Top 5 Skills to Teach Your Dog

Article courtesy of Trips With Pets. When I began my dog training career in 1997, I started out by training service dogs. A service dog is an animal that has been trained to assist a disabled person with such specialized tasks such as picking up dropped items, finding lost keys or even reminding their person to take medications.  It takes many months and hundreds of hours’ worth of training to teach the skills that a dog will need to become a service dog.

While most pet dog owners don’t require that level of training for their dog, I do believe that the average dog owner would like his dog to have the same kind of self-restraint that a person with a disability expects from his working dog.

Here is my list of the five most critical skills I would want any dog to learn.

  1. Default Sit:  I’ll be honest here – I’m not crazy about dogs that jump all over me.  Not many people are – even the most enthusiastic dog lover.  Bearing that in mind, I would start right away to teach my dog that it is more beneficial to sit rather than to jump. Sitting is incompatible with jumping.  A dog simply cannot sit and jump at the same time.To do this, first set the dog up so that he or she can’t make many (or preferably any) paws on people mistakes.  I would make sure my dog was either on a leash or on a tether whenever new people were around.  This takes the anxiety out of any human/dog interaction. It means that you no longer have to worry about whether your dog will jump on someone because she/he can’t.Dog TrainingNext, get some high value rewards to help ensure that your dog will want to work with you even if there are exciting things happening all around him or her.  Since the goal is to teach the dog to automatically sit whenever new people appear, don’t give the command to sit (he/she might not choose to respond anyway and I wouldn’t want to inadvertently teach my dog to ignore my commands). When the dog takes the initiative to sit, give a tasty treat. Any behavior that is rewarded should happen more often. Be patient during this process.  It can take a bit of time before the dog figures out that it is the sitting that is getting him the tasty treats.  Once my dog became more reliable about responding to each new person that came along with a sit, I would begin to work on teaching my dog or pup to maintain his or her sit for longer and longer periods of time.
  2. Chill On a Mat:  This is one of my favorite skills to teach.  The idea is that you will be able to send your dog over to a portable mat (like a bath mat or towel) where he or she will lie down and remain until released.  The little Goldendoodle pup (pictured above) is 16 weeks old and he is lying on his mat in the middle of a soccer field with a team playing in the distance.  What the photo doesn’t show are the four other soccer teams on either side of him. He shows all of this skill at such a young age.  What a good dog and what good parents he has to spend so much time teaching him how to behave in public places!

  3. Come:  We all want our dogs to come when called but a lot of dogs that I work with just don’t.  They are completely unreliable.  You need to teach your dog that it is totally worth giving up whatever he or she is engaged with to come running to you.  It is important to reinforce this behavior every time with a super tasty treat (if your dog is food motivated) or a game of tug (if your dog is play motivated).If your dog isn’t reliable, work on this skill with your dog on a long leash and then inside an enclosed area before ever trusting him off leash. If your dog does NOT come when she is called, whatever you do, don’t nag her.  Repeating commands is the quickest way to teach your dog to ignore you. Go and get her and go back to working with the dog on a line until he or she is more reliable.
  4. Eye Contact:  Eye contact is a great way to teach your dog to keep his or her focus on you.  I start this skill by rewarding my dog every time he or she chooses to look at me – on walks, at the dog park, when kids are around, in the house etc.  I call these “check-ins,” but you can use any signal word you like, such as “look” or “focus.”  Check-ins are a great way to start to teach your dog or pup that it pays to focus on you.
  5. Leave It:  The purpose of this skill is to teach your dog to back away and not to touch, sniff or eat the thing that he’s headed for. The “it” in question could be a cat, a hamburger bun, a sock.  Imagine how handy that would be. Imagine if you dropped a pill on the floor.

A qualified trainer can help you teach these 5 essential skills if you need help. Remember to dedicate time to training your dog or pup.  It’s not fair to get angry with your dog for misbehaving if you haven’t taken the time to teach your dog what is expected of him or her.

