Family Friday: How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend

Dog is man’s best friend, and woman’s too. Our dogs are always thrilled to see us, dinner’s exactly what they were waiting for, and they’ll do the darndest things just to earn a treat. This is the current version of the pre-dinner routine that our rescue Lab Kumba performs for a crisp crunch of cucumber.

We may think that we fully reciprocate the friendship with our dogs. We have given them room and board with sofa privileges, regular exercise, and chewy toys. But are we really doing everything we can to advocate for our pups when they really need a friend?

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training, knows that we can be better advocates when our dogs are stressed by: 1) learning their body language, 2) recognizing signs of distress, and 3) practicing defensive handling to get our dogs safely out of potential trouble.

Learn your dog’s body language.

We may be chatting on the phone or smelling the roses while we’re walking our dog, but Fido is constantly aware of his surroundings, especially someone or something approaching. Here are some signals to watch for in your pup.

Relaxed, pensive, politeAlert, concerned, tense
Ears backEars up
Head turnedHead down, or staring
Mouth openMouth closed
Body looseBody rigid

Each dog uses his tail to express himself, too. A slow wag might mean she’s relaxed and happy, or that she’s apprehensive. Carrying her tail high might convey pleasure or concern. A tail between the legs when you’re out for a walk? “Get me out of here!”

Common canine calming signals — self-soothing actions like a human’s nail biting — are lip licking and yawning.

Mimic or otherwise acknowledge distress.

Yawning or licking your lips, too, lets your dog know you’ve “heard” her.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

Make distance your friend.

Put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the source of the stress.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

Use the environment.

Move behind a fence or onto a porch. Lift your dog to safety onto a truck bed or into a trash can. Use a folding chair or a hose or your leash to create a space around you.

Do NOT pick up your dog. He will instantly become prey for the other dog. And you could be seriously hurt.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

Use your voice.

A loud “GO HOME!” In an aggressive tone lets the enemy know he is not welcome.

Trainer Alison Chambers, owner of Complete Canine Training

So, listen to your dog’s body language, just like she listens to yours, and you’ll both get more enjoyment out of being each other’s best friends. As always, thank you to the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, for bringing this dear boy into our lives!

Kumba, our rescue black Lab
Kumba, our rescue black Lab

You can read more of Alison’s guidance in previous posts: How to introduce your pandemic pup to a new dog, How to help your unsocialized dog say hello ,How to train your pandemic pup, and Why training your dog is not about the tricks.

Family Friday: Why training your dog is not about the tricks

Our rescue Lab, Kumba, can sit, lie down, stay, and come when called. He’s also a huge fan of cucumbers and will do this routine to get a piece.

I wanted some new challenges for us. So, I called dog trainer Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training for suggestions.

I was expecting Alison to give me a list of new tricks. Instead, I learned a much better lesson.

Training is about building a relationship

Training is about building a relationship with your dog, helping him to live in the world you’ve brought him into. 

Helping your dog live in your world

The goal is to make both your lives more functional for your lifestyle. If you own a boat, you want the dog to be able to jump on and off. If you take your dog to work, you want her to lie by your side. If you’re gone all day, you want your dog to be able to be alone without destroying the house.

Learning to listen to each other

You build this relationship with your dog through communication. It’s a two-way process. He needs to learn to listen to you, and you need to learn how to listen to him.

Step one: “Watch me.”

Before a walk, have your dog sit by your side, looking up at you. Periodically during the walk, ask for that focus: “Watch me.” Work toward having your dog pay attention to you the whole time, with a goal of being able to walk through a crowd undistracted.

Step two: Be more exciting than anything else.

Be fun to be around. Toys, treats, different activities, and varied commands add variety to your time with your dog. Make it easy for her to choose you instead of anything else.

Step three: Add distraction.

Other dogs, a passing car, or a favorite toy are all opportunities to practice getting and keeping your dog’s attention. Begin with distant distractions — a dog approaching from the other end of the block — and work up to closer distractions. Ask her to “watch me” instead of her favorite toy when you are holding it overhead.

Step four: Practice, practice, practice.

Look for opportunities to train your dog to pay attention to you. Instead of avoiding the neighborhood bully — I do a u-turn when I see the dog  that Kumba really dislikes — stay the course and help your dog be successful in “watch me” even when temptation is nearby. Your goal is to replace anxiety and fear with approval-seeking: “Oh, there’s that awful dog, so now I get that wonderful treat, right?!”

Alison’s suggestions have already changed my interactions with Kumba, especially during our walks through our neighborhood. Every other dog is now an opportunity to engage our dog in paying attention, for which I reward him with a special treat, this week being tiny pieces of leftover steak. And our afternoon sit, stay, come routine has become a lot more fun now that my husband has joined the game. Nice company for me, more of a workout for Kumba, and a new habit for all three of us!

Who says human’s can’t learn new tricks?

You can read more of Alison’s guidance in previous posts: How to introduce your pandemic pup to a new dog, How to help your unsocialized dog say hello and How to train your pandemic pup.

