Lessons Learned For Dog Training Success

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(Note that this was actually written several years ago for something. I just found a copy of it.)

I was thinking about this the other day when I was working on teaching our family dog, Sam, a new behavior. I was working on teaching him the leg weave (where he runs around a leg when you move it in a direction, then around the other leg), and he lost interest very quickly in the beginning.

If you are dog training and your dog is ignoring you, these are some questions to ask yourself.I could have simply blown it off to his being stubborn or dumb, but I know better than that.

I know that if an animal I am training is not getting the lesson plan, and would rather do other things at the time, that the animal is simply giving me feedback that I am not teaching in a way that motivates him to want to stay in the classroom.

So I took a step back and thought about what I was doing.

Was I setting him up for success or was I setting him up for failure?

These are some questions I needed to ask:

Was the environment too distracting?  (Remember, it is important when teaching a new behavior that you begin in an environment with minimal or no other distractions so as to have your animal’s full attention. You only add distractions slowly as your student tells you by his ability to focus on doing the behavior that he is ready for it.)

Did I have high enough value reinforcers? (Please read my post on why knowing your pet’s List of Awesomeness is important)

How was my timing between when he did a behavior approximation and when I gave the reinforcement?  (The shorter the time lapse between when the behavior occurs and the reinforcement is produced, the easier it is for the animal to learn that association.)

Was I going at the right pace for him?  (In my shaping plan, were my behavior approximations at an interval that were enough to teach but not so much as to be too difficult? See my post on shaping.)

Was I completely focused on the training so as to catch his behaviors that I wanted to reinforce?

Was my training session short?  (Training sessions should be short, 3 to 5 minutes, ending on a positive note.)

In this particular lesson, it was a very quiet living room with minimum distractions and so I was not using the highest value reinforcer. I was using Sam’s dog biscuits. Also, while I began teaching this by luring him around my leg (having him follow a treat), I did not give him a piece of the treat until he was half way around the leg.

That combination was not setting him up for success. Waiting until he moved half way around my leg was way too long of an approximation to keep his interest, especially when his reinforce for doing so was a piece of dog biscuit.

What did I do? I added some pieces of chicken to my reinforcer bag and, while I used luring at the beginning, I marked (and gave him a reinforcer) for his moving around my leg in very small increments the first few times. There were six locations around my leg that were my target points for marking and reinforcing.

That small change made a huge impact. In only a few trials, Sam was running around my leg and then around the other.

Next, I stopped at that success and practiced another behavior for a couple minutes, then another behavior for another couple minutes, and then went back to the leg weaves. Wow, was he charging around my leg by that point. I had made my classroom so much fun for him that he forgot he was there to learn…but learn he did! And with gusto!

The next step was to begin fading out the lure and using less frequent target points around my leg until I could get to the point where I would just give a hand cue and he’d begin to weave. Now we are working on shifting to just my leg movement as his cue to begin the weave.

My point with this post is that, whenever you are training an animal who just simply is not doing what you want him to do. Know that there is always a reason. And it is not that your animal is dumb or stubborn. As your pet’s teacher, step back and think through what you can do to make the lesson plan easier, more clear…and definitely more fun!

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Transferring Cues in Dog Training

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There are times when you would like to teach a new cue for a particular behavior. Maybe you want to add a verbal cue to a hand signal or vice versa. Transferring cues in dog training really is not that difficult to do. I’ll explain below. First, I want to remind you about some cue basics.

Cues for behaviors. What are they?

teaching and transferring cues in dog trainingScientifically speaking, a cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior. Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.

It is important to remember that it is the consequences of that behavior, positive or negative, that determine the future probability of that behavior occurring. The cue is simply an indicator to the learner that that window of time for that consequence to happen is now.

In other words, the cue is like a green light that tells the animal NOW is the time to do something in order to get something it values or move away from something it wants to avoid.

