Authors Posts by Tom Shelby

Tom Shelby

Tom Shelby
PS: Love those questions — keep ‘em coming! Write to

Gidget fidgets around people she doesn't know. —Photo courtesy of Simone DeSorcy

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the ownerof Gidget who is afraid of men, and the owner of a dog in heat.

Dear Dogfather:

I have been adopted by two small rescue dogs, both very loving. The female, Gidget, is terribly fearful of strangers, particularly men. When new people come to the house, she initially barks and sometimes growls as they knock on the door. Once the guest enters, she retreats to the back of the room and jumps on the couch, continuing to bark. Quite often she gets the shakes, and occasionally the nervous piddles. When I host a large dinner party, as I frequently do, Gidget zooms upstairs and crawls in my bed.

More worrisome is her fearful behavior as we take our daily leashed walks around the neighborhood. We live on a very busy street with narrow sidewalks.  When Gidget sees another pedestrian, either in front of or behind us, she balks (not barks) and tries to back out of her harness and/or onto the road…very scary, as the myriad car and truck tires are merely a few inches away on a road system that was never designed to accommodate such traffic.

Is there anything at all that you can suggest we try to make this little being less afraid of the world?

Many, many thanks,

Gidget and Pierre’s Mum

Dear Gidget and Pierre’s Mum,

How do you take an insecure dog and make him a confident dog? How do you make a coward brave? It’s much more difficult than taking the dog that looks in the mirror and sees God, and making him understand that there may be a God, but it’s you, not him.

The most stable dog is afraid of nothing. How do you get a dog afraid of nothing? You expose him to everything, and nothing bites him. Many dogs bite out of fear, and since more than half of my training appointments have been with problem dogs, I’ve seen a lot of fear biters, and plenty of dogs that were not biters, but nonetheless extremely fearful of anything new.                                              Once again I find myself not in harmony with most modern training modalities. Because I use what some may call force, but I call it gentle, loving firmness. If a dog is afraid to come down the stairs, I’m not going to stand at the bottom of the stairs and try to coax him down with a piece of cheese. With the average lifespan of the midsize dog being only about 12 years, there’s not enough time. If he’s small enough I’m going to pick him up and place him on the second or third step from the bottom and gently force him down the one or two steps with a leash attached to a harness and then give him the cheese. When he’s descending the two steps for the cheese with no pressure from me we move up to four or five steps from the bottom. If he’s a 110-pound dog, I’m not carrying him down and placing him two steps from the bottom. I’m holding onto the banister while dragging him down next to me with very little slack in the leash so he can’t fall and scare himself further, offering the cheese every other step. How many times have I done this with total success? Probably hundreds, with no failures. I’m a strong believer, if it works, stick with it.

Mum, assuming that your guests don’t try to kick Gidget when they see her, from now on when your friends come over I suggest that you are holding the leash attached to Gidget in harness as you open the door and let them in. Both you and the guests ignore Gidget, but keep her close to you, basically forcing her to deal with the strangers in close proximity, without the strangers actually confronting her.

That’s how a good part of the visitation is going to go. Whether Gidget’s leash is tied to a bureau leg in the loop of activity, or being held by you or one of the guests, she is going to get desensitized to the presence of “aliens.” Now add tiny pieces of meat to the equation. When no force is necessary because she’s not at the end of the leash pulling to get away, offer the people food. If the only time on planet earth that she gets people food is in conjunction with new people and experiences, her fear is going to be replaced with curiosity. I’ve used this approach successfully a thousand times. Where feasible, have guests offer her the people food treats and watch her become “Miss Happy to Meet You.”

When walking down the street and you see somebody approaching start talking to Gidget very happily and offering her those pieces of cheese, redirecting her attention to you on a very positive basis, once again in conjunction with the approaching stranger. Better yet, set it up with a friend. Walk toward the friend with your happy voice and treats, treats only if she’s not trying to pull away, and stop and talk to the “alien.” Have the “alien” offer Gidget some of the cheese and watch her attitude change from shy to gregarious.

When the weather permits, take her to Mocha Mott’s and have your coffee with the two of you sitting outside, people-watching. Expose her to the world with treats and she will learn to embrace it instead of fearing it. Write back and let me know how it goes.

Good luck,


Dear Dogfather,

I have two dogs, one male, 1.5 years, and one female, 10 months. The female has gone into heat this morning. The male is neutered, and I have a Pampers with a hole cut for her tail. What else should I do/expect?


Dear Tyler,

I bet your male dog is a lot more excited about your female going into heat than you are. Heat averages about three weeks. Generally the bleeding turns pink by day 12, and stops by day 16, but they are not out of heat. It just means that she has ovulated, and it’s during this time that there are many unplanned breedings. Keep the diaper on her (indoors) for at least a couple of days after the discharges have stopped. You may also want to put a belly band on the male to prevent his “marking” indoors.

She will have a very strong and distinct smell that dogs from miles around can smell. Having used my dogs for search and rescue for 25 years, trust me when I tell you: Depending on the wind, dogs in Falmouth will be trying to take the ferry over to meet your alluring girl. When outside, do not take her off the leash. Period.

