Shelter Dogs Update: Mowgli gets a second chance

I’ve been working with Mowgli since the beginning of August. We had a short interruption when a couple took him home but discovered he was not the right dog for them. The manners Mowgli had gained over time fell apart a little – and that’s no surprise given the rapid changes in his life. His good humor remained, though, and his manners got right back in line and were improving.

While I was worrying that Mowgli wasn’t going to find his person, someone else was keeping an eye on him. She arranged to come meet him, and, to everybody’s delight, she took him home to live with her!

Mowgli got another chance at being a member of a household.

Mowgli is a shy dog, especially with men, and he lacks confidence – he is not a dog who will run to you looking for affection when he first meets you. While he does need someone who will take the time to earn his trust, his friendliness and intelligence shine through during training sessions. Fortunately, the woman who came to visit him saw his potential.

Beautiful Mowgli on a beautiful fall day in the Potsdam Humane Society’s dog park.

Mowgli is an intelligent, spirited companion with a great sense of humor. Hopefully he’s found his true home.

Shelter dogs Update: Paisley, Cedric, and Mowgli

Time’s been getting away from me a bit, so here’s some catching up –

I met with Paisley six times. What a sweet girl! She was clearly stressed out by being in the kennels, and my wish that she wouldn’t be there long enough to have to adjust came true! Paisley’s been adopted – yay! I didn’t work with her long enough to teach her to play with a ball, but I bet she’s learned by now.

It didn’t take long for someone to discover and fall in love with Paisley.

I really liked Paisley, but there was just something about Cedric that really got to me. Maybe it was that he was so afraid when I met him, but he had the bravery to match that fear and the spirit to learn to trust someone.

Once his fearfulness calmed down, Cedric’s playful spirit got a chance to break loose and romp!

It’s probably pretty common for shelter volunteers who, like me, have no intention of adopting a dog, to have a little “what if” tally system going on when they work with a dog. As in, “what if” I were to adopt a dog, how likely would this be the dog I adopted? I won’t be adopting a dog, but if I were to adopt a dog . . . yeah, Cedric would fit the bill. I met with Cedric six times, too, and I’m now out of danger of taking him home – because, more good news! Cedric’s been adopted.

And what about the other dog I’ve been working with? Well, a couple who came to look at Cedric wound up taking Mowgli home instead. But it wasn’t the match they hoped for, and Mowgli’s back.

I thought it was hard when I found out that Mowgli had been adopted – but it was harder when I found out he was back.

The day Mowgli was adopted was the day of our 17th visit. That’s by far the most I’ve worked with a dog. (The previous record was held by Belle, and I met with her 9 times.) So of course I felt a bit of “Oh! Mowgli!” when I heard he’d been adopted. But I think that reaction of sadness when I hear a dog I’ve been working with has been adopted will be forever tempered by the memory of the regret I felt when I heard he was back.

I understand why Mowgli wasn’t a match for the older couple who adopted him, but I don’t understand why Mowgli hasn’t been adopted by someone. He is shy at first, and I suppose many folks are looking for an instant connection that tells them ‘this is the one.’ They won’t get that from Mowgli. When I first met him he was very aloof – I think he would have spent our 20 minutes checking out the dog park and not checking in with me at all. But I set about teaching him to not be so aloof – and that effort paid off. But how do you sell “he’s great once you get to know him?” But I know potential does pay off – look at Cedric. I’m betting he didn’t cuddle right up to the people who took him home. But another strike against Mowgli is that he’s big. Maybe people can imagine a shy, small dog will warm up, but can’t quite see that in a shy, big dog. Whatever the reason, I’ll keep working with Mowgli – I’ve actually already worked with him ten more times. I’ve been working on a post just about him, and I’ll get that posted soon. Till then – thanks for reading.

Hanging out with Shelter dogs: Cedric takes a chance

On my third visit with Cedric, I sat on the floor and we embarked on him giving me the sniff test and me gently rubbing the side of his face for short sessions. He took treats more easily, and it seemed that we were starting up where we left off, not starting over.

I decided to move on to hooking the leash to his collar. He stood still for that, and I took the time to loop the leash under his chest and back up through his collar. I knew the extra handling this involved would add to his discomfort, but the prospect of Cedric slipping his leash while we were outside and launching his shy self into the world wasn’t one I was interested in. If this maneuver set us back and delayed going outside, so be it. He stood well enough for it, but when I was done, he backed off to the safety of his bed and averted his gaze.