Discriminitive (environmental) cues are learned all the time from our pets. They can learn that the doorbell is a cue for jumping and barking to get fun humans to walk through. They learn that a human sitting at the table is a cue for pawing that human to get attention or a piece of food. They can also learn that proximity to another dog is a cue to move away to avoid the potential of a negative past consequence (maybe a dog growled or jumped on it, or the dog was yanked on its collar by its owner).

They can also learn that your word ‘sit’ or your hand signal is a cue for sitting to get great things to happen. Or any number of cues we teach them through training. Here is the tricky part…our pets are ALWAYS watching us. And they REALLY pay attention to our body language. That being said, they can easily pick up on our slight movement that we don’t even realize we are doing as another cue for a behavior such as, we may lean as we say a word or we may look in a direction. This is actually referred to as ‘double cuing’ and it is SO easy to do. The problem is that, when two cues are taught simultaneously, one has greater strength and one of those cues will likely not be an effective communication too.

Teaching one cue at a time is the most effective, however, you can still have different cues for the same behavior. They should just be taught separately for greatest understanding and retention by the learner. Transfering that meaning from one cue to another is not that difficult. I’ll explain below.

First, here is a recap of qualities of effective cues (in positive training):

  1. They are simple, unique and consistent.
  2. You should say the cue only once.
  3. Only behaviors that are cued will receive reinforcement (from you)

Transferring Cues

How do you create new cues for the same behavior?

Firstly, come up with a second cue that is easily decipherable from the original cue (and different from cues for other learned behaviors). As an example, if you have taught your dog to hand target with a cue of an extended hand and open palm, then you would not want to teach an open palm as a cue for standing as well.

Once you have decided on your new cue, here are the basic steps for teaching it.

  1. Give the new cue.
  2. Then give the old cue.
  3. Then, when your dog does the behavior, mark it and reinforce it as you have in the past.

Do this for two or three sessions of ten to twenty reps each. Then, begin to pause for a moment in between the new and old cue. Your dog will likely do the behavior as it learns (from past experience) that the new cue predicts the new cue. If it does the behavior, immediately mark and reinforce it.  Soon you will be using the new cue only.

Note that if your dog does not do the behavior when only given the new cue, this is feedback that you need more positive practice in building that association between the new and old cues (and the reinforcement).

You will need to “proof” the new cue for all relevant aspects of fluency:  distraction, distance, duration, fluency, speed, precision, and the ultimate goal – stimulus control.  The good news is that if your original cue was well-proofed to fluency, the process of proofing the new cue will be significantly faster the second time around.

 

 

Six Books For Kids On Dogs

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a list of Six books for kids compiled by Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC

If you have a child and a dog, these books are colorful, well written and packed with important lessons on being a dog super hero.

May I Pet Your Dog, a book for children

May I Pet Your Dog by Stephanie Calmenson
Whether your child is afraid of dogs of loves them, May I Pet Your Dog is beautifully written book leads readers step-by-step on how to properly greet a dog. Using Harry the dachshund as a gentle guide, children see a variety of situations and learn how to meet dogs in a positive, welcoming way.

Good Dog, a book for kids on dogs

Good Dog! Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior & Training by Evelyn Pang
What I love about this book is that it is written by kids for kids covering the essentials of responsible and effective dog care and t
raining.

My Dog, a book on dogs for kids

My Dog! A Kids Guide To Keeping A Happy And Healthy Pet by Michael J. Rosen
A primer, an owner’s manual, a field guide, and more, My Dog! is the complete book for every child who has a dog―whether it’s a brand-new puppy or adopted mutt, or a beloved pooch who’s been in the family for years.

Puppy Training for kids, a book for children on dogs

Puppy Training for Kids: Teaching Children the Responsibilities and Joys of Puppy Care, Training, and Companionship by Colleen PelarThis book uses a combination of photos and easy to read and understand language to share with children modern, proven, humane methods to teach their puppy or dog.