On average, they are breedable between the 12th and 18th day, known as the estrus period, but they can remain in heat until day 21. It is during the estrus period that you will see her “flagging,” cocking her tail to the side and backing her butt up to the male, or your leg, or whatever, saying, “I’m ready NOW!”

In terms of behavior, it’s not unusual to find both dogs humping each other, your leg, or anything humpable. Raging hormones may cause some minor behavioral presentations, and sometimes result in a “hysterical,” or false, pregnancy. It may occur whether or not she was mated. Symptoms usually begin four to nine weeks after the heat period, and may include mammary-gland enlargement with or without the production of milk, lethargy, and actually taking a toy and treating it like a newborn puppy. If that happens, let me know, and we’ll discuss it then.

If you have a yard with a six-foot fence, it’s still not good enough. An ardent suitor will get in or your dog will metamorphose into Houdini and escape to find the nearest “lover.” Outdoors she stays on leash!

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Monte got bullied at the dog park. —Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owners of a small dog who was bullied at the dog park and a golden retriever who likes to steal food from guests and.

Hi Tom,

When two standard poodles chased down and bit my 15-pound pup at a Land Bank property a few years ago, the ensuing confrontation with the owner was terribly upsetting.

She left in a huff, and it was only after she drove away I realized her dogs had drawn blood.  Being so upset in the moment, I never thought to get her name or information. Luckily the local animal officer figured out who it was from my description. Recently a friend had an experience of a loose dog attacking her dog, which was tied in the backyard, and she tracked down and confronted those owners, with a similarly frustrating and fruitless confrontation. Do you have advice for dealing with the aftermath of this kind of event? Dealing with the offender/s as well as the frightened or injured animal?



Dear Danielle,

This is a tough one. Tough because my expertise is training dogs, and half this question has to do with the training of people. If a dog presents unwanted or intolerable behavior — anything from peeing on your carpet to biting your elderly mother — the behavior of the dog has to be modified through training. I can get you set up properly and give you the do’s and dont’s to housebreak the dog, and help you manage the dog’s unwanted aggression, if not eliminate it.

This is America, land of litigation. I’ve testified as an expert witness in dog-related cases many times — in court, and in both condo and co-op tenant and landlord-tenant arbitrations. Sometimes it’s bad blood between neighbors and the dog has nothing to do with it. I had a client in one of the premier Manhattan skyscrapers get a notice from management that basically said, “Your dog’s barking has received complaints; either get the dog to stop barking, or get rid of the dog, or get out.” Thanks to modern technology I had the owner record the dog’s silence for 36 hours, a period during which the neighbor complained of the barking. The result of which left the neighbor embarrassed, which turned to anger, and the last I heard was he was suing management for one thing or another.

I’ve done many lessons at dog parks, and at Kakiak State Park dog run, near where I used to live in New York, there was a guy with a large dog with a history of attacking dogs in the run. The aggressive dog owner ended up in a brawl with the owner of a golden retriever.

Here’s a case where no “human training” is needed. Your puppy gets attacked and bitten by another dog and that dog’s owner apologizes, gives you his name and number and tells you he will reimburse you for any expenses incurred. Wouldn’t that be great? And Danielle, it does happen sometimes.

Unfortunately, it’s not been your experience. Best advice, if an aggressive dog owner is not civil and is in need of “human training,” use your phone. Take pictures of him, his dog, his car with license plate, along with any injuries to your dog.

First and foremost, however, is attending to the immediate health and safety of your injured dog. Next, police, dog warden, and court if you’re so inclined.

As for your injured puppy, if it needs mouth to nose resuscitation, obviously get it to a vet ASAP. If it’s a lot more frightened than injured, comfort it without smothering it in pity. Then, ASAP, get it together with known, friendly, mellow dogs. Try not to inadvertently reward a fear response, meaning petting him and telling him it’s okay when he shows fear at the sight of a strange dog. Rather, talk to him so happily that you get his tail wagging and are giving him treats, and all this happiness has to do with the new friend he’s about to make.

I prefer training dogs. As Mark Twain said, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. That is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”    Good luck and may your future dog encounters be enjoyable ones,

The Dogfather

For the Dogfather-

My one-year-old golden retriever is a food hound. She constantly tries to steal food, particularly when we have guests.  I have tried locking her away, but she just cries and fusses, making entertaining a chore. Please help so we can enjoy having company again!


Dear Jennifer,

Dogs go from puppy to punk to young adult to adult adult to senior adult. Congratulations; it may have started around six months of age, but for a golden you’re right in the heart of punk-dom. It’s when they’re seriously into playing “no speaka English.” When I started in the business the common thought was, “Don’t start training until the dog is six months old.” The fallacy of this was obvious to me the first time I worked with a puppy. I start laying a foundation of doing things correctly when a puppy is about eight weeks old. Unwanted behavior: boy, is it easier to prevent than to correct.

I learned early on that the best way to really help people harmonize with their dogs was to go into their homes because the truth is, 95 percent of the time you’re hanging out with your dog, it’s in the house.

