Forgotten Dogs Rescue & Sniffspot – Giving Tuesday 2019

We took Forgotten Dogs Rescue to Fran’s spot for Giving Tuesday and made a video. Check it out! Thank you to Fran for donating her spot, Allison for producing and Ellen for all she does for Forgotten Dogs!

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Leash Reactivity – Understanding & Fixing It

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

There are few things more stressful as a dog parent than the feeling when you’re on a nice, peaceful walk with your furbaby when, seemingly out of nowhere, your sweet little fluff monster transforms into a barking, pulling, actual monster. This behavior is known as leash reactivity, and, as frightening and stressful as it can be for pet parents, it’s probably even more stressful for the pups who engage in it. 

There is good news though: Leash reactivity is a fairly common and very trainable issue—as long as you’re willing to put in the time required to get to the bottom of what’s causing it, that is. Here’s everything you need to know about leash reactivity, from what causes it to how to manage it and even the long-term training strategies that can help solve the issue to save you and your pup lots of future stress. 

What is leash reactivity?

Leash reactivity is a general term that encompasses a range of undesirable on-leash behaviors, from excessive barking and growling to physical jumping, pulling, and lunging. Basically, if your pup is on-leash and having a big, over-the-top reaction to the world around him—from other dogs to people, cars, or anything else, really—there’s a good chance his behavior qualifies as leash reactivity. 

So what causes some dogs to develop outsized and inappropriate reactions to the environment when they’re on a leash? While it’s easy to mistake leash reactivity for aggression, it’s important to remember that, usually, this isn’t the case. More often than not, leash reactivity is caused by one of two major F-words: Fear and Frustration

Typically, a dog who is being reactive on their leash has one of two goals in mind: They either want to get away from something they’ve seen in the environment (fear) or they want to get closer to something they’ve seen in the environment (frustration). 

In fear-based leash reactivity, the dog’s fight or flight response has been triggered and, no matter which instinct they’re inclined to follow, they feel trapped by their leash. Even a dog who instinctively wants to run from a perceived threat will often fallback on seemingly aggressive behavior, like barking and growling, if their leash makes fleeing the scene impossible. Dogs experiencing fear-based leash reactivity will often seem even more aggressive than their more excitable frustration-based counterparts—as anyone with a tiny dog who becomes a barking machine at the sight of any bigger dog on walks knows all too well.

Frustration-based leash reactivity stems from a dog’s unmet desires—this could be anything from the desire to play with another dog on a walk to a desire to run up and say hi to every human they see to a deeply-ingrained need to chase all squirrels, birds, and other small creatures. Just because a dog wants to do something, however, doesn’t mean they should—take the all-too-common doggy desire to dart into traffic and chase cars, for example. Still, when a leash is coming between a pup and his primal urges, sometimes undesirable behavior bubbles up. 

What causes leash reactivity?

All dogs have fears and frustrations, though, so why do only some of them develop reactive behaviors on-leash? Some common root causes of leash reactivity include: 

  • Lack of early socialization: Socialization is a key part of any dog’s development and it’s especially important during the first three months of a puppy’s life. Dogs who don’t experience healthy socialization and exposure to a variety of people and animals as young pups are more likely to struggle with leash reactivity as adults because they’re not sure how to process new situations. 
  • Bad experiences on a walk: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that negative experiences while on a leash (most commonly while on a walk) can lead to leash reactivity. In this case, the dog is probably associating the original bad experience with any similar experience he has in the future, and reacting accordingly. 
  • Improper correction for reacting on leash: There’s a good reason that respected trainers and animal experts the world over advocate positive-only training practices. Not only does punishing a dog for undesirable behavior rarely result in correcting said “bad” behavior, it can traumatize the dog and create new behavioral problems. Dogs who have been punished with things like choke collars on walks in the past are more likely to associate all leashes with pain and react preemptively.
Reactivity chart

How should I manage leash reactivity?

If your dog struggles with leash reactivity, you can take some simple, actionable steps to manage the behavior, including: 

  • Be patient: Yelling at your dog or getting upset yourself won’t help curtail leash reactivity. If anything, it will feed into the anxiety your dog is already feeling and reinforce the behavior. 
  • Be aware of your dog’s triggers: If your dog struggles with leash reactivity, pay attention to the specific triggers that set him off and do your best to avoid those things, especially during times when you can’t engage in thorough, positive-focused training to correct the behavior (more on that below). 
  • Stay calm: A reactive dog can be stressful for its human parent too, but do your best to remain calm during your dog’s reactive episodes. While the main priority is to avoid yelling or punishing your dog during these episodes, even just anxiety (you know, that frantic, over-apologizing you feel the urge to do to everyone else in view when your dog is having a moment) can fuel the underlying fear or frustration driving the reactive behavior. Do your best to keep your cool and casually lead your dog out of the situation when reactive moments happen. 
  • Avoid dog-on-dog greetings on leash, since these are common triggers for reactive dogs. 
  • Reward your dog for staying calm on leash: If your dog is anywhere in the vicinity of their trigger and they don’t react, praise them and let them know how amazing that is. Reinforce the behavior you want to see more of, always.
REACT chart

What’s the best long-term training plan for leash reactivity?

Leash reactivity is definitely a behavior you’ll want to work to correct, especially since correcting the behavior can also mean soothing the underlying issue that’s stressing your dog out. Follow the following steps to train a dog out of reactive behavior on leash: 

  1. Start by getting your dog’s attention before every walk. Stock up on treats and do a few basic cues—with treats as rewards—before you start walking. This puts your pup in the right mindset to focus on you (and to know that treats are coming as rewards for other good behavior on the walk). 
  2. Keep an eye out for your dog’s triggers on the walk, whether that means other dogs, other people, or something else entirely. Watch your dog and try to capture the moment when your dog first notices the trigger. In the few seconds between the noticing of the thing and the reacting to the thing, praise and treat your dog. This is the only way to communicate to your dog what the appropriate reaction actually is. 
  3. Don’t push your dog too far too fast. If your dog does great at a specific distance but you know that taking one more step toward the trigger is going to set him off, stay at that distance, praise and treat, and then head home going in the opposite direction. Set your dog up for success and build slowly to getting closer to triggers. If your dogs has an overreaction moment, remove yourselves from the situation, whether that means turning around and leaving or using some kind of visual barrier to help your dog calm down so you can either continue the walk or head home early. 
  4. Keep repeating this process on walks for as long as needed, gradually decreasing the distance between your dog and his triggers until they’re not his triggers anymore (or at least not consistently so). If you find that you’re struggling to make progress, consider enlisting the help of a positive-focused trainer in your area for some one-on-one support.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Olivia Peterson, CCS
Owner – Sound Connection Dog Training
WSU Bachelors in Animal Science Business Management
​Northwest School of Canine Studies (NWSCS) Certification

How To Socialize Your Puppy

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​If you have a puppy, you’ve likely heard about the need to socialize your new friend. Socialization refers to the process of preparing your dog to, essentially, be comfortable with the world around them. Whether interacting with groups of other dogs, passing people on the street during a walk, joining their guardians for lunch at a restaurant, or simply welcoming visitors into their homes and yards, a well-socialized dog is better able to handle a variety of situations. 

Socializing your puppy will not only allow you to enjoy more experiences with your canine friend throughout the course of their life, it will also lead to a dog with higher confidence and less insecurity, both of which can foster safety when engaging with others. 

Importance of puppy socialization

Dogs are naturally social creatures, and live in pack settings when left to their own in the wild. Although most dogs today don’t live in dog packs, they do live with humans, often interacting with the society we’ve established and domesticated them to fit into. Puppy socialization is important for a few reasons: 

  • A properly socialized puppy has a better understanding of boundaries and manners among people, which will allow them to go more places with you.
  • Dogs socialized with each other are often less prone to fear, aggression, and insecurity, which can manifest in dangerous ways. 
  • Canines learn much of what they carry into adulthood during their first three months of life, which is why early socialization is so encouraged. 
  • Dogs who were socialized well as puppies and into adulthood are usually more confident and secure than unsocialized canines. 