Max Talks To Me, a book for kids on dogs

Max Talks To Me by Claire Buckwald
Alex and his dog Max are true friends—the kind that share each other’s excitement, comfort each other when they are sad, wait together when parents are away, and have fun wherever they are. Alex is learning that every good relationship is a two-way street. By observing and listening to his dog, by sharing good times and bad, he and Max are earning each other’s love and devotion. Parents will appreciate the information about animal communication and the dog-child bond that they will find at the end of Max Talks to MeChildren will want to share Max and Alex’s adventures and friendship over and over as they read the gentle, engaging story and look at the beautiful illustrations.

Buddy Unchained, a book for kids on dogs

Buddy Unchained by Daisy Bix
Buddy Unchained is the 2007 winner of the Humane Society of the US KIND Award, Best Children’s Picture Book of the Year and the ASPCA HENRY BERGH AWARD, best Children’s Picture Book in the Companion Animal category. It is a very moving story of a once abandoned dog and how his being adopted into a loving home has changed his life. It reminds children of the importance of being kind to animals.

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Should You Avoid Dog Parks?

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When dog caregivers think about socialization and exercise, often two words come to their mind – dog park. Not only are those places enclosed areas for dogs to run and play, they are places where people meet other people who share a love for their pets.

However, while, yes, those are some of the benefits to bringing your dog or puppy to a dog park, there are also many considerations to think about before unleashing your pet inside one of those fences.

Should you take your dog to a dog park? Cincinnati certified dog trainer has some consideration.Michael Shikashio, CDBC, dog trainer with Complete Canines LLC and president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, shared this analogy between dog parks and bars.

“Dog parks are like bars. Having a good time and socializing are their intentions. There are many that enjoy them and do just fine in that type of atmosphere. However, sometimes:

– A fight breaks out — some much worse than others.

– There’s often some really questionable behavior going on, so they’re definitely not suited for youngsters. Gratuitous, unwanted humping comes to mind…

– Mobbing and bullying happen with people…and dogs.

– You might leave with a communicable disease, so you better use protection…I mean be up-to-date on your shots.

It takes just the right “type” to be able to handle what can happen in that environment sometimes.

So if you’re not up for the bar scene, it might be best to find an alternative.”
Let’s break this down a little bit more. Here are a few more considerations.

If your dog does not have rock solid foundation obedience behaviors learned, a dog park is NOT the place to teach.

Talk about distractions, oh my!  Remember, to effectively teach your pet behavior, you need to begin in an environment where you know you can succeed (where your dog AND you can focus on learning) and only add criteria as you are seeing success. If you have not worked through your training well enough, the competing reinforcers will be far too great. And, every practice you have with your dog of asking for a behavior after which your dog does anything BUT that behavior, you are working to immensely weaken the cue and even teach your dog to ignore the cue altogether.

Dogs who do not feel ‘safe’ in that environment, can learn more fears and learn they cannot rely on their human to get them out of harms way.

A quick way to teach your dog not to trust you is to keep ignoring your dog trying to tell you through body language that it is not feeling safe. If it is cowering with its tail low, becoming hyper vigilant, or exhibiting other language, and you fail to take it away from its source of stress you may be strengthening your dog’s emotional response rather than teaching it how to feel better about being near other dogs or people. A dog that is bullied or chased in a dog park may very likely learn that dogs are bad news.

Your dog can practice over arousal, resource guarding and even aggression.

Over arousal can begin from the moment you leave your car as your dog pulls on its leash in excitement. You may react by pulling back or yanking on the leash, and the closer you get to the park, the more that arousal will have built up in your dog. By the time you actually unleash your dog, that arousal can lead to other unwanted behaviors, even aggression. Resource guarding can also occur as dogs may guard their toys.

If you are bringing your dog to a park so that it can play while you sit and read a book or socialize, please reconsider.

If there are other dogs around, especially dogs you do not know, this is not the time to be turning your attention away from your dog. If your dog is bullying or doing other inappropriate behavior to other dogs, it is your responsibility to redirect or remove your dog from that situation. And if your dog is in a situation where it does not feel safe, it is also your responsibility to get it out of harms way. Before you visit a dog park, it is a great idea to understand dog body language so that you can intercede.