I have a thousand stories because I’ve been in so many homes I have no idea what the word normal means. The lady who burst into tears when I said, “You don’t have a lot of company, do you?” This was just after I entered the home and she let the English Bulldog out of the bedroom to greet me. He was so happy to meet me that he went airborne and hit me in the gut knocking me onto the couch behind me. Then all 65 pounds jumped on my lap and proceeded to lick, snort, and fart in all his joy.

Jennifer, locking her away actually exacerbates the problem. Dogs are social animals, separating her is like a “time out” for a kid. It’s a punishment. She just needs to learn her manners.

All you mentioned is stealing food. I don’t know if that means grabbing food from the counter or table when you’re not paying attention, or actually going for it in front of you, or ripping it out of your guest’s hands.

At age one a golden is a large dog and I’d suggest you get a pro to help you. If you live in N.Y.C. I can give you a number of a pro who will transform your girl in one or two lessons. In the meantime I’d suggest a “place” command for golden girl. Pick a spot in the loop of activity, out of a traffic pattern that enables her to see what’s going on. Put something on the floor that she likes to lie on and set up a piece of leash that you can affix to a heavy piece of furniture or an eye hook on a floor molding. When company comes bring her to that spot and attach the leash, making sure it’s long enough for her to lie down on her bed, but no longer. Then give her a frozen kong with peanut butter, or a hollow marrow bone with a piece of meat wedged in the middle.

If she still fusses, once again I’d suggest the help of a pro. What method I’d use to teach her to be “quiet” and stop fussing really depends on several variables, including her intensity and perseverance.

Jennifer, I understand that you know where I live. When you get the chance, please come around and it will be my pleasure to help you.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

P.S.: Love those questions — keep ‘em coming! Write to

Lily the dog. How much of a workout does she need?

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owner of Lily about how often she should work out, and advises on how to avoid, or change, a biter.

Hi Tom,

How often does my 60-pound half Australian shepherd/ half red tick coon hound need to exercise?


Sian Williams

Dear Sian,

I had a client who was training for the triathlon. His life basically revolved around exercise, most of which he shared with his smooth collie, which resulted in what I referred to as diminishing returns. That dog needed a solid hour of running next to a bike just to warm up and get loose. In the house he was like a spring coiled tight, ready to explode.

Granted, the expression in my business is, “A tired dog is a well-behaved dog,” but imagine you’re best friends with Clark Kent and talk him into jogging eight miles to your house hoping to tire him out before your tennis match with him. He’s still going to beat you.

So Sian, you’re not looking to make “super dog,” but you do want lean and muscled and not pacing with excess energy he needs to expel. And those exercise needs vary greatly with age, breed and health. The young German short hair pointer isn’t quite warmed up by the time the young pug is completely exhausted. Aussie shepherds and redbone hounds are both breeds that require lots of exercise. Assuming your dog is relatively young and healthy, in addition to pee and poop outings two serious half-hour walks should suffice.

Just before I sat down to write this answer to you, Sian, I was at Sunset Lake Park in 30-mph wind-driven rain with my poodle, Paula. She was totally crazy, totally happy and energized by the cold, wet wind. I however, was not. So another thought came to mind: mental stimulation.

I remember how my kids complained of how tired they were after taking their SAT exams; while my response was, “Tired! What are you tired for? You were sitting on your butt for three hours!” Sian, take a half-hour working with your dog on obedience, mixed with a new trick and it will be just as exhausting as a half-hour walk.

Another suggestion. If you’re going to have company over or barbecue, try to exercise the dog vigorously for 40 minutes before the guests arrive. People will be commenting on what a well-behaved dog you have.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Hi Dogfather,

What advice do you have for people entering a house where there’s a dog with a history of biting people? What gestures should I watch out for in the dog? What body language should I exhibit?

I don’t want to make the wrong move or a fast move near the dog.

How do I break through to the good dog inside it?


Not Fond of Stitches or Rabies Shots

Dear Not Fond of Stitches or Rabies Shots,

Great question for those of us who prefer avoiding hospital emergency rooms. My close friend Brian Kilcommons (Google him) just recently answered this very question for police departments across the country. Cops responding to domestic disturbance calls run into very agitated dogs all the time.

I remember an Easter dinner at my house years ago when my wife’s uncle raised his hand and asked me if he could go to the bathroom. I was boarding and training a huge Scottish deerhound at the time who stood up and alerted with a hard stare at any visitor who had the audacity to move about.

In a perfect world, dogs that threaten visitors would be denied access to the non pack members. In the real world I learned very early on in my career to ask many questions, especially about any history of aggression, and the dog’s response to people it didn’t know entering the home. You’d be amazed at how many people describe bites as “nips,” or are in a state of denial about their dog’s belligerence. I’d need an abacus to count all the times I’ve heard the fib, “Wow, it’s the first time he did that!”

Dogs bite for different reasons. There are six or eight different types of aggression, depending on who you ask and how you define the trigger that sets off the response. I remember the tearful lady who told me about her Vizsla who mauled a guest who had simply walked into the kitchen to toss her paper plate with the chicken bones into the garbage. The dog had raided the large container and wasn’t about to share its booty with anyone. That’s possessive aggression, or resource guarding, the resource being the chicken in the garbage.