Cedric takes time out to think it over.

I averted my gaze as well, and spoke to him quietly. It didn’t take him much time to look me in the eye and let me know he was still game for what came next.

Cedric, not full of confidence, but willing to take a chance on trusting me.

I wasn’t sure that he still wouldn’t decide against bravery, but when I stood up, his response was clear. He stood up too, and joined me at the kennel door. On the walk to the shelter dog park, he was a little swervy on leash, but never tripped me up or jumped up or forged ahead. In the park he did some zoomies, and when I ran, he ran with me. He looked very happy, and even playful for a small window of time.

Cedric doing zoomies in the dog shelter park.

But his zoomies tended to take him far from me, and he went to the park gate to go back well before my twenty-minute timer would have gone off. My response was to join him at the gate and get him to reengage in play by running so he’d run with me. He was, I’m happy to be able to report, willing to be drawn back into happiness. I take that as a sign that, with experience, Cedric will build up some endurance for having a good time.

Hanging out with Shelter Dogs: Meet Cedric

Cedric’s one of a group of dogs that were surrendered together. In theory, he’s related to blue-eyed Paisley. With that wiry hair, coloring and size, he certainly looks it. But there are big differences between the two. While Paisley trembled in fear, she stayed close to the kennel door, and when I entered her kennel and squatted down, she quickly came over to snuggle.

On my first visit with Paisley, I easily got a leash on her, and we went to the park.

When I opened Cedric’s kennel door, however, he backed away, barking. I sat on the floor to see if that might calm him, but he looked so unhappy I decided it was my turn to back off. I left his kennel and told the staff I’d try again next time.

Cedric was perfectly clear – this was not going to be love at first sight.

The next visit, I was prepared. I brought an old jacket with me to sit on, and I told the staff I was ready to just sit in his kennel and let him get used to me for our 20 minute visit.

Cedric gives me the sniff test

That morning I got to the shelter early, so there were lots of noises as the cleaners went about their work. Cedric paid anxious attention to every clang and bang. But he also sniffed my hat, sniffed my jacket, sniffed my face. Eventually I reached up gently and touched the side of his face. I watched him closely, looking for any signs that this was too much for him. We did okay, and he even leaned into my touch just a tiny bit. At one point the cleaner stopped to tell me he was going to hose down the hallway, and to warn me that Cedric was afraid of the noise. He was afraid of the noise, but he also allowed me to gently touch the side of his face in a massaging stroke while the hallway was being hosed down – a tolerance that I took to mean that he found my presence reassuring.

When the timer went off, I stayed a few more minutes and then got up to leave. We’d had several rounds of Cedric coming over to me, me giving him some time and then giving his face a little massage, and then Cedric going to check out something in the outer kennel. When I stood to leave, Cedric retreated to the outer kennel and I left. I was content that we’d made small but significant progress, and as I walked away I was curious how our next visit would go.

Working with Shelter Dogs: Mowgli learns “down”

The most helpful cue we can teach a dog is probably “sit.” It’s pretty easy to teach, and it’s very handy. Another cue that should be in a dog training starter kit is one that lets the dog know you want them to lie down . . . also very helpful and pretty straight forward. l’ve taught lots of dogs to lie down on cue, starting with the three puppies my dad brought home when I was pretty much a puppy myself. I confess that when I was a kid I did it by telling the dog to “lie down” and giving them a little push on their rump to give them the general idea. The results were mixed. Some dogs got it quickly, others couldn’t imagine what the heck I wanted. If it took more than 2 or 3 attempts, things could get frustrating – sort of like a weird arm wrestling match in which the contestants are evenly matched and no progress is being made. The person doing the ‘training’ is left with the problem, “What do I try next?”

I’m glad to say that some years ago I learned a simpler method that has a key benefit – it’s the dog who’s left with the question, “What do I try next?” For a long time, it always worked. Simply ask the dog to sit, then show them a treat in your hand, close your hand and lower it to the ground in front of them. When the dog lowers its head to stay close to the treat, move the treat out – so your motion is the shape of an L When the dog has reached as far down as it can, it takes the next logical step and lowers itself to the ground. Give your verbal and/or visual marker of success, (mine are “yes,” and thumbs up) and give them the reward. So simple, so effective. Belle, the second dog I worked with at the shelter, learned the cue “down” very quickly.

