Looking Back at 2016: A Progress Report for Rugby: Part One

It’s that time of year again!  As one year ends and another looms on the horizon, I often reflect on the current year which is ending, and set some goals for the upcoming year.  Recently, I reminded myself that it was time to look back at Rugby’s progress in general.  When you live with a high needs, special needs, difficult dog, life is so often just a roller coaster.  Many of the individual days with Rugby are accented with mountain peaks of success and valleys of dismal failures over and over.  And often, there can be more valleys than mountain peaks in individual days.

It can be both frustrating and discouraging.  When I had my very stable and well bred Corgi puppies, we went through similar things.  The difference, however, was that I knew that they would grow up and the naughty behavior would eventually become extinct.  Without fail, in every instance, it did.  Rugby has been the perpetual challenging dog who can’t always seem to connect the dots on his negative behavior. Even after nine years of work with him, there are many things that keep him as a perpetual naughty dog, although he always trends toward general overall improvement…but in his baby step sort of way.

Adjusting Expectations

With Rugby, the progress has typically always been very slow, and often comes in baby steps.  In my early days of living with him, this was very hard to accept.  As a professional dog trainer, I’m blessed to work with wonderful dogs of all kinds, from strays to shelter dogs, to well bred, pampered dogs, and everything in between!  In most cases, I see those dogs make progress in leaps and bounds as they figure things out and the new behavior takes root.

With Rugby, so many of our early days were spent in trial and error, trying to understand and trust each other, and then figuring out what training methods seemed to work the best for him.  To be perfectly honest, in many cases, it was more error than success, and Rugby has been a wonderful and patient teacher while I have figured things out with him.

I’ve had to adjust my expectations with Rugby.  He is his own measuring stick.  I’ve had to learn to let go of my expectations of who he should be and let him just be who he is.  He’s definitely his own man.  Without a doubt, he’s a free thinking dog who has a brain and emotions and isn’t afraid to use either of them!  He lacks a lot of impulse control, and really isn’t very interested in learning about it.  It’s been our biggest obstacle in his progress.  He frustrates so easily, and just erupts into negative emotional responses…which are sometimes aggressive….and very often, those reactive responses continue far beyond the removal of the stimulus.  Once he’s all wigged out….he stays all wigged out for a long, long time, even after the stimulus that triggered the outburst is long gone.

So much of our work together is training on impulse control, teaching Rugby calm responses to trigger stimuli, and then teaching him how to calm himself quickly, once he’s in full bloom!   This is often where it’s most difficult to see consistent progress.  He’s a big worrier, and that definitely affects his responses to various stimuli! So much of his responses simply just depend upon the specific stimulus and the individual day.  Some days he amazes me with his ability to use self control, and other days, it’s like he’s completely clueless.  He will often look right at me, completely out of control, barking like crazy, with a look on his face that says, “Help me.  I can’t stop myself.”  It’s almost like his “on” switch, is permanently switched to “bark loudly and frequently,” most often over virtually nothing!


New Progress With the Garbage Disposer!!

As a result, it can be a bit tough to gauge his progress, because it’s such a slippery business.  Of note, however, is the fact that he’s doing better with the garbage disposer!  This reactive behavior started on a random day when he just decided that he no longer liked the garbage disposer.  Initially, he reacted only when he heard the garbage disposer running.  However, this has been a very difficult issue to train through, because once he decided that the garbage disposer was public enemy number one, he often started his crazy barking when I would simply turn on the water at the kitchen sink, in anticipation that I would maybe use the disposer.

This is where I’m both proud and frustrated with my little dog!  Rugby often reacts ahead of the triggers….because he understands patterns pretty clearly.  That tells me just how smart this little guy really is!  And, he has a memory like a steel trap if it’s something that he doesn’t like very much!  As a result, he can latch onto a behavior after just seeing or hearing it one time, if the trigger is strong enough.  I never, ever know what will trigger him, because he can go along just great with things and one day decide that he’s just not going to tolerate something anymore!

As a result, I have to constantly mix up my own patterns of behavior to help prevent new triggers from getting rooted!  It means consciously, carefully thinking about my movements and any noises I make throughout my day.  My little dog is always watching, and he fires up with out much notice or trigger!  It can be a challenge to stay two steps ahead of Rugby James!

Where the garbage disposer is concerned, Rugby has improved to the point where I’ve discovered that if I catch his attention before I turn on the sink, I can tell him to “Leave it” and flip the switch and he’s stayed calm!!  If I don’t catch him ahead of time, he still wigs out, so we definitely have more work on this one, but we are headed in the right direction, anyway!