So, what to do when, as a guest, you’re about to enter a house with a biting dog? One way of eliminating about 80 percent of the territorial aggressive response is to ask the owner to have the dog outside in the yard or in another room when you enter the house. Then have a seat on a chair at a table, not on a couch. If the dog is crazed with barking because it knows there’s a stranger in the house, wait till it calms down, then have the owner let the dog enter, perhaps dragging a leash. The owner should not be holding the leash. Your job: basically ignore the dog. Fleeting eye contact with a brief, “Hi Rover” is okay. Don’t try to engage the dog, even if it’s sniffing you while growling. Ignore. Never approach an aggressive dog. I’d need my abacus again to count all the people who ended up in the emergency room, who even after being warned, said, “Oh, I’m good with dogs; dogs love me.”

When it’s bored with your neutrality and saunters away is the time to break through to the good dog inside. As it’s walking away it’s your turn to engage with a happy sounding, “Rover, come!” When he arrives, offer him a treat from your flat hand below his mouth. Then ignore and continue talking to the host, even if Rover nudges you for more. It’s the reverse sale, like a stockbroker telling a client, “I have a hot new issue but was only allotted a limited amount of shares; I can’t give you more than ——.” Have him wanting more! It’s the same with trick-training a dog. I just taught Paula, my poodle, to drop dead when I shoot her with my hand and say bang. As soon as she got it and loved the praise and treats, instead of repeating it till she got bored, I stopped it, leaving her wanting more!

You’re right about not making a fast move around the dog. I remember a client’s dog lunging and biting a guest who leaped up yelling during a Super Bowl game. Surreptitiously observe the dog observing you. If he’s giving you a hard stare, ears cocked, stay put and ignore. If he gets up every time you get up, be deliberate, but slow as you move about. If his mouth is closed, he’s anxious. What you want to see is the open-mouthed slack-jaw grin. That’s a relaxed dog.

If you’re really not comfortable with the dog’s discomfort, don’t be shy — ask the owner to put the dog away. It might help one of the many owners who are in denial about their dog’s aggression to get some help.

Good luck and keep socializing,

The Dogfather

PS: Love those questions — keep ‘em coming! Write to

Angus (in front) protects Frankie, his new little sister.
The Dogfather, with Paula.
The Dogfather, with Paula.

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the Dogfather counsels the owners of a noisy new puppy and Tyler, who’s moving his pooches to VH.

Dear Dogfather,

Angus (in back) watches his new little house mate, Frankie, who can get sort of noisy.
Angus (in back) watches his new little house mate, Frankie, who can get sort of noisy.

Thanks to your advice, Angus and his little sister Frankie (who came home to us a few weeks ago) are best buds. They play rough, snuggle in Angus’s crate, and pal around all day. Frankie is more vocal than Angus when they play and walk around. For instance, she will “complain” and sounds as if she’s walking begrudgingly while trying to keep up with her pack, or growl and yip during play. Should we be discouraging this vocal behavior? Or keep letting her express herself?


Alex and JD

Dear Alex and JD,

Delighted to hear how well things are going with Angus and Frankie. I refer to dogs that bark too much as their being overly verbal. That usually refers to dogs that bark for attention, or at the window when someone has the audacity to walk by your house. Then there are the dogs that give the driver acoustic trauma when seeing anything while driving in the car, or the hapless barkers who suffer from separation anxiety when left alone. These being some of the examples of overly verbal canines, I don’t think they apply to Frankie. From what you described it sounds to me like play excitement barking. Paula, my poodle, will sometimes jump straight up and bark on the sighting of another dog, basically saying, “Oh boy, a possible romp with one of my own kind!”

When dogs play, they chase each other and play fight, and as often as not they verbalize when playing. My Doberman, Michelle, had a best friend, a German Shepherd named Daisy. They played often and sounded like two lions fighting to the death. When Michelle had a tug of war with a rope toy with my other dog Tri, it was a 90-pound Doberman against a 17-pound Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. She could have easily ripped it out of Tri’s mouth, but didn’t because she enjoyed the game, and you should have heard the decibel level of the growling coming from both of them.

Alex, if you tried to stop the verbalizing while she’s playing, Frankie would probably relate your correction to her playing, not her growling. Playing, to her — as with many other dogs — includes growling.

However, I’m a little confused when you mentioned that she “will complain and sounds like she’s walking begrudgingly while trying to keep up with her pack.” That almost sounds like she’s experiencing some physical discomfort while walking. You might want to keep an eye on that.

As I’ve said before, the best you can do to have dogs get along is interfere as little as possible, let them work it out.

Enjoy the extended family,

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

I will be moving from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven at the end of the month. I have two dogs. Will this be stressful to them,and if so, how do I lessen the stress?


Dear Tyler,

Will moving from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven stress these dogs out?
Will moving from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven stress these dogs out?

I read somewhere years ago that moving ranked with death and divorce in terms of trauma. That of course pertained to humans as the article went on to explain that a large percentage of people have to move because of something catastrophic such as a job loss or cancer diagnosis. Countless times I’ve heard, “My dog’s behavior is regressing; she started destructive chewing again like when she was a puppy, or peeing in the house,” or whatever, for no reason at all.