These are just a few considerations. There are many.

To exercise your dog, some alternatives to dog parks are:

Walks, positive training, and games with you.

Play dates with dogs you know, whose play styles are compatible with your dog.

Activity toys for your dog.

Why I Don’t Like The Word ‘NO’

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The word NO is often used as a punishment to stop unwanted behaviors in dogs.  These are some reasons why I do not like using it in dog training.

It doesn’t teach your pet what you’d like for him to do instead.

It can create apathy, fear, anxiety, aggression.

Your pet will associate you with that aversive consequence.

You may simply be teaching your pet not to do the behavior in front of you that you wish to stop.

It does nothing to foster a love of learning.

Instead of saying ‘NO’, practice finding those teaching moments when your pet is doing behaviors that you like…and tell him ‘YES.’

Reasons why you should not use punishment in dog training

 

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Six Reasons Why Your Dog Is Not Food Motivated

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The other night, I met a lot of new faces at a dog event. I knew I would be making introductions so I brought my a baggie of my homemade dog treats, the ones I use in training that my clients and our Sam typically get a response of quick attention. But, at that outdoor event where there were dozens of dogs and probably several hundred people, some pets took my gift readily; others ignored the treats and focused on the environment instead.

Six reasons why your dog is not motivated by foodIt got me thinking about food and dogs. It seems I either hear a lot about dogs who live to eat and will do anything for a piece of – well, anything; or I hear about dogs who are not motivated by food.

Hmm. Let’s really give thought to that second scenario. How could it be that a healthy dog is not motivated by food? After all, food is a necessity to survive. In fact, scientifically speaking, the category of ‘food’ is considered a primary reinforcer (A primary reinforcer, sometimes called an unconditioned reinforcer, is a stimulus that does not require pairing to function as a reinforcer and most likely has obtained this function through the evolution and its role in species’ survival. Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism)

So, what then could cause a dog to turn its nose at food?  There are a number of reasons. I have some of them below.

  1. There is something medically wrong.

Possibly it could be a sign of an underlying medical issue, including that your dog has a sensitivity to something in what you are feeding it. If your dog normally eats what you are giving it, and suddenly refuses it in the same situation, it is time to consult your veterinarian.

  1. Your dog is scared or over aroused.

In the case of this dog event, in addition to those dogs turning their heads away from my treats, some were hypervigilant, excessively panting, or showing other body language that told me they were anxious, alert, and stressed.  A medically healthy dog’s willingness and interest in food tells us a lot about its emotional state. That turning away from treats (and other body language) is a symptom that the dog is not feeling safe or that the dog is in an extreme state of ‘eustress’, which is stress caused by positive excitement that still manifests as arousal. An example of this is the dog that is pulling at the end of its leash to get to pool of water, completely ignoring its handler. By putting their dog in an environment where their dog is reacting this way, the handler is doing a great job of teaching his/her dog the value of competing reinforcers from the environment (in other words, ignoring the handler on the other end of the leash).

  1. There are too many competing reinforcers.

This really speaks to my point above. If there is a strong, established history with competing reinforcers from the environment, which are more valuable to the dog than paying attention to you, it will be very difficult if not impossible for the skill of focusing on you to compete against what is happening in the environment. The foundational time you spend with lots and lots of positive practice teaching your dog how you want it to behave in different situations is extremely important (if you want to have a dog that has self control in a place with a great deal of distractions).

  1. History has taught your dog that food is a trap.

It is very, very important to remember that animals learn by consequences of their behaviors. If, in the past you have used food to lure your dog into doing something aversive (such as to come, when coming will result in something negative occurring; to get close to people it is afraid of; or to go into a crate where it will be locked up for the day); experience will have taught your dog that the presence of food comes before something negative. (Please read my article on classical conditioning.) Always keep in mind that it is what occurs AFTER something, that affects the emotional response of what occurs BEFORE (in classical conditioning); and also, through operant learning, animals learn whether or not a behavior is worth repeating or not. If a behavior serves to get the animal something of value (from the animal’s perspective), then that behavior will be repeated and even strengthened.

