Category Archives: Training

First Day of School

puppy pileDropping my puppy off at a new doggie daycare for the first time, I felt like a mother dropping her kid off at a new school. Will he like it here? Will the other dogs be nice to him? Will he make some new friends? Dogs can be just as shy and sensitive as kids in a new situation. Our puppy Brewster normally warms up to new people and new dogs quickly, but he can get a little nervous at first, and this was the first time we were sending him to a different daycare than the one he’d been going to since we first got him at 11 weeks old.

Just like a good parent, I went to check out a couple different doggie daycares that I’d heard about, before making a decision. I took a tour of each facility and tried to imagine how my dog would like it. I’m so glad that I did my due diligence, because these two places were night and day, and I left one feeling seriously depressed. It’s not enough just to find a place for your dog to go during the day while you’re working or away; you have to find a place that he will want to go, and that you feel comfortable with too. Some dogs may have done fine in the first facility I visited, but knowing my dog, it would have stifled his playful personality and left him feeling neglected. I also would have been more worried about him, wondering if he was getting enough play time and attention. The second place I visited seemed much more suited to him, and I felt confident that it would be a place he’d enjoy going, especially once he made some friends.

Doggie daycare and boarding facilities can be very different from one another, so it’s important to check for a few things, and decide which is right for your dog:

  • How much square footage of play area does the facility offer?
  • Do they use kennels, or is it a cage-free facility?
  • Is there an outdoor area where they get to play on a regular basis, or is it indoors only?
  • Are there play structures, or is it just an empty space?
  • How do they organize the dog groups? (size, temperament, age, etc.)
  • How do they handle aggressive or bullying dogs?
  • Is the day structured in any way, or do the dogs stay in the same place all day?
  • Are the dogs ever taken out on walks? If so, how many dogs does the walker handle at one time, and where are they walked?
  • What is the staff to dog ratio? Do they learn all of the dogs’ names? Do they play with the dogs or just supervise them?
  • Is any basic training done with the dogs while they’re at daycare (like recall)?
  • Do the staff members come from a dog/animal background (e.g., trainer, vet assistant), or were they just trained to work there?
  • Is the staff trained in canine CPR or First Aid? Do they have an on-site veterinarian or an association with a nearby vet in case of emergency?
  • Do they require vaccination/health records? Do they do a temperament evaluation before accepting a dog?
  • If you board your dog overnight, where will he sleep? What will he eat? Can you bring your own food?
  • What does the daycare price include? Are there any add-on services?

Those are just a few of the questions you should be asking when evaluating a new daycare or boarding facility for your dog, so you can decide what type of environment will be right for him. It’s also a good idea to do some research ahead of time, including looking up information on the facility’s website and reading Yelp reviews. At the end of the day, a happy dog makes a happy dog parent, and your dog will thank you for taking such good care of him!

Loose-Leash Walking

Loose Leash Walking

Our puppy Brewster used to be the WORST on the leash. He would get distracted by everything, pulling in every direction, and trying to eat anything he could find off the ground. And then sometimes he would just lay down mid-stride, bringing the walk to a sudden halt. We would have to constantly encourage him to keep going, and it would get so frustrating at times that we would leave him at home, even though we’d rather be taking him with us.

We learned some good tips in our SmartyPup 201 class to train your dog to be better at loose-leash walking, which we’ve been putting to use; and although it’s taken a long time and a lot of practice (and patience!), we’re finally seeing improvement. The trick is to pick a side that you want your dog to walk on (we chose left), and hold a treat near that leg to keep your dog walking by your side. Our favorite is jerky since it’s easy to break pieces off and hold them out for your dog to grab. This is definitely harder with a small dog, since you have to lean down a lot, but I’d say worth the back ache if it will eventually train your dog to walk right!

When they start doing a little better on the leash, you can then try weaning off to periodic treating, so your pup will want to walk close to you just in case he gets a piece of jerky. And eventually, the goal is to be able to stop treating altogether, and your dog will just naturally walk by your side.

We’re still in the periodic treating phase, where he chooses to walk by our side most of the time, and we periodically reward him for that good behavior. He even looks up at us sometimes while he’s trotting along to see if we’re noticing what a great job he’s doing and are going to give him a treat. It’s pretty adorable, and although it’s still a work in progress, we feel much saner being able to walk more than two blocks without wanting to rip our hair out.

19 Foods to Avoid

Brewster with Cork

“Leave it” was one of the best tricks they taught us in our SmartyPup 101 training class — and I should put tricks in quotation marks because it’s more of a basic life skill for dogs than something you just want to show off to your friends. It’s when you practice putting a treat on the ground, but teach your dog to leave it there instead of eating it. This involves a lot of gnawed-on fingers to start, as you cover up the treat with your hand while saying “leave it”; but once he gets it, it’s impressive to see how much restraint a puppy is able to exhibit.

