Simple explanations for dog behavior

Michigan Dog Training, Belgian Malinois, Kaboom, Happy Halloween


Is Michigan Dog Training haunted? This was a question I amusingly asked myself the other day when I saw a Halloween Pumpkin Ornament disappear and reappear. Ohhh.

Michael Burkey, Michigan Dog Training, dog behavior, simple answers to dog behaviorFor the holiday, my staff hung a Halloween Pumpkin ornament light in between two Ghost ornaments on our kitchen windows (pictured above). The next day while providing private dog training lessons, I glanced over and saw the Pumpkin had disappeared. I assumed that one my staff members took it down to put up somewhere else in the building. However, the next day I noticed it had reappeared in-between the two ghosts. So I amusingly thought that Michigan Dog Training must be haunted because the Halloween Pumpkin disappeared and reappeared like magic.

Obviously, the simple explanation was that the sticker which hung the Pumpkin on the window had come loose causing it to fall to the floor. On the following day, someone spotted it laying on the floor and reattached it to the window. This whimsical analogy made me think of the times that dog parents often times put human emotions on their dogs and come up with complex explanations for their dogs’ behavior. When in actuality, there are really a lot more simple explanations as to why dogs do what they do.

One time, I had a client tell me convincingly that their dog was upset with him because he was watching the Super Bowl game rather than paying attention to his dog. So naturally, his dog ripped out the cable cord that was attached to the house. The client seriously thought his dog had done this to avenge him. I explained that a simpler solution was that his dog found a wonderful tug toy attached to the side of the house and since he was unsupervised, he was determined to remove it because that’s what some dogs do.

Another client told me that their dog tore up the couch pillow and when they entered the room, they could see their dog knew it was wrong to do. I asked them what that looked like to them that their dog looked guilty. I already knew the answer to my question because it’s a common one. They said their dog slinked downward toward the floor as he made an attempt to get around them and escape out of the room. I asked if it was possible that the dog knew they were upset with him. They responded, “yes of course because we were very upset, we yelled at him and he exited the room quickly. He knew he was guilty” I suggested that the dog really only knew that the owners weren’t safe to be around at that moment.

They believed the dog knew he was wrong and therefore acted guilty upon the owners walking into the room. A simpler explanation is that as the owners walked into the room and saw the cushions ripped apart, the dog sensed that the owners were upset without understanding the “why”. Thus, a human emotion of guilt was placed on the dog.  The dog was simply being a dog tearing apart a stuffed toy (in the dog’s mind).

Another owner believed their dog urinated on their bed to spite them. A much simpler explanation is that the dog had been corrected previously for laying on the bed. Thus, the dog was fearful as the owner approached and Jessica Bawol, Michigan Dog Training, Halloweentherefore the dog was unable to control his bladder at that moment.

There are many more examples of dogs performing undesirable behaviors and the stories we attach to dog behavior. There are made up stories of how we perceive things and then there are “just the facts”, as famously said by Detective Joe Friday of the TV Series “Dragnet”. So rather than assuming that Michigan Dog Training is haunted, I quickly entertained other possible explanations for the disappearance and reappearance of the Halloween Pumpkin such as the ornament simply fell to the ground.

I encourage you to look beyond your dogs presenting behavior and entertain plausible explanations as to why a dog did what it did rather than going with your first perceived complex explanation. I wish you and your family a happy and safe Halloween. Oh, and to be clear, Michigan Dog Training isn’t Haunted.      : )

My dog and children dressed in Halloween costumes; What do I do?

Michigan Dog Training, Michael Burkey, Halloween, Dog

The above picture is making the rounds on Facebook and the pic is just fine; the dog was painted with a non-toxic paint for dogs. I’m using the picture to add humor to a serious topic, “What should I do with my dog when trick or treaters visit my home on Halloween?.

Halloween is a fun time not only for the children dressing up in various costumes and visiting homes asking for candy but also for the home owners who delight in seeing the costumed children. But, its not so much fun for your dog as explained by Michael Burkey, Dog Behaviorist for Michigan Dog Training in Plymouth, Michigan.

Children / kids and dogs

Many dogs have issues with children in the first place. This is because the faces of small children are at eye level for many dogs and children tend to move, scream and laugh unexpectedly. Compound that with, now the children are dressed up in various costumes in which they only see on Halloween and many of the costumes prevent the dog from seeing the childrens’ faces. Some of the costumes even scare me let alone the dog.  LOL