  1. You have taught your dog to ‘show me the money’.

It is so easy to inadvertently teach animals behaviors without realizing it. We can actually ‘teach’ stubbornness. How? Well, if you give your dog a piece of kibble and it refuses; and then you give it something better. You have just reinforced your dog’s decision to refuse kibble with the ‘something better.’

  1. You have been free feeding your dog.

Putting food in your dog’s bowl and leaving it there all day is a great way to devalue that food. You can read more about my thoughts on free feeding in this post.

There you have it. My top six reasons why your dog may NOT be motivated from food, and what you can do about it.

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A Lesson For Kids About Dogs

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What a terrific group of dog Super Heroes! It was so much fun teaching them about being a positive teacher and friend to their dog…with Zurie and Hannah’s help. Thank you so much to Cincinnati Sports Club for having us…and being proactive in wanting to teach kids and parents these important lessons. AND thank you to the parents, for taking time away from your Saturday to be there!

My unique My Dog’s Super Hero is a beginner dog training class for Cincinnati area kids to learn about how they can be an awesome dog friend, teacher and playmate. With demonstration dogs, I teach them (and their parents) how to interact appropriately with their dog, how dogs communicate, and how to be a positive and responsible teacher to their friend.

If you would like to learn more about having me teach my class for your organization or group, please get in touch!

Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, taught her kids class called My Dog's Super Hero at the Cincinnati Sports Club

 

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Dog Body Language

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When we share our homes with animals who speak a completely different language than we do, misunderstandings can happen so easily and with misunderstandings stress, anxiety and even aggression can easily erupt. I spoke with residents yesterday of a local retirement community where many people share their apartments with furry companions and much of that discussion ended up focusing on how dogs share their feelings. It is so important that I wanted to share it here also. Below is a description of some dog language.

understanding dog body languageHappy

Relaxed body muscles are a sign of a content dog. On its face, the corners of its mouth may be open or turned upwards slightly and it may be panting; its ears will be held neutrally; and its eyes will be normal shaped. While dogs perceive looking directly into each other’s eyes, they have often learned that looking at humans is a good thing (because we teach them positive outcomes occur when they do) so a happy dog may look at your with relaxed muscles. As for its body posture, a content dog will have overall loose muscles and be balancing on four legs. (Note that if it is happy AND in a playful mood, it will not be balancing on all four legs, but rather may have exaggerated movements WITH loose muscles.) Its tail may sway gently from side to side, curl loosely, or be held neutrally.

Excited

An excited dog will be alert and focused. Its eyes will be directed toward the stimulus it has detected. Its body will be natural in size but its weight may be centered over its rear or front legs as it readiness itself for movement. Its ears will be up, tail will more than likely be held high (with or without a wag), and mouth will often be open – even barking.

Aroused

An aroused dog is intensely focused on something and ready for action. Signs to look for include:  ears forward or flattened, a closed or tense mouth, body weight on all four legs, a tail held high or a low, a very deliberate tail wag, tense eyes directed at what it detected, and raised hair on its back. Arousal can indicate alertness, excitement, fear or aggression; and body language will differ depending.

Fearful

A fearful dog will try to look small, and may hunch over or cower close to the ground. Its tail will be held low or will be tucked between its back legs; and it might have its weight on its back legs to be ready for a quick escape or on its side legs to recoil; or it could either be moving quickly back and forth in hyper vigilance or moving slowly.  Its muscles will be tense. It could either look away from the aversive stimulus or look at what is scaring it. On the face, its ears will probably be flattened; its eyes may be smaller than usual or may show the whites of its eyes; its mouth will probably be closed and its lips may even be pulled back slightly. It may also flick its tongue or do an exaggerated yawn. The dog may also exhibit displacement behaviors – behaviors that are normal except at a time of conflict – such as yawning, licking of lips, sudden scratching or sniffing of ground, wet dog shake.