No matter which skills you find important for your dog to learn, understand that desirable behaviors need to be rewarded often and well and you will need to limit your dogs opportunity to make the wrong choices by using better management—head halters or no pull harnesses for a dog who pulls, leashes and tethers for jumpers and long lines for a dog who won’t come when he or she is called. If you feel like you some additional help, you can search for a professional trainer in your area at

About Elsa Larsen:
Elsa started her dog training career as a volunteer for an organization in Santa Rosa, California that trained dogs for people with disabilities.  In June 2000, Elsa moved to the east coast and created My Wonderful Dog, a non profit that that engaged at risk youth in the care and training of service dogs.  The non profit had to close its doors in 2008 due to lack of funding, but under the original banner of My Wonderful Dog, Elsa continues to bring her expertise and knowledge to bear in her quest to create harmony between pet dogs and their owners in and around Portland, Maine and the greater Boston area. With over 15 years experience, Elsa has had the pleasure of working with hundreds of dogs on issues as diverse as dog aggression to puppy management and care.

To follow Elsa and My Wonderful Dog on Facebook, click here.


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A History of Commercial Dog Food

dog food bowl

A couple of ago, I took my dog for a visit to the vet, and as part of our annual exam, the veterinary technician asked me what I fed him. I mentioned the main source of food and said that we supplement with about 20% table scraps.

She winced.

Later in the visit, she said that she would send me home with some information that would help us feed our dog “a healthier diet.”

It got me thinking about the history of domesticated dogs and what their owners feed them. Since the beginning, dogs have been fed table scraps, supplemented by what they hunted or scavenged on their own. So how did we move away from that to what most of us do today?


An early James Spratt factory

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1860, the first processed dog food was introduced by James Spratt, of Cincinnati, Ohio who developed a biscuit made of wheat, beet root, vegetables and beef blood. His inspiration for this product came from watching stray dogs eat hardtack thrown away by sailors coming off ships in port at Liverpool. The name of this new product was Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes. It began to sell well, and soon, other companies began to make baked dog products, too.

The depression in the 1930’s also prompted dog owners to look to grains and cereal product, rather than meat, as a less expensive method of feed their pets. Canned meat products were introduced in the 1940’s and in 1943, dehydrated dog food was introduced, with the instructions: “just add water.” The new dehydrated foods were more shelf-stable (they could be stored in warehouses, store shelves and homes for months). They were also lightweight, and therefore easier to ship and to carry home.

Sales of dry processed dog foods picked up considerably after World War II. Mill operators, grain dealers and meat packing plants were finding that the pet food industry would pay for waste products that would otherwise be discarded. Meat products and grain products were cooked together for many hours or days to kill bacteria and disease. The final mix was then formed into pellets — just like those fed to horses, goats, rabbits and other animals. These dog pellets were easily bagged for convenience.

Dry dog food was sold in either baked biscuit form or pellet form. Around this time, the Purina company developed a new t

echnique called “extrusion”. The extrusion process consisted of combining and cooking the ingredients together in a liquid form, and then mechanically pushing them through the extruder, which expands the piece of dog food and then it is baked again. These dog food pieces were much larger and lighter than  pellets, and they became popular with consumers who wanted to get more for their money.

1960 Cans pet food for sale

A grocery store canned dog food display in the 1960s.

By the late 1960s, most dog owners enjoyed the convenience of feeding canned or dry dog foods. And the veterinary industry began promoting the idea that protein diets were incomplete, and needed to be supplemented with additional vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. Dog food companies began positioning their foods as “complete.” Other innovations followed, such as kibble that makes its own “gravy,” making the kibble into various shapes, and using dyes to vary the kibble’s color for a more natural appearance.

The next advance in commercial dog food was specialty diets, formulated for specific diseases or disorders in pets. Dr Mark Morris DVM, founder of Hill’s Pet Products (Science Diet) was the first in the field to develop this idea. The Purina Company quickly followed, along with several other companies. Only veterinarians offered these prescription products at first. Today, there are dozens of specialty diets available, including diets for specific breeds. For example, one of the most popular brands available, Purina’s Pro Plan Dog Food, includes varieties for sensitive stomach or sensitive skin, weight management, and formulas for puppies or senior dogs. 