But there’s always a reason, and it’s my job to find out what’s causing the dog’s aberrant behavior. Dogs are very aware and sensitive to the vibe of the household. The sadness of a wife whose husband passes away may create enough anxiety in the family dog to cause it to start nervously chewing on furniture.

So if you have to move because of a catastrophic change in your life, your dog is likely to be depressed or a basket case before you even move. Now add to that the fact that your dog can’t even conceive of the concept of “moving.” What the dog will perceive is the disassembling of her den, of her sanctuary, with no understanding of “why.”

When my wife Jaye and I decided to move to MV to retire it was all good. Yet Jaye cried for most of the 5 hour drive from NY just because of the trauma of the momentous change in our lives, leaving our beautiful house we had lived in for 30 years and being so far away from our children, friends and familiar environs.

So Tyler, even assuming that your move is positive, all your dogs see is your stress from the actual mundane hassles of moving all your stuff,  and their comfortable home being obliterated.

So what to do? If possible, before you move, bring the dogs to the new house, making sure they’re hungry, and feed them there. Play with them there. Walk them in their new neighborhood. Do this as often as you can. If you can’t actually get into the house, then familiarize them with the area around the house as much as possible. And when you do move make sure that their beds and bowls and toys are in the new digs immediately, not in a storage facility to be picked up later.

Best of luck,


(U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger)

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the Dogfather counsels the owners of a pair of calamitous canines.

Hello Dogfather!

We have two dogs at home — a 7-year-old rescue mutt (herding breed) and a year-and-half-old rescue. The older one was abused when he was younger, and one of his triggers is people walking through the door — especially men. He barks and usually stops if it is someone he knows in his very tight inner circle. Well, now our puppy has been copying this learned behavior. I’ve turned into the crazy dog lady holding the barking dogs when people cross the threshold. I’ve tried shaking the can of pennies — but nothing seems to deter them. Help!

Hi Lady Holding the Barking Dogs,

One of the key reasons that man and dog bonded thousands of years ago is for the precise reason that is such a hassle to you. Territoriality! Dog’s hearing and scenting being what it is makes it virtually impossible for somebody to enter a home undetected if there’s a dog in the house. That coupled with territorial aggression is why you hear barking whenever you ring the bell of a house with a dog in it.

While all dogs will alert their owners that somebody’s on the property or at the door, their follow-up response can vary widely. While the Golden Retriever’s likely response is “Hi, great to see you, wanna throw a ball and play?” or “Here’s the fridge, wanna share something?” the Doberman’s response might be, “You ain’t crossing the threshold without higher-up clearance!”

The basics of my dog training almost always include a “door turmoil routine,” a routine at the door to eliminate the turmoil of aggression or crotch sniffing or jumping, barking, or whatever nuisance behavior the dog presents.

And that lesson is usually one of the last lessons, because it requires redirecting a hardwired instinctual behavior, which isn’t easy. Before the door routine can be established, the dog needs to be pretty efficient at the basics — coming, lying down, not jumping, respecting the word quiet, and most important, using self-control by STAYING, when told.

Shaking a can of pennies without a prior foundation of obedience will probably exacerbate the barking by agitating the dogs further. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever used a shake can for a door routine.

You might try having the dogs out of sight outside when visitors arrive, and then when the guests are seated at a table, let the dogs in. If that’s not feasible, have the dogs in another room, once again meeting the guests after they are seated at a table. You only mentioned barking in your question. If you think the barking may lead to biting, you need to call a pro for help.

More often than not, having visitors already in the house before the dogs meet them eliminates a great deal of the aggressive territorial response. Your best bet: Call in a pro to help you get them under control.

Good luck, and keep those questions coming.

The Dogfather

Tucker. —Photo by Kimberly Burke

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the Dogfather counsels the owners of a troubled Tucker and a pair of noisy pooches.

Dear Dogfather,

Some questions about our dog, Tucker, a 2-year-old Chihuahua mix rescue from St. Thomas. I’ve had him for almost two months.

1. We thought Tucker just liked to shred paper when he was left alone, but sometimes when we are “ignoring” him he’ll look for paper.  Why does he do this? Luckily he does not shred or chew anything else. Just curious.

2. I’ve had Tucker for almost two months now, and we started training immediately. However, it seems like sometimes he hasn’t learned a thing, but  other times he’s pretty well behaved. I know training is a constant thing, but why does it seem like he hasn’t learned anything at all?

3. Tucker likes to “nibble” with his teeth when playing. He doesn’t bite hard, although sometimes he will when having fun. How do I stop him from doing this?

Take care,


Dear Kim,

I don’t think you can name a household item that a vet hasn’t taken out of a dog’s stomach. About half of my training appointments had to do with some kind of real behavioral issue, and destructive chewing is pretty high on the list. Many dogs have real preferences. I remember a Redbone Coonhound that just loved to spend an afternoon devouring a good book from the owner’s library. Then there are the finicky wood eaters — just chair legs for one particular Lab I got to know pretty well. More than once the hapless owner went to sit down only to have the chair collapse as though the leg had been sawed through as a slapstick joke. Some of the wood eaters were strictly into door and floor moldings.

The cloth eaters were killers. Imagine coming home to your four-piece sectional couch with three of the sections half shredded, along with the love seat. Carpets, yum! Let’s not overlook the plastic-eating gourmets. Anybody not have any plastic in their house?

