Monthly Archives: February 2017

Why Is Play Combined with Obedience Important? Should You Play Tug With Your Dog?


Throughout history, up until now; people have often suggested that powerful relationships are established through play. By analogy, studies have shown that a competitive games can affect dog-human relationships, in a positive way.

There was a Rooney and Bradshaw study done on this idea/fact in 2002, let’s look at the study in deeper details:

The study had fourteen Golden Retrievers, each were experimented to two games: 20 sessions of a ‘tug of war’ game which the Retrievers were allowed to win, and 20 experiments which the Retrievers lost; the relationship with the experimenter was then assessed. There is a factor which is most closely corresponding to the conventional dominance, which is Confidence; however, confidence was not affected by the treatments. The Retrievers/Dogs scored higher for obedient attentiveness after play treatment regardless of whether they won or lost the experiment/game, and also, the demanding scores increased with familiarity of the experiment person. The top ten most playful Retrievers/Dogs scored much higher for playful attention seeking after winning the experiment rather than after losing the experiment. In conclusion, the dominance dimensions of the Dog-Human relationship seem to be unaffected in regards to the outcome of the repetitive ‘tug of war’ game experiment; however, effects of games can also be modified by the different presences of the play signals, and, games/experiments may also be assumed to be a greater significance for small population of ” potentially dominant” dogs.

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Quicker and Stronger Behaviors Reinforced Using Variable Reward System | Off Leash K9 Training

Dog Training Variable Reward


In the 1950’s, a man named B.F Skinner described a powerful cognitive quirk, called A Variable Schedule Rewards. Skinner’s experiment/study observed that lab mice reacted most voraciously to random, variable rewards; when the mice would press the lever, sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times they’d get a large treat and then at other times they’d get no treat at all. The mice that received variable rewards seemed to have pressed the lever compulsively, where as, the mice that received the same treat every time seemed to have pressed the lever more freely and controlled. The same principle applies for humans…

Here is a interesting example/reality; have you every spoken to a person while he or she is playing a video game, trying to engage with them and ask them questions, but all you get in reply is a mumbled “yea, ,mhm, ok, whatever”, then you have seen this mental state. The person playing the game is so attached to the game that they will almost agree to, or do anything in order to get rid of any distractions that is coming their way and do whatever it takes for them to keep playing the game. That is why it seems as if, and is believed that variable rewards seem to keep the brain occupied and providing new habits coming its way. Our brains are never satisfied, therefore always in search for the next reward, which is why we state this transcendental state as “fun”. Recently, a neuroscience study has shown that our dopamine system works at such level that it always requires and is in search for new desires rather than provide us with rewards for our hard efforts.

Even though this stressful, hardwiring mental state pains us at times, it has kept us alive for decades as species.

Why does this work?

Well there isn’t a correct, proofed answer; but it has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is very closely connected with ones’ desires and habits. Receiving rewards increases ones dopamine levels in the brain, which then motivates and encourages them to do what they did in order to get that reward (rats with no dopamine receptors tend to struggle to build habits). Studies and experiments have shown that unpredictable rewards/treats tend to cause a greater increase level of dopamine.

Let’s briefly look at how variable rewards have been applied in such areas like casinos and other gambling games.

Researchers have shown a study that dopamine levels in ones brain varies most in situations where they are unsure about wether they are going to be rewarded or not, such as when gambling or playing the lotto. Dopamine has been known for a long time as a important role in ones system in how we experience rewards from variety of different natural sources such as food and sex. “Using a combination of techniques, we were actually able to measure release of the dopamine neurotransmitter under natural conditions using monetary reward,” said David Zald, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. This research is a way of understanding what happens to ones brain during an unpredictable reward situations, such as gambling.

The team studied the people under three different situations. Under the first situation, the individual chose one of four cards and knew a monetary reward of $1.00 was possible but did not know when it would happen. During the second situation, individuals knew they would get a predictable reward with every fourth card they selected. Under the third situation,
individuals chose cards but did not receive nor expect any rewards at all.  Zaid and his team found that over the course of the study, dopamine  increased more in one part of the brain in the unpredictable first situation. In contrast, the receipt of a reward under the predictable situation did not result big increases in dopamine.