Like children, puppies are like sponges in their early ages, which makes them ripe for learning and retaining good habits, behaviors, and commands. Unpleasant experiences during this crucial phase can stay with a puppy well into adulthood, which is why exposing your puppy to as many stimuli as possible in the safest and most positive way will result in an adult dog who is able to handle everyday situations without fear or aggression. 

dogs playing

When to socialize your dog?

When it comes to socializing your puppy, the earlier the better, with a couple of exceptions. Preventative Vet states that the ages in which a puppy will get the most out of socialization is between birth and 12 to 16 weeks of age. This period is known as the puppy socialization window. Most puppies are ideally kept with their mothers and littermates for at least the first eight weeks of this time, in which valuable lessons and experiences take place. Basic social skills like setting and respecting boundaries, learning how to play, and understanding body language happen during this time. 

While early socialization is best, your pet’s health, and the health of those around them, is equally important. Most puppies begin receiving vaccination at around eight weeks of age, which continue until around the 16 week mark, at which point a puppy is considered to be fully safe and protected from diseases, like parvo and distemper. 

Some tools for socialization, like attending puppy training classes or visiting doggy day care centers are not recommended during this time, but other tips can get your puppy started on their social journey. 

Before puppies are fully vaccinated it is strongly advised that they not be taken into public spaces, like dog parks or day care centers, for socialization. Alternatively, some puppy training classes do offer admittance after your dog has received their first set of shots, and may provide for a safe, controlled atmosphere for a young dog to learn in. “I take puppies in my classes if they’ve had one set of shots, but I keep a clean room, don’t let sick dogs come to class, and tell folks not to do dog parks at this time,” says Shannon Freed, operator of AnimalKind Training in Stanwood, Washington. Additionally, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states that puppies should begin socializing before they are fully vaccinated, and do recommend puppy classes with reputable trainers. 

How to socialize your puppy

Like any aspect of dog training or conditioning, there are specific things that are and are not recommended in order to see the best results. 

  • DO: reward your puppy with a treat in each new situation, like meeting a child. Dogs learn by association, and consequence, so allowing them to associate new experience that you expect they will encounter regularly throughout their lifetime with a reward, like food, a favorite toy, or even love and praise, will not only allow them to trust that these are safe situations, but may encourage them to look forward to them in the future.
  • DO: watch your puppy’s body language for signs of stress. Generally, it’s best to keep sessions short, which will keep your puppy engaged for just long enough to not become frustrated by the process. 
  • DON’T: place your puppy in unsafe situations, or expose them to people, places, or things that may traumatize them. Dogs who have unpleasant experiences early in life tend to carry those associations with them into adulthood, which only become harder to change over time, and may even lead to unmanageable behavior later on. 
  • DON’T: assume that your puppy is “socialized” just because they’ve encountered a situation one time. Socialization is an ongoing process that should be a regular part of your dog’s life throughout the years, so always be aware of your dog’s limits and talents when introducing them to other dogs, people, or places. 
dogs sniffing each other

To make things easy, Dr. Sophia Yin has created a puppy socialization checklist, which covers a number of people, places, things, and experiences you can expose your puppy to to get them properly socialized. The checklist is broken down into sections, with each section designed to take place over the course of a week, during the ideal puppy socialization window time frame. Each section covers a number of new things to introduce your puppy to, including: 

  • Handling: touching the ears, feet, etc…  
  • Unfamiliar people: people in glasses, hats, people with canes, loud children, etc… 
  • Unfamiliar dogs: always look to introduce your puppy to a dog who plays well during this time
  • Other animal species: cats, livestock, etc…  
  • New surfaces: concrete, slippery floor surfaces, grass, etc… : 
  • Scary sounds: delivery trucks, vacuums, etc…  
  • Objects with wheels: skateboards, shopping carts, bikes, etc… 
  • Man-made objects: umbrellas, plastic bags on the street, etc… 
  • New environments: inside buildings, a busy city street, etc…  

The best places to socialize your puppy before vaccinations are completed are right inside and around the home. Here, you can introduce your dog to sounds, like doorbells and vacuums, surfaces, like grass or cement, and safe visitors of all ages and dispositions. Once your puppy is fully vaccinated, playdates with other well-socialized dogs and puppies, and walks around the neighborhood all provide great settings for a puppy to become accustomed to life outside of the home. Sniffspot hosts also offer safe, private locations for dogs to socialize in safely.

dog play bow

A few things to keep in mind

When socializing your puppy, you can always only do your best, and no one will do it perfectly. That said, trainers and organized classes, like puppy classes, can give your puppy their best shot at becoming socialized in a healthy way that will benefit them over the course of their life. When socializing in groups, or taking your puppy out in public, be sure to keep their vaccination schedule in mind, and consult your vet or a trainer if you’re unsure whether it is safe for your puppy to venture out. 

Additionally, be aware that not all social situations will make for proper settings for a puppy to become socialized. Many people assume that a community dog park can make for a great space for a puppy to learn the ins and outs of canine behavior. Dog parks can be very overwhelming, especially for puppies or dogs who don’t have much socialization under their belts. When undersocialized dogs are met with a dog who is reactive, acts as a bully, or worse, is outright aggressive, these negative experiences can form lasting impressions, and can teach them to fear certain situations. Instead, work slowly in smaller groups, either led by a pro or filled with dogs and people you trust, who will provide safety and structure when socializing your best friend. 

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Shannon Finch
AnimalKind Training
M.Ed. Humane Education
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner

Dog Anxiety – Signs & How To Help

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​Anxiety: humans experience it, and dogs do too. Anxiety is a normal and healthy emotion for dogs to experience from time to time. Dogs may feel anxious if they are startled by a loud noise, or if they are at the vet’s office, for example. There are many situations in which it is normal for a dog to feel anxious. However, some dogs experience high levels of anxiety that can be disruptive to both their life and yours. This may be due to past experiences, their natural temperament, fear, or age. In this article, we’ll delve into signs and symptoms of anxiety and how to manage it.

Signs your dog is anxious

Pay attention to your dog’s body language and look for these signs that your dog is anxious:

  • Excessive panting
  • Excessive barking
  • Destructive behavior
  • Pacing
  • Shaking
  • Drooling
  • Urinating or defecating indoors
  • Compulsive or repetitive behaviors
  • Aggressive” behaviors like lunging or snapping

Again, it is normal for a dog to be anxious, and thus to display these behaviors, in certain situations (with the exception of aggression). However, if you notice these behaviors seem to occur excessively, or you can’t tell what’s causing them, you might have an overly anxious dog on your hands.