I know a Golden Retriever, also named Tucker, who was perfect in every way, except for the two operations he needed to remove his owner’s stockings, which were completely tangled in his intestines.

Well, Kim, your Tucker seems to like paper. Why paper? Dogs being creatures of habit, it very well could be happenstance. The first thing he got into and perhaps liked the sound or feel of was probably the crunch of the paper. Or maybe it was the taste or smell of the glue on an envelope. Many dogs prefer negative attention to no attention. It gets you to stop ignoring him when he grabs paper, doesn’t it? Tempting him with paper when you’re around and enforcing the “leave it” command, then substituting with dog toys and praise, should work well with Tucker.

So, sometimes Tucker acts as though he hasn’t learned a thing when you know he has. I have three kids who were all taught right from wrong. Does that mean they always did right? Countless times I’ve said to people, “I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is your dog is real smart,  and the bad news is your dog is real smart — and not cooperative.” Dogs are not computers that we can program. Tucker may be off-leash looking at the sexy Jack Russell walking by when you call him to come, and he knows what come means, and he makes a decision. “In a minute, Mom, just gotta check out this Jack!” Dogs play “No speaka Inglish,” are manipulative, and get away with what they can just as often as people. Especially when they’re young. You’re right about consistency, it’s really important, and time is on your side here. He will want to please you more as he matures and deepens his relationship with you.

As for nibbling on your hands, teeth and flesh are no-noes. If his teeth are on your hand, don’t pull your hand away; rather, with your other hand, twist his collar tight and give him a bit of discomfort as you snarl “No teeth!” The second he takes his teeth off your hand, release the collar and praise him lightly. Just make sure he feels a modicum of discomfort every time his teeth touch flesh, with the irritation stopping when he stops. Better yet, every time he gets mouthy, shove a toy in his mouth and never let him get used to having his teeth on you.

Stay consistent, and Tucker will become a well-mannered gentleman.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

Jada and Magnum were born three weeks ago — on August 28. The third triplet did not survive, but these two are opening their eyes and on the move. (Photo by David Roberts)

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owners of a pregnant Vineyard Haven dog, eagerly awaiting triplets.

Dear Dogfather,

Our dog is going to have puppies soon. We are looking forward to the adorable pups, but not so much for all the cleaning up after them. How can we housebreak them as soon as possible?

Awaiting triplets in Vineyard Haven

Dear Awaiting Triplets in Vineyard Haven,

Congratulations on your (probably by the time you read this) enlarged family. One of the lines in my book is, “It’s amazing how much of my life revolves around feces and urine.” If you’re a dog trainer it’s true. I don’t care if the dog is so well-trained that it takes out the garbage and loads the dishwasher; if it poops or pees in the house it’s no good. Period.

Initially, most mothers will clean up after their pups. Dogs are strong creatures of habit, and what they’re standing on when they first become cognizant of the comfort of relieving themselves can be meaningful. That’s been my experience. If as soon as possible you can have them get accustomed to making pee and poop outdoors, instead of on floors and carpets, it speeds up the housebreaking process.

Dogs have a “den instinct.” They don’t like to make pee or poop where they eat and sleep. That’s where the expression “dirty dog” comes from. If the dog goes in its den, he’s considered dirty. Get a crate large enough for him to stretch out lying down plus a little, and get him to love it. This should start happening at about six to eight weeks of age. Feed him his three meals a day in the crate, crate door open. During the day toss special treats in the crate, praise him whenever he goes in, and put his bed in it, making sure that that is the most physically comfortable place for him to hang out.

As long as he’s too young to hold it all night, the crate, with crate door left open, needs to be boxed in by an x-pen (eight paneled metal gate with all panels jointed so it can be easily configured anyway you want). Next, put a pee pad that has a touch of the dog’s urine on it outside the crate at the back of the confinement area so that when pup wakes up to relieve itself it can leave its den, and pee or poop on the pad which he will be attracted to by the urine smell. The last thing you want is the dog going in his den. You know he can hold it all night when the time comes that you wake up and discover a clean pee pad. That’s when you close the crate door for the night.

If you don’t want a pee pad in the house, have the crate near your bed with the crate door closed and when you hear him crying or whimpering fly out of bed and get him outside immediately. Initially, always praise the puppy with voice and treat as soon as he’s finished going, except at night. No treat then. Keep praise low-key so he goes back to sleep. Most dogs have the ability to hold it all night when they are about 10 weeks old.

Try feeding on a structured basis, close to the same times every day. This way you’ll get a handle on when he has to go in relation to when he eats. I’d suggest he gets fed three times a day until about four months of age, then lose the middle meal and feed in the morning and evening at your convenience. Leave the food down for 20 minutes or so, then remove it and lose the guilt if he misses a meal. He’ll learn to eat when it’s available and you’ll both be better off if he’s on a schedule. (This is not the place for me to deal with the dogs who can’t afford to miss meals for one reason or another).

Also, a dog needs one cup of water for every 8 pounds of weight in a 24 hour period to be properly hydrated. Most vets will tell you to have water always available. That’s because they’ve had clients actually dehydrating their dogs by holding water back to eliminate the peeing mistakes. Cut the water off by 7 pm so pup has a better chance of holding it all night sooner.

