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USA Dog Behavior Blog

Scott Sheaffer’s 15 Fundamental Guidelines for Living with Dogs

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are 15 principles in the dog behavior world I find myself repeating on a daily basis. Understanding and acknowledging these truths will greatly improve the relationship we have with our dogs. I’ve outlined these concepts below.

"It doesn’t really matter what we believe the dog should be thinking..."

1. Dogs are always learning.

Just like with children, dogs don’t recognize scheduled learning times. They are always observing and learning from us. For example, dogs learn when owners are on the phone they can jump up on forbidden furniture because the owner isn’t paying attention.

2. Dogs don’t do things that aren’t in some way rewarding to them.

Dogs always require some type of payoff (whether external or self-rewarded) for their behaviors.  For example, dogs dig in the back lawn because they are bored and this behavior temporarily relieves the boredom.

3. Reward calm and ignore reactivity.

To get dogs to be less reactive to certain triggers, we have to reward the dog for being calm in the presence of a trigger. It’s important not to reinforce fear, arousal and frustration in the presence of triggers by punishing - or soothing. For example, screaming at a dog for barking at the UPS delivery person every day never seems to help – the evidence is found in the part about screaming every day.

4. Stop demand behaviors by stopping the reinforcement.

The reason your dog jumps up on you is to get your attention. Simply consistently ignoring these types of behaviors will remove the reinforcement for why he or she does this in the first place.

5. When a human and a dog are together, one is always learning.

It’s true, our canine friends are quite adept at teaching us what they’d like us to do; most people are completely unaware of it too. For example, dogs train owners to feed them at a certain time every day by whining until the owner complies; over time, the owner learns to do this without the dog even whining.

6. Don’t confuse made-for-TV “dog training” drama with legitimate animal behavior science.

With only one or two exceptions, dog training TV shows are for entertainment only.  Looking to these shows for legitimate dog behavior advice is like watching Grey’s Anatomy to learn about medicine. For example, TV shows where Cesar Millan plays the role of the “Dog Whisperer” can be entertaining, but aren’t science based.

7. The animal kingdom is never concerned with the human concept of “fair”.

When dog owners bring human cultural concepts of fairness into their relationship with their dog, things get messed up. Dogs, and animals in general, don’t acknowledge or understand the human concept of “fair”. For example, feeding an obese dog a restricted diet in a multi-dog home while the other dogs get full meals will not cause the obese dog to be upset with the owner or other dogs – he or she will just be hungry.

8. “Should” is a word that causes problems when it comes to working with animals.

When a dog owner uses the word “should” with a dog, he or she is usually referring to how a dog should perceive something or how it should behave in a certain situation. It doesn’t really matter what we believe the dog should be thinking; it only matters what the dog is thinking. For example, even though a particular dog shouldn’t be afraid of men with beards, it doesn’t change the fact that the dog is afraid of men with beards.

9. Mother Nature always prevails.

This is possibly the most important axiom of all and captures the essence of all of them. Mother Nature’s rules about animals cannot be changed; they must be accommodated. For example, dogs are predators; they will chase squirrels and rabbits.

10. Your dog doesn’t understand English, Spanish, Chinese or any human spoken language for that matter.

Humans sometimes have a lot of difficulty believing and understanding their dogs don’t understand language other than the cues they’ve been taught such as sit, down, come, etc. For example, telling a dog “I’ll be right back” will do nothing to alleviate the dog’s separation anxiety.

11. Dogs attempt to read human body language just like we do our best to read theirs.

Ever wonder why dogs and humans relate so well? It’s because dogs are fairly advanced, as compared to other animals, in their ability to read human body language. For example, dogs know when humans are angry and most know to steer clear.

12. Dogs aren’t humans and humans aren’t dogs.

The thought of pretending I’m a dog by crawling around on all fours, eliminating outside and eating/drinking from a bowl doesn’t sound too appealing. Dogs feel the same way when we try to make them into faux humans. For example, while some humans love to dress up and wear nice colognes and perfumes, dogs hate wearing clothes and having floral scents sprayed on them.

13. Taking fearful dogs to areas that are dense with dogs and humans in order to “socialize” them almost always worsens their fears.