Let me share a couple of examples to highlight how dogs fail to recognize people due to changes in their appearance. I had a friend, Sheree, for whom I picked out a German Shepherd puppy, Bullet, for her and saw the dog on a weekly basis.  One day I parked my vehicle in the parking lot overlooking the training field where Sheree was practicing obedience skills with Bullet.  I don’t normally wear a baseball cap but that day I did.  As soon as Bullet saw me from 50 yards, he became reactive and barked non-stop until I removed my ball cap. As soon as I did, Bullet recognized me and happily greeted me. Later, Sheree went through a hard time in her life so her other dog, a French Beauceron came to live with me for about three months. When Sheree got her life back on track, he went back to live with her and a week or two later I went to visit the two of them.  That day, I happened to be wearing a business suit and as soon as I exited my vehicle in her driveway, he was instantly spooked, became reactive and would not come to me. I took my business jacket off and with some coaxing, he finally came to me. He was never reluctant to come to me other than that one time when he saw me dressed in a business suit. I share these examples of dogs who knew me well and trusted me to illustrate how dogs are so keen on noticing differences in their environment. A small change in my appearance made a big difference in the dogs’ comfort levels. So consider, how difficult it can be for many dogs to see children whom they don’t know wearing Halloween costumes on one day a year.

On Halloween, there are three potential triggers for the dog:

1. Doorbell

2. Hearing children at the front door

3. Seeing children dressed in Halloween costumes at the front door

You can desensitize your dog to counter-act these triggers. For most dogs, their dog food or special treats are powerful motivators. Prior to people visiting your home, hand feed them their treats at the sound of the doorbell.  You can have a family member ring the bell or purchase a wireless door chime from Home Depot or similar store.  During commercials of your favorite television program, activate the doorbell and give your dog his special treats.  When the sound of the doorbell stops, cease the food treats until the next doorbell sound. It is recommended that you do this exercise with your dog on leash so that he will stay with you to quickly receive the treats rather than running off to the front door. You can desensitize him to hearing and seeing children in the same way by pairing the sounds and sights of children with food treats.  If you don’t have children available to help with the training, tape record children laughing, talking loud, etc. and play it while your dog eats his meals.

Then when the trick or treaters come to the door for real, have a family member or friend that is trusted by your dog to handle your dog’s leash. They can treat the dog when the doorbell rings as well as when the children are heard or seen at the door or you can be the one handling your dog and your friend deliver the treats to the children. If the sight of the children is too much for your dog, then prevent your dog from being able to see the children and just work on the auditory distraction. If even this is too much for your dog on Halloween, then place your dog in a dog crate in an inner room, turn up the music to deaden the noise of the children and give your dog a frozen stuffed Kong so that it will last longer for him to lick out the yummy contents.

Home away from home (dog boarding)

Or, if you know that this Halloween will be too scary for your dog and thus stressful for you, then give Michigan Dog Training a call at 734-634-4152.  We will be happy to board your dog over the holiday so that he doesn’t experience scary costumed children.

How to train a fearful or aggressive German Shepherd Dog; not to attack Halloween displays

German Shepherd, fearful aggressive service dog, bad dog training, bad service dog training


A soldier, Larry, has a German Shepherd Dog named Hudson that he says is a trained service dog. He recently uploaded a video of his dog attempting to attack a Halloween display on his Facebook page.  He uploaded the video supposedly showing how he is training his dog to be more comfortable around Halloween displays and it has already gotten close to 3,000 views.

Whether the dog is a trained service dog or not, I don’t know.  What is obvious is that Hudson doesn’t readily respond to his commands, is at an impressionable age, and is terrified of the Halloween displays.  Larry seems like a nice guy who has good intentions attempting to train his dog himself. However, this is not the way to train a service dog nor any fearful or aggressive dog.

Larry said he happened to be walking his service dog in a Halloween store when someone stepped on a foot pedal setting off a Halloween prop which scared his dog.  Not wanting to waste a training opportunity; Larry took his dog up to smell the prop and then he stepped on the foot pedal himself setting off the prop in close proximity to his dog. This triggered the dog to become reactive and Hudson lunged, barked and snapped at the prop.

To control the aggressive display, Larry stepped in front of his dog and told him to sit and tried to reassure him that the scary item wasn’t so scary after all by praising and cuddling his dog. But the potential damage to Hudson’s psyche has already been done. He reacted aggressively twice in regards to being startled. Overtime, he may habituate Hudson to scary things as Larry says he has done but this usually is not the end result.  Instead, when training is done as depicted in the below video, a dog rehearses being aggressive.  The other thing the video shows is what Hudson’s response will likely be to things that startle him and that is not a characteristic we want in a service dog who has full public access.

There are some other problems with the below video. There are liability concerns by conducting the training in a public place. If someone was too close to Hudson, he may redirect onto a bystander. In this video, Larry has a good hold of his dog but there is nothing to stop a child from running up from behind Larry to pet Hudson just before the prop is triggered.  Though this didn’t happen, there was a young boy who was startled by Hudson’s reaction. It isn’t fair to the customers nor the store owner to have training conducted this way in the store. In fact, any service dog who is disruptive can and should be excused from the store. It also isn’t fair to the qualified service dogs and trainers to have someone train their own dog in this manner. It presents a bad image for the profession and does an injustice for all service dogs and their rights to have public access.

