Communication Matters

I have long admired Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT, and have read her book, Control Unleashed, several times. The first time being early in my career, and it had a lot of influence on me. Leslie teaches how to use games and communication to affect behavior change, and build confidence, trust and focus in the learner. I love that.

How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping train your dog or bird (or other pet) in the most positive way. It is that kind of approach to teaching that I am continually striving to improve upon because I see learning in a positive way as discovery and enrichment and empowerment. It is an ongoing process that has huge capacity for improving the quality of life for every student and teacher.

There are so many factors that contribute to dog and parrot training effectiveness; one of those is the nonverbal conversation between both the giver and receiver of information. At any given moment in our relationship, our pets are giving us feedback as to how they are feeling about their environment. They may turn or move away, lick their lips or yawn, stare straight at a stimulus or avoid eye contact, growl or play bow, walk slowly or pull forward or sit and plant their feet stationary when on leash, take food gently or grab it quickly.

If we, as their caretakers, their protectors and their trainers, do not ‘listen to’ and heed what they are trying to tell us, that confidence, trust, focus, and discovery can all break down. Their capacity to learn what it is we are trying to teach breaks down. And our relationship can break down as well.

Earlier this summer I completed IAABC’s two-month Control Unleashed Mentorship with Leslie. In the first week, she shared with us how she has always seen her CU Program as being about that conversation about the environment between itself and its handler, allowing the dog to process information while remaining in a calm and handler-focused (think and learn) state. The dog is empowered by being able to ask to work more or less, to move closer or farther away from something; and to have those requests listened to.

What does this mean? Here are a few personal examples of conversations with a few animals I either have or have trained.

My conversation with a bird

When Dreyfuss, my pionus, is on a window perch, she will either stretch a leg or a wing, stand still, or spread her wings if I come near and she does not want to step up in that moment. On the other hand, if she does want to step up, she may shift her body weight back and forth, lean slightly forward, come closer to me, and even hold one leg up.

If I didn’t understand her body language, and moved my arm in to her body (putting it in a place where she was clearly trying to indicate non-aggressively that she didn’t want there) she would lunge. If that didn’t work, she would escalate her behavior to a bite.

When this happens with other bird owners, often the unknowing person may define their as being dominate, territorial or mean; but as you can see above, really it was just a case of a bird trying to communicate non-aggressively that she wanted to stay where she was at. Unfortunately, with repeated experience, that bird may come to realize the ONLY effective way to communicate with humans is to lunge at or bite them to get them to back off.

Learning how to have that conversation with Dreyfuss, to understand how she communicates, has helped me to modify her behavior in the most humane and positive way. I never force her to step up. I teach her that stepping up gets her good things and we practice it.  When she is on a perch and she does her ‘want to step up’ behaviors, I walk over to her and offer my arm. In this two-way conversation, we are both listening to each other. Dreyfuss is being empowered by having an effective, non-aggressive way to tell me what she wants. And, as a result, she wants to step up more.

A conversation with a dog

The other day, I was at the house of a new client and demonstrating how to teach a reliable sit behavior. We were in a room of their house and before beginning to train, this was a dog that was interacting with me and soliciting attention. However, when I stood there, still and facing him, waiting for him to sit, he would not stop moving.

Was this a case of a dumb or obstinate dog? Nope. This was a dog that was feeling uncomfortable with that pressure. As soon as I turned away and focused in another direction, he came up and sat at my feet. I was able to click and toss a treat away, and he came back and repeated his sit. We had a great game going. And, very quickly as his confidence grew, I was able to face him and he sat.

Without that two-way conversation, a trainer may have felt the need to increase pressure on him instead of decreasing pressure, which ultimately helped both of us succeed.

How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping you change behavior in the most positive way.


Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please get in touch!

Dog Body Language

understanding dog body languageThis time of year, everyone enjoys being outdoors with their dogs including at dog parks. And, while it can be a lot of fun, it can also be very problematic. An aversive experience for your dog can occur very quickly, and can have long term impact on your dog’s emotional well being. Do you know how to recognize when your dog is in trouble, or when your dog is doing the harassing?  Do you know when your dog is communicating that he is uncomfortable with whatever is happening in the moment or when he wants space?

Below are some videos that show and explain how dogs communicate, dog body language, dog avoidance behaviors. They are well worth your time to watch, and then practice learning what your dog is trying to tell you and others.

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me here!

Prevent Dog Bites

Parents, please remember, you have an important role to play in helping your children and your dog succeed…including preventing dog bites.

children and dogs: dog bite prevention. Do you know what this dog's body language is saying?