In summary, when faced with unpredictable positive responses, our internal instinct is to automatically try and to make it predictable so we can control the outcome. However, once it is predictable,  it often times loses its’ appeal. This is the same reason that people love to play video games and spend hours per day doing so; however, once they beat the game or master the system, they rarely play that game anymore (and move on to a new one).

“The most interesting thing we found is that there were areas that showed increased dopamine release during the unpredictable condition,” Zald said.

To make this very simple to understand, I like to look at it like deer hunting.  If every single time you went out to hunt, you actually got a deer (fixed ratio, 1:1), you wouldn’t be very motivated because you know it will always be there.  If you knew that you had to wait for 4 hours and then a deer would appear (fixed interval: 4 hours) then you would not be motivated for the first 3.9 hours, because you know it will not appear anyway.   If you know it will appear only on day 3 (fixed ratio) but could appear at any time on day 3 (variable interval), then you would only be motivated to really pay attention throughout day 3!

Then, we have the reality of hunting, which is the primary reason it’s so addictive and men/women every season spent countless hours and days in their tree stands.  It’s because it works off of a variable ratio and variable interval “reward” schedule.  What this means is that the deer could show up on ANY day and ANY time; however, as all hunters “know,” you feel confident that if you “put your time in,” the reward will come.  This is why we stay highly motivated to “hunt” every year, and now you understand why something such as a detection dog stays highly motivated to “hunt” for the odor, as well.

With keeping the hunting scenario in mind, please refer back to the quote earlier, “In summary, when faced with unpredictable positive responses, our internal instinct is to automatically try and to make it predictable so we can control the outcome.”

Can you think of how hunters also do this in hunting?  What do hunters do in order to make the variable ratio/variable interval much more easy and predictable (fixed ratio/fixed interval)?  They use trail cams, they use doe urine, and they use bait.  This is to try to maximize efficiency and minimize effort, which is the same thing dogs do, as well.  However, as noted above (casino, hunting, playing video games, etc), once it becomes 100% predictable,  motivation and interest usually declines.

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Why Positive Reinforcement Only Does Not Work | Off Leash K9 Training

The Problem With ‘Fad’ Training

Nobody likes to hear that they are, in any way, failing those we care about. Whether it is children, pets or ourselves, the thought that we are teaching self-destructive habits to anybody is truly heart breaking. It’s no wonder, then, that as soon as some new article comes out about healthy living, you can guarantee a swarm of interest as everyone jumps on the band wagon.

The same can easily be said of our canine friends, whose method of training has become big business over the past few years. Naturally, this has led to a number of fad regimes which in many ways can paint an unrealistic – and often dangerous – picture of how to train an animal.

Purely Positive Reinforcement

Marketed as the only humane way to train an animal, the exclusively positive reinforcement approach to dog training has its roots in marine animal parks. Here, in front of thousands of applauding fans, animal trainers are shown to reward the animals – normally dolphins and killer whales – with short whistle bursts and treats for every good deed.

In many ways, this follows the same psychology of clicker training. Eventually the animal will associate desired behavior with rewards and begin to act on cue for their handlers. The sad fact of the matter is that while this would seem to be a great way to train an animal, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes.

1. Isolation

These animals are isolated in sterile, distraction free enclosures all day, every day. The only time they are mentally challenged and encouraged to socialize is during the short periods where they are engaged by their trainers. It’s hard to imagine what this would be like for an intelligent animal, but this form of captivity will obviously promote a very response behavior.

2. Starvation

In the wild, killer whales and dolphins are defined by their hunting prowess. Often hunting in packs, their natural survival instincts encourage co-dependence on one another in order to survive. This instinct is exploited by the training programs, which encourage starvation for the periods of time that the animals are not in training. This encourages co-operation with the trainer and natural competition to try and out-do any other animals in the area, with the added benefit of making it seem to the audience that trainer and animal share a mutual and inseparable bond.

To see how the negative effects of how this form of training can impede an otherwise intelligent animal, I highly recommend looking up the tragic story of Tilikum, the killer whale that was involved in the death of three people, including two trainers. This was the subject of the CNN documentary film Black Fish (2013).