A fearful dog could escalate too to a growl, bark or worse if there is no escape. A fearful dog is more likely to try to get distance when possible, but if that is not possible, may snarl, growl, snap or bite. Sometimes that dog will wait until the animal or person is moving away, before quickly darting out to nip them from behind.

Imminent Bite

If the dog freezes and becomes stiff, stands with its front legs splayed and its head low (or could be held high) and focused on you, shows its teeth and growls – stop interaction immediately, look away and give the dog a chance to leave. Do not approach the dog, talk to him or make eye contact. If you are trying to get something the dog has, it is best to let it go. Among other warning signs of aggression:  raised hackles (fur along its spine), possible wrinkles around its mouth, tail tucked and stiff or held high and stiff, mouth corner pulled back, its body weight could be over his front or rear legs depending on the situation; and it will usually growl, snarl or bark.

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Do Puppies Grow Out Of Problems?

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Puppies chew. They play. They run. They get into things we do not want them to. They vocalize. They grab things on impulse. They also may show signs of backing away from unfamiliar things in their environment of signs of pulling toward other things.

Oh so cute they are! We love them for their adorableness but get so frustrated with their bad habits. But, won’t they grow out of those habits?

Do puppies grow out of problem behaviors? Yes and no. Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik answers.Well, not always.  

While it is true that biologically there are certain behaviors puppies are prone to do like destructive chewing for both teething relief and an outlet for young energy, what is important to realize is that every waking moment puppies – just like all animals – are learning from experience. They are learning constantly associations between behaviors and consequences. Quite simply, those behaviors that are serving to get something of value (from the perspective of the learner) are going to be ones that are repeated. AND if those behaviors get the animal something it values only sporadically, then you will see an even stronger, longer lasting, virulent behavior.

What does this mean for you as a puppy owner (or any pet owner)?

Well, take for example that unwanted chewing of shoes. While a puppy’s natural clock gives it a great need for chewing and destroying, the more times he gets positive reinforcement for that behavior, the more he is likely to repeat it. And often humans add to the value of that destructive chewing and destroying by giving the puppy attention or a game of chase when it has something in its mouth.

While puppies do go through developmental fear periods, if a puppy startles, moves back from or growls at something in its environment; or exhibits elevated heart rate, barking or digging when its human leaves the room, it is a mistake to think that behavior will just magically go away as the dog matures. In fact, those behaviors may more than likely strengthen and even generalize to other fear responses later. If, for example, a man in a white coat gives a puppy a painful injection then later other people in white coats may also cause elevated heart rates, etc. Remember that learning also teaches negative associations between behaviors and consequences/neutral and conditioned stimulus. This is why it is so important to teach young puppies early on that their world is a good place by exposing them carefully and positively to a wide range of environments, people, objects, sounds, and other stimulus (doing this by providing positive outcomes for your puppy and ensuring by watching its body language that it is feeling good in that moment).

Management is a critically important step in puppy training to help young minds grow in ways you want them to. By working to prevent those unwanted behaviors from being practiced (and building a reinforcement history for them) while also focusing on giving your puppy opportunities to practice wanted behaviors with positive consequences, you will be helping your pet and you to have many happy years together.

As a puppy owner, you have an important role in helping your puppy get its needs met in appropriate ways while building value for behaviors and habits you want to see more of…for the rest of your relationship together.

 

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Impact of Good Moments

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Parents, please remember. Past experience is how animals learn. Every interaction between your child and your dog teaches your dog whether or not to feel good about being near your child. Dogs may tolerate bear hugs but they do not enjoy them. This dog’s open mouth, relaxed body muscles, and posture (close to the child and not leaning away) shows us he is feeling good about this moment. To strengthen your child’s relationship with your dog, look to create lots of GOOD moments between your dog and your child.

a dog bite prevention tip for parents

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