Please click here to ready my post: Supervising dogs and kids is not enough.

To learn more about dog body language, please click here:  dog body language

Please watch this video below of how two girls practiced teaching their puppy recall.


Dog Body Language

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.


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.


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.


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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Cincinnati Has New Dog Super Heroes

Children in Cincinnati learned how to be good dog friends and dog trainers and dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik's My Dog Super Hero kids class in Blue Ash

These young children learned important lessons about dog body language, how to play safely with their dog, and how to be a positive dog trainer at my most recent My Dog’s Super Hero class at the United Pet Fund in Blue Ash. They did a fantastic job – so did my demonstration dogs, Daisy and Bunny. Teaching kids and parents these classes is about strengthening relationships and preventing dog bites.

Supervising Kids With Dogs Is Not Enough

There is so much written out there about the benefits to kids of having a dog. And, for the majority of families who are reading this, you know this first hand. I know I do. Growing up, I had a very special relationship with our poodle.

As a trainer, however, I also now see situations where family dogs back away from kids or do not come when kids call. I have gotten a number of calls from concerned parents whose dog has even growled at children – or worse.

Parents: Why being near your child and dog is not enough to ensure your child and pet's safety. And some parenting tips on helping your child and dog's relationship succeed.Here is the thing that we need to keep in mind, although children may adore their family pet, they do not always know ‘how’ to be a good dog friend. Kids may move quickly, yell and scream, lean over dogs, grab for dogs or any number of other things.

As a parent, caregiver and/or other adult role model you have a very important job to do – to help that relationship between your child or children and your dog (and other dogs) succeed.

I talk a lot about steps adults can take and one of them is supervision. However, supervision is defined in many ways. Advice is given often to parents that dogs and young kids should never be left in a room alone together, but passive supervision (meaning the adult is in the same room, yet focused on other things) can also have the potential of being unsafe. It can take a split second for an incident to escalate.

Active supervision is when you are watching your kids and your dog, and are able to intervene if necessary. Taking that one step further, in order to know when intervention is needed, it is important to be able to recognize trouble.

Here are a few observations that can help you to be a better, more effective active supervisor.

Know how a dog shows he is content. Generally, your dog’s muscles will be loose and relaxed. His mouth may be open, he may be panting with a regular tempo, his tail and ears will be held in their natural positions, and his tail may wag from side to side or in a circular motion. He may be engaged with and or nudging up to your child.

Know how a dog shows he is uncomfortable with your child. Some of the signs to watch for include that your dog may step back, turn away, shake, lick his lips, yawn, have a closed and tense mouth, have ears pinned back, hold his tail down, roll over on his back in a sign of submission, or show a half moon of white in his eyes.

Know how a dog escalates his body language. If you do not recognize and intervene, your dog may have a raised and rigid tail, he may bark and move backward (or position himself over his forelegs, ready to lunge), stare at your child, show his teeth or growl. This escalation can occur within seconds, especially if there is a history of your dog having his early warning signs listened to.

Know when your dog is beginning to become aroused. A few signs to watch for include a low and deliberate tail wag (or tail held high), tense body muscles, standing with his weight on his front legs. Also, your dog may begin jumping and chasing your child.

If your dog is exhibiting any of the signs that I have listed, it is time to intervene. Please do not punish your dog for communicating in his language how he feels. Instead, redirect your child or your dog or both and allow your dog the temporary distance that he wants.

Additionally, you should intervene if your child pulls your dogs ears, tail or other body part; pokes your dog; or jumps, chases, lays on, holds your dog in a headlock.

Raising dog Super Heroes is no easy task but the rewards are so great.

If you have a young child, please consider registering for my next My Dog’s Super Hero class. I teach children (with a parent) how dogs communicate, how to be a good dog teacher, and how to be a fun and safe friend. Please visit my CLASSES page for upcoming information.


Dog Park Etiquette

I am a proud member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants for both the dog and bird divisions (and am a Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant through IAABC). The organization recently published this series of posters about dog park etiquette with some important information and lessons about recognizing problems and appropriate behaviors.

How to know if your dog is scared at a dog park


What to do if your do is scared at a dog park


How to know if your dog is being pushy at a dog park


What to do if your dog is being pushy at a dog park

Gift Idea For You Young Dog Lover

Are you looking for gifts for your child who loves dogs?

Here are some considerations.

Christmas gift book ideas for kids who love dogsBooks

There are a number of wonderful books published that teach children how to be good dog teachers and friends. Here are a few of my favorites.May I Pet Your Dog, kid's book about dogs

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! Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior & Training by Evelyn PangGood dog kids book
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

My Dog kids bookMy 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: 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 Puppy trainning kids booklanguage to share with children modern, proven, humane methods to teach their puppy or dog.