The worst thing about it is it doesn’t even seem to be completely effective. Anyone who has ever been to SeaWorld and the like will know that quite often, many animals will simply refuse to participate. This is often played for laughs, but goes some way to highlighting the negative results this form of training ends in. This says nothing about the extreme levels of stress many of these animals will feel on a daily basis, between isolation, starvation and performance anxiety.

While the idea is encouraging, there sadly is no such thing as a purely positive method of training, even for dogs. To achieve just the appearance of positive reinforcement, marine trainers use punishment regularly to condition the animal into the correct level of conditioning. There have even been scientific studies that prove denying a dog an anticipated treat will often cause more psychological stress than a moment’s correction, which goes a long way to describing the brutal levels of punishment that must be felt by the killer whales of SeaWorld.

Force Free

An odd choice of language, as the idea behind not using force to train a dog goes against even using a collar and leash. Holding a dog back from sprinting off the moment you leave the house requires more than a degree of force, as does withholding treats for misbehavior – which forces a response from the dog.

I have found these sort of paradoxes again and again when looking into the supposed ‘force free’ method of training, it would seem there is little more to this than an emotive title to appeal to the dog loving community. It seems shameless, and I would challenge you to look these methods up and see if you think there is more to this than a business proposition and a beneficial way of training your pets.

In all honesty, there are going to be weaknesses and limitations in every form of training in one scenario or another. A trainer that retains an open mind, rather than doggedly (pun intended) pursuing a fixed ideology is one that will greatly benefit the lives of you and your dogs. They will be able to remain flexible, approaching different challenges from multiple angles and reach the core of the problem, without losing integrity in the face of defeat.

Don’t get me wrong, positive reinforcement is of course a wonderful thing when training dogs. It can encourage and modify behavior without the need to unnecessarily harm and punish them, however there are some occasions when this is simply not enough. A balanced approach will encourage trainers and dogs to work together to find a solution to consistent misbehavior, without the need to overindulge or psychologically punish the dog.

Anyone who truly cares for the welfare of our dogs will understand that being fixed doggedly to a single method is only going to encourage laziness and misunderstanding in the wider community. Of course we all want the best for our dogs, but appealing to the empathy of dog owners just feels like a grab for profit, without regard to the feelings and behavior of our pets.

If anything, the only thing a trainer truly needs to grasp is open-mindedness in a sea of confusion. They must hold the emotional needs of the dog highest and, what’s more, keep their integrity while so many others fall short.

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Correlation Between White Dogs and Deafness | Training A Deaf Dog | Off Leash K9 Training

We always get asked, “Can you train a deaf dog?”  The great news is, the answer is, “Yes!”  We have trained many deaf dogs, and it’s really not much more different nor difficult!

Why are dogs deaf ?

Deafness can affect dogs of any breed, age or colored coats but there have been many studies into the fact that white coated dogs are more likely to have problems with their hearing.  Hearing loss is caused by sounds being intercepted on the way to the brain so that they are not heard. Usually when sounds enter your ear they hit your eardrum which then vibrates causing waves which cause a change in pressure. When this pressure occurs the hair cells in the cochlea move which causing the hearing nerves to send a message to the brain.

The reason dogs with white coats are affected more than other fur colors is because of a gene they carry called piebald. This is the gene that gives them their white coat and in many cases blue eyes. It is also responsible for a lower amount of melanocytes which are the cells that make color pigmentation. The ability for the dog to hear is because of cell layers that are present in the inner ear. The cells are created from the same source of stem cells that pre-determine fur color which means that as well as a dog lacking color they can also have hearing problems.

There are also around 85 different breeds that are more likely to have problems with their hearing due to their genetics but the most likely cause of a dog being unable to hear well or at all is because of the piebald gene. Other genes that are more likely to indicate a possibility of hearing problems include the merle gene; this gene is also responsible for blue eyes but a merle coat too. Blue eyes are not actually classed as a color; they are instead seen as a lack of pigmentation that depicts the eye’s color.