I have to make sure that he is in the kitchen when I turn the disposer on, and get his full attention and focus before I flip the switch.  Training through this issue has helped me to realize that Rugby can stay calmer with virtually any noises if I can give him advanced warning that a trigger is coming.  Where he really struggles is when he hears random noises….inside the house or out in the neighborhood….and can’t readily identify them before they happen.  He just explodes in crazy barking in those situations, and it’s been so hard to train him through them, because I never know when they will happen, so I can’t set him up with a new neighborhood dog barking, for example.  But he has made some good progress with the garbage disposer this year, and that’s been a relief!

What I’ve learned with virtually anything I’m training, is that working through those tough issues is very often one step forward and two steps back.  It’s tempting to give up, but the reality is, that I never know when and if Rugby will suddenly figure something out, so I never, ever want to give up on opportunities to give all of us a better quality of life together.  We definitely take a team approach to life at my house, and it can sure make bad days easier to tolerate when you choose to view your dog as being a beloved member of your team rather than the enemy!


Tuesday Training Tip: Don’t Tear It UP!!

Mama Sally:

Rugby came to live with me when he was 8-9 months old.  I knew nothing at all about his past other than I was his fifth home.  I can’t tell you if he had good and loving homes or lived as a stray on the streets for part of his life, just trying to survive.


One thing I know, is that when he walked into my house and saw five toys laid out on the floor for him to play with, his little eyes sparkled and he came to life!!  He went from one toy to the next to the next to the next, trying to decide which one to play with, and wanting to play with all of them at once.  It was as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune to have five toys of his very own!

I remember almost getting tears in my eyes watching the look on his face.  He was so delighted!  Even after nine years, I can see that memory in my mind as clearly as if it were yesterday.  Toys have always mattered to my little speckled and spotted dog, and it was so much fun watching him investigate and have fun with them on that first day.


Over the next several months, we went through the massacre of several toys once Rugby was comfortable in his new home.  From eight to eighteen months, he was hellbent on destruction!    When it came to stuffed toys, he delighted in chewing off faces, feet, ears, tails, etc.  He was pretty good about spitting the pieces out, but I just didn’t want to take any chances with him eating something dangerous that I didn’t see.  Dogs can often swallow something that is too large for them to poop out, so if they don’t throw it up, it just becomes lodged, which will ultimately become life threatening.

So, I made the decision that Rugby needed to learn to play gently with his toys and not tear them up!  This decision was primarily a safety issue for him, but my checkbook thanked me as well!  Dog toys get expensive when they only last for a day or two!

The Training Method I Used:

Here’s how I taught Rugby to play gently with his stuffed toys!

When he got to the point that he wanted to destroy any soft toy that he had, I picked up all of this stuffed toys  and put them in a safe place.  I used stuffed toys only when I played fetch with Rugby, and then I took them away and replaced them with his safe chew toys when we were finished with our current game.  He was super happy to see his soft toys, and it really helped him learn to fetch well, because he wanted to play with whatever I held in my hand.  Once our fetching game was over, the stuffed toys went away and Rugby had his safe toys to play with….Nylabones, tennis balls, Kongs, etc.  About every three months, I’d try him out on soft toys to see how he would do with them.

Generally, until he was about 18 mos old or so, he continued to practice his destructive ways!  He only had to have five minutes with a stuffed toy before he began his reign of terror!  Because he chewed off small pieces like eyes, ears, tails, noses, etc., I bought stuffed toys without any decorative, small pieces to them.  I focused on basic shapes only….a bone, a Gingerbread man, a ball, etc.  He still wanted to tear those up, but he always started right at the tag since there were no decorative parts to chew off.  There is usually extra stitching right at the tag, and the tag itself provides a little resistance for a dog who wants to tug hard on it while holding the balance of the toy in his paws!

When I thought he was old enough to learn to play gently, I started training  him. Soft toys were given to him only when I could observe and train him to play gently with them.  I gave him a chance to play gently on his own with the command, “Don’t tear it up!”  as I gave him the toy.  When he would start to fuss at the tag, I cut off the tag, and sprayed the tag spot with Bitter Apple.  Then I gave the toy right back to him with the command, “Don’t tear it up!” Naturally he was offended with the Bitter Apple smell, and often just refused to play with his toy.  As the Bitter Apple evaporated and dried, he would often start to fuss at the tag spot again.  I would re-spray it and hand it right back with the command “Don’t tear it up!”  Over time, anytime he would start his ripping action, I would repeat, “Don’t tear it up” and he soon learned that if he didn’t stop ripping it, I’d spray it with the nasty tasting stuff and give it back.  He learned to mouth the toy gently and look to me for approval, so I made sure I praised him anytime he played gently.