If someone is afraid of the water, the best way to acclimate them to it is by starting at the shallow end of the pool and slowly moving them into deeper water as they are ready. This same concept applies to socializing dogs – start at the shallow end. For example, it’s not a good idea to take a dog that is fearful of unfamiliar humans to a crowded Starbucks patio.

14. Dogs prefer predictable routines.

Just like humans, dogs prefer daily routines that are predictable; knowing what’s next reduces the anxiety of living. For example, dogs readily adjust to predictable feeding times, bed times and scheduled outings to the back lawn to eliminate.

15. Dogs mirror the arousal level of other dogs and humans they are near to.

One thing we love, and hate, about dogs is that they reflect the excitement or calmness of humans and other dogs that are near them. For example, if there are two dogs in a household and one of them hears or sees something that starts him or her barking, the other dog is virtually guaranteed to start barking even though he or she may have no idea why the other is barking.

When should I euthanize my dog? 

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

“When should I euthanize my dog?” is a question I’m frequently asked. I make it my policy to never tell dog owners if or when they should euthanize their dog. Please remember, no one can make this decision for you – not a dog trainer, not a behaviorist, not a veterinarian, no one.  This is a decision that is ultimately best made by a loving owner.

"My personal experience is that I have waited too long to euthanize my dogs when their physical illnesses became overwhelming for them."

I’ve provided some thoughts below from my years of experience dealing with this issue both personally and with many clients. Hopefully, these thoughts might make your process a little easier.

There are two basic reasons that are considerations for euthanizing a dog. One is for behavioral issues and the other is for physical issues.

Euthanizing for Behavior Issues

There is primarily one reason dog owners consider euthanizing their dog for behavior issues. That issue is moderate to severe human aggression. There are other behavioral instances where euthanasia is a consideration, but this is the most common.

It’s one thing for dogs to aggress to other dogs, but it’s another thing entirely when their aggression is turned toward humans. Moderate to severe human directed aggression can involve human safety, liability issues and even criminal considerations for the owners.

It’s not as simple as just determining if a dog is human aggressive when considering euthanasia. The type of aggression (for more information about types of dog aggression, see Did you know there are 8 types of dog aggression?), intensity of aggression, how long the dog has been presenting with the behavior, size of the dog, human bite history and whether there are treatment options with a realistic positive prognosis. This can be a complicated decision process.

Dog owners frequently forget dogs that are significantly aggressive are also fearful and anxious too. Their quality of life may not be particularly good as a result.

The number of dogs being euthanized for behavioral issues is much larger than most people realize – this is especially true in animal shelters. In addition to aggression, dogs are euthanized for separation anxiety, resource guarding and even just unruly behaviors. Many of these less serious behavior issues can often be addressed with the help of a competent certified dog behavior specialist or animal behaviorist.

To learn more about realistic treatment options for human aggressive dogs, see The 2 Options for Owners of Moderately-Severely Aggressive Dogs.

Euthanizing for Physical Issues

Physical reasons are the number one reason dogs are euthanized. Illness, old age and pain are just some of the considerations that fit in this category. After working with many families during this difficult time, I have learned the following.

It might be time to put a dog to rest when allowing the dog to live any longer is unfair to the owner and/or to the dog itself. When the hardship for the owner becomes almost unbearable and/or when the dog’s suffering is almost unbearable, it may be time.

I’ve read all the books and taken all the seminars on this subject and have found that the fairness consideration noted above is by far the best guide in making this difficult decision.

Closing Thoughts

My personal experience is that I have waited too long to euthanize my dogs when their physical illnesses became overwhelming for them. I had one dog in particular, Clipper, that was very seriously ill. A veterinarian talked me out of putting him to sleep and the next two months of his life were absolutely miserable for him. He sadly died in severe pain in the emergency room of a pet hospital.

I was right. I should have let him go two months earlier. I knew my dog better than anyone else – certainly better than the veterinarian did in that instance.

If you ever have to euthanize a dog (and most multi-dog owners ultimately have to), please know that you will go through a period of guilt, grieving and loss. It’s normal and to be expected. Ensure you have someone that understands and can hold your hand through the process.

