and a Puppy Kindergarten II were created . What a difference that made! The puppy who has done 12 weeks of classes had become a pro at learning and had impressively advanced skills.

In the last 6 months or so, we noticed that it was time for another big change. After researching the newest literature, exploring articles and webinars offered by the PPG (Pet Professional Guild) and reading various positive reinforcement training articles, it seems that puppy training is moving towards more relationship, trust and confidence building, enrichment, and prevention of fear/anxiety.

We have been collecting your feedback, conferred with the trainers and rewrote the entire curriculum for Puppy Kindergarten 1, Puppy Kindergarten 2 AND we created a Puppy Kindergarten 3. Our brand new Puppy Kindergarten III class promotes confidence building. Dog sports and brain games are introduced. Your puppy will be introduced to tricks, fitness, agility, nose work, clicker training, and Puppy Manners 3. Discover your dog’s hidden talent! All activities are adjusted for puppies so they are safe and positive.

Our Puppy Kindergarten III program includes off-leash playtime to allow your puppy to further develop his or her social skills. In fact, all of our puppy classes include off leash play.

Also, as a bonus participating in any of Puppy Kindergarten classes you get  access to our private Puppy Playdates!  What a great way to promote healthy play! We have puppy playdates for all age groups, from the junior to the teenage puppy.

Allow me to take a moment to thank Dr. Angie Yong, the trainer whose dedication and bright mind contributed greatly to these newly redesigned curricula. She is not only a brilliant trainer, but she has a Ph.D in psychology. Our Puppy Classes are built with you and your puppy in mind, using science-based methods and inspired by the latest research on puppy training.


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A year ago, between Christmas and New Year, the Ottawa Canine School moved into its new location. Our new location is still on St. Laurent blvd. 401 B St. Laurent, to be exact, and is literally just the building next to where we used to be. It’s got a bigger training space, a smaller reception area and best of all, a fenced outdoor space!

We are loving our new location and absolutely love having Full Cycle as our neighbours once again.  It’s like being back home again 🙂

As with any new space, it does take a bit of time to get really acquainted with it and get adjusted to everything from where the light switches are, to how the space feels and sounds. Though I did expect to have to do some soundproofing, (because the ceilings are 2 storeys high!!!), we were still a bit surprised by how the sound reverberated in the room and the acoustic challenges of the space.

I’m going to be honest, it was hard to teach and after teaching a few classes, I felt like my ears and head needed a bit of a break. The clients commented on it as well and though most were very patient, we knew that we could not ignore this and quickly set out to do some research. Luckily, our trainer Alana had been a sound engineer in New York City in a previous life, so she had some wonderful advice. We installed some absorbing soundproofing panels on the wall, which made a difference but it wasn’t enough.

We did more research and contacted all of the local soundproofing “gurus”in town. Our first pick, Mike of Acoustic Panels Ottawa was the only one who responded. Mike came by to check out the space, made recommendations, and a month later he was hard at work installing custom made soundproofing panels!

Soundproofing panels going up!

A total of 9 acoustic panels were installed

You spoke, we listened… and now we can hear you even better!

Why you should become a dog trainer

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1. You love dogs. You are that person, no matter where you are: you seem to find dogs and they seem to find you. You’re an avid reader and of course have read a lot about your canine friends. But still, it’s not enough. You want to know why they do the things they do. Why does your dog lick the couch, bark incessantly, or whine all the time? These are the kind of questions you want answers to!  Good news! As a dog trainer, you get to be surrounded by dogs on a daily basis.  If you’re having a bad day, just sit in on a puppy class. It’s fun to watch, but even more fun to teach! Oh how I love to see those little ones learn and bloom.  Interacting with dogs every day, no matter how old they are, is a pretty sweet gig.

2. You enjoy variety. If you like to do the same thing everyday, you can certainly set your schedule up that way, but if you enjoy variety, this is your gig. From puppy training to helping folks with potty training, dog training covers an extremely wide spectrum. That is what keeps it fun and exciting. Sometimes, especially if you do one-on-one private training, you will enjoy working with a variety of people and their dogs. It’s entertaining, stimulating, enriching and, at times, extremely touching.

3. You like to be the master of your schedule. If you feel as though you lack some control over how your day goes, you will find little of this kind of stress in dog training. You can set your hours, determine how many days a week you want to teach, decide how many group classes vs. private training classes you will do, and when you will do them. You are your own boss, my friend. Don’t get me wrong here. You will work hard and it won’t always be rainbows and lollipops, but I can tell you that although I work hard, I’ve never felt so free.

4.You love to learn. I can’t imagine ANY career where you just feel you have learned enough and know it all. The dog training industry is no different. There is so much to learn and so many incredibly talented, intelligent, compassionate, vivacious people to learn from. Lets not forget the exciting conferences held in enticing locales. I’ve travelled throughout Canada and the US to attend conferences that have had a huge impact on how I approach training. Continuing education in the dog training world is fun, practical and sometimes pretty mind blowing.

5. You enjoy being kind to animals and to people. An enriching, exciting, wonderful career awaits you if you enjoy working with both sides of the leash.  Being patient, kind and innovative goes a long way with both dogs and their handlers. It’s not enough, I’m afraid, to just love dogs. You must also enjoy working with people.

Interested in learning more about becoming a dog trainer?  

Check out our certification program and change your life!

Trick or treat!

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[/trēt/ Noun:  Something that gives great pleasure. An act of providing something for somebody else at one’s own expense]

When you think of the word treat, what comes to mind? A nice Belgian Wheat Beer? A piece of dark chocolate? A day at the Nordik Spa? All of the above?

For my dog, a treat is a cookie that he gets as part of our daily routine, an off leash romp or a simple walk in the neighbourhood. Treats, however, have no place in our training regimen. We are not offering a special rare indulgence. In fact, if we treated our dogs when training, we would find it incredibly unsuccessful.

Before you start wondering if I’m about to start promoting some unsavoury training methods, let me reassure you that we absolutely do use food, toys and fun activities in our training. We call them reinforcements and we give them to reinforce the wanted behaviour.  For example, a small piece of cheese can be used as a reinforcement for a behaviour and we must not be stingy with our training aids when our dog is learning a new behaviour.

The reinforcer is given as a consequence of the dog’s behaviour and consequently, makes him want to repeat said behaviour. The reinforcer is anything that the dog truly enjoys. It is also something that can be given quickly and enjoyed quickly  (which is why food is ideal). My dog LOVES to play in the snow, but if I used this as a reinforcement when training a new behaviour, it would not make for an ideal training session. My dog also likes a good bum scratch, but this is not as powerful as a piece of cheese.

Most trainers I know love to use food because it is quick and easy to deliver, but for some dogs, the best reinforcer is a toy. Tugs are great in training, provided your dog loves the game !

What are some of your dog’s favourite things, that you can use as a reinforcer?

Remember that CONSEQUENCES (and not cues or what we used to call “commands”) drive behaviour!



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