Cooperative Care for Toenails (and Grooming/Handling in general)

Fear free, low stress nail trimming with a dog who would previously struggle, snap, and attempt to bite. MY dog!

The clip shown here was my end goal. It might not be yours, but I am thrilled with my little guy. Since I first published this video, we’ve made even more progress–I generally can clip his back feet in one session, and the front feet in another–pretty good! I’m still happy with where we were in this video. We might not have continued to make gradual, organic progress if I had gotten frustrated or put pressure on Pinot.

No, I can’t necessarily clip all of Pinot’s nails in a row, but I also don’t feel that I need to do so. I also haven’t really reduced the amount of food I’m using. I made a deal with my dog, and I’m sticking to it. He gets a cookie (or a few) for each nail, and lots of “easy” reps with no trimming. I use the “clip” sound as a marker signal, as well–clip/treat. I am happy with this! I break his trims up into several sessions, over the course of the week. This means I’m often trimming his nails every other day or every few days. That might sound nuts, but I like this routine for two reasons:

1) I no longer avoid clipping or put it off. It’s just a habit now. It’s also a habit for Pinot, without any big drama around it.

2) There’s little to no risk of burnout or getting bored/frustrated/grumpy around nails if you only work on it for 2 minutes at a time.

With Cooperative Care, it’s important to break things down into manageable chunks in separate sessions, over time. This article is focused on toenails, but the same “rules” apply to all grooming/handling skills.

Teach Stationary Positions

Teach your dog to maintain a position, while you do “weird” stuff. I first taught Pinot to lay flat on his side, braced against my leg. This is a natural position for him, and it also puts me in a good spot to see his feet without looming over him too much. It’s a good idea to teach your dog to hold a variety of positions/stations, and to flip to both sides as well. Pinot also has two upright stationing behaviors: a chin rest on my arm or leg & a muzzle hold while he sits up on his hind legs (so I can see his tummy/neck/undercarriage). For a large dog, doing a chin rest on a chair while standing may be a great position for nail trims. Find what works best for you and your dog.

Here are the Upright Muzzle Hold + Lay Flat positions:

Chin Rest:

Counter Conditioning

Build up a good desensitization & counter conditioning routine. This is the process of building a shiny new Conditioned Emotional Response to something the dog is either neutral or worried about. This is done by systematically pairing something the dog loves with the “trigger” or negative stimulus. I do this in short, sweet, easy sessions—it should feel easy to both you and the dog, not hard. The neutral or negative stimulus should always come FIRST, followed by something your dog loves.

Start with something neutral, NOT something your dog already hates. If touching or holding a foot is not going to happen, start with pointing at it, then feeding. When that’s easy, see if you can lightly touch a toe (boop!), feed a cookie. Pick up a foot, toss the frisbee! Clip a toenail, give a lick of peanut butter. This is NOT a way to distract your dog–this is a way to create a positive association between two previously unrelated things.

Build in consent

If the dog seems stressed, stiff, concerned, struggles, pulls away, the session pauses or is ended. If he leaves, let him leave! The next time you come back to the training, make it much easier. Using pressure, even social pressure (calling him back) can create a dog who doesn’t feel like he has a choice. I want my dogs to actively choose to work with me.

Maintain

Stay at each level of training until it feels easy. If your dog still gets stiff, pulls away, or winces when you reach out to a paw, you’re not ready to move up to clipping toenails! Training will take the time it takes…shortcuts aren’t worth it.

Be Honest

No bribery, distraction, and tricking your dog. I always show my dogs the tools I will be using, and what I’m doing, so they know what to expect. You might “get away” with a few sneaky nail trims, but eventually you’ll create more problems. Using food to distract a dog won’t allow them to notice and therefore accept (or disagree with!) what you are doing. I want them to pay attention to the clipping.

Go Slow

Act like you have all the time in the world, and it’ll take two minutes. Act like you need to get something done quickly, and it’ll take all day.

Be Generous

Reward often and be grateful for your dog’s cooperation. I’d rather dole out 10 treats to clip two toenails than have to muscle my way through clipping all four feet. Which way would your dog prefer?