Belle demonstrates “down.”

The simple method worked every time – until Mowgli. I’ve said in an earlier post that I thought the shelter’s description of Mowgli as a big puppy simply meant that he was untrained. And he was untrained when I met him, but there’s something else about Mowgli that I now recognize as making him a big puppy: I don’t think he’s had much experience thinking things through.

To be clear, he’s not stupid – he picked up on how to have fun chasing a ball and invented his own version of fetch. Mowgli packs a lot of fun into every toss. It goes like this – chase the ball, grab the ball, run with it, toss your head and send it flying, chase after the ball, pounce on it, start running back to the thrower, but toss your head and let the ball fly. Repeat until you’re done with that round, then run back to the thrower and drop the ball on the fly so it rolls within their reach.

Mowlgi catches up to the ball
Mowgli pounces on the ball he just tossed

It really is something to watch. That, and the speed with which he picked up better greeting manners show just how smart Mowgli is. But he’s the first dog in my memory who did not figure out “down” in one easy session.

Instead, he got very frustrated. I didn’t necessarily think that was a bad thing. I often told my eighth grade students that frustration was a sign of learning. But faced with the real deal – Mowgli’s frustration – I wanted to be able to break the task into smaller pieces to help smooth the way. I hit the Internet and searched for how to teach a dog to lie down. I didn’t particularly like the best advice I found – let the dog figure it out. Just do the same thing over and over and they’ll get it. Ouch. In other words – don’t smooth the way. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But I also came across this advice – catch them in the act of doing what you want, and give them the marker of success. Of course! I’d used this before; it simply hadn’t occurred to me to apply it in this situation. (Evidently not all the problem solving is on the dog’s side.) All I had to do was catch Mowgli lying down, say “Yes!” and reward him with praise or a treat.

It wouldn’t be hard to “catch” Mowgli lying down. When he was ready for a break from the action, he headed for the well-worn groove under the park bench. A few digs here and there – sometimes a major rearrangement of dirt – and down he’d go. Perfect. Except . . .

. . . it was sort of hard to exactly catch the moment of lying down, what with Mowgli half under the bench.

But I did my best. Once we’d been through that a few times – me saying “yes” in a likely moment and Mowgli getting what I thought must seem like a free treat – I tried having him sit very close to the bench and giving him the cue to ‘lie down’ there. It worked. I gradually moved a little further away from the bench and suddenly, Mowlgi had it. In any location, the “sit” followed by “down” combo worked.

Of course, just like I didn’t take something I knew very well, catch them in the act, and generalize it to a new situation, it’s not a given that a dog who knows what “down” means in one situation will know it in another. And part of the situation is the trainer’s posture. Mowgli knew “down” when I was standing, but he might not know it if I were sitting in a chair or sitting on the ground. I was ready to move on to training from each posture, but Mowgli didn’t need it. Instead, we moved on to adding “wait” while he was lying down. We started with very short periods of time and distance and built as we went along. He transferred that cue as well.

Wait? Sure, no problem!

Not just “good dog,” but smart dog! Hats off to Mowgli.

Update – Working with Shelter Dogs: Paisley turns the corner

This morning when I went to the shelter I worked with a couple of other dogs, but before I left, I wanted to say hi to Paisley. Even at the door to her kennel I could tell there had been a big change. Instead of cowering and hesitating, Paisley was bouncing around, happy to see me and ready to join the world.

The wary, afraid girl has been replaced with a happy dog. She’s affectionate and playful. I thought she’d get there, but I didn’t have a clue that she’d get there so fast. Yea! Paisley’s come around, and I expect to hear soon that when someone sees those good looks paired with that happy pup, she’ll be adopted. Well done, Potsdam Humane Society.

Adoptable pets at the Potsdam Humane Society

Shelter Dogs: Meet blue-eyed Paisley

Paisley came in to the shelter with a related group of dogs. I haven’t spent time with any of the others, but from Facebook posts it’s no secret that before they got to the shelter they all had a hard life. Despite that rough start, Paisley is a sweet girl who seems to somehow still believe in the potential of humans to return love with kindness. She was extremely timid with me at first, but responded well to a slow approach. When I first met her, I had to nudge the kennel door open, pushing it gently to move her enough so I could get inside. I squatted near her and spoke softly. Very shortly, she came over to snuggle.