Today’s dog foods follow trends in human dietary fashion. More and more people are feeding their dogs a raw diet designed to mimic the dog’s natural diet without human intervention (the original Paleo diet). New dog food companies have arisen to offer frozen raw patties that are convenient to feed (but still include fruits, vegetables and nutrients said to “fortify” plain meat in the dog’s diet). Others advertise ingredients that are Certified Organic, locally sourced, “human grade,”or hypoallergenic.

carrotsindogsmouthThere are hundreds of dog food companies and brands to choose from. The pet food industry has become a consumer products industry, as evidenced by the top five pet food brands globally: Mars, Inc., Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Del Monte. At the other end of the spectrum are small, local companies like Muenster Milling. This third-generation family business — which even grows its own wheat and corn — only sells its food in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Cooking at home and even customized diets are on the rise. With customized diets, individual portions of food tailored to your dog’s preferences, age, breed, health needs and lifestyle are delivered to your door. For obese dogs, food that’s low-carb, low-fat, and pre-portioned are available. The bottom line is this: you are qualified to determine a healthy diet for your dog. Find out what he or she needs, and feed that. You do not need a veterinarian to help you decide what’s best for your dog to eat. Options are out there. No one cares for your dog as much as you do, and you are the only one whose opinion is motivated only by your dog’s best interests.

Special thanks to B-Naturals, The Bark Magazine,, and


Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Miscellany


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Best Dog Coupon Sites

Hey! Saving money and shopping for your dog, what could be better? Some of the best dog supplies coupon sites are big coupon machines, and some are lesser-known sites and blogs. Here’s a sampling of the best sites for dog products coupons that I’ve found, in no particular order.

Now THAT’s something to smile about!

  • – A U.K. site, this big player offers pet coupons good in the USA as well. Coupons are divided up by type of pet, so it’s easy to clear out the distractions of cat and bird deals if you only have dogs. They’re very user-friendly; they give you the coupon code, the expiration date, and a link to the sponsoring company’s website so you can start shopping without having to create an account first. 
  • – This site also breaks down coupons by type of pet. Plus, they also have information on how many of their followers have used the coupon successfully. I love this feature, but it’s so frustrating to find a coupon code and then not be able to get it to work.
  • – This site divides the coupon codes up so you can really zone in on what you’re looking for. Try Pet Supplies, Dog Food or Pet Toys.
  • – This site has mobile coupons (no printing – yay!), social sales and more. Coupons are free to use (no membership required) and once you click for the coupon code, they redirect you to the site so you can start shopping. They also include store loyalty program coupons, if you have a loyalty program card/membership. Plus (and this is only important if you’re a digital geek) they’ve got the best, most inviting design of all of the coupon sites. And they have a killer blog.
  • – Okay, you do have to create an account with this one and fork over your email address, but if you do (and tell them how big your dogs are), they’ll send you emails with deals to fit your dogs. It’s a Groupon-style layout and concept. They tell you which deals are ending soon. And it’s all doggy stuff — no fish, fowl or feline coupons. Check the deals, though. One deal was for $12 (regularly $17). But I carry that product on my website and my ordinary, everyday price was $11.99 with the normal markup. There are tons of other offers that were incredible markdowns, but on these types of offers, it’s safer to shop around to make sure the “deal” is a deal.
  • – These guys try the coupon codes to make sure they work. If you have a favorite retailers, you can find it alphabetically and see how many coupons they have. They have some of the better-known online retailers, plus a few smaller guys. I discovered a new store called that I’d never seen before. Cool.

Coupon sites to avoid:

  • – Most pages redirect to a request for your email address, or that you sign up for the RSS feed. Only one deal is shown above this persistent request. Not sure from the layout if it’s a blog or a regular coupon site. Wasn’t able to tell the difference between “My Pet Savings” and “Modern Pet Savings” or why those should be two different navigation tabs. Outdated home pages shows a graphic for an overstock sale from two months ago. Hmmmm … 
  • – The left-hand rail is jam-packed with keywork-stuffed text that’s meaningless and distracting to shoppers (and doesn’t fool Google’s bots one bit). Coupons can be vaguely phrased. For example, one coupon said a certain brand of dog food was “on sale.” I clicked the link and found three coupons from the same store: $5 off, 10% off and On Sale. Unremarkable savings, junky layout and confusing navigation. Skip it.

Please note that not all pages or coupons may still be active by the time you read this list.

What are your favorite coupon sites? Give ’em a shout out (and share the love with other dog owners) in the comments below.

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Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Cool New Products


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Easy Tip for Emptying Bagless Vacuums

Dog owners know that vacuuming dog hair can be … well, hairy. Between clogged hoses and hard-to-reach buildup in your bagless canister, the hair can overwhelm even the sturdiest vacuum cleaner.