Lastly, it is really questionable if the dog needs to be proofed against scary Halloween displays. If Larry was a store employee and medically needed his dog to be with him, then perhaps. But since Larry is a customer, he could choose not to enter a known scary place for a dog or train his dog properly in a private setting. Larry may have good intentions but he doesn’t have a proper education in dog training to do it by himself. He would benefit from working with a professional dog trainer.

Larry was contacted about his video and the below steps were suggested to him.  He, however, is not open to training his dog a different way and unfortunately, doesn’t see anything wrong with the way he was “training” his dog. He also minimized his dog’s response saying his dog was going into a “defensive posture” and barking to let it be known his “displeasure” over the trigger object. He is minimizing what his dog was doing. Hudson was having a fear response to the item and was acting aggressively toward it. It was offensive and not defensive behavior.

Michigan Dog Training, Service dog, Diabetic Alert Dog, dog obedienceIn a nutshell, here is how the training should be done for things Hudson or any dog is scared of:

  • Training initially should be done in a private space with limited distractions, not a public store.
  • The dog should be walked with a comfortably distance from the trigger object that challenges the dog but doesn’t overwhelm the dog.
  • When the object goes by or is triggered, it should be paired with the introduction of a a food treat (or ball play session). At first, it’s “stuff a dog” with the food treat so the dog doesn’t even have time to react. Later, the treat could come as the dog shows calm non-reactive behavior. If the dog won’t take the treat, then he/she is too close to the trigger object.
  • The dog should also be trained to look at his/her handler on cue such as with a “look” command.  This is helpful to tell the dog to look away from the trigger and to the handler.
  • As the dog improves overtime, he/she can be worked closer and closer to the trigger object. The dog should always be worked just under its threshold, challenged but not overwhelmed.
  • The dog can also be removed from the trigger object as a reward for being calm.

Desensitizing a dog can be compared with how training is done in the military. All soldiers attend basic training before being assigned to a station or post rather than being thrown into a war zone. As with dogs, basic obedience needs to be learned before attempting specialized training or behavior modification. Once a solider completes basic training, many then attend specialized training for their particular specialty (MOS, Military Occupational Specialty). The MOS for the dog might be the service dog training or the behavior modification to be calmer around scary objects. Flooding a dog by immersing them to a trigger object without sufficient distance and without prior skills to handle the item is setting the dog up for failure. It is not generally effective nor fair to desensitize a dog to scary things by immersing them. You have to habituate and desensitize the dog to it overtime at a level that they can be successful with.

If you need help to train your own service dog, contact Michigan Dog Training or call 734-634-4152.


This is a video of how NOT to train a dog by Larry and Hudson.


Dog Training on Halloween


As a professional dog trainer in Michigan, I encourage my clients to teach their dog that the ringing of a doorbell should mean sweet things and not something scary is about to happen.

To change your dog’s attitude of a door bell, pair the ringing of the bell with a tasty dog treat. Soon your dog will come to view the doorbell as a trigger for tasty treats and not something scary. Your dog will still bark but instead of being in a reactive, out of control non thinking state of mind, your dog will be calmer and able to think. This makes it easier to teach your dog to sit or go to a predetermined “place” upon hearing the doorbell and in return receive tasty treats.


The problem is sometimes getting enough people over to visit to ring the doorbell. So what could be a better training opportunity than many children coming over to ring the doorbell for trick or treat? To get started now, pair ringing the doorbell yourself or by a family member and give your dog tasty food treats. Get started on this before Halloween arrives.

Assuming you have a good start on this, then on Halloween night-dress your dog up in a cute Halloween costume (so children looking through the door will see what a sweet and adorable dog you have rather than a perhaps scary barking dog) and have someone hold the dog on leash in the living room but far away from the front door. When the doorbell rings this person stuffs the dog with a tasty dog treat and later rewards for calm behavior while the other person hands out goodies to children. By having your dog on leash, you can be assured that your dog cannot race to the door to excitedly greet children.

If this is too much for your dog or if your dog shows aggression toward children or adults, then instead place the dog in a different room with the door closed and reward as above when the doorbell is triggered. If it’s just too much, too soon for your dog, then lessen your dog’s stress by placing your dog in a closed off room with someone to pet and/or play with your dog and either leaving the front door open (storm door is still closed) so children do not have to ring the doorbell, deactivating the doorbell for the evening or not participating in Halloween activities this year. It is crucial that your dog not be overly stressed and for children not to be scared of a barking dog. But if your dog is ready for the challenge, this is a perfect opportunity to get some free training in for you and your dog.

To read some Halloween safety tips for you and your dog, read the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Blog post:  Trick or Treat:  Make Halloween Safe for Your Dog.