Being with a person reassures her. Often when we are in the dog park or the adoption kennel at the end of hallway, she trots off to investigate, then turns and comes back to me in a beeline to check in for some physical contact and encouraging words.

Paisley’s affection for people comes through loud and clear

I’m not great at judging weights, but I’d guess she comes in around 25 pounds. She has wiry fur and a curly tail. But her most striking physical feature is her blue eyes.

Paisley’s eye color is striking, but even more impressive is her ability to communicate with those eyes.

Paisley could be the poster child for the kind of request for attention that’s called “passive influence.” While this kind of staring might seem intense, it is a signal that she’s hoping to engage attention and a signal that the attention should be as passive as the request. And that means she’ll be most responsive to a passive approach to training. And with Paisley, for now, make that a very passive approach. Here’s a lesson she taught me when I thought I’d get her to sit so I could take a better photo of her –

Most dogs know the cue “sit,” but the one time I asked it of her, rather than sit she slunk away and then ran to the dog park door. I had to gently coax her back by speaking to her in a very reassuring voice across the full distance she had established. I thought I had used a gentle voice when I asked her to “sit,” but no doubt I changed it slightly and she picked up on that small shift of tone. Perhaps her strong response – putting distance between us – harkens back to a bad experience with that cue or that shift in tone of voice.

I’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. What I do know now is that it will require time and patience to earn a level of trust where I, or any one who works with her, will get to the point of “teaching” Paisley the meaning of cues. Given that clear information from her, I decided to just focus on love and leave anything else for another time.

Fortunately, putting off any training can work with Paisley – while she doesn’t respond at this point to any cue but coming when called, her manners are excellent. She has been gentle and courteous. Paisley won’t be competing in obedience or agility trials anytime soon, but she’s solidly in competition for Best In Show in the “open-hearted, willing to love” category.

Paisley gently takes a treat

Paisley is very aware of other dogs. She is one of those dogs who are pretty stressed out by the barking of the dogs in the shelter kennels. Even in the dog park, which is across a wide lawn, hidden in a small woods and well out of the sight of the shelter, Paisley is worried when the shelter dogs take up a chorus of barking. They’re probably just barking because a car has pulled into the parking lot. The first time I took her to the park and the dogs barked, she paced along the perimeter of the fenced area closest to the shelter. I put her back on leash and that was enough to reassure her – with the leash forming a bond between us, we wandered the dog park together. Paisley, if she stays at the shelter long enough, will learn there is no reason for alarm. I’m hoping she won’t be here that long.

Paisley, alert to the action in the public dog park next door.

In my few visits with her, Paisley has exhibited common signs of stress/anxiety – cowering in her kennel, panting, carrying her tail tucked down. But she also has moments when she seems to relax.

There are times when I’m not sure if that open mouth is a sign of stress, or just Paisley breathing . . .
. . . but there are moments when Paisley seems just like any other dog – curious about her surroundings, checking things out.

According to the shelter’s summary information on Paisley, she’s not a good candidate for a home with cats or small children. From my experience, she is a good candidate for a person who can provide her with patience and affection. Paisley hasn’t shown much interest in toys, but on our third visit when I rolled a tennis ball by her she did respond by putting a playful paw on it.

From what I’ve seen of Paisley, she will get there – relaxed, good humored and playful. She just needs someone to invite her on the journey.

Here’s the link to the webpage on adoptable dogs at the Potsdam Humane Society

Getting to Know a Shelter Dog: Mowgli

In my last post, I promised that up next was Dorito, a deaf Cattle Dog. But I’m going to skip over him for now. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have too much to say. I’ve written many words about him and gone off in one direction after the other, but I haven’t managed to find the common thread that will help my ideas about him come together in a single blog post. So, I’m setting his story aside for awhile and taking the opportunity to introduce you to another great dog – Mowgli.

Mowgli shows off his good looks

I met Mowgli three weeks ago, and have visited him nine times. He has come a long way in three weeks. When I first met him, the transitions of getting him from his kennel and back into his kennel were . . . let’s call them ‘rough.’ When I arrived and started on the door latch, confirming that it was him I was coming for, he’d get super excited (think – all four feet off the floor, body in the air). Despite that, I could get into the kennel easily enough, but once I was in, he’d throw himself against the door, making it difficult, to put it mildly, to get a hold of him to get the leash on.