I like bagless vacuums because I don’t have to buy bags. But I don’t like them because of how nasty it can be to empty the dirt canister when it’s full. And with two big dogs, mine gets full quickly.  The commercials show a neatly manicured hand pressing a button and the bottom popping off to let the debris fall into the trash. But when there’s hair involved, it gets tricky. The hair balls up behind the cone where you can’t get it out without reaching up there and pulling with your fingertips. Seriously, how gross is it to stick your hand up into the canister and pull on all that dog-hair cotton candy that’s literally infused with dust and crumbs? It’s the most unhygienic housecleaning task that I have … and I clean toilets. And I have a five-year-old son. ‘Nuff said.

But I discovered that the Cobra plastic drain stick will pull that knot of hair out the canister easily and quickly. It’s a plastic stick with barbs all down the sides. It’s used for pulling hair clogs out of drains.

I got to thinking one day, as my hand was covered with dust and there were clumps of dust and hair on the floor all around my trash can, “there must be a better way.” Yes, there are some vacuum canisters that you can pry open and slide the cone out from the outer cylinder. But first of all, it’s not easy to get them apart. And secondly, when you do, the hair and dust go everywhere.

My husband had purchased a couple of these disposable drain cleaners for our bathtub and sink drains. I grabbed one and stuck it up into the canister. And presto! A bunch of hair came sliding out the canister and into my trash can.

Now, a warning. You can’t wait until the canister is so full that the hair is backing up into the hose. We have an Irish Setter and a Shiloh Shepherd, and I have to empty my canister three times when I do my 2,000 sf house. I vacuum every 4 days or so to avoid too much buildup. But if you empty when it’s getting full, you can use this handy tool to grab that hair and pull it out.

It’s about $3 at home improvements stores. Cool, huh?


Product Review: Orijen Dog Treats

“Your dog is a carnivore.” This is a very sensible statement from the back of the Orijen package. Dogs are designed to thrive on whole pray such as game, fish and fowl. In a natural state, dogs are equipped to hunt and scavenge meat, and do not naturally consume grains, fruits, vegetables or other food sources except what might be in the digestive tracts of their prey.

Orijen treats are made with 100% meat, poultry or fish, freeze dried in the company’s own kitchens (never outsourced), without cooking and without preservatives. The only preservative is that it is dried, which helps it last long enough for the retailers to get it, put it on the shelf, and sell it to shoppers.

We tested the Alberta Wild Boar flavor, which contains boar meat and boar from boar raised free-range on Alberta, Canada’s fertile woodland farms. Sounds healthy and tasty, doesn’t it? The treats smell natural without smelling strong.

Wild Boar dog treats

Our test dogs found the treats to be delicious. I used them to drill recalls on an older puppy who isn’t so good at coming when called. We were at a lake, and she was off the leash. I put her in a sit before I let her go, and gave her one of these treats. Then she was free to roam. I called her and gave her another one, and that’s all it took. Every time I prepared to do another recall, I would open the resealable zip-top bag (which keeps the treats fresh) and get one out. Then I would turn around and take a breath to call her. But there she’d be, at my feet, having heard the bag open. Ha! She could hear that bag open at 100 paces. Can you imagine how tasty a treat has to be to tear a puppy away from the wonders of a lake? All that sand, mud, dead fish to roll on, water to splash on, turkeys to chase, high grass to explore …. she came a’running when she heard that bag.

The retailer indicates that there are about 40 pieces in a 2 ounce bag. However, I think this is a conservative number. I have been feeding these treats for a few days, and I still have 40 pieces in the bag. I would have estimated 55 – 60 pieces. But it’s good to know that they’re not overestimating. You’ll get at least 40 pieces in your bag. These are great for training treats because they can be eaten by small or large dogs in a single bite, which helps you hold the dog’s focus (any treat that the dog has to stop and chew up, dropping pieces on the floor, can interrupt your momentum, especially when teaching something new).

I like that they don’t leave my hands stinky and messy. I mean, hot dogs are very motivating to dogs, but yuck! Who wants that sticky mess on your hands? Kibble just isn’t very interesting, at least to my dogs. So these are perfect. I’m going to get some to give to my trainer friends.

These treats are all meat, no fillers. That’s how our dogs want to eat, how they’re equipped to survive. These treats are dried, but still a little soft.

Available at: We love Chewy because they have an auto-ship feature so you can get your treats delivered on a regular schedule, and never run out again.