It really didn’t take too long before he learned that mouthing his toys was okay, but tearing into them was corrected.  To this day, I honestly rarely EVER buy new toys for him.  I simply rotate the toys he already has, and he keeps them in very good condition.  Over time, his toys simply wear out from proper play versus destructive play.  Now, I can leave virtually any type of toy with him unsupervised, knowing that he understands the proper rules of play with them.

Some Important Considerations!

  • First of all, consider the age of your dog.  Young dogs, especially, really DO need to chew!  Puppies are losing their baby teeth between 4-6 months, and when their big kid teeth come in, dogs have a genuine need to chew in order to properly set their molars in the jaw.  However, that doesn’t mean that all of us have to sacrifice our financial future just to keep Sparky in toys!
  • Be sure to have an assortment of different types of toys to keep your dog from being bored. Remember that as puppies grow up, they will go through lots of different behavior and interest stages.  Toys that they destroy today may be toys that they will play with gently later, as well as toys that they show no interest in today, may very well be toys that they will love in a few months.
  • Carefully observe your dog to be sure that he’s playing safely.  Cut off strings, tags, and anything that can easily be swallowed.  Over time, you’ll figure out what sort of toys are the types that are best for your individual dog, but there will be some trial and error in the process until you get that sorted out.  ALWAYS supervise until you know how your dog plays!
  • Consider the breed of dog that you have!  Dogs with very powerful jaws have a really strong desire to chew, and need much harder toys for play!  Soft toys may not be suitable for them.

Rugby James:

I remember when we hadda go frew this whole deal!  <insert eye roll here>  When I was a lil pupper, I used to get so sad that the Mama wouldn’t let me play wif MY toys the way I wanted!  Now that I’m all growed up, I know the rules, so I can enjoy all of my toys and the Mama doesn’t take them away from me anymore.


What she does, though is rotates them.  So I getsa have different toys every day, and that way, I just don’t get sick of playing wif the same ones over and over.  I getsa have 2 noisy piggies, 2 quiet piggies, a Nylabone wishbone, and 1-2 udder toys what can change every day.  Sumtimes I getsa ball or sumtimes it’s a fuzzy toy….whatever I pick out of my toy basket for the day.  It keeps me from getting bored wif my toys, on account of who wantsa see the exact same fings all the time?

Doggers is just like Uprights and we gets bored wif stuff too.  And sumtimes, when doggers gets bored, they get into naughty fings what gets them into trubbles!  When I getsa see my toys in my toybox, sumtimes I forgets I gots certain toys and when I sees them, I gets all excited like they is brand new all over again!  Give this a try and see if it makes toys last longer and more fun for your doggers at home!!  Happy playing!!  🙂


Tuesday Training Tip: Jackpot!!

Mama Sally:

Lately, I’ve been reminded of the success that you can get from your dog when you use a “jackpot” of treats instead of one, single treat to mark and reinforce specific behavior that you’re asking from your dog.  To your dog, jackpots can really be like several exclamation marks after a statement that you’re making to him.  I use them periodically with dogs, and I find that they really help speed things up when I’m training something difficult.

Using a bait bag can be really helpful! It’s like having an extra helping hand just when you need it!

For example, if I am training something new with Rugby, and I can tell that he is feeling frustrated or he’s having a tough time figuring out what I want from him, when he does get it, I will often offer him a jackpot of treats to mark the behavior.  Generally, I offer one tiny treat when he gets something right.  But when I give him a jackpost, I offer him 3-5 treats in place of the one, single treat.  Instead of giving him several treats in my open palm, I quickly feed him one treat right after another in very quick succession, and his little eyes nearly pop right out of his head!  Believe me, I have his attention when he gets five treats all in a row instead of one!

I often use a clicker when I train Rugby, but a verbal marker, like “YESSSS” can accomplish the same thing. Choose what’s easier for you!

If you feel like you’ve hit the wall with your dog, a well timed jackpot can shake loose the logjam in your dog’s thinking and help him understand clearly just exactly what you want from him.  A jackpot can help your dog go from giving you the specific behavior occasionally….to consistently producing the behavior every single time you ask for it.  After I’ve doled out a few jackpots for a given behavior, I find that Rugby is pretty solid and consistent with producing what I want, and then I can go back to offering one treat again.  I will offer a small jackpot now and again when Rugby works really hard and I can tell that he’s trying more than usual.

That’s the fun of using a jackpot!  You can make some random fun for your dog when he’s working hard, and he won’t be expecting it, so it can have a really great impact on your training sessions!

Rugby James:

I’m a big believer in jackpots!!  I just lubs them!  Sumtimes, when the Mama starts to fade the cookies after I has really learned sumping and I doesn’t hasta fink about it very much any more, she gives me jackpots every once in a while instead of one treat every time.  Sumtimes I gotsa do sumping four or five times in a row, but then she gives me free or five lil treats all at one time instead of one treat each time I does it.  It makes me keep working really hard, on account of you just never know when those jackpots will show up!!