I’ve made it a consistent practice to use a method of leashing a dog that I learned in the shelter’s volunteer training. This method lets you use the leash as a makeshift harness: I clip the leash onto the collar, bring the leash under the dog’s belly near their front legs, bring it up and loop it under the collar midway between the dog’s shoulders, and viola – better control without the nuisance of fitting a harness. The trickiest part, of course, is getting the leash looped under the belly, and this is made harder with a dog who is jumping and squirming. Mowgli was a champion squirmer.

Mowgli’s a boy who’s pretty comfortable with his body: contortions are no problem.

I said getting him back in the kennel was a challenge. I should have said getting myself out of the kennel when I was leaving him was the problem. Like other dogs before him, Mowgli went into his kennel easily enough, and was pretty good about letting me get the leash-harness off. Then all bets were off – he was scrambling for the door, jumping on it as I tried to pull it open, and when I got it open a little, scrambling to get out. As you can see in the photo, he’s a pretty flexible guy. Making sure it was me who escaped from the kennel and not him required tossing a treat through the opening to his outside run and then getting out the door as quickly as possible while his back was turned. Ugh, what a scene!

But that was then, this is now. He’s still excited when I arrive to take him out, but I can get the leash arranged on the first try and he doesn’t make it nearly impossible to open the door. And when I take him back? I take off the leash and he sits for his treat. I hand it to him, he takes it and watches me open the door and exit. No drama. None. Zero. That is progress. Good dog!!

In the Shelter’s write up of Mowgli, he’s described as a “Terrier, American Pit Bull/Retriever, Labrador” mix. For my money, I don’t see much Pit Bull in him, and frankly, no one has told him he’s a Retriever. There’s also the information that he was brought to the shelter because he was too active. If you ever watched Mowgli do zoomies, even when the temperatures rise into the high 80s, you’ll get the part about active.

In the PetFinder listing, Mowgli’s described as a big puppy, which is, I think, a nice way to say “untrained.” When he arrived, he knew one cue, “sit,” he wasn’t great at recall, and his only game was zooming. But he’s learning.

Take the cue “wait.” A week ago we got to the point where I could tell him “wait,” hold up a palm-out hand, take three steps back, return to him, and say “yes” and give him a treat without him breaking out of sit. (I use “yes” as the marker that he’s just done a very good thing.) This week I can step back over ten feet and return while he waits. I’ll start adding in recalls to break the “wait,” but I want to be sure he understands exactly what he’s getting treats and that “Yes!” for.

Even though he got distracted, Mowgli stayed in his “wait” position. Yes!

I know if he were my dog, I’d want to be able to do something with him besides watch him do zoomies and wait for me. So we’re working on activating those Retriever genes he’s supposed to have. First steps first – he’s figured out to run in the direction of a ball I throw for him. Then we worked on touch the ball. Now we’re working on him actually picking up the ball.

We put in what seemed like a lot of time to get him to the point where he’d run to the ball and touch it. To an observer it might look like no progress is being made. But Mowgli, even though he’s still stuck in puppy brain, is a smart dog. Yesterday he picked up the ball twice – you could have probably heard me call out “YES!” half a mile away.

Mowgli has been at the shelter for almost six months – I think only one dog has been there longer. He’s a great dog who is responding really well to patient, positive training that’s dished up with loads of love. I’m hoping that some day soon someone who’s the perfect match will come along, fall in love, and take him home. And to that I can only say, YES!

Potsdam Humane Shelter listing for Mowgli

Description of Mowgli on Petfinder

Belle’s been adopted!

The reason I wanted to volunteer at the Potsdam Humane Society Shelter is that I love spending time with dogs. My beautiful boy, Gudgeon, died in March 2020, and I knew I wasn’t in a position to take on the full time care and responsibility of another dog. Spending time with shelter dogs seemed like a win-win solution. I’d get my dog fix, and the dogs would get some company. I’m not sure what I imagined that would look like. Probably some time petting the dog, some time walking the dog, and meeting different dogs frequently.

People outside the shelter world referred to volunteering at the shelter as “walking the dogs.” What I discovered was that yes, the dogs really needed and appreciated having someone visit them. And no, I wasn’t going to do much “walking.” At first my time with the dogs was spent in a ‘meet and greet’ room. That’s where I met Sterling, whose ears really are that big!

Sterling took himself very seriously, a sweet boy who’d wander away from a conversation if something better came up.