Price: 2 oz bag (40 pieces): $7.99, 3.5 oz bag (80 pieces): $12.99


Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Dog Product Reviews


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Product Reviews: Dogswell Jerky Bars

5oz_JB_VIT_lamb_RGB_PressJerkey Bars are made to be a protein bar for dogs. According to the manufacturer, they are  packed with antibiotic-free protein, plus vegetables, fruits and other ingredients for help give your dog healthy eyes, skin and coat, or support joint health.

Jerky Bars are about 1.5″ square. This makes them a bigger treat, so they’d be ideal for medium and large dogs. Small dogs would probably enjoy them very much, but would have to bite off pieces. So for smaller dogs, they’d make a great treat, but not for training, where you’d want a quick munch. Fortunately, they’re dehydrated, so they would be easy for a dog to bite through or for you to break them apart. Dehydrated meat is suitable for a dog snack, rather than dried meat that you’d find in a human jerky stick, because they have to sit on the shelf longer. Also, the dog can just eat it, rather than having to chew, chew, chew, like a regular piece of jerky. And for dogs who don’t take the time to chew, dehydrated protein is easier to digest than dried jerky.

There are two varieties: Vitality and Happy Hips. Each comes in four flavors: Chicken & Veggies, Lamb & Veggies, Turkey & Veggies and Salmon & Veggies. Each variety — although dehydrated — actually smell like the primary ingredient (turkey, chicken, etc.). This increases the dog’s interest.

5oz_JB_HIPS_chicken_RGB_ PressThese treats, wich are made in the USA, have a guaranteed analysis of 30% protein. The manufacturer’s website says they contain 85% animal protein. That could mean that of the 30% protein in each bar, 85% of that protein comes from animals and the other 15% might come from plant sources.

Jerky Bars are low glycemic treats, which I was happy to see, since there are a lot of foods and treats on the market that are said to benefit skin and coat, and then the first ingredient is wheat or corn, which gives many dogs skin allergies. Jerky Bars contain no gluten, corn, wheat, soy, BHA/BHT, ethoxyquin, byproducts, antibiotics, added hormones, artificial colors, artificial flavors or preservatives.

Our two test dogs loved the flavors we tested. The size and consistency was just right. They are flanking me as I write this, staring at the bags, then at me, then at the bags, then at me. : ) To put this in perspective, these are dogs who are accustomed to a raw diet. They dine every day on raw hamburger, chicken wings, fish, beef tongue, liver, gizzards, and other delicacies. Their training treats are beef hot dogs. If I put down a bowl of kibble, they look at the bowl and then look at me as if to say, “Erm, mom? What are we doing?” Given that, I would say that palatability for Jerky Treats must be very high.

The daily feeding guide advises dog owners to feed between 1 and 10 Jerky Bars to their dogs per day, depending on the dog’s size. This may be a way to encourage dog owners to feed these treats every day. However, at 32 cents apiece, I don’t think I would be feeding 10 per day to my two 75 lb dogs (that would cost $194 per month). So, since this is not intended to be a dog’s main source of nutrition, I would probably just feed these occasionally as a tasty and nutritious treat, rather than putting my dog on a feeding schedule of treats.

Overall, this is a well-thought-out, well-made, nutritious treat that’s shelf-stable, yet not cardboardy. Our test dogs found them yummy and easily digestible.

Manufacturer: Dogswell

Retail Price (15 oz/about 40 pieces): $12.99

Buy them at: A variety of websites and stores. Find a store near you by searching the Dogswell store finder, or Google “Dogswell Jerky Bars” to find an online retailer.

Click on our coupons page for a coupon for $1 off a bag of Jerky Bars

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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Dog Product Reviews


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Cleaning Dog Nose Prints Off Windows

If you’re like me, your dog leaves nose prints all over the windows, glass doors, and car windows. Dog slobber has mucous in it, so it can be slimier than saliva. Thicker, too, which is what makes it build up and stick so badly.

When you clean any window from both sides — which I often do — here’s a tip to make it go faster. Spray your cleaner of choice on the nose streaks and let it sit for a minute before wiping. This will cut through most of the “gunk” so you’ll have less scrubbing.

Clean the outside with horizontal strokes and the inside with vertical strokes. This way, if there’s streaking, you’ll know which side it’s on.

Choose a cleaner that doesn’t have a super-strong odor; our canine pals have a sense of smell that’s 1,000 times more sensitive than ours.



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