Keep It Short

Keep sessions to 10-15 repetitions, or even shorter for young dogs. I prepare my treats in a little cup, and when we’re done with those cookies, we take a break! This keeps the training fresh and prevents frustration, burnout, and working for too long.

Warm Up & Cool Down

Start with easy repetitions and end with easy repetitions. Stick a few “challenge” reps into the middle of your session. If the training always gets harder, your dog will feel demotivated. Start each session by warming up and practicing your position.

Take Breaks

If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, just stop. Take a day off. Take a week off. Take a MONTH off. It’s only toenails. You’re doing your best and you’re doing enough. Take pressure off of yourself and your dog. Teach your dog to use a scratch board in the meantime. It’s fun, and helps take some nail off at the same time.

 

 

Rainy Days

…It’s raining, my puppy/dog won’t potty outside!

This is really common, especially with puppies and small dogs. I rarely hear this from owners of Labradors, Goldens, and other water-loving, big, hairy breeds. Usually, this is just a “substrate preference”…a technical term for not wanting to get your feet wet. Often, we accidentally create this problem because WE don’t really want to go out in the rain, do we? So, we send Fluffy out into the yard alone, in the cold, wet rain. Or, we run outside with Fluffy, wait a few seconds, get frustrated, and head back in the house. Pretty safe bet that Fluffy’s going to start to avoid going out in the rain…so what should you do instead? First, we’ll talk about prevention, then we’ll cover how to train a rain-averse pup.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

You can usually prevent any substrate preferences early on by consistently braving the elements with your dog, in a no-nonsense manner, and rewarding your pup with something tangible like food for going out in the rain. If you behave as though you don’t mind the rain, your dog will follow your lead! Grab some treats, and wear good rain boots, a coat, and a hat, so that you don’t have to fake it. If you’re standing outside in your soggy bedroom slippers, you won’t be very happy, and your dog will know it! You’ll probably also be impatient to go back inside, and you may unconsciously be rushing your puppy along. Behave the same way you would on a nice, bright, sunny day. Reward your puppy with food immediately for pottying, especially in yucky weather.

Unless the weather is absolutely atrocious, try to linger outside a bit after your dog potties. After rewarding them with food, you can encourage your dog to explore, meander around and sniff, and maybe do a little training. This is desensitization (gradual, repetitive exposure to something) at work: exposing your dog to the weather and helping them become comfortable with it. If they never spend any time in the rain, then they won’t be very comfortable with it.

But…my dog already hates the rain!

Look at this issue from your dog’s perspective. Is it the wetness that your dog doesn’t like, or the fact that he’s outside alone in the rain? Maybe both? If it’s just that your dog doesn’t like being alone, that’s easy to solve. Put your rain gear on, and go outside with him consistently for a while. Then you can gradually start only going out halfway into the yard with your dog…and then standing on the porch, and then standing right outside the door. FInally, see if you can stand in the door, with it just cracked open.

If it’s the wet ground your dog hates, break that down into an actually training exercise. Get a wet towel, and lay it on the ground or on a tile/linoleum floor. Teach your dog to stand on and then walk over the wet towel! You can use a food lure or hand targeting to do this, or you can free shape it with your marker signal. For many dogs, this is surprisingly difficult. Once it’s easy for your dog to walk over the wet towel, see if you can ask him to walk through a small patch of wet grass or a shallow puddle after the rain has stopped. Use patience and gentle guidance. If you’re frustrated, your dog will know that right away and will start to stress down.

If your dog dislikes the actual rain falling down, wait for a day when it’s a very gentle, drizzly rain (…not a hurricane). Put on your rain gear, and stand with your dog at your open door. Have GREAT cookies in your pocket. Face out the door and just wait. The moment your dog shifts any weight toward the outside, say good, and toss a cookie out into the rain. Continue this until your dog starts to see some value and fun in going out in the rain. For some dogs, getting out of their home base is a good way to build confidence in the rain. They might not want to go out in their yard, but they might want to go for a car ride to the park! Build bravery, confidence, and comfort with the rain. If your dog is genuinely afraid of the rain itself (or the sound of rain), please seek the help of a trainer and/or a veterinary behaviorist.