And there was Gabby, the dog used during our volunteer training session. She looked like she’d recently had puppies, and was a dog of sweetness, grace and gentleness. She was adopted soon after I met her. In what now seem like “the early days,” I also met Stihl, another black and white dog – .

Arguably twice the good looks of Sterling, but only half the ego

I spent some time with Letty. She would do what I call drive-bys – she’d swing by for a nano-second of love and then keep going. She’s one of the fastest dogs I’ve seen.

I’ve lived with and seen fast dogs, but Letty took speed to a different level.

Her swiftness had the focus of zoomies, and it had an element of the joy I’ve sensed in a dog who is running flat out to nowhere. But somehow Letty’s travels in the yard of the adoption kennel had some other element in it, as though this were no fling with running all out, but an expression of her true nature. She was adopted quickly, and I hope her new home gives her a chance to stretch those legs.

When I met Rowsey, I knew I’d be gone the next week, so I visited him three days in a row. I’ve written about him here in the blog, and in retrospect, I can see that working with him shifted my idea about what volunteering could mean. I suppose that going into volunteering, I had the general idea that people spending time with the dogs would reduce the dogs’ stress and increase their ability to meet a potential adopter calmly. But with Rowsey I understood that I could actively reinforce – or teach – alternatives to the kind of greeting behaviors that might put people off.

Rowsey was a lot like Gudgeon – basically a dog with springs in his back legs.

I knew from experience that a big dog jumping up near you can be scary. Even though Gudgeon never jumped on people – he would leap in front of you and flick his tongue out to touch the tip of your nose – his method of greeting wasn’t widely appreciated.

In my three back-to-back sessions with Rowsey, I was able to discourage him from jumping and encourage the kind of greeting that would be more universally accepted. Rowsey, like Gudgeon, radiated goodwill towards all people, and our time together may have had nothing to do with him getting adopted. But it did show me how much I could accomplish with a smart dog. I still call the time I spend at the shelter “hanging out with the dogs,” but with certain dogs, the dog and I fit in a lot of play and affection, but we fit in a lot of training, too.

When I work with a dog over time, I know that the very thing I’m working on – better manners so their potential as a good member of the family can shine through – may contribute to the path that gets them adopted, and I won’t see them anymore. In case that seems like I’m saying that’s the downside of volunteering, that’s not quite it. Okay, I freely admit it, when I got the news that Belle had been adopted, I cried a little. And then I cried a little more. I’ll miss her, but I’m super happy that someone met Belle and realized what a sweet, smart girl she is.

Belle found a home – and that’s the whole point.

I sometimes tell people that teaching in a grade school is good prep for the shelter volunteer experience of getting attached and saying goodbye. In September, 100 students would come into my life, and in June, off they’d go. Of course I got attached to my students, and of course I was happy for them to see them head on to the next grade. I don’t actually get a chance to say goodbye to a dog I’ve worked with (and I’m not sure I’d want one!), but it really isn’t so different.

Belle went off to a real home, and I shed some tears when I got the news. But, shelters being what they are, I’ll have the chance to meet a new dog. Is there a place in my heart forever labelled “Rowsey,” and a place named “Belle” ? Absolutely, but hearts can always make room for more. Next up? Dorito. He’ll offer me my first experience getting to know an Australian Cattle Dog mix, and my introduction to working with a dog whose been deaf since birth.

Potsdam Humane Society posting on Dorito

You can find out more about volunteering at the shelter, or about the dogs they have available at this link: Potsdam Humane Society website. Is there something about my experience you’d like to know more about? Let me know.

Extending “Leave it” to Small Objects: Belle’s Good Behavior Gets Even Better

When a dog arrives at a shelter, it can be hard to know exactly which cues they’ll reliably respond to. But when I met Belle soon after she arrived at the Potsdam Humane Society Shelter, it was obvious that someone had worked with Belle on the cue “leave it.” Here’s an example: Belle was bonkers over toys. The first day we met, as soon as I took her leash off in the yard, she dashed across the yard, made a leap and struck the bottom of the basket of toys with her nose. The balls went flying. Once I learned the basket was a hot spot, I used “leave it” when Belle even glanced in that direction. I learned my lesson, and Belle, who already knew the “leave it” cue, learned to apply it to the basket of toys.

Belle demonstrates just how well she learned that when it comes to the basket of toys, she should “leave it.”