If you are currently dealing with end-of-life issues with your dog, God bless you. No one can possibly understand the pain this brings. It’s really tough.

“I shouldn’t have to reward my dog with treats.”

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Some dog owners feel they shouldn’t have to reward their dog for doing certain expected behaviors. They tell me they’re already paying for their dog’s vet bills, food and housing – that should be enough to get their dog’s loyalty.

I’ve even had clients who get almost hostile at the thought of having to reward a dog for doing something, “it knows it should be doing anyway.”

Let me provide some points to consider when it comes to rewarding your dog when training new behaviors or maintaining others.

Does the dog really know what is expected of him or her?

Human beings have the bad habit of thinking that dogs understand everything we expect of them just because they live with us. Dogs have to be taught what we expect of them and, please remember, they don’t know English! One of the best and fastest ways to teach them is by using food rewards.

Human beings are able to recognize that a paycheck is from their employer and is for work they did days or even weeks earlier.

Dogs do not have the ability to connect the behaviors we expect of them with the good deeds we do for them (e.g., vet care, feeding, housing, etc.). They don’t understand our human economy at all. Further, dogs are only able to connect reinforcement (e.g., food rewards) to a behavior only if it is offered immediately after the behavior – no more than 2–3 seconds.

Would you go to work for free?

We all get paid to go to work and perform our job duties. Would you work one more hour if you stopped getting paid? The amazing thing is that dogs will continue to do behaviors even if they are only randomly and occasionally reinforced with treats. However, humans need to be constantly and continually reinforced with pay for our entire working careers! In this regard, we expect more of our dogs than we do of ourselves.

Would you continue to do nice things for people if those actions never brought you any kind of positive returns?

Even outside of work, humans expect to be “paid” with some kind of return on their efforts. Even though your volunteer work at the animal shelter doesn’t provide any monetary compensation, the interaction with the people and animals is very rewarding and keeps you coming back week after week. All animal species, including humans, need some kind of reinforcement to continue a behavior for an extended period of time.

Food treats are not the only kind of reward.

You might be surprised to learn that some dogs don’t even really enjoy treats. They would much rather be rewarded with a game of tug or petting, for example. It’s not necessarily about the food; it’s about the reward. With that being said, most dogs prefer food rewards.

Sometimes we think dogs are furry four-legged humans – they aren’t.

We’re all guilty of this at times because we get so close to our little buddies. We have to remember that dogs don’t know English and are 100% animals no matter how much we sometimes think they aren’t. I always like to tell clients that you can’t go against Mother Nature; dogs will be dogs.

Positive reinforcement provides more durable results in training and doesn’t destroy the relationship with the owner.

Sure, you can get a dog to “obey” you by using harsh techniques such as prong collars, shock collars, hitting, etc. (i.e., punishment). The problem with that approach is the training results don’t tend to be as durable and the dog’s relationship with the owner can deteriorate significantly. I’ve had many dogs referred to me that have been trained this way that are scared of their own shadow. Who wants a dog that is a fearful robot?

Don’t be afraid to use food rewards when training and maintaining behaviors in your dog. All of the latest scientific research in animal training indicates this approach has the best results. Once your dog is trained to a level that you are happy with, the food rewards can be decreased although you don’t want to completely eliminate them.

For more insight on reward and punishment in dog training, please see, Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children.

Does your dog dislike being touched? Here’s what you can do.

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Dogs can become fearful of many things through no fault of their own. Examples include: noises, riding in cars, touch, veterinarians, animate and inanimate objects, etc. The list is virtually endless. While some dogs express this fear by trying to scare the feared item away by barking, growling, and lunging, other dogs simply attempt to avoid the scary thing by keeping a safe distance from it.

“While this is a specific example, the principles apply to virtually anything a dog might fear.”

Why do dogs become fearful of things? There are a number of reasons that cause a fear response to specific triggers in dogs. The list includes, but is not limited to, genetic factors, neonatal experiences, adult experiences, etc.

The most successful way to address these fears is through a process called desensitization and counter-conditioning.

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Desensitization is the process of exposing a dog to a trigger beginning at a very low intensity and gradually building. Think of a human child that is afraid of the deep end of the pool. Desensitization starts this child on the steps of the pool and over a period of time slowly moves him or her toward the deep end of the pool as he or she is comfortable with doing so. The same concept is used with fearful dogs.