One final note to owners of very small, thin-haired dogs! Yorkies, Maltese, etc. They may actually need a rain coat to keep them warm from the elements, if you plan on going for long walks in the rain. All dogs are individuals! If they are shivering and looking miserable, but willing to follow you outside, they won’t stay willing for long. Keep them comfortable with something to wear OR keep the walk/potty outing very brief.

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Progress

When you’re working on a complex training project, such as cooperative care, leash reactivity, or off-leash reliability, you may encounter roadblocks. It might feel like you’re going nowhere or going around in circles. It can be frustrating to see others making huge leaps in their training…this is like FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) for dog trainers. When that happens, try taking a break from training, at least from that specific project. A day (or a week, or a month) off can change everything!
If you still don’t see improvement when you start back up again, consider these:
–Is my dog distracted/tired/bored?
–Is my timing off?
–Am I even rewarding the right thing???
–Is my reward actually rewarding?
–Is this environment too much for my dog?
–Have I broken this task into small enough pieces?
–Is my dog physically up to this task? Is he strong/agile enough?
How I troubleshoot training issues:
  • Take a LONGER break. Work on something else!
  • Set up a phone or GoPro to film while I train. Video is always honest and may show you something you can’t see.
  • Go back to an easier stage of training.
  • Increase the volume and/or the value of rewards.
  • Work in shorter sessions.
  • Work in a quieter/calmer area.
  • Evaluate your expectations. Is my dog ready for this?
  • Phone a friend! Get a fresh perspective from someone who doesn’t see your dog every day.
When you do start to make progress, keep it slow! Only increase the difficulty when your training sessions feel easy. Rushing things often ends up slowing things down. Progress is progress. Pay attention to every step in the right direction, and be positive with yourself as well as your dog. Look back to where you and your dog were a year ago, or even two, three, or four years ago. Think about how much you’ve both learned, and what you’ve accomplished. Remove any pressures or deadlines you’ve placed on yourself–while goals can be helpful, stress isn’t. Keep calm, reward your dog, and take a break.
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DIY Nail File/Scratch Board for Toenails

If you struggle with trimming your dog’s nails for any reason, it’s worth making a doggy nail file and teaching your dog to use it. Clipping or dremeling (grinding) your dog’s nails might be the fastest method, but it can be stressful for your dog, not to mention scary for you if you’re afraid of going too far and hurting your dog. Teaching your dog to scratch at an abrasive surface is easy, fun, and best of all, free of fear and restraint. Your dog is in control of how fast and hard they scratch, though you can selectively reinforce for more powerful scratches. All dogs have different nails, and this method may not work for everyone. If your dog has soft, light colored nails, it should work great. If they have dark, hard nails, it’ll still work, but it will take longer. Size-wise, if you have a small dog, in my experience, they learn to “dig” at the board very easily, making it a quick process (see the videos below with Pinot). Bigger dogs may only be able to scratch with one paw at a time, making it a little more time consuming. I use two different kinds of boards to target all sides of the nails. You probably won’t be able to get dew claws or hind paws with a nail board, unless your dog is extra-super-talented. I spent about a year, off and on, trying to teach Pinot to scratch the board with his hind feet, to no avail. That said, in my experience, hind toenails generally require fewer trims.

At the end of the day, using a scratch board is a no-brainer. If nothing else, you either have fewer nails to clip (win!) or you can extend the time between nail trims (win!).

This is my regular scratch board. It’s an old piece of wood panelling, with a 3M stair tread stuck on either side of it. You can find these self-adhesive stair treads at your local home improvement store or order them online. You can also find rolls of the same material that you can cut to size. I find that the stair treads last longer than the roll. For the first nail file I made, I used regular sandpaper, which absolutely works, but is prone to tearing and doesn’t last long. The stair tread material is VERY durable! I used duct tape on the ends of the board so it wouldn’t scratch the floor if I used it inside.

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I’ve had this one for a few years, and it’s starting to lose its grit, so I mostly use it to teach dogs to scratch, and to smooth my dogs’ nails.