During the day, assuming someone’s home, pup is confined within view of caretaker. (The x-pen can make this relatively easy). Enter the Dog God. What happens in most cases all over the world, when an owner sees their dog starting to relieve itself in the house, the person is charging at the dog arms flailing, yelling whatever they’re yelling to stop the dog from going. And what does the dog learn from this? Well, from his perspective, when you see him going,  you clearly lose your mind, charging at him yelling and flailing. That’s why dogs get very good at getting sneaky; they wait till you’re distracted and then step out of sight behind the couch and take a quick pee to avoid your insane reaction to their natural needs.

The Dog God is anything that startles the dog and it doesn’t come from you. Several empty soda or beer cans with a dozen pennies inside, strategically placed to be quickly picked up and shook or thrown near the dog (depending on the dog’s sensitivity) as the dog starts to go hopefully stops the process. Don’t let the dog see you shake or throw the can, and get him out, treats in pocket to reward the outside pee or poop.

Signs of a dog seriously thinking about making pee or poop are a sudden intense sniffing (looking for the right place to pee) or a kind of darting back and forth or circling (looking to poop). If you can’t watch him for whatever reason, he has to be confined in the crate/x-pen area with crate door open and pee pad available, or in the closed crate, depending on his progress. If he goes in the house and you didn’t catch him within 15 seconds, just clean up and deodorize. It is extremely important that the odor of any mistakes be removed, as dogs really do go where they smell it. White vinegar is as good as the odor neutralizers on the market and much cheaper. If the dog is basically housebroken but has a proclivity for going on occasion in a particular spot, feed him on that spot for a week. Dogs don’t like to relieve themselves where they eat anymore than you like to have meals in your bathroom.

In my experience most dogs are pretty reliably housebroken by about five months of age.

Good luck.

The Dogfather

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owner of Izzeira, who was pinned to the floor by a less-than-polite dog.

Dear Dogfather,

Love your column.  Wondering about social protocol?  This is probably an isolated situation, doesn’t happen often, however, when in a public place (the bank), I have my dog, Izzeira, on a leash, and an unleashed dog comes over and growls and pins my dog to the floor.  The owner says, “It is alright, he is just showing that he is the dominant dog.”

I was not alright with that. What should I have said??

Thanks,  vethorse

Dear Vethorse,

Keeping in mind that my wife reminds me from time to time that sometimes I’m socially inappropriate with my directness, my first thought is, “Who do I kick first, the dog or the lady?” The “dominant dog” owner is clearly not from around here, but seemed to speak pretty good English for someone from a different planet. Which is good, so she’ll be better able to comprehend your response spoken in English instead of Jupiterian.

Perhaps I’ll be accused of anthropomorphizing here by saying to dominant dog owner, “Your off-leash dog pinning my dog down and terrorizing her is as acceptable as my husband knocking your husband down and getting on top of him and threatening him!”

Actually, Vethorse, this is really a tough question to answer because if dominant dog owner has a dog like this in a bank, off leash and saying its behavior is okay, then she’s so clueless, who knows how she will respond. Anger usually begets anger in return, but how can you not be angry as your dog is being beaten up, if not physically, mentally.

Perhaps just keep it simple: “Your dog needs to be on a leash and you need to take responsibility for its unacceptable behavior,” or to be less argumentative —  just, “Your dog needs to be on a leash!”

Hey Vethorse, out of curiosity, what did you say?

Good luck and may you never see dominant dog lady and her dog again.

The Dogfather

PS: Love those questions — keep ‘em coming! Write to

Leo has a bit of a loud mouth. — Photo by Michael West

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owner of Leo, a German Shepherd whose barking rocks the planet.

Dear Dogfather,

My wonderful German shepherd dog Leo barks. I guess all dogs bark, that’s what they do, but he’s a big dog, lots of teeth, and he scares people. He barks at people he doesn’t know, and he barks at people he does know, even my sons, who he sees many times every day. When people come in the house, despite his barking, he is all tail wagging and friendly as he can be.

In the car he rocks the planet with barking every time a dog walks by. Help!

What to do, what to do?

A loving owner of a barky dog

Dear Loving Owner of a Barky Dog,

Several years ago a vet who’s a friend of mine was quite dismayed when he was bitten by a dog whose tail was wagging furiously just before the bite. As I explained to him, there are different types of tail wags. If a dog loves to bite he’ll be wagging, looking forward to the bite. Same goes for barking. All kinds. Excited, playful, fearful, warning, lonely, just to name a few.

Sounds to me like Leo’s barking is habitual, which is not unique. Dogs are creatures of habit. If he seems to bark at everything all the time, it’s become a habit. What to do?

First thing Leo needs to learn is the command “quiet.”  As I’ve said often, the best way to train a dog is to have success build on success. Maybe start in the car where it’s just the two of you with a good spray bottle or water pistol. You’re not looking to give Leo a facial, so make sure your H20 firearm sprays a good stream, not a mist.