How to manage dog anxiety in the short term

  • Thundershirts or other “anxiety wraps”: Thundershirts and similar anxiety wraps apply a constant, mild pressure to the dog’s torso, in a soothing way. (Think of it like swaddling a baby—it’s a similar idea.) Some dogs take very well to these wraps and find them effective, while others don’t. It’s difficult to know ahead of time whether it will be effective for your dog, but you can make a DIY anxiety wrap to see how your dog responds. 
  • Anti anxiety dog beds: There are a few types of dog beds that may help with anxiety: 1) Bolsters, which are raised edges that run along the side of a bed (ideal for curling against or leaning on);  2) burrow beds or “cave-style” beds, which is kind of like a sleeping bag and is ideal for dogs who feel safest under blankets; and 3) donut-shaped fuzzy beds that are simply soft, fluffy and (in theory) comforting. Do they work? It’s tough to say. One of these beds may be comforting to an anxious dog, especially if the dog gets anxious overnight and sleeps in a different room than you do. However, there is no definitive data on their effectiveness. There is little risk associated with them (they’re not going to make your dog’s anxiety worse), but they can get expensive. ​
sad dog
  • Dog calming sprays: Pet calming sprays use calming pheromones to help soothe stressed out dogs or cats. You would simply need to spray (or use a diffuser) in the room that your dog is in. But do they work? The jury is still out. Most of the published research has been done on Feliway (cat pheromones) and D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone). In several studies, both of these products seemed to help soothe stressed pets under some circumstances. However, most of these studies were funded by the products’ maker, so take them with a grain of salt.
  • Calming treats for dogs: A variety of “calming treats” are widely available these days. These treats may contain anything from chamomile, to melatonin, to CBD. (CBD treats are becoming increasingly popular, and some dog parents report that they find them effective, but keep in mind that at this time, there are no FDA-approved CBD products for pets.) Calming treats are another product whose efficacy is not well-known. If they do work for your dog, you will likely still need to use them in combination with behavior modification training.
  • High anxiety dog crates: Some anxious dogs, particularly those with separation anxiety, may benefit from certain types of dog crates. K9 of Mine recommends choosing a crate that is not too big (some anxious dogs like a smaller crate for coziness), cave-like (rather than cage-like), 100% secure, and that contains nothing that can be chewed.

How to reduce dog anxiety in the long term

Exercise: Depending on your dog’s age, breed and health, try to get your dog between 30 minutes and 2 hours of exercise each day. Some dogs may need even more than that. Just like with humans, exercise reduces stress, and can help keep your dog calmer overall. It can also help reduce destructive behaviors like digging and chewing. 

Mental stimulation: Similarly, mental stimulation is great for all dogs, and especially for dogs with anxiety. There are lots of ways to provide your dog with mental stimulation, including games, learning new tricks, and special toys. Try to set aside some time every day specifically for mental stimulation.

happy dog in grass

Training: Ultimately, you’ll want to try to get to the root cause of your dog’s anxiety. The best course of action is to bring in a qualified trainer (the AKC has a helpful guide on how to find a dog trainer) who can help you get to the bottom of the anxiety, and help you get started with counterconditioning your dog. 

Medication: You should consider medication only once you’ve exhausted all the other options, and you’ve talked to your vet about it. Medication should also be used in combination with behavior modification training. For more in-depth information, including the different types of medication, check out our article When And How to Think About Medication for Anxious Dogs.

Having an anxious dog can feel overwhelming, but with the right tools and enough patience, you can help your dog feel comfortable and lead a full life.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Lindy Langum
Founder – K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer – Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), ​NW School of Canine Studies

Overview Of Counterconditioning For Reactive Dogs

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​Do you have, or know, a reactive dog? A reactive dog is a dog that overreacts to certain situations or stimuli. This often looks like lunging, growling, or excessive barking. There are some common triggers that dogs may be reactive to, including other dogs, tall people, loud noises like skateboards, and so forth.

There are many ways to manage your life with a reactive dog, which we’ve outlined in our article How to Enable a Reactive Dog to Live a Full Life. In this article, we’ll specifically cover counterconditioning, a type of dog training that aims to change your dog’s emotional response to a stimulus. In addition, we’ll go over some general tips that can help with reactivity.

Important note: Make sure to have a qualified trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities that have the potential to be harmful to your dog or anyone else (e.g. off leash play) or starting a new training plan.. You can definitely manage your dog’s environment and your own self-care, but it’s important to get a trainer involved when you have a reactive dog.

Positive Reinforcement and Counterconditioning

Contemporary dog training focuses on positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement training is the action of adding an item that your dog finds reinforcing (ex. food) to increase a behavior you like. Contemporary schools of thought also reject the idea of using physical or psychological forms of intimidation when training your dog.The idea behind positive reinforcement training is that it is both the most effective and the most humane way to train a dog (and other animals, like cats, as well) when done correctly. It is especially important to remember that when training a reactive dog harsh corrections or punishments can often instills fear and anxiety in dogs, and can make reactivity in dogs even more severe. ​

General things that can help with reactivity in dogs

Exercise: If you are able to do it safely, getting more exercise can help dogs feel better overall. While it is certainly not a cure-all for reactivity, it can help to reduce boredom and stress in dogs, and in some cases that leads to less reactivity or less destructive behaviors. Check out our article 10 Unconventional Ways to Exercise Your Dog.

Learn about canine body language: A helpful step that you can take is to learn all you can about canine body language. Dogs communicate a lot with their bodies, and learning to read these communications can help you spot potentially triggering situations before your dog can progress to reactive behavior. 

Avoid unnecessary trigger situations and minimize your dog’s stress: Play it safe so your dog does not feel unnecessary stress. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs, don’t take a chance and try to introduce them to a friend’s new puppy in the hopes that this time is different. Try to make your dog’s environment and life as low-stress as possible. 

  • This step can also include managing your dog’s environment to minimize triggers, which we talk about more in this article
  • Another good idea to minimize your dog’s stress is to change up your routine if necessary. Pet Central points out the example of walking by a fence where a dog always barks at your dog. Change up your walk route and think of other small things that are within your control, that could minimize your dog’s stress. Even if they feel small or insignificant, these stressors add up and can contribute to reactivity at the end of the day, and even taking away one or two of them can be a great relief for your dog (and you).
dog in bed

Counterconditioning for reactive dogs

Again, remember that it’s important to have a qualified trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities. The most effective way to train a reactive dog is to work with a qualified trainer. The AKC has a helpful guide to choosing a dog trainer

The exact steps you take to countercondition your dog will depend on what trigger(s) the dog is reactive to. Generally, though, the idea is to create a new, positive association with the dog’s trigger. 

Counterconditioning and desensitization: definitions and how-to

According to the VCA, counterconditioning means “changing the pet’s emotional response, feelings or attitude toward a stimulus.” Desensitization, also according to the VCA, means “the gradual exposure to situations or stimuli that would bring on the undesirable behavior, but at a level so low that there is no negative response.” Desensitization and counterconditioning go together when you are training a reactive dog.

Here’s how to start counterconditioning your dog:

Gather lots of “high value” treats (think outside your everyday treats, here—something like small bits of cooked chicken, with no seasoning, can be great). Take your dog and your treats to an area where the dog’s trigger is, or is likely to appear. 

When you see the trigger and you see the dog observe it (but not yet reacting to it—you have to be quick!), start generously rewarding the dog with the treats. It is often helpful to have a way to “mark” the dog the moment they offer the desired behavior of looking calmly at the other dog. Many owners and handlers use words like “yes” or a clicker to achieve this. Work with a trainer to help you establish a way to mark your dogs great behavior. 

Your process for this will necessarily be different depending on the dog’s triggers, but no matter what your dog is reactive to, remember that your goal is to change the dog’s association from “this trigger is scary” to “this trigger is a predictor of incoming treats.” 

Remember: this process should be down slowly and with a lot of patience, and you should “start small.” That means that when you’re just starting out, make sure to mark and reward any behavior that even resembles a step in the right direction—even if it seems like it was an accident. It is important that your dog should not be exhibiting any signs of stress during this training. If they are ignoring you or the food then they are too close to the trigger and you need to gain space. A positive association cannot be built if our dog is already in the process of barking and lunging at the trigger. Your trainer will help you identify where to start with your dog to set them up for success. 

dog looking at owner

An important note: If your dog’s trigger is other dogs or people, or you have a leash reactive dog, you will need to work extra closely with a trainer to figure out how to countercondition your dog safely, which will depend on your dog, your home and the surrounding environment. 