At first, we just thought it was fun to practice “leave it”, marveling at how our puppy Brewster could resist a huge piece of beef jerky on the ground (soon to be rewarded, of course, with another piece of jerky that we would feed him while saying “take it”). But then we started realizing that “leave it” came in handy in all sorts of situations that could be potentially dangerous to him — when walking outside and passing by a piece of food or trash that he otherwise would have tried to pick up and eat; while cooking in the kitchen, dropping random pieces of food that aren’t good for dogs to ingest; anytime we dropped some random object that was bite-sized like a plastic bottle cap, a screw, or a vitamin.

When I’m cooking in the kitchen and drop something, if it’s healthy enough (like a baby carrot or piece of spinach), I’ll just let Brewster be my canine vacuum cleaner, which works out for both of us. But it’s good to be familiar with which foods aren’t healthy for dogs, so you know when to employ the “leave it” command. Most people seem to know that chocolate isn’t good for dogs, but I was surprised to learn about a few of the other ones:

  • Onions & Garlic (in any form)
  • Grapes & Raisins
  • Chocolate (the darker it is, the worse it is)
  • Avocado
  • Macadamia Nuts
  • Cooked Bones & Fat Trimmings
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine (coffee, tea, etc.)
  • Dairy Products (milk, ice cream, etc.)
  • Xylitol, a sweetener found in candy, gum, baked goods, and sugar-free diet foods
  • Bread Dough containing yeast
  • Raw Eggs
  • Raw Meat & Fish* (can contain bacteria or parasites)
  • Salty Foods (too much salt can lead to sodium ion poisoning)
  • Sugary Foods (can lead to weight & dental problems, and even diabetes)
  • Medicine (never try to self-diagnose your dog)
  • Baking Powder & Baking Soda
  • Nutmeg & Other Spices
  • Raw Potatoes

You can read more about why these foods are bad for dogs, the symptoms, and treatment recommendations on the ASPCA’s site or WebMD.

*Some dog professionals will recommend certain raw bones, like chicken wings or marrow, to keep your dog’s teeth & gums healthy. But it’s best to speak with your trainer or vet to find out which would be right for your dog.

Social Puppy

Socialization with Kids

There is this whole thing called “socializing” your dog that I never knew existed before we got our puppy. The ASPCA defines it as “helping them learn to be comfortable as a pet within human society”. Basically, when your puppy is still very young, you want to have introduced him to as many new things as possible, so he doesn’t suddenly see an umbrella for the first time at 6 months and freak out. And even more important than being ok with umbrellas, it’s a way of helping to ensure that your dog will be more relaxed/friendly and less fearful/aggressive as he gets older.

[Side Note: This is a little harder to do in a city where you may be told not to take your puppy out before he’s had all of his parvo shots. We’d heard that areas like dry sidewalks and the sand at Crissy Field were low risk for parvo, so we weighed the trade-off against the higher probability that our dog could turn out to be a scared meanie if we kept him too sheltered early on. But before making the decision for yourself, you should talk to a vet or another dog professional to see what’s right for your puppy in your area.]

It was very helpful that we had our dog Brewster going to puppy daycare every day with the dog walker & trainer Pamela Wyman of DogEvolve, because with both of us working full-time and only having weekends to take our dog out and about, we never would have been able to introduce him to nearly as many things by the time we’d had him only a month. We focused on a lot of things around the house — introducing him to the vacuum cleaner, giving him a bath and using the hairdryer on him, rubbing his paws/ears etc. to make sure he was ok with “handling”, etc. — and treating him the whole time so he would create positive associations with these new things.

When we’d go out, we’d look for anything new that we could introduce him to — dogs of various breeds and sizes, children of all ages, strollers, balloons, shopping carts, wheelchairs, canes, drunk frat boys. We started joking that we were using positive racial profiling, looking for people of different ethnicities who might want to pet or hold our dog. One day we thought we’d hit the jackpot when a group of Black, Latino and Asian school children surrounded Brewster at the park. We just kept treating him, petting him, and letting the kids give him treats to teach him  that kids (of all ethnicities!) were his friends and he shouldn’t be afraid of them. I was joking that I should have called the title of this blog “How Not to Have a Racist Puppy” — but seriously, the last thing that we liberal San Franciscans wanted was a dog that only liked people who looked like us.