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 Max Talks To Me kids bookrelationship 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 Me. Children 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 by Daisy BixBuddy Unchained kids book
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.

Gift certificate to My Dog’s Super Hero

Christmas gift idea for Cincinnati kids who love dogsStrengthening the bond between children and their dog, and preventing dog bites, are my goals for this unique kids Class. Children ages 6 to 10 (and their parents) will learn how to play and interact appropriately with their furry friend, how to be a safe and fun dog playmate, and how their dog tells them when it is happy or wants to be left alone. I have seen time and again dogs back away from, look away from or other body language around children. This class can teach you and your child how to prevent that. It is perhaps one of the most important hours you can spend to help your kids and dog succeed.

The My Dog’s Super Hero Class will be held Saturday, January 23, at 9:30 am at the nonprofit United Pet Fund Blue Ash location  (11336 Tamarco Dr; 45242). Please click here for cost, more information and registration.

Other Ideas

A dog stuffed animal

A donation to an animal rescue organization with a visit to the organization and maybe even volunteer outing thereSanta Paws 2: The Santa Pups

A framed photo of your child’s favorite pet

Santa Paws 2: The Santa pups, the movie in DVD

NOTE: For some behind-the-scenes information on Santa Paws, please click here.




Does Your Dog Like His Halloween Costume?

Should dogs wear Halloween costumes?


If you want to dress your dog in an outfit, please make should make sure your dog is comfortable. Dogs will communicate this with their bodies. Some signs of a happy dog are: relaxed body muscles; loose lips or even open mouth with loose tongue; rhythmic panting. Some signs that a dog is not comfortable include: his tail may be down, his body may be tight, he may have a tense mouth, you will see the whites on the sides of his eyes, his ears may be back, he may yawn or lick his chops, he may do a body shake without being wet. If wearing an outfit causes your dog to feel stressed, he may be more likely to become reactive – especially when on a leash, in the dark, with so many strange sights and sounds and kids running around.

For more tips on pet safety at Halloween , please see my blog post.


Fearful Dogs And Crowded Places

I have seen it happen so often…very well intentioned people walking their dog through a crowded event thinking they are helping their favorite pet overcome fears by getting Fido used to being around lots of humans and other stimulus.

Their dog’s body language includes holding its tail down, has tense body muscles, and may be panting, excessively drooling, turning or backing away from people, or lunging on a tight leash, barking or growling (potentially escalating) at passersby who get too close.  And many times owners jerk leashes or yell at their dogs when unpleasant behavior erupts.

Why fearful dogs shouldn't be taken to crowded places. Like I said, these often are very well intentioned people who think they are doing the right thing; however, what they don’t realize is that by putting their pet in a situation like that they can actually exacerbate the fear response of their dog.

Think about yourself for a moment and one of your worst fears. Let’s say you are terrified of rats, and, to help you, someone brought you into a closet and set loose hundreds of rats, locked the door, and didn’t open it until you stopped screaming or crying.

Can you imagine how much stress you would be enduring? How do you think that would help your fear of spiders when one drops in your lap unexpectedly when in another place? How do you think you will feel about the person who locked you into that closet?

This kind of behavioral modification strategy is known as flooding.  Flooding is a form of training in which the animal is exposed to an aversive stimulus with no possibility of escape until the stimulus no longer arouses anxiety or fear. But the level of anxiety and discomfort it causes the animal in the process can actually serve to cause apathy, aggression, and heightened anxiety, as flooding forces the animal to adopt different copying mechanisms to ensure safety and survival.

Not to mention in the case of dogs in crowded places, when their caregiver suddenly jerks the leash or yells at their dog in the presence of that environment and aversive stimulus, the animal can learn from association that environments like that cause bad things to happen thus giving the animal even more reason to have heightened discomfort.

Learned helplessness is another term to be familiar with. It occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

Systematic desensitization is a much more humane, more positive approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And empowerment builds confidence.

In a controlled environment, you can expose your dog to what is aversive at a distance where your dog can continue to be calm and pair the sight of the fear-eliciting stimulus with a positive consequence (whether that is distance, a high value treat, a tug or other game, or a combination of those things.) Gradually you can move closer to that stimulus as your dog can continue to show relaxed body muscles.

If you need help with this, please consult with a trainer who uses positive reinforcement based strategies.

And know that it is okay if your dog can not be with you in crowded places. Crowds aren’t for all humans either. There are plenty of other fun activities and experiences you can share with your pet.

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