Rugby can catch treats, so I often toss him a treat when I am doing some short distance work.

When I has a skirrel up one of the trees in my back yard, I likesa tell everpawdy about it, so naturally I’m yelling it all over the neighborhood. The Mama usually makes me come inside, and lotsa times when I come inside right away she likesa give me a jackpot for leaving the esciting skirrel and coming to the house when she calls me.  Anytime there’s sumping esciting in the yard and I come when she calls me, I know I’m getting a jackpot!  I’m almost ten years old, and she’s been doing jackpots like this since I was a lil pupper.  But I always come when she calls me, on account of she’s very consistent and I know ezactly what to expect!

Rugby is always on the lookout for squirrels and chipmunks!

The one fing the Mama is really good about doing when I work is making sure I getsa good paycheck.  She always sayes that when Uprights pay their dog well, their dogger will work hard all day long!!

Are you giving a really good paycheck to your dogger?  Would he like to has a raise?



Tuesday Training Tip: One, Two, Three, FOCUS!

Mama Sally:

In talking to many, many dog owners over the years, one universal hindrance crops up over and over in living with their dogs.  It can be summed up in one small five letter word:  FOCUS!!

Dogs generally can focus well when distractions are light and then seem to lose their minds and forget everything they’ve been taught when distractions arise.  And trust me:  distractions will arise!  Over and over, when you expect them, and when you get blindsided by them.  They are a way of life, and there’s just no way to prevent them from happening.

However, a good handler can carefully craft their dog’s exposure to distractions little by little so that their dog can cope with things and learn what to do to focus on their handler in the midst of trying times!

Here are a few ways to help your dog’s focus on you:

  • Start with your dog on a leash
  • Use high value treats…the stinkier the better!
  • Start your training with zero distractions
  • Teach a good “Leave It” and “Watch me.”
  • When you do encounter distractions, your first thought needs to be:  Increase the distance between the dog and the distraction.
  • Start with minor distractions at a distance, and gradually work up to having them closer to your dog.
  • When your dog looks away from you, get the treat right up to his nose, as if it is stuck to his nose magnetically.  Keeping the treat to his nose, slowly pull your hand with the treat (and consequently your dog’s nose), back toward you to re-focus on you.

The bottom line is that if your dog isn’t paying the least bit of attention to his handler, he will revert to improper behavior.  I promise.  Focus on his handler IS the deal breaker in training.  It’s the means to get your dog’s head in the game, but the result is really fun for both of you!

Rugby James:

Focus!!  Pfft!!  Show me a skirrel or chippymunk and I’ll show you focus!!  I know how to watch stuff in the yard and pay close attention just in case those varmints try to steal my Hickory Nuts wifout asking me!


The Mama does lotsa focus games wif me when I’m gonna get all wigged out over sumping what will make me over-react.  When I’m at home, she puts me on my placemat, on account of I get to has sum wiggle room what sumtimes is easier for me.  It’s really hard….really hard, to sit still when I’m wigging out.  So….the Mama puts me on my placemat, and I can wiggle and squiggle as long as I’m focused on the Mama.

The Mama always keeps my leash really loose sos I can relax and feel safe.  She stays really, really calm wif me, and uses simple words, like “Leave it” and “Watch me.”  And she uses her regular voice and doesn’t bark out commands at me, sos I can relax and know that I’m not in trubble.


She uses really stinky bait:  my very favorite Salmon treats what I just lubs on account of they is so very tasty!!  When I loses my focus, the Mama gets that treat right under my nose to let me has a good smell again!  That always helps me remember what paycheck I will get if I remember to focus and pay attention to her.

Mostly I hasta has really tough distractions very far away.  Strangers and doggers trip my trigger, so the Mama sumtimes works wif me inside the house, where I fell really safe, and then works wif me being able to focus wif strangers walking past the house when I’m at the front door.  It’s so hard to look away from the strangers, and I wanna bark so bad I am almost ready to come out of my skin.  But the Mama is very patient wif me, and we work in baby steps, little by little.


The worst fing that will happen is that I’ll make a mistake and we gotsa start all over.  The Mama makes sure I don’t feel pressured to always get it right, and that way I has learned to relax and not worry about being scolded when I mess up.  We just start over is all.  Because I’m always so high strung, the Mama really works so hard to make fings easy and relaxed for me.

Sumtimes we just practices to focus when nuffing is going on at all, and then it helps me remember how to do it when sumping hard is happening.  Lil work like this is how the Mama and me learned to be a team and work togedder.  It helped me learn to trust her and know that she has sumping good for me when I pay attention!!