If people walking close to the car cause him to bark, don’t park next to the fire engine during fireworks; remember, success builds on success. Park where the occasional person with a dog walks by and as the person is approaching the car start getting Leo’s attention by talking calmly to him and offer him treats as long as he’s not barking.

When his mouth opens to bark he hears a firm “Quiet” with a spray between the eyes a split second after the word quiet. If he shuts up offer him treats as the person passes the car. Frankly, a toy poodle is more likely to respond to a little water than a German Shepherd, but try it anyway. You never know!

If that doesn’t work I’d consider an E collar, using a vibration mode as opposed to electric stim. If that doesn’t work I’d suggest the help of a pro to ensure proper timing and stim intensity. It should be weak enough to startle, not hurt.

Leo needs a “door turmoil routine” for people coming to the house; a routine to eliminate the turmoil at the door. Initially, thank him for barking to let you know somebody’s approaching the house. It’s one of his jobs. Then he’s told to go to his “spot,” located out of the way but with a view of the entering guests, and sit and stay, If he barks, it’s “Quiet,” and have the guests enter. After “Hello’s” with the visitors, Leo is told to come forward to meet the guests with a treat. No barking allowed at this point.

I’m a big fan of this routine because it’s a tone-setter. If he’s out of control when people come over he’s set the tone of the visit — unpleasant. But if he’s trained to do this routine, the tone that’s set is one of good manners and cooperation. You may need a pro’s help to effect this routine, especially with an intimidating German Shepherd.

Good luck

The Dogfather.

— Photo by Alexandra Loud

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels Alex, who will soon be bringing home a new puppy to join their Shortybull, Angus, and the owners of Alby, who is entering her golden years.

Dear Dogfather,

My partner and I have a two-year-old Shortybull (Frenchy-Staffordshire bull terrier mix) who is fabulously friendly, calm, and loving. Angus is neutered and rarely is aggressive toward other dogs. We are planning on adding a new female pup to our home in September. What do we need to do for Angus and the new pup so that everyone is comfortable and happy?



Dear Alex,

Glad to hear that Angus is a nice guy and also glad to hear that the new pack member is going to be a female. Generally, opposite sexes get along better than same sex. In my experience the worst inter-family dog aggression is often between two sisters from the same litter — especially terriers. What often happens is the dominant sister is a bully, pushing her submissive sister to the point where she can’t and won’t take it anymore, with the result being a serious fight. Usually happens between one and two years of age, with a lousy prognosis. The bully won’t stop bullying and her sister won’t submit and your quality of life goes downhill as the constant anxiety of a serious fight erupting makes your life miserable. With about 800 training appointments per annum I’ve seen this scenario about once a year, with one of the dogs having to be re-homed because they weren’t going to work it out.

When you have a puppy in mind, I suggest you bring Angus to meet her and let them hang out together. If Angus thinks it’s great fun when the pup play-fights with him and you see two tails wagging a lot, you got a match. If Angus’s new sister isn’t coming home with you on the first meeting, take two dish towels and rub her all over with them. Then place one towel under Angus’s food bowl and the other under where he sleeps. The positive association of her scent with two of his favorite spots can’t hurt.

When it’s time to bring the new family member home, bring Angus with you. If that’s not feasible have them meet a block away from the house and then come home together. Meeting at a neutral location will go a long way in avoiding a territorial-aggressive response, which often applies to playdates, too.

Best of luck with your new pack member,

The Dogfather

Dear Dogfather,

What recommendation or advice do you have for the lucky owners of elderly dogs? I have been blessed with 14 wonderful years with my canine companion, and while I feel sure she will be the longest-lived dog in existence, I know the time will come when I will have to prepare both of us for her ” next great adventure.” My dog, let’s call her Alby, is a terrier mix of about 40 pounds. She has enjoyed robust good health her entire life and continues to be healthy and happy. I take her for daily walks, and if she is a bit less interested in squirrels than she used to be, she still frisks about. While this not a topic I like to think about, I do want to be able to make the best decisions I can when the end nears so as to be able to afford her a comfortable and dignified passing. Yours with respect.

Alby’s Loving Mother

Dear Alby’s Loving Mama,

The vibe I get from your question tells me that if there’s reincarnation I’d like to come back as your dog. One thing’s for sure. Whenever the end comes, you can be sure that Alby’s had as good a life as a dog can have.

Euthanizing a family member is truly one of the most painful hardships we humans can face. And it comes in three parts — knowing when to do it, making the decision, and doing it.

I think if there’s chronic pain and discomfort and she’s living in a haze of painkillers, it’s time. If she stops eating or drinking, it’s time. If her quality of life has totally deteriorated, make the decision.

But in all of this there’s something that I think is extremely important. NO PITY. Don’t share your sadness with him. Dogs are very aware and sensitive to your mood. ACT. Act as up as you can. Do not share your sadness with her. It will only frighten and depress her more. After it’s done, mourn till you’re out of tears. After it’s done.

My little Cavalier King Charles thought he was in heaven before he actually got there. He passed with his tail wagging furiously as he was devouring a chocolate bar when he got the sleep shot. I might also suggest that if possible, have the vet come to your house when it’s time. Alby will be much more comfortable and so probably will you.

Enjoy the time you have and good luck,

The Dogfather