Check out more information on reactive dog training in our definitive guide: What is Dog Reactivity? The VCA’s Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning is another helpful resource.

Counterconditioning a reactive dog can be challenging, but practicing patience with both your dog and yourself will go a long way!

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

​Alex Walker

Professional Canine Trainer – Accredited / PCT Level 2
Courteous Canine/DogSmith of Tampa
AKC CGC® and STAR Puppy Approved Evaluator 
Licensed Pet Dog Ambassador Instructor/Assessor

When And How To Do Muzzle Training With Your Dog

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​You’ve probably seen a dog wearing a muzzle at some point, but you might be confused as to what exactly the purpose of muzzles is, and whether it’s humane for a dog to wear them. When and why should a dog wear a muzzle?

There is a fair amount of stigma around muzzles, as they have gained an (unearned) association with “aggressive” dogs. But muzzles should never be used to punish a dog or as a means of dealing with reactive behavior. Let’s dive into what muzzles are, and when they should be used.

What is a muzzle?

A muzzle is a device that goes over the mouth of a dog (as well as other animals) that prevents them from biting or from opening their mouth. There are several types of muzzles, with basket muzzles generally being the most prevalent. A basket muzzle looks essentially like a basket strapped to your dog’s mouth. They allow for better air circulation than solid muzzles, and most styles of basket muzzle allow the dog to open their mouth enough to pant, eat and drink. You can also slip treats through a basket muzzle to reward your dog for good behavior.

When should you use a muzzle?

Muzzles are a great tool that dog parents can use to prevent harmful behavior, while keeping in mind that they are not a solution in and of themselves. There are several situations in which a muzzle is a good idea:

Emergencies: A frightened dog is more likely to bite. In an emergency, it’s a good idea to have a muzzle around (along with a muzzle-trained dog). This is especially true if the dog requires emergency treatment, as they may bite veterinary staff.

Dogs with a history of biting: If your dog has bitten a person, or another dog, in the past, or if you think they might (e.g. they tend to lunge at other dogs when on leash), a muzzle is a tool that can provide safety and peace of mind on walks. As the AKC notes, it’s important to remember that the muzzle is not a solution in and of itself; it simply provides safety while you work on the behavior with your dog and a trainer. The muzzle in this case should be seen as a temporary aid to your ultimate goal of behavior modification.

A “scary” situation: As we noted above, dogs are much more likely to bite if they feel threatened. This can happen in many situations, such as going to the vet or groomer. If your dog is scared of these situations, especially if they require interaction with humans, a muzzle is a good idea. However, just like with dogs that have a history of biting, the muzzle should be used as a temporary tool while you work on behavior modification.

When breed-specific legislation requires it: Unfortunately, some places still have breed-specific legislation (sometimes called “breed bans”) in place, despite mounting evidence that it is ineffective and only serves to punish responsible dog owners. Some breed-specific legislation requires certain breeds to wear muzzles in public, regardless of their history or the situation. 

malamute in muzzle

When shouldn’t you use a muzzle?

You should never use a muzzle:

  • To prevent “problem” behaviors, like barking or chewing on things. Some retailers may sell “anti bark muzzles” or similarly worded products, but that is a misnomer (and a red flag for that retailer). A muzzle should always be used as a temporary tool, and is not a solution by itself. Excessive barking or chewing are behaviors that need to be worked on with a trainer, and they will not be fixed by having your dog wear a muzzle.
  • To put your dog in an unnecessarily stressful situation—the AKC uses the example of a dog who can’t handle a dog park. If you feel that your dog can’t handle a certain situation or setting, don’t use a muzzle to try and put them in that situation, simply avoid it.
  • As a form of punishment in any way: it will not fix the underlying behavior issue, and will only give your dog negative associations with the muzzle. You want to be able to put a muzzle on your dog in an emergency, and negative associations make this infinitely more difficult.

Benefits of muzzle training

Training your dog to accept a muzzle is beneficial to both you and your dog because it makes stressful situations more manageable and less dangerous for all involved. A dog that likes their muzzle needs less “manhandling” at the vet, which is a better situation for the dog and all humans. Similarly, if your dog is ever in pain and in need of emergency treatment, being able to put a muzzle on them will prevent them from potentially biting you or veterinary staff. Ultimately, you want to be able to help your dog when they are frightened, ill, or in pain, and muzzle training means that all those situations will be made easier.

How to use a muzzle

Finding the right muzzle: There are two main types of dog muzzles, plus the third option that you can use a homemade muzzle in a pinch. K9 of Mine offers some options for making a homemade muzzle, but remember that homemade one should be a last resort in an absolute emergency. It’s better to just keep a store-bought muzzle in your emergency kit. 

Here are the two main types of muzzles:

Basket muzzles: These are the most common, and most people agree they are the most humane. Though the bars of a basket muzzle may look threatening, this type of muzzle is generally the most comfortable for dogs, because it allows them to open their mouth to eat, drink water, or pant. These, not soft muzzles, are the type of dog muzzles that allow drinking. You can also slip treats through the bars to aid with training. In most cases, you will want to opt for a basket muzzle. 

Soft muzzles: Soft muzzles are usually made from fabric like mesh or nylon. A soft muzzle wraps around your dog’s mouth, holding the mouth completely closed. As you can imagine, this type of muzzle is a lot less comfortable for the dog, and has the potential to be dangerous because it prevents your dog from panting, which is a necessary behavior to keep your dog’s body from overheating. For this reason, you should only use a soft muzzle for a very short period of time, and never in hot weather. Soft muzzles also prevent dogs from barking, drinking or eating. This also makes it difficult to use treats for muzzle training. In general, soft muzzles are not as desirable a choice as basket muzzles. They are much more restrictive, less comfortable, and more dangerous. Opt for a basket muzzle if at all possible.

golden retriever in muzzle

Muzzle training: Introduce your dog to the muzzle slowly, and provide lots of treats and praise along the way. Here’s what to do (over a period of 2-3 days):

  1. Introduce your dog to the muzzle by letting them sniff it. Give them a treat just for sniffing the muzzle.
  2. Touch your dog’s nose with the muzzle, and give them a treat for letting you do it. Repeat this a few times until your dog seems interested in the muzzle.
  3. Hold the muzzle in one hand, and hold a treat with your other hand, in a way that the dog needs to put their nose inside the muzzle to get the treat. Repeat as many times as needed, until your dog does this happily.
  4. Allow the dog to put their nose into the muzzle again and this time have them leave it there for a slightly longer period of time, then give the treat. Remove the muzzle right away. Again, repeat until your dog is comfortable with this step. Do not place the muzzle on the dog, but instead let them always choose to put their nose in it. 
  5. Gradually let the dog keep their nose in the muzzle for longer periods of time, and treat continuously when the muzzle is on.
  6. Once your dog seems very comfortable with their nose in the muzzle, attempt to fasten the buckle, and give them a treat. Remove the muzzle right away. Repeat until the dog is comfortable.
  7. With your dog’s nose in the muzzle, fasten the buckle again, and count to five, then treat. Then, remove the muzzle. (If you want to slow this step down, you can try just counting to two or three first, then moving up to counting to five.) Repeat until the dog is comfortable.
  8. Every time you put the muzzle on, gradually increase the amount of time it’s left on, and give treats promptly. Repeat until the muzzle is no big deal.

Dog’s Day Out has a list of detailed muzzle training instructions and is a great resource.