Counter-conditioning is different from desensitization and is an additional technique for changing a dog’s feelings or emotional response to something that it considers scary. In dogs, counter-conditioning is most commonly done by presenting a food treat when the dog experiences the trigger while simultaneously calm. A training clicker can be used to make this process even more effective.

Counter conditioning and desensitization are normally done together. An example of a desensitization and counter-conditioning program for a dog that is fearful of being touched and petted (i.e., fear of human handling) is provided below. While this is a specific example, the principles apply to virtually anything a dog might fear.

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Everyone loved Max, but he got grumpy whenever anyone tried to pet him or touch him anywhere on his body. He especially hated having his head touched; he wasn’t real fond of having his paws touched either! Max’s pet parents implemented the following plan to help Max feel better about being touched. They knew he would never be completely comfortable with being touched, but they wanted him to hopefully be able to tolerate it when it was necessary (e.g., teeth brushing, nail clipping, veterinarian checkups, grooming, etc.)

Max’s 7 Point Treatment Plan

1) Max’s pet parents (the Swansons) first had to determine at what point Max became bothered when someone touched him. How close could they get to him? Where did he dislike being touched the most and the least? They determined they could touch him gently on the side of his body and he was okay with that. Any more than that and he stiffened and started to growl a little (some dogs may respond by just attempting to move away instead of getting grumpy).

2) The Swanson’s next step was to determine what food treat Max really liked. They already knew that Max loved the small training treats they had been giving him so they decided to use those. They knew that these treats needed to be very small, as Max would be getting a lot of them.

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3) They decided to use a training clicker when working with Max to help these exercises be as effective as possible. Some dogs are fearful of the clicker and it shouldn’t be used in those cases*, but Max was okay with it. They were going to systematically and repeatedly touch Max, click the clicker and then give him one of his training treats. The process always looked like this: touch -> click -> treat. And they were careful to always give Max a treat every single time they clicked the clicker.

4) The technique was to start at a place on his body where he was completely comfortable and over time very slowly move to a place on his body where he was less comfortable.

  • Mrs. Swanson just stood near Max and repeatedly clicked and treated when he looked at her. She did this until Max didn’t seem to even notice Mrs. Swanson any longer.
  • Mrs. Swanson next moved a little closer to Max and continued to click and treat until Max started to look somewhat bored!
  • Next, she barely touched Max’s side (remember, that’s where he is the least uncomfortable with human touch) and repeatedly touched, clicked and treated. Touch -> click -> treat, touch -> click -> treat, touch -> click -> treat… Mrs. Swanson knew that at any time Max got the least bit grumpy that she was moving too fast and should back up a little in the process. When Max seemed to be losing interest in the exercise, Mrs. Swanson knew it was time to go to the next step. Remember, some dogs try to move away instead of getting grumpy – but the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning remains the same in both cases.
  • Mrs. Swanson next moved her hand a little closer to Max’s head and continued to click and treat over and over until Max seemed to lose interest in her hand again. In addition to carefully and slowing moving closer to Max’s head over time, Mrs. Swanson very slowly added in a little pressure on Max’s body and some movement in her touch.
  • Mrs. Swanson continued to slowly move closer to Max’s head in very small steps until she was touching Max’s head while clicking and treating him.
  • This process was repeated many days in multiple 3-5 minute sessions. Each time Mrs. Swanson started the exercise she started a little further back on Max’s body than where she finished in her prior session.
  • It was very important for Mrs. Swanson to read Max’s body language throughout the entire process to make sure she didn’t go over Max’s tolerance threshold for being touched (i.e., move too fast). When Max’s tolerance threshold is exceeded this means he is uncomfortable with how he is being touched. If this happened, Mrs. Swanson just backed up a little.

5) The Swanson family also knew that it was important to have multiple adults in the family do these exercises with Max in order for him to learn that it’s okay to be touched by all types of people – not just Mrs. Swanson. It also provided a way for all adult family members to share in the training. They also knew that it is helpful to do these exercises in different locations in the house so that Max doesn’t think it’s only okay to be touched by humans in certain locations.