At 10 months, our puppy Brewster is one of the friendliest, best-behaved dogs, and I think that’s largely because of the effort that we and our trainer Pamela put into socializing him early on. He runs up to new people to greet them, plays with big and small dogs alike, and even let my fiancé’s 3-year-old nephew give him a hug after he had earlier tried to hit him on the head for about an hour straight.

Puppies and Potties and Crates, Oh My

Potty Grass

There’s a lot of training that you have to start in on right away after getting your puppy, which can feel somewhat stressful. Sleep training, crate training, potty training. All while you are probably short on sleep yourself in the first few days of coming home with a new baby.

Crate training was definitely one of the hardest things we had to do with our puppy Brewster — listening to him scream his little head off, worrying if he was ok, feeling like bad parents and even worse neighbors. One week into having him, we left him alone to go to dinner one night when my fiancé’s father was in town, and halfway through appetizers, I got a text from our downstairs neighbor saying that he had been barking nonstop and sounded like he was “distressed”. This upset me so much — both because I was worried about our little puppy home all alone, and because I felt badly about disturbing the neighbors — that I actually started crying at dinner.

We learned that this was normal and even necessary for training your dog to be ok by himself, and that I didn’t need to have a meltdown just because Brewster was. If you’re able to stay strong and have understanding neighbors (who also understand that the noise is temporary), it pays off big time in the long run. There were a few tricks we tried to help Brewster get more comfortable with his crate, like feeding him all of his meals in there, making sure he always had a chew or toy to keep him occupied, and lining the bottom with fleece blankets to make it a cozy place. After a couple weeks of this, one of our happiest moments was when he wandered into his crate all on his own one evening when he got tired. It became his little sanctuary where he could relax in a warm, safe spot. Now we can leave him in his crate anytime, day or night, with no barking or anxiety — which is much more comforting for him AND for us.

Potty training was a whole different challenge — especially when you live on a top-floor city apartment, and have a pre-parvo-vaccinated puppy who is only comfortable peeing on grass and not sidewalks. We tried to tackle this by using one of those patches of fake potty grass on our roof deck as a temporary solution until we could take him out to real grass to pee. The only problem was that he seemed to prefer peeing on our floor than on the potty grass, and apparently thought the potty grass was just a good spot for a nap. We had read in a puppy training book that it’s much harder to break bad habits than cultivate good ones, so we realized that we needed to be much more attentive and proactive about taking him to the potty grass and avoiding any more accidents on the floor. We tried to be as encouraging as possible about the grass, even sopping up some of his pee from the floor and wringing it out onto the grass to let him know this was an acceptable spot to go, and when he finally tried it out for the right reason, we practically showered him in treats.

It was a lot of work to stay that vigilant all the time about the potty training, but as time went on, the accidents became much fewer and farther between, and Brewster would start to wait by the back door when he had to go. One day, there were just no more accidents, and he would hold it as long as he needed to until we could take him out. Now we never have to worry about him, and can leave him alone in another room while we go about our business, or even take him on vacation to a new house, where he quickly learns which door to wait by when he needs to go.

Talk to a Pro


As noted, all of my blogs are purely anecdotal, and only recount our own personal experiences. If you’re getting a dog for the first time (or at least the first time in your adult life, because it quickly became clear that I remembered nothing about dog ownership from the puppy we got when I was 11), I’d really recommend meeting with a professional to help get you started.

There are a ton of great dog walkers in San Francisco, which is a good place to start. Check out the list on the Walkers & Trainers page, and also ask around for a personal recommendation from friends or neighbors who have dogs. It’s a good idea to talk to a dog walker or trainer even before you get your puppy, because they typically have a lot of experience with different breeds and can help you figure out which would be best for your lifestyle, as well as how to set up your home, what supplies you’ll need, and the type of food to feed your dog to keep it as healthy as possible. They may also be able to help you come up with a custom plan for training and taking care of your puppy, based on your work hours and dog-walking schedule. When Brewster was young, we did a full-day puppy playgroup on weekdays, since we both worked full-time jobs and didn’t want our new pup to be home alone in his crate for too long. We also felt good knowing that he was getting great exercise, training, and socialization with both dogs and people. It’s definitely more of an investment than just hiring a dog walker to drop by a couple times per day to walk your dog for a bathroom break, but you and your puppy get a lot more out of it.

It’s also a good idea to sign up for a group training class to start soon after you get your new puppy, because you want to practice training right away during their most formative months. We took SmartyPup!‘s Level 1 class, and we got so many helpful tips on training that were especially useful living in a city — e.g., being able to recall your dog in a busy park, so you can let him play off-leash without worrying. Some of this they may get with the dog walker, but it’s always good to reinforce it and learn how to practice the training yourself.