Make sure you go slowly and do this process over a number of days. You want your dog to have only positive associations with the muzzle, and the best way to do that is to only move on to the next step when they’re ready!

dog in leather muzzle

Muzzles are a great safety tool, and muzzle training your dog is a smart way to ensure that you’re prepared for emergency situations. If you train your dog to like the muzzle, and use your dog’s muzzle properly, it can enhance their quality of life and strengthen the bond between you.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Danette Johnston
​Owner – Dog’s Day Out, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Licensed AKC CGC Evaluator
NW Coordinator, Doggone Safe

Introduction To Dog Nosework

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​Ever notice how much your canine pal uses their nose? Maybe you’ve seen them point their head downward and follow an invisible scent trail on the ground during walks, or perhaps the occasional aim upward to catch a whiff of something that’s probably a lot farther away that we realize. A dog’s sense of smell helps keep them safe, active, and mentally stimulated, and for that reason, dog nosework training can be a great activity for any canine companion to enjoy.

What is nosework?

Nosework, also known as scent training for dogs, is an activity designed for canines to tap into their superior senses of smell to explore the fun and focus of scent detection. Scent detection is done by many working dogs to aid their human handlers with tasks ranging from K9 nosework to search for missing persons or illegal contraband, sniffing out diseases like cancer, detecting pests like bed bugs, and even finding culinary delicacies like truffles. 

While nosework pulls from the same structures and objectives as scent detection, it’s generally used as a fun activity for non-working dogs, and affords countless benefits to both the pets and their parents.

Why is nosework good for dogs?

In order to understand what makes nosework so beneficial for dogs, it’s important to consider just what the act of sniffing means to a canine. Like people, dogs rely on the five neurological senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch to navigate the world around them. Unlike us humans, however, smell is by far a dog’s most utilized sense, helping them decode and understand messages like where they are in relation to home, familiar people and animals, or even the age and sex of another dog based on clues left at an oft-frequented pee break spot out in the neighborhood. 

Equipped with 1.5 million olfactory receptors, dogs’ noses are a huge help to them countless times per day. In addition to that wet snout, dogs possess something called the Jacobsen’s organ, which is located inside the naval cavity and opens into the top of the mouth. When the canine nose picks up a scent, the undetectable chemical components found within that smell go to the Jacobsen’s organ. Filled with nerves, the organ then sends these messages straight to the dog’s brain, where it processes them accordingly. 

Some “scents” that work through the Jacobsen’s organ include pheromones. Pheromones help mature dogs mate with potential partners, and newborn puppies identify their mothers and locate their milk before they’re able to see or hear anything. 

Allowing and encouraging a dog to use their phenomenal sense of smell helps them become confident in their surrounding, and their ability to navigate it. By assigning your companion a task like canine nosework, you’re setting them up to succeed by relying on what already comes naturally to them, making learning fun, especially as there’s a reward in it for them. 

As an added bonus, nosework training can help strengthen the bond between you and your dog by relying on direction, reward, trust, and teamwork to reach a goal together.

What kind of dogs do nosework

Working scent hounds are generally limited to a few specific breeds, but nosework can be enjoyed by any dog, regardless of their breed, age, sex, or temperament. Many people introduce their dogs to nosework to raise their confidence levels, help them improve their ability to focus on one task, or just to keep them mentally stimulated, which can be of huge help to dogs who spend a lot of time at home alone. Additionally, nosework can benefit dogs who simply don’t enjoy group activities, or may be a little up there in age or weight, which might make taking part in more demanding physical activities a bit difficult for them.

How to get started with nosework

If you’re interested in nosework for your dog, getting started is pretty simple and straightforward, although there are a few things to keep in mind to get the most out of you and your dog’s sessions. The main components of dog nosework training are:

  • using something your dog likes the smell of
  • hiding that thing somewhere
  • encouraging your dog to find the object, perhaps using some guidance from you 

To get your dog using their nose, you’ll need to get a few nosework supplies, which you may already have around your home. The fun part of finding your supplies is identifying a smell that your dog absolutely loves and will sniff out. This item will depend on your individual dog, but some popular materials include deli slices, small bits of cheese, training treats, or even a favorite toy. 

Next, you’ll need to hide this item inside of something — many people like to use cardboard boxes, although some prefer plastic cups or bowls. It’s recommended that you start out with only a couple of boxes to let your dog experience finding the target before working your way up, which will guarantee success and keep things fun and rewarding for your canine pal.

For basic DIY nosework at home, take your valuable scented resource and hide it under one box. You will either need to leash your dog up somewhere away from the boxes, or have a friend hold them while you hide the treat, but allow them to watch as you touch the boxes, move them around, and hide the treat at first (just be careful not to transfer the scent of the treat onto the other boxes, which can result in confusion for your dog.) 

If your canine friend is new to dog nose work games, start with just one or two boxes in the room, and just let them use their nose to sniff out the treat. If they’re having a little trouble understanding the objective, which is completely normal for beginners, you can guide them a little toward the box that the treat is hidden under. It’s generally discouraged to get too involved in the sniffing out process, but some dogs may take a little time catching on to the game, so feel free to walk with your dog as you both meander around and through the boxes you have laid out, or even pretend to look or poke around boxes as well, which may encourage your friend to get into the rhythm of things. Dog scent training games are meant to be fun and stimulating for your dog, so remember to be patient and encouraging if your dog isn’t quite sure what to do, while also keeping in mind that scent games are meant to teach your dog to rely on their nose, and not your instruction. 

When your dog has identified the correct box, give them the high-value reward they sniffed out immediately, and be sure to do this at the box they stopped at, praising them for a job well done. Once your dog has gotten the hang of it, add more boxes to the mix, but be sure to only place the reward under one of the boxes. If you had your dog leave the room before, try experimenting with leaving them in the room while you hide the reward, and pretend to hide it under several different boxes so that they really have to use their nose to find the right box the treat is hidden beneath. 

If DIY dog nosework training isn’t working for you or your canine friend, or if you just want more guidance or stimulation for your dog, there are classes and seminars designed to teach dog nosework training. Local trainers and training facilities in your area may offer dog nosework classes in person. Online videos can also provide a wealth of practical knowledge to help you get started along your nosework journey, with tips and suggestions for the beginner, along with advanced varieties and techniques for those looking to increase their challenge level. Additionally, you can check out blogs written by reputable dog trainers to learn efficient and effective ways to properly teach your dog nosework.

Intermediate and advanced nosework

Has your dog mastered the DIY nosework course you’ve mapped out for them? Looking to continue their growth and challenge them even more? There are a number of things you can do to help your dog continue to excel, including AKC nosework. These classes mimic the training that scent detection K9 officers undergo as part of their job, and entails a bit more skill and precision. 

To teach your dog AKC scent work, you’ll implement the same format using different materials. Supplies include:

  • high-value treats
  • birch oil
  • cotton swabs
  • gloves
  • a small plastic jar with holes in the lid
  • a small lidded glass jar
  • an empty container large enough for a cotton swab
  • tweezers

To begin, leave the room your dog is in, apply your disposable gloves, and add two drops of birch oil onto two cotton swabs. Place the swabs in the glass jar, seal it, and throw your gloves away in a far away receptacle, taking extra care to not transfer the oil onto your hands by turning the gloves inside out. Then, use your tweezers to place a swab in the empty container, and seal your tweezers in a bag (it’s extremely important that you not contaminate anything with an item that came into contact with the birch oil, as the scent can throw the entire session off.) Introduce your dog to the smell by allowing them to smell the container and giving them a reward with a verbal command, like “yes,” every time they smell it, and repeat this a few times. 

Finally, place the container that’s holding the swab in your plastic jar and repeat, allowing your dog to smell it and offering a reward when they do. You can try placing the jar in plain sight on the ground a few times as well and reward your dog when they smell it to get them acclimated with the objective. Once you have this down, hide the jar and see if your dog can find it, rewarding them as soon as they do. 

In addition to nosework games inside of your home or training facility, conducting scent work sessions outdoors may break up the routine, as well as offer added stimulation thanks to a wealth of environmental scents around you. Nosework games can also be done in other enclosed areas, like inside of vehicles, for example. Interior, exterior, and vehicular searches are all part of K9 nosework competitions, in which additional scents, like anise and clove, are added to the courses. 