The only way to be sure that your dog’s hearing is as good as it should be is to have a BAER test which a veterinarian professional will be able to provide. The test involves attaching electrodes to the dog’s skull which will allow the professional to check for the activity when certain noises are made. When your dog hears a noise and is not affected the brain activity will correlate, however if the electrical activity is lacking it will show that the dog has auditory problems. The waves that appear as part of the test will be able to tell you whether your dog can hear and if not the severity of hearing problems.

Most dog owners whose dogs are affected by the piebald gene will find that hearing problems will be prevalent in the first 6 months of life. If you do think that your dog has hearing problems you should consult a vet for further testing to help you to take further steps to help your dog to lead a normal life and improve communication in other ways so that they can follow simple commands even if they are visual rather than auditory.


-Nick White

What Is The Most Aggressive Breed? Dog Aggression Training | Off Leash K9 Training

 We do dog aggression training regularly in Northern Virginia (our Headquarters), we often times get asked, “What is the most aggressive breed?”

The answer may surprise you!

There are so many dogs that get put to sleep on a regular basis as a result of their aggressive behavior. This is because there are a lot of people that think that these dogs are inherently aggressive. The problem is that studies show that breed has very little to do with aggressive behavior, rather it is generally as a result of  owner-dependent factors. This fact came from a study on some of the breeds most associated with aggression, including the Pit Bull and Rottweiler.

Studies completed by the University of Córdoba took a look at the inherent traits of the dog and the owner-dependent factors and noticed that these owner-dependent factors were generally the culprits to aggression. According to researcher Joaquín Pérez-Guisado, these factors include not bringing the dog to obedience training; being a first-time dog owner; failure to use correction when necessary; over-spoiling or pampering the dog; purchasing the dog as a present for someone else, impulsively, or as a guard dog; or not spending enough time socializing the dog. To put this into further perspective, the study concluded that over 40% of the dominance aggression that dogs display is actually related to a lack of authority of the owner, who likely never took the dog took the time to do obedience training and structure with their dogs.

The breed of a dog has very little to do with the aggression that they display. Researchers studied a nearly even mix of male and female dogs, totaling around 711. Some of these were pure-bred while others were mix-breeds. This large group of subjects showed that there are some dog-related factors that may cause aggression, including being male, specific breeds, or being around 5 or 7 years of age. While these can be factors, it was also shown that human-related factors were much more likely to cause problems.

However, there are things that you can do in order to minimize and even eliminate this aggression. The owner must handle the undesirable behavior appropriately and work hard to re-establish your pack leadership and control. This is why on many dogs, it is imperative to find a trainer who uses the quadrant of operant conditioning, so you can correct the unwanted/negative behaviors before they become out-of-control.

If you have more questions about your dog displaying aggressive or dominant behavior, you contact an Off Leash K9 Training Center about your dog’s behavior.

-Nick White


The Connection Between Thyroid Dysfunction and Aggressive Behavior | Off Leash K9 Training


We handle aggression in dogs in Northern Virginia on a daily basis!  Most people do not realize that it can also be medical related.

Thyroid glands regulate the body’s metabolism, any decrease in the thyroid’s work can cause various complications that are similar to other conditions.

Pet owners and dog breeders don’t know how to identify symptoms of initial canine thyroid disease. This can lead to owners and breeders misunderstanding, misdiagnosing, and mistreating any thyroid disorders with their canines. The genetic nature of thyroid disorders causes complications for dog breeds; having a correct diagnosis is very important for coming up with the remedies needed to treat canine thyroid disease.

The main reason for euthanizing dogs isn’t because of the disease, but because of the abnormal behavior that can come from it. Abnormal behavior has many reasons, but also reflects many psychological problems. The connection between behavioral/psychological changes and thyroid dysfunction in humans was first identified in humans in the 19th century.

The association between abnormal behavior and thyroid dysfunction in dogs (and in cats) was recently recognized. Typical symptoms include:

  • Gratuitous aggression towards other animals and/or people
  • Sudden onset of seizures
  • Combination of disorientation, moodiness, and irregular temper
  • Stretches of hyperactivity and hypo-attentiveness
  • Depression, various phobias, anxiety, submissive/passive and compulsive behavior, and irritation

Most animals and humans that had these symptoms have been seen to be in a state of hypnosis and, when finished, were unaware of their behavior.