This is my newer curved nail file. It’s a Halloween-themed plastic bucket that I got from the grocery store. I cut it in half, covered all the cut edges with duct tape (what would we do without duct tape?), and lined the inside of the bucket with the stair tread material. I cut a few notches out of the stair tread, so it would lay flat inside the curve. The curve is helpful because it allows your dog to make contact with their outside nails as well as their middle toes. You could use a large cardboard tube, large diameter PVC, or any big, round container, cut to size. I’ve also used flexible cutting boards/mats before, which was handy because it could lay flat on the ground, or I could hold it up in a curved shape. Be creative! It doesn’t have to be pretty…your dog won’t mind.

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See, it’s not pretty, but it’ll get the job done! Since the grit will wear down eventually, I tend not to invest too much time, energy, or money into making the nail file look good. It will have to be replaced with some regularity anyway!

Here is a collection of videos:

You can use shaping to teach your dog to scratch the file, by selectively reinforcing interaction with the file. If your dog is nervous or unfamiliar with shaping, I would use a flat board, and start by hiding a treat under the board. Choose a spot where you won’t mind your dog scratching *around* the board–a sidewalk is ideal. Lay the board flat on the ground, then tuck a treat or two under the board (let your dog see you do this!). Your dog will likely start to paw at the edges of the board. Mark and reward any interaction! As your dog understands the game, you can start to lift the board bit by bit, so it’s at a better angle for scratching. If you need more help, feel free to email me!

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5 Practical Puppy Tips

Just get a puppy? If it’s your first puppy in a while, I highly recommend scheduling a lesson or two with a trainer. Even if you don’t see any glaring behavioral issues now, things often pop up when you least expect them!

Bichon Havanais puppy dog

1. Prevent, Prevent, Prevent

Set your puppy up for success! Provide lots of dog safe chewing options, and at the same time, put away anything that your puppy might want to chew, pee on, or otherwise destroy. This means rolling up precious rugs, removing books from the bottom rows of bookshelves, putting shoes away 100% of the time, securing trash cans behind closed doors, and keeping food off of counters (for the giant breeds). I generally recommend doing this for 6 months or so. This may seem like a lot of work…but it’s a LOT easier that having to re-train an adult dog who has spent 2 years practicing chewing on rugs, stealing shoes, and getting food off of counters.

Puppies learn habits by practicing, so make sure they’re practicing behaviors you like. These are things like chewing on a bone, working on a food puzzle, playing with a squeaky toy, lying on a bed, etc. Keep a few toys and bones/chews in each room your puppy has access to, so they always have an appropriate item to play with. Stash treats in safe places through your home so that you’re ready to reward good behavior when it happens.

Feed your puppy their meals out of Kongs or other food dispensing toys (see below). This teaches independence, builds confidence and creativity, and keeps your puppy busy! Dogs are built to forage and work for their food. Eating out of a bowl is pretty boring.

2. Build Independence

It’s pretty cute when your puppy follows you around obsessively…but it gets old FAST. As soon as possible, start teaching your puppy to be calm and comfortable with being separated from you. This is particularly important if you are generally home all day–your puppy will get used to having you constantly and then may experience distress when you have to go out. I like using an X-pen or play pen, perhaps with the puppy’s crate attached to it. The pen should have lots of fun things in it, and a squishy bed if they can be trusted with it.

I don’t believe in letting puppies “cry it out”…and research on human babies backs me up on that. Make being in the pen easy for your puppy by always providing a bone, Kong, or lickie mat in the pen, and keeping their time in the pen short and easy at first. You can start by putting puppy in the pen with an activity and just sitting next to the pen. Then build to doing something nearby, and later on, leaving the room. If your puppy panics, come back, and assess the situation–maybe they need to go potty? If you know they don’t, reassure the puppy, and let them know they’re fine.

3. Teach 3 Core Skills

You can teach any behaviors you want, but be mindful about it–the first 3 things you teach any animal are generally the strongest skills they’ll ever have. For example, you may not want to teach shake/high five right away, especially if you have a big dog, or if you have a teacup pup, hold off on teaching them to dance or stand on their hind legs.