Variants on nosework

Because a dog’s nose is so strong and relied-upon, there are a seemingly endless number of opportunities to utilize it for their benefit, with a little creativity on your part. Nosework toys can be purchased in pet supply stores or online, and can make nosework games possible for dogs in limited spaces, like small apartments. Nosework games can be played to break things up and encourage your dog to explore scent detection even more. You can keep things fun simply by switching out the containers you hide the reward inside of for other objects, like cups, bowls, or flower pots. To create your own DIY nosework toy, try placing tennis balls on top of a muffin tin, then place your reward under one of the balls, allowing your dog to sniff out the right one. ​

Other resources

Dog nosework can be enjoyed as an at-home activity to keep your dog stimulated, or as a competitive sport. If you’re looking to expand your dog’s involvement in nosework, the National Association of Canine Scent Work is a great resource for learning more about the sport, connecting with other nosework pet parents, and finding classes and competitions around the country. Additionally, the Barn Hunt Association offers nosework competitions, and the NACSW Facebook page provides a great place to connect with other canine nosework enthusiasts.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Olivia Peterson, CCS
Owner – Sound Connection Dog Training
WSU Bachelors in Animal Science Business Management
​Northwest School of Canine Studies (NWSCS) Certification

What Does Your Dog Barking Mean?

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​If you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably heard, and possibly been annoyed by, your dog barking, at one time or another. But what do your dog’s barks mean? They can mean a variety of different things depending on pitch, duration, frequency, and context.

Why do dogs bark?

Dogs can’t talk, but they communicate with us in many ways, including body language and various sounds. A dog may bark for many reasons: to warn us, to tell us they are excited, to invite play, to communicate fear, to protect their territory, and the list goes on. 

Dr. Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, notes that dogs, like most other animals, use a “sound code,” meaning they modify their barks based on what they are trying to communicate. This sound code, according to Dr. Coren, uses three dimensions: pitch, duration, and frequency.

Pitch: Among animals, low-pitched sounds typically indicate threats or the possibility of aggression—think of a dog’s growl. Conversely, higher sounds (like a dog’s whimper) mean “I am no threat, it’s safe to approach me.”

Duration: Dr. Coren says that the longer the sound, “the more likely that the dog is making a conscious decision about the nature of the signal and his next behaviors.” Thus, a sustained growl is likely a conscious decision to communicate that the dog is standing their ground.

Frequency: If a dog repeats their bark frequently and at a fast rate, it indicates a high degree of excitement or urgency. (For example, a dog who fears the mail carrier will likely stand at the window barking repeatedly when the mail carrier arrives.) Conversely, barks that are more spaced out, or not repeated at all, indicate lower levels of excitement.

Common situations when dogs bark and how to interpret them

There are almost countless situations in which dogs may bark. It’s important to remember that barking is not inherently “wrong” and that no dog should be expected to never bark. However, there is such a thing as excessive barking in many different situations.

Here’s what your dog may be trying to tell you when they bark in these common situations. (In the next section, we’ll cover what to do when your dog barks.)

Dog barking in crate: As long as you are sure your dog is comfortable in their crate (they’ve been fed and have gone to the bathroom recently, and have access to water and a comfortable place to lie down within their crate), your dog is likely barking for attention. If this is a brand new behavior, check to make sure they aren’t hurt or exhibiting signs of illness. If they seem fine, they are likely just barking to get your attention. 

Dog barking at me, their owner: The meaning of a dog barking at their owner is entirely dependent on the situation, so you will have to do some detective work to figure this one out. If you just arrived home, your dog is probably barking to greet you and because they are excited. If your dog has their butt in the air and their front end low to the ground, exhibiting “play bow,” they are trying to get you to play with them. 

The above examples are relatively easy to figure out, but some situations might be tougher. As we covered earlier, take into consideration the pitch, duration, and frequency of your dog’s bark, as well as the situation you are in. Is it nighttime and your dog was spooked by a sound from outside? Are you on a walk, and your dog could have seen a squirrel that you didn’t see? And of course, there is always the possibility that they are simply barking to get your attention.

dog barking at fence

High-pitched barking: A dog who is barking in a high-pitched tone might be enjoying themselves, maybe during playtime or another fun activity. In another situation, a higher-pitched bark might communicate loneliness. High-pitched barking is generally not a “warning” type of barking, as those tend to be lower. (If you have a small dog, their bark may naturally just be high, so take that into consideration.)

Dog barking at night: Like the other scenarios, there are several reasons why your dog may bark at night. They might be barking at wild animals nearby that only come out at night, or they might hear people coming home from work and slamming their car doors. If you sleep in a different room than your dog, they may bark because they are lonely. 

Barking at night is not necessarily tied to the nighttime itself. It may just be that your dog is barking because they are bored or trying to get your attention, and nighttime is when you are home to notice it, or you’re trying to relax so it annoys you more.

Dog barking at “nothing”: Dogs can smell and hear things that are imperceptible to us. People often think their dog is barking at “nothing” or perhaps even suspect the dog is barking at a ghost. In reality, your dog is probably barking at something that you simply cannot pick up on. This might be a smell that’s too subtle for humans to detect, or a frequency in the ultrasonic range. It might be that a wild animal is nearby and your dog can smell it!

However, that’s not always the case. Your dog may also be barking out of boredom or to get your attention. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes, but try to observe if your dog tends to bark more on days when they get less exercise or less play time—if they do, boredom barking is a strong possibility. 

Lastly, if your dog is older and the barking at “nothing” is a new behavior, consider taking them to a vet to get checked out. It’s possible that they may be exhibiting signs of canine dementia.

small dog snarling

What should I do when my dog barks?

The action you should take when your dog barks depends on the context. Dogs use barking to communicate with us and with other dogs, and they should not be expected to never bark. 

Trainer Karen Pryor says to assess the whole situation, explaining that barking is sometimes a symptom of a larger problem, like boredom, stress, or fear. For example, if your dog has gotten less exercise than usual and seems to be barking more, they are likely bored and need more exercise. In a case like that, treating barking alone is futile, as the problem itself (boredom/lack of exercise) needs to be treated. 

If your dog is barking excessively in any situation, start by learning what not to do: don’t engage with them at all. This includes yelling or snapping at them to be quiet. It may seem like responding in an angry voice would work, but it only comes across as you “participating” in their barking. When you engage with your dog’s barking in any way, you are rewarding them and encouraging them to repeat the behavior.

Instead, ignore your dog’s barking for as long as it takes them to stop. Don’t give them any attention at all, including looking at them. Look away, turn your back, completely ignore them. When the dog finally quiets down—even if it’s only for a second—praise and reward them with a treat. (This is what you should do even if your dog is barking from within the confines of their crate.)

Once your dog catches on (which may take a few times), increase the length of time they have to be quiet before they get the treat. 

In addition, do what you can to manage your dog’s environment, especially if they are barking in response to certain stimuli. For example, if they bark at passersby that they can see through the window, close the blinds. If they bark when they hear someone talking outside, try putting on white noise, such as audio of rain sounds. Or, if you know the mail carrier usually comes around 3:00 and that sets your dog off, take them for a walk starting at 2:45. Get creative with the factors that are in your control!

You can also teach your dog an “incompatible behavior” instead of simply being quiet. This means teaching your dog to engage in a behavior that inhibits them (somewhat) from barking, like “go to your spot” (lying down on a mat, dog bed or blanket). You can also teach them to get a toy, which they can then carry, and gives them something to occupy their mouth. The Humane Society also has instructions for a few additional methods to help your dog stop barking excessively.