In fact, a study done by Drs Dodson and Denapoli, they tested 634 dogs, 62% of the aggressive dogs had low thyroids and 77% of seizing dogs had low thyroids.  There is a significant relationship between low thyroid and human aggression in dogs.  So, if you see this as a problem, it would not hurt to have a thyroid panel conducted on your dog.  Once these were identified, 83/95 dogs showed very quick improvement with treatment.

Studies have seen the sudden change in behavior in dogs and young adults. Dogs that belong to a specific group of breeds (golden retriever, Rottweiler, Akitas, for example) are at risk various health complications such as allergies and any immune system dysfunction. In their case, symptoms include seasonal allergies and itching of their skin. These can be symptoms directly related to thyroid dysfunction.

Puppies and young dogs start out as well-mannered and outgoing before the sudden changes in their personality are seen through nonstop whining, sudden nervousness and phobias, abnormal sweating, and inattention. From there, it can become sudden, unprovoked aggression with other animals and people, or a case of seizures (as explained above). In terms of treatment, a study at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine has shown dogs response to thyroid replacement therapy. Their study showed positive reviews in the first week of treatment and a change in their past behavior.

The human-dog connection in personality and in health has been crucial for a long time and their relation to thyroid disorders and aggression being identified adds to the correlation. The physical and psychological complex is continuously being studied to improve on what can be done to cut down on the condition’s expansion affecting humans and dogs alike. This subject is more broad and complicated than on paper because of the wide variations of the condition; diagnosis and treatment is currently the goal to find.

If you are experiencing issues with your dog or aggression, contact us:

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Why Is My Dog Starting To Become Aggressive? Dog Aggression Training in Northern Virginia

We deal with dog aggression regularly in Northern Virginia.  Your dog may have been such a sweet little puppy. They were behaved and well-mannered. That was until they were not. One very common question for animal behaviorists is why their dog suddenly starts showing aggression. This problem is especially common between the ages of 1 and 2. These dogs are also dogs that never go through the proper training, which makes them more susceptible to this aggressive and undesirable behavior. There are many reasons why your dog will “suddenly” start to show signs of aggression and that is the topic that will be discussed today.

First of all, the importance of training cannot be understated. If you want your dog to behave in an appropriate manner, training is the best way to do that. You should go through a training course with a trained professional who has the tools to ensure that your dog is properly trained.  You can find a certified Off Leash K9 Trainer near you here (  Through obedience training, your dog will learn that you are the alpha dog and the leader of the pack.   They also learn structure, discipline, rules, and good decision making.

Another reason that a dog may suddenly show aggression is because it was allowed to happen at a gradual pace. For instance, maybe your puppy growled at something and or showed another sign of aggression and you encouraged it because you felt your furry friend was just protecting you. However, rather than encouraging this behavior it should be stopped because it shows your dog that aggression is a good thing. You need to correct this bad behavior right away before it assumes its behavior is desirable.

A final (and most common) reason for this aggression could be due to a lack of socialization. Dogs need to socialize with other dogs just as children need to be out with other children. Dogs can learn desirable traits from other dogs, making them very useful training tools. These dogs need to be dogs outside of the household because socialization with others in the pack does not really count. Making playdates with dogs that belong to your friend or taking it to a dog park to play with all of those other dogs can really make a huge different in your dog’s behavior.  Being well socialized with a wide variety of dogs and people are both highly important.

It is never too late to correct your dog’s behavior. It is far more difficult to correct a dog’s aggression as it gets older but it can be done. If you find your dog is starting to show aggression, you should not wait to correct it. You need to contact an Off Leash K9 Training location that has the tools to really help these problems. A regular dog trainer may not be capable of helping you with this aggression issue. The behavior specialist will usually start with some rehabilitation before moving onto some obedience training along with behavior modifications. You need to get help before something bad happens, like a dog shows aggression like biting to another dog or a human. You can help your dog get better with the right help on your side.

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