The first three things I generally teach are:

1) Hand Targeting (This turns into heeling, a recall, loads of tricks, cooperative care training, and more)

2) Name Game/Puppy Recall (Coming when called is a safety skill you need to start building ASAP)

3) Sit and/or Down on a Mat/Bed (This turns into sitting for polite greeting, stay, and waiting at doors)

4. Exposure vs. Socialization

One of the biggest things people worry about with their puppy is socializing them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important, but be careful how you go about it. Many times, puppy socialization is approached as a bit of a free-for-all. Get the puppy out to every party, festival, and dog park you can find…take them to the pet store, the farmers market, Home Depot, etc. As long as your dog is comfortable with that, you may not be doing any harm, but you may not be teaching them quite what you want, either. More often than not, during “socialization” like this, dogs learn that every person they see, every dog they see, is there solely to greet them. Is that really what you want your dog to think? I want my dogs to be able to go about their business no matter who or what is nearby, I don’t want them so hyper-social that they can’t think when a dog is across the street from us!

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Rather than introducing your dog to loads of other dogs and people, think about exposing him/her to a variety of scenarios. Sometimes people walk by, and ignore you. Sometimes people approach, and talk to you, but not the puppy. Sometimes the puppy will get to say hi, but only if they want to. Your puppy should be comfortable with all options. So often, I see people hold their puppy so that someone can pet them, while the puppy squirms and tries to get away. What are you teaching your puppy in that moment? Maybe that they have no choice, and that people are sometimes really scary.

Take puppyhood as an opportunity to show your puppy that your vehicle is a fun place to be, not just a ride to the vet’s office. Go lots of places and just hang out, sniff things, and eat cookies. With a baby puppy who doesn’t have all their shots, you can still go out and see things, just carry your puppy. Avoid places that carry a high-risk of something “scary” happening…dog parks, sporting events, festivals. Puppies are sensitive, and can experience single-instance learning from one startling or scary moment. Build their confidence slowly and gently, don’t overload them with socializing.

Find safe, gentle adult dogs who are going to be appropriate with your puppy! Not all adult dogs like puppies, and some can be downright rough toward puppies. Rather than letting your dog say hi to random dogs you meet on walks, set up playdates with dogs and puppies you know. Find other puppies of varying breeds and sizes to get your puppy accustomed to different play styles. Use those playdates as an opportunity to work on training, too–being called out of play, eating near other dogs, and “sharing” their owner’s attention are all important lessons.

Not all puppy classes are the same! Ask for a recommendation from your vet or trainer for a good class. Ask if you can come observe a class before you sign up. Some puppy classes are pretty much just play groups, and some may include training that less than ideal. Never go along with anything that makes you or your puppy uncomfortable…be your puppy’s advocate!

Great thoughts on socialization from Denise Fenzi here and here.

5. Grooming & Veterinary Care

Start teaching your puppy to stand quietly for grooming early on! All dogs will need to have regular nail trims, brushing, and the occasional bath. Practicing these activities with your puppy in a calm, matter of fact way will set you up for success later on. Use food to reward your dog for holding still, but don’t get stuck using it as a distraction or lure–you want your dog to actually notice what you’re doing and get comfortable with it.

Same deal with veterinary procedures. Get your puppy used to being held/restrained, having their neck pinched, belly palpated, and eyes, ears, mouth examined. The trick to this is keeping your puppy calm and relaxed–this is not playtime! Get help from a Fear Free certified trainer if your puppy struggles with this. So often, our puppies first exposure to their vet is traumatizing! Do some work beforehand to build their tolerance to handling and uncomfortable procedures. Finally, click here to find a Fear Free Certified Veterinary Practice for your dog–they are well versed in keeping dogs comfortable and happy during their vet visits. 

There you have it! There’s a lot to think about when you’re raising a puppy…but at the end of the day, make sure you spend as much time enjoying that puppy as possible. Puppyhood is always gone before you know it.

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Skill Building: Attention

pexels-photo-551628.jpegAttention is the foundation of most things you’ll do with your dog. If your dog is busy looking at everything except for you, he’ll have a pretty hard time walking in heel, holding a sit, or performing skills in a distracting environment. 

Making direct eye contact isn’t necessarily a natural, easy thing for dogs to do. Some dogs are very sensitive to it, so go slow and make sure you aren’t unintentionally intimidating your dog! Invite eye contact by keeping your eyes soft and your gaze natural…staring at your dog while leaning over him isn’t very inviting. If your dog actively avoids eye contact, or you can’t remember your dog ever offering it, you may need to start with your dog looking in your direction or just at your face, rather than making eye contact.