Barking can be annoying, but learning what your dog is trying to communicate, and developing some tools for minimizing excessive barking, will help you keep your cool and strengthen your relationship with your dog.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Shannon Finch
AnimalKind Training
M.Ed. Humane Education
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner

Beginner’s Guide To Agility With Dogs

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

​You may have heard the term “dog agility” recently, as it’s becoming an increasingly popular sport. But what is it, exactly? Here’s a beginners’ guide to understanding, and maybe even participating in, dog agility courses.

What is dog agility?

Agility is a sport for dogs and humans to participate in together. It’s a fun and challenging obstacle course for dogs, with the dog’s human or handler guiding the dog through the course.. The agility course might involve tunnels, seesaws, tires to jump through, or many different other obstacles. You can also create DIY agility courses yourself, which we’ll get into later!

The benefits of agility for dogs and humans

Dogs receive both physical and mental stimulation from agility. Agility courses provide physical exercise as well as the mental challenge of figuring out how to maneuver under, over and around the obstacles on the course. This can be especially beneficial for high-energy dogs. Some dog owners even find that agility helps fix behavioral problems. Agility is also great for improving your dog’s off-leash skills.

In addition, agility benefits the participating human. It’s a good way to get exercise, as you must run alongside your dog as they navigate the courses. In addition, it’s a great way to bond with your dog because it involves lots of training and working together. 

In addition to physical stimulation, agility also provides humans with mental stimulation. Your brain and body must work together quickly, as each human handler has to memorize the specific order they must have their dogs take the obstacles in, and what cues to give their dog ahead of time so the dog knows which obstacle to go to next.

A brief history of agility

Agility training started in England in 1978. In 1980, the first official rules of the sport were made by the United Kingdom Kennel Club. 

Peter Lewis, an enthusiast of the sport, was the first to suggest that the sport should be judged, and devised a system for scoring. In 1983, Lewis formed a national agility club, which further refined the rules for judging as well as obstacles. 

The sport soon spread to other countries. In 1986, the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) was formed, and other dog agility organizations followed. The American Kennel Club held their first agility trial in 1994. 

How do agility trials work?

A “sanctioned trial” is a dog agility competition put on by an organized dog club, which works under the “sanctioning” of organizations like the AKC or USDAA (United States Dog Agility Association). The overseeing organization determines the standards of the agility trial in addition to the kinds of obstacles used. In an agility trial, your dog will run a timed obstacle course with you guiding them. You will help guide them through which obstacle to take next. However, you may not touch them in any way. At the end, the dog will be given a score based on how many “faults” they had in their performance (e.g. hesitating or skipping an obstacle). 

A course in an agility trial will generally have 14-20 obstacles, which may include jumps, weave poles, tunnels and seesaws.

A given organization will usually have several different types of trials available. The AKC has three types of agility trials

  • All-breed agility trials (for breeds and varities of dogs recognized by the AKC)
  • Specialty trials (for dogs of a certain breed or variety)
  • Group trials for dogs of a certain breed group (such as herding dogs or working dogs)

Different organizations will offer different types of trials, so it’s a good idea to research them within the organization you choose. Note that some organizations are strict about purebreds, while others allow mixed breed dogs, so make sure you find an organization that will suit you and your dog!

Trials vs Matches

An agility trial is stricter and usually more expensive to enter than a “match” (also called a “fun match”), which is another agility activity you can do. A match is more informal and usually has looser rules and a cheaper entry fee—they are more “for fun” and less competitive than a sanctioned trial. Many people use matches simply as fun, inexpensive agility practice for their dog.

dog running through poles

Beginner agility training: considerations and concerns

Before you start agility training, make sure to take these things into consideration:

Human fitness: Agility is a workout for people as well as dogs! You will most likely be running alongside your dog as they weave and dodge through their agility course. This might not be a huge deal in a relatively small backyard, but it’s something to think about especially, if you are thinking of competing in trials (or simply participating in agility in a large space that would require lots of runnin). You might need to start a new workout routine to build up to it!

Dog breed: There are no breed restrictions in agility, but it’s especially good for athletic dogs, dogs with lots of energy, and hunting breeds. However, don’t feel like your dog can’t do it if they don’t fit any of those descriptions. Just make sure your dog is up to the task, physically. It’s best to schedule an appointment with your vet before beginning agility, so you can make sure your dog doesn’t have any physical ailments or pain that would get in the way.

Time: Depending on the level of depth you’re aiming for, agility can be a significant time commitment. If you decide to take a class, plan on that being at least an hour of your week. If you are learning agility “moves” in a class or online, the AKC recommends planning to spend at least 15-20 minutes a day practicing these moves with your dog. And of course, if you decide to do trials, those can take up more time! However, don’t worry about this if you are simply aiming for some fun agility-inspired backyard activities.

Money: Agility might cost you money depending on what level you want to get involved at. If you want to take an agility class with your dog, expect to spend at least $150 on a class (and keep in mind that your dog needs to have a completed basic obedience class before doing agility classes, so you will have to pay for that if you haven’t completed one yet). If you later decide to enter competitions, there are fees to do so that vary by organization. DIY agility training at home is, of course, a much less expensive option.

dog running through tunnel

Dog agility training for beginners: how to get started

There are several different options for agility training—it all depends on how serious you want to get about the sport. However, if you’re a beginner, you don’t need to worry about trials and competitions just yet. For now, try out some agility exercises at home (or at a Sniffspot), and see how your dog does with them.

Safety first: Before you start, make sure to have your dog examined by a vet to make sure they are in good enough shape for agility practice. In addition, if your dog is a puppy or teenager, do not have them jump over any hurdles, because their bones are not fully developed yet. Wait until a small dog is one year old, or a large dog is two years old, before having them jump over hurdles.

Agility training at home

Training exercises

There are many training exercises you can do at home. Try starting with these:

Recall: This is an important skill in any setting, but especially in agility. Have treats with you and call your dog’s name. When they come, reward them with a treat and then give a “release” cue (such as “free” or “ok”). You can do this randomly throughout the day as well as in more concentrated sessions. Just make sure that when your dog comes to you, it doesn’t mean an end to fun—for example, you can do this when the dog is playing in the yard, but make sure you release them to go play after you are done. You want your dog to have positive associations with coming when called.

Follow Me: Do this off-leash if possible. Start with a handful of high-value treats, and begin walking around your yard (or Sniffspot), changing direction frequently. When your dog catches up to you (at any time), reward with praise and a treat. Don’t use verbal cues or call your dog’s name—the idea is that your dog follows you while simply watching your moves. 

Go On: This simple exercise teaches your dog to keep moving in a straight line (away from you). While you’re walking with your dog, toss a treat in front of them, and say “go on.” (You can substitute a toy for a treat if your dog is more toy-motivated.) 

With these and any training exercise, keep your sessions short and end while it’s still fun. You don’t want to wait until your dog gets bored to end them!

If you want to explore more skills, dog trainer Cheryl May has a long list of agility training skills you can teach at home

Agility courses at home

There are many fun ways to build at-home agility courses for your dog, and it’s a great way to bond with your dog. Remember to take each obstacle slowly and offer lots of praise and treats along the way.

Here are a few ways you can practice agility at home:

  • Keep it super casual by using household objects to create an “agility-inspired” course: use boxes, small chairs, etc to create a fun obstacle course for your dog. Some fun ideas to start with: lay a ladder flat on the ground and guide your dog through it, or take two chairs and lay a broom between them, creating a jump for your dog. (Again, only do this if your dog is the appropriate age and size to clear the hurdle.)
  • Buy agility equipment to use in your backyard. The AKC has a handy list that explains the types of agility equipment you can buy.
  • Take it to the next level by making your home agility equipment fit the regulations of your chosen organization (only necessary if you’re going to eventually compete in trials)

Small dog agility

Don’t worry, your small dog can participate in agility! In fact, most agility venues use the same courses for small and big dogs. The difference is that they will allow a small dog more time (as they need to take more strides than big dogs to cover the same amount of area) and do not expect the same rate of speed as they do from big dogs. 