I decided to extend on that strong base and teach Belle to “leave” small objects on cue. If you’ve ever dropped a pill and had a pet scramble to scarf it up, you know why teaching “leave it” for things that are on the floor can help keep your dog safe. I refined the strategy I use for teaching “leave it” for small objects with help from a pro, our beautiful boy Gudgeon, a Lab-Shepherd stray we took in years ago.

Gudgeon arrived into our lives a 65 pound, untrained stray.

Although his early behaviors left a lot to be desired in other ways – zero impulse control and a need to bite tires – Gudgeon had the softest approach to taking a treat I’d ever seen. But then again, when I met him he didn’t know much about treats – the first time I took him to the vet the technician handed him a treat and it dropped to the floor. Gudgeon just didn’t know what it was. But Duncan, our black Belgian Shepherd mix, was more than happy to teach him the ins and outs of treats.

Duncan, eager to teach other dogs how to play, wasn’t averse to passing on a bad habit – a tendency to snatch treats.

Under Duncan’s tutelage, Gudgeon became highly treat-motivated and went from a reliably soft mouth when it came to treats straight to snatching treats. Ouch! Extremely unacceptable behavior. I was myself pretty highly motivated – to squelch those bad manners – and the strategy I used with Gudgeon to ensure a gentle treat hand-off is part of the method I used with Belle to extend her understanding of “leave it.”

I started out by establishing a calm moment, let her see the treat in my hand, and set it in front of her.

Introducing the treat.

At first I keep my hand close by so I can get to the treat before she does if she goes for it – the game isn’t who can get there first, but if it turns into that, I need to win it every time.

Belle considers her options.

Belle lifts her head, distancing her snout from the treat – a signal I take to mean that she’s got her impulse to grab it under control, and I can move my hand further away.

When I reach for the treat, Belle lowers her head – but she doesn’t reach for the treat.

Even though Belle lowers her head when I reach for the treat, she doesn’t make any move to grab it, and I find this behavior acceptable within the bounds of the “leave it” game. For something like a “sit,” I look for a perfect sit, no partial touchdowns earn a reward. But for “leave it,” what I’m looking for when we’re stationary, as we are here, is no grabs for the object. And if the dog is in motion, my standard for a successfully executed “leave it” is no prolonged gazing and no swinging closer to the object.

The moment I actually pick up the treat and begin to move it toward her is crucial – Belle’s “leave it” behavior has been excellent up to now, and I really want to top off this few minutes of training with full success. Belle and I have been partners in this game, and I need to be a reliable partner for her right up to the last minute. If I simply pick up the treat and hand it to her with my fingers, I’m leaving all the choices up to Belle: it will be clear that the treat is going to be hers, and her options for her end of the transfer are wide open. She can take it gently – success – or she can grab for it – not success. I’ll do everything I can to work towards success.

A crucial moment is the hand-off. My closed fist helps send the message, “not yet.”

When I pick up the treat, I put my hand over it and take it up in a closed fist. As I bring my hand closer to Belle, I say “easy” in a soothing voice. If she shows any signs of excitement, I repeat “easy,” and if she begins to move her face towards my fist, I move my hand back. I used this closed-fist approach when I was training Gudgeon to take treats more gently – if he moved to take the treat before I gave him the cue, I withdrew my hand. It didn’t take many repetitions for him to learn that we were going to do the treat hand-off on my terms, not his.

Like Gudgeon, Belle is a very smart dog. She knows that the treat moving away from her is not a good sign, and she better go back to what she was doing that got it to move toward her. When my hand is almost under her snout – which happens only when she doesn’t make a move towards it – I turn my fist over, repeat “easy,” in the same confident, calm manner, and, if all is going well, open my fist.

“Yes!” Reward delivered.

Of course, what’s covered here in a few sentences and photos is an accomplishment Belle and I worked our way to from the moment we met. We did go from introduction to the task to success on the task in one training session, but it was a training session in which we knew each other pretty well. We’d worked together a couple of times a week for almost two months. We could read each others’ body language and facial expressions, and Belle knew the many intonations of my voice.

One day’s success is just the beginning. If Belle were my dog, I would work with her every day to expand her response to the “leave it” cue beyond this rigorously controlled exercise. But she’s not my dog, and I’ll be working with others. I’ll need to remind myself that progress is incremental, and I’ll need to be sure not to compare where another dog starts out with where Belle arrived after many sessions together.