6) Before any of this training started, the Swanson family had a family meeting where they discussed the importance of learning the basics of dog body language so they could look at Max and know if he was uncomfortable with the pace of his treatment plan. If he was uncomfortable, they knew to back up a little. They also knew that if Max started to show aggression (e.g., barking, biting, lunging, growling, etc.) or a panicky need to escape during these exercises they would immediately abandon the training and get the help of an independently certified dog behavior professional.

7) The Swansons wondered how many of these 3-5 minute sessions it would take for Max to better tolerate being touched – they knew he would never be 100% okay with human handling, but they wondered when they would see improvement. They talked with a canine behavior specialist and he told them it could be as few as 15 sessions or as many as a 100 – or even more! He told them Max would let them know how many sessions it would take through his body language. The specialist also reminded them that Max probably would need occasional reminder or refresher sessions throughout his life.


* If a dog appears to be afraid of the sound of a clicker, then the reinforcement can change from [touch -> click -> treat] to simply [touch -> treat]. The clicker is removed, but the process remains identical. As an alternative, a verbal marker (e.g., “yes”, “good”, etc.) can take the place of the clicker [touch -> “yes” -> treat].

Legal Implications of Dog Ownership, The “One Bite Rule”

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are numerous laws regarding dog bites. One that is important for dog owners to be aware of is known as the "one bite rule". Simply stated, the one bite rule means that dog owners have limited liability the first time their dog bites a human (this rule does not apply to dog-dog bites).  There are 18 states that offer some version of this protection to dog owners. The other 32 states (and Washington D. C.) hold the owner liable for the first and following bites.

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As is true with all things legal, there are exceptions to this rule that cause it not to apply:

  • The dog owner is aware that his or her dog acts aggressively to humans and the dog acts in ways that indicate a dog bite is imminent.
  • The owner is negligent in handling his or her dog around humans or knowingly puts the dog in situations where it is inevitable there would be a bite.
  • The owner is in violation of local animal control laws (e.g., leash laws).

"Once a dog has bitten someone in a one bite rule state, the owner could be open to misdemeanor charges or even felony charges…"

Needless to say, this rule is controversial. As is true with many laws and regulations about dogs, it is based in part on popular cultural beliefs about dogs, not necessarily the realities of canine behavior or aggression.

Books have been written about the logic behind the one bite rule. The rule demonstrates some naiveté by the legal system of dog-to-human aggression – something I regularly see as an expert witness and consultant in dog bite cases.

The thinking is that pet dogs are domesticated and therefore naturally coexist peacefully with humans. Because of this, dog owners could not anticipate their dog would bite a human. It is only after the first bite that an owner would realize that his or her dog has a propensity to bite humans.

Dogs don’t aggress to humans because they are “mean” dogs; they aggress because they are afraid of humans. Discovering the exact nature of a dog’s fear of humans and managing that fear is the first step in safely handling these dogs and avoiding dog bites. With some fairly predictable exceptions, dogs rarely bite humans for the first time when there is no prior history of aggressive behaviors such as growling, barking, lunging, etc.

An aspect of the one bite rule that is troublesome is that it is virtually impossible to know with certainty whether a dog has, or has not, bitten a human before. And what exactly is considered a dog bite? If the teeth touch the skin, is it a bite? Do the teeth need to penetrate the skin?  

Once a dog has bitten someone in a one bite rule state, the owner could be open to misdemeanor charges or even felony charges if the next victim is wounded seriously. In addition, the dog could be required to be euthanized.

There are also additional penalties that can be brought by the victim or victim’s family. Texas, for example, provides compensation for mental anguish of someone witnessing the bite if the following criteria are met:

  • The witness must be a parent or child of the victim.
  • The victim had to be severely injured or killed.

It takes just a fraction of a second for dogs to inflict serious injury to humans. Everyone loses when a dog bites a human. If your dog displays any type of aggression toward humans or appears as if he or she may bite a human, please seek the help of an independently certified professional full-time dog behavior specialist.

I consider dog to human aggression the most serious type of canine behavior problem and it is critical that the right kind of advice is sought in handling these dogs.

The information presented in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended nor implied to represent legal advice regarding dog bite liability in any context.