To practice agility with your small dog in your yard, just be aware of their size, make sure any equipment you buy is adjustable, and adjust accordingly (e.g. lower jump bars and so forth). Affordable Agility has a beginner’s agility bag with lots of adjustable equipment, or you can buy individual pieces like this adjustable weave pole set

If you get more serious about the sport, you may have to do some specialty training with a small dog to teach them how to get through certain parts of the course quickly (again because they need to take more strides than big dogs). Otherwise, small dog agility training is the same as big dog agility training.

The Teacup Dogs Agility Association is a great resource for small dog owners who want to participate in agility. They are an agility club that uses scaled-down equipment, and the distance between obstacles is shorter.

dog pole running

Agility classes

Many dog training organizations offer agility classes. If your dog has passed basic obedience training, you may consider taking one. Active Dog Sports has a good breakdown of agility classes and how much you can expect to pay for them. Google Maps or Yelp are good places to start to find a class in your area.

Online classes

There are even online classes to learn agility! These classes will teach you the basics as well as how to practice in your own backyard. OneMind Dogs and The DaisyPeel are two examples of organizations that offer online agility classes, and there are many more out there.

Finding agility competitions in your area

If your dog takes to their agility training and you want to start looking into competitions in your area, check out Agility Events for upcoming events in your area. You can also find an AKC Agility Course Test (ACT), which is an entry-level agility event designed to test your dog’s skills and welcome you (and your dog) to the sport of agility. These events will also teach you the ins and outs of filling out entry forms, checking in at events and so forth. While they are a test for your dog, they are designed to help you and your dog learn the ins and outs of competing, so don’t think of these as a big deal or a source of stress.

Beyond agility for beginners

If you’ve moved beyond the beginner phase and are looking to take it to the next level, check out the AKC’s guide to agility and Pet Helpful’s guide to finding the right agility instructor for you and your dog. You can also use the AKC’s website to find an agility club in your area

For more fun outdoor activities to do with your dog, check out our list of free and easy outdoor dog training activities.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Lindy Langum
Founder – K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer – Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), ​NW School of Canine Studies

How To Enable A Reactive Dog To Live A Full Life

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Are you concerned that your reactive dog won’t be able to live life to the fullest? People with reactive dogs sometimes feel discouraged or that they cannot give their dog a full life, but don’t worry! In this article, we will go over how to lead a full and happy life with your reactive dog, including self-care, managing your dog’s environment, and tips for having fun with your dog. Reactivity is common, and with some creativity and problem-solving skills, you and your dog can still have a great time together!

An important note: make sure to have a qualified trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities that have the potential to be harmful to your dog or anyone else (e.g. off leash play). You can definitely manage your dog’s environment and your own self-care, but it’s important to get a trainer involved when you have a reactive dog.

What is reactivity in dogs?

The American Kennel Club defines reactive dogs as “[dogs] that overreact to certain things or situations.” Typically, this looks like barking, growling, or lunging. Reactive dogs have certain triggers that cause them to react. Some examples of common triggers are: other dogs, tall people, men with beards, skateboards, and so forth. 

Reactivity isn’t necessarily forever

First off, remember that your dog’s reactivity is not static and can be improved through training. To train a reactive dog, you’ll definitely want to find a trainer to help you. (You’ll want to find a trainer who also uses positive reinforcement training, and does not use any punishment or aversives.) 

Taking care of yourself with a reactive dog

When you’re in the position of caregiving, it’s important to make time for self-care. This is true with dogs, too! If you have a reactive dog, you might feel stressed or overwhelmed at times, and that’s completely normal. 

Taking care of yourself is essential for both you and your dog. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your dog’s needs. That’s why self-care is an important part of providing a great life for you and your reactive dog. 

woman with dogs

Self-care ideas:

  • Exercise (without your dog): Exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Try to build some exercise into your schedule that doesn’t involve your dog, like going to the gym, yoga, or even just stretching by yourself. 
  • Meditation: Meditation is another proven stress reliever and can be done almost anywhere, and for any length of time that’s comfortable for you.
  • Therapy: Taking care of your mental health is important for dog parents and non-dog parents alike, and therapy can be a big part of that. 
  • Dog-free days: Try to make time for yourself without your dog. If you are able to leave your dog home, plan a day for yourself (and maybe your partner or a friend) to go do some activities dog-free, like see a movie or go to lunch. 
    • If you are unable to leave your dog unattended but are able to safely crate him for a while, that’s a great option too. The important thing is to take some time for yourself and give yourself a break from thinking about the dog’s needs.

For more self-care tips, the Reddit community r/reactive dogs has a great thread on the subject

Manage your reactive dog’s environment

You can help your dog’s reactivity by managing their environment. This means identifying your dog’s triggers and limiting access to them as much as possible. This might look like: 

  • closing the blinds if your dog barks at strangers they see out the window
  • turning on background noise (such as a white noise machine or using a phone app (like Rain Rain) for a dog who barks at sounds from outdoors
  • not walking your dog in areas with lots of other dogs, or going to dog parks with unknown dogs, if your dog is reactive to other dogs

The situation will be different depending on your dog’s triggers, but in many cases, the trigger is avoidable (or can be lessened) at least some of the time.

dog looking out window

Tips for having fun with your reactive dog

Don’t worry, you and your reactive dog can still have a ton of fun! Reactivity is common and there are many ways to manage it while still having fun with your dog. Remember, it’s important to have your trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities, especially if they involve off leash play.

  • Go out at sunrise: Sunrise is a great time to be out and about with a reactive dog. Many common triggers, like other people, other dogs, skateboards, loud trucks, etc, are less likely to be out at sunrise. Take your dog on a walk at sunrise and you’ll most likely have the neighborhood to yourself! Or, if you’re able, you might even engage in some off-leash exercise at sunrise, provided it’s safe.
  • Think of places to go that avoid the dog’s triggers: Each dog is unique in what triggers them. Once you’ve identified their triggers, you can think of places to go where the trigger is unlikely to be. If skateboards, bikes, and cars trigger your dog, you might try a nice hike outside of the city. If your dog is triggered by tall people, or people with hats, beards, etc, you might try a hike or walk in a less crowded area. Get creative!
  • Use Sniffspot: Sniffspot is an excellent option for any dogs who need their own space. A Sniffspot can give your dog the freedom to explore a fun new environment while remaining safe. Sniffspot is especially good for leash-reactive dogs or dogs who are reactive to other dogs. Book a Sniffspot in your area and let your dog have fun!
  • Don’t give up on playdates, if possible: Depending on your dog’s triggers and the severity with which he reacts to them, playdates with known dogs can be a great activity. (Obviously, this will not work for dogs who are very reactive to other dogs across the board, as the dog may become aggressive. Use your best judgment and make sure safety comes first for everyone involved.) If your dog is overstimulated by the dog park, he might do well in a backyard with just one dog that he knows. Or maybe your dog is reactive when he is on a leash (sometimes called “leash aggression”), but is fine with other dogs when he is off leash. With any playdate, make sure you talk over your dog’s reactivity with the other dog parent, and that you know their dog’s triggers (if they have any) as well. You’ll also want to have a plan in place in case either dog gets triggered. With some safety precautions and good communication, playdates may still be an option for you and your dog. 

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Alexandra Walker
Professional Canine Trainer – Accredited / PCT Level 2
Courteous Canine/DogSmith of Tampa
AKC CGC® and STAR Puppy Approved Evaluator 
Licensed Pet Dog Ambassador Instructor/Assessor