To build a strong foundation of attention, start with this exercise.


Skill Building: Attention

Location: Low-distraction, such as your kitchen or living room

Supplies: One dog (this is not the time to work multiple dogs), 10 tasty treats, and a clicker (or just be prepared with your handy marker word)

What to do:

  1. Sit or stand and say nothing.
  2. Do nothing.
  3. Find your zen place.
  4. Be quiet. Soften your body language and your gaze.
  5. Bear with me…I promise this will work!
  6. The second your dog glances at you, say “yes!” or click and treat. I don’t care if it’s a quick, barely there glance, just mark and treat. Do this 10 times, then take a break.

When you’re successful in your low distraction environment, move to a different room, and then eventually move your practice to new places with more distractions. Keep your dog successful, by increasing difficulty slowly. You can also start building in duration, so that your dog can maintain eye contact longer.


 

Voila, you have now started building a foundation of attention, and you’ve taught your dog that checking in with you pays really well.

People often ask why I don’t use a command like “watch me” or “look at me.”  I really don’t think it’s necessary, and it’s yet another word to remember. I want my dogs to know that it’s always safe to look at me, and that it’s worth it to them to check in because I pay really well. Of course, they know their names and in high distraction times, their name does mean “look at me,” but it’s important for me to avoid nagging my dogs. I’d rather wait for them to choose to look at me then beg them to. Imagine how you’d feel if someone was poking you over and over again, and saying “hey! hey! HEY!” constantly. You’d probably get pretty annoyed. You’d also probably look at the person, but you wouldn’t feel great about it. You’d be doing it to get them to stop bothering you. Don’t be annoying…instead, be a quiet, patient, generous person who pays well.

 pexels-photo-374906.jpegwww.yellowbrickdogs.com 

My Top Recall Tips

We all want a dog who comes back to us reliably and quickly. Here are my top tips.

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  1. Pay your dog well! Dole out a jackpot–feed several tasty treats one by one. Do a food scatter on the ground at your feet. Toss cookies away from you. Do more than just hand your dog a treat. Make the food interesting!
  2. Send your dog away from you. This is a big one, and may seem counterintuitive. We often call our dogs away from fun things, and that will actually damage our recall over time. Most dogs would rather chase a squirrel or sniff a tree than eat a measly cookie. So reward your dog for coming to you, then send him away again. He will learn that coming to you will get him some cookies AND he’ll be able to return to his own fun, too. If you ever have to call him permanently away from something especially fun, make sure you follow that up with other fun things…don’t just stick him on a leash or in a crate–play a game, practice known skills, etc.
  3. Practice in lots of safe, fenced areas. Ask to borrow your friends’ or neighbors’ yards, or head to the dog park when no one is there. The more places you practice, the more reliable your recall will be.
  4. Use long lines. Long lines are for safety, they are not training tools. That said, they can provide peace of mind and great opportunities to practice recalls. Your job is to reward your dog for coming to you and to be sure you are practicing in places where he can be successful.
  5. Never correct your dog for not coming to you or pull him toward you with a leash. He may indeed come to you in that moment, but you won’t be building speed, drive, or desire to come to you. We want our dogs to barrel toward us, not creep up to us slowly in order to avoid punishment.
  6. Avoid calling your dog before doing something your dog perceives as unpleasant. This includes: you going to work, putting the dog in the crate, cleaning ears, doing toenails, giving a pill, etc. IF you need your dog, and you need to do one of those things, you can do one of two things. One–go get your dog, rather than call him. Two–build in a break between your dog coming and whatever you need to do. That could just be some time, say 10-15 minutes, or you can do another activity before the “icky” one.
  7. Finally, never stop rewarding your dog for coming to you. Because the recall is so important, I keep it on a one to one ratio of reinforcement. That means I always reward my dogs for coming, but the reward may not always be food. When we are walking off leash, I will reward with food periodically for checking in, but I will also sometimes just send them away again. Freedom is often just as rewarding as food, the important thing is to be clear–I acknowledge that they came back and verbally send them off again. Dogs love this game, and it helps them feel secure and confident about coming back.

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