Family Friday: How to Introduce Your Pandemic Pup to a New Dog

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that we rescued a black Lab just before the pandemic hit last year. Kumba was sweet, rail thin, and nervous-aggressive around other dogs. We had just one session with trainer Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training to begin helping Kumba to get accustomed to another dog before we locked down into quarantine.

Kumba looking in, Pancho looking out ….

As Alison said in a recent post of ours, social distancing has helped dogs be around other dogs without being forced into being buddies. Nose to nose greetings between leashed dogs sounds like a good idea to humans but is a recipe for disaster to our canine companions. Over the past 15 months, Kumba has become more relaxed around other dogs and in fact has several puppy friends in our neighborhood.

The pandemic has done wonders for dog socialization, exposing them to different things without requiring participation.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Three weeks ago, we put Kumba’s readiness to be around another dog to a critical test when our daughter’s Lab, Pancho, came for a two-week stay. It was touch and go for a couple of days, but, thanks to Alison‘s guidance, Kumba’s resilience, and Pancho’s excellent guest manners, the dogs figured out how to share us, our home, walks, and even … (I am not suggesting this, but it was something that happened organically along the end of Week One) drinking out of each other’s water bowls.

At Alison’s recommendation, we introduced them in neutral territory during a walk at a gradually reducing distance, then sat with them in our backyard, then entered a toy-free home environment while constantly monitoring and trying not to panic when either dog bark-snarled to assert his space. That final point is the most difficult.

Have them meet in neutral territory

Alison Chambers
Success means smelling the same thing at the same time!

Rather than have Pancho come charging to the house, Alison suggested we have the dogs see each other outside. We walked out with Kumba and Pancho was across the street on the opposite sidewalk. Oh, a dog. Okay. Check.

Take a parallel walk

Alison Chambers

Keeping them at a distance from each other, with my daughter holding Pancho’s leash and me holding Kumba’s, we did a leisurely stroll around our lake, territory that’s familiar to each of them but which is not either one’s turf. We gradually reduced the distance between them until we were on the same sidewalk and slightly off sides. Kumba was pretty nonchalant and Pancho was totally fine. Check.

Pancho looking over his shoulder

Pancho first, leashes off, be in the backyard.

Alison Chambers

How do you fake relaxing in the backyard while every nerve in your body is attuned to what your dog may or may not do to your other dog? This was a more challenging process than I had expected, in large measure because we were on the dogs’ timetable. We also realized that our reactions could be more alarming than the dogs’ reactions to each other. It took a while, but Kumba and Pancho were both eventually able to lie down and even close their eyes. Check.

Clear toys, beds, bowls before you go indoors.

Alison Chambers

Cleared out the house’s public area, leaving the (back) family room and the (front) living room as big open neutral territories. Pancho hung out in the front room while Kumba was in the back. The kitchen in between became the demilitarized zone, where both dogs could amiably convene in case the person chopping up the food drop something on the floor. They both know that happens all the time. They say food brings people together, same for dogs!

Keep the calm. Dogs and their humans need breaks.

Alison Chambers

We initially kept the boys in separate bedrooms at night and if they were in the house without us, but otherwise they gradually figured out how to coexist together. We praised good behavior— I’m pretty sure lots of treats were dispensed by the other human in the house—and the dogs self-corrected when they stepped over each other’s borders. There’s nothing ambiguous about Pancho’s “hey, get your nose outa my face” bark.


They may never be friends, but our two good dogs co-habited very well. They’ve both spent a lot more time asleep this week!

Wow Kumba!!! What big strides you make!! 😎😎

Alison Chambers

Family Friday: How to help your unsocialized dog say hello

A dog on a leash encountering another dog is like a person in handcuffs walking into a party.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

Alison Chambers knows dogs, and she shares her expertise to help us better understand and live with our pets. In my March post, she gave us tips on helping pandemic dogs through separation anxiety. We’ve had great success using her tips to wean our rescue Lab Kumba from our constant presence. Things to chew on help!

Our rescue Lab Kumba and his chew toy
Our rescue Lab Kumba and his very well chewed toy

Today’s advice is on helping socialize our pets. We discovered that our sweet new boy had a wild streak of aggression when confronted with another dog. The pandemic has helped keep such encounters at bay. But as life opens back up again, how can we help our dogs meet each other? Here’s Alison’s advice.

Rule Number One: Don’t let dogs go nose-to-nose. Human look each other in the eye and face each other when we speak. To a dog, a direct stare is an invitation to conflict.

Rule Number Two: Keep the leash loose. Restraining a dog sends the message that what they are greeting is dangerous.

Rule Number Three: Limit the transaction to two seconds. Then recall your dog with his name, not a yank on the leash. Remember Rule Number Two?

Rule Number Four: Not all dogs want to say hello. Read your dog and the dog you have encountered.

Rule Number Five: Always ask permission before approaching another dog. Use the social distancing skills we’ve learned during pandemic to keep aware of personal space.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

We’ll be working on these tips as we help Kumba navigate his environment in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned for a progress report and tips from Alison Chambers on how to understand our dogs.

Alison Chambers and Otto