It’s dusk. The foggy, chilly kind of early fall dusk that chills your bones as the newly bare trees sway and crackle around you. You smell dry leaves, faint traces of wood smoke and the neighbor’s old beater’s exhaust. A dog barks in the distance. You’re walking down a narrow city street with cars parked on both sides, expecting it to pop out from behind a car at any minute. You’re on edge. Vigilant. Braced. Eyes darting side to side, waiting for it to happen.

And it does. Faster, so much faster than you could’ve expected. You’re face to face with your worst nightmare. You open your mouth to scream, and suddenly you can’t. You have no breath. Your throat tightens and tightens until you lie down, lifeless, no struggle left.


Is this a chapter from the next spooky novel, or your dog’s every day experience walking down the street? If your dog is fearful, it could be the latter. Fear is the root cause of many of our clients’ dogs’ reactive behavior. For most reactive dogs, an everyday stimulus like other dogs, the mailman, cars, and even children, can create the same fear that you or I feel when watching the latest spooky clown thriller. For illustration today, we will focus on dogs who react by barking at other dogs, but the idea is the same, no matter what event causes your dog to bark out of fear. Your dog barking at strange dogs is no different than you screaming when you see a clown crawling out of the gutter or feel a spider crawling on your back. It’s an attempt to move the scary thing away, a form of communication.  How you react, however, and, even better, and how you prepare your furry friend for exposure to these scary items can entirely change how your dog reacts to scary stimuli both in the moment and over time.

Did you know that behavior isn’t all a result of how you raise your dog? Your dog came to you with a number of genetic of “factory presets”: her genetic makeup, whether she experienced stress before birth or early in life during critical developmental windows, how attentive a mother she had, and early husbandry (e.g. how long she was with her mom and siblings, how rich the social environment was, whether she was exposed to people and other dogs in a positive or scary way).  All these things color how your dog’s brain developed and how she processes information. After leaving her litter, your dog has learned a number of behaviors or responses to stimuli in her environment. Many people come to us because of lunging and barking – a very effective tool a dog has to handle fear and anxiety. Barking serves as a signal to others to MOVE AWAY. This MOVE AWAY strategy serves to keep distance from scary dogs, which is an effective way of avoiding a fight!

Your dog  may have learned to be hypervigilant in places where she usually sees other dogs so she can be ready to scream “stay away!” To prepare for fight or flight, in simple terms, your dog may leave the house ready to protect herself from perceived threats on your walk. With stress, epinephrine levels rise, increasing heart rate, blood sugar, blood pressure, pupil size, and the airway so your dog is physically ready to fight or flee. Cortisol levels also rise. During these times of fight or flight, your dog, like you, finds it very difficult to respond to your cues or learn new cues; while she is fearful, it is very hard to have a good learning moment.

Many of us have been taught in these moments when our dogs are aroused and fearful, we should correct the barking or growling by using a “No!”, “Ah ah” or  physical correction (using a choke chain, shock collar, spray collar, or holding our dog down or out of the way as a way of getting our dog to stop barking).  While this may sometimes work in the short term, the underlying fear has not been addressed and, in fact the fear may intensify (and so too can the need for increasingly aversive treatments to combat the increased fear). Over time, with repeated exposures to other dogs, your dog’s fear builds, and they are left without an acceptable coping strategy other than to continue to escalate the lunging and barking. This can result in a bite that might appear to be out of the blue because the warning system – that reactive bark, growl, or lunge – has been systematically repressed by our punishment.

It’s starting to make sense now. So what can we do? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a magic wand? We don’t, but at A Pleasant Dog, we are honored to help people with fearful, aggressive, and reactive dogs on a daily basis with a science based approach – a tried and true toolkit that includes operant and classical conditioning; management of the environment to help prevent mistakes and fight or flight; and, when necessary, assistance from your friendly, neighborhood veterinary behaviorist, like Dr. Jill Sackman, DACVB of Animal Behavior Consultants of Michigan.

In addition, next month we are proud to be hosting Kathy Sdao, M.A., one of the world’s premier experts in applied animal behavior. She and Dr. Jill Sackman will be presenting It Takes A Village – Helping Fearful and Aggressive Dogs Friday through Saturday, November 15 and 16 at A Pleasant Dog. Tickets to this event have sold out, but we’ll be sharing tips and strategies for our reactive clients over the course of the month to help you!


In the meantime, to get started, we need to start training where your dog is comfortable. A first goal is creating a way to teach your dog a new emotional response to seeing dogs that isn’t fear, but we need to start with the thinking part of your dog’s brain at home.  We’ll continue the nuts and bolts of how we approach this training for reactivity in Part two of this three part series on the Spooktacular Journey of The Scared Doggo here on our blog. Stay tuned.



We hear it every day, “My dog is unpredictable”; “If I could only tell when he’s going to bite”; and “It happened out of the blue.” Dog bites never happen out of the blue, but people frequently can’t tell when their dog is telling them he or she is uncomfortable. And you know us, we aim to please.

So, we hired Stephanie Murray of  L’il Dog Arts and Press (Web and Facebook here) to help us make a body language poster that shows the clear but subtle signs a dog is uncomfortable. Remember, behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sometimes a yawn is a tired dog. Sometimes a dog shakes off because he’s wet. But when you see these signs in response to a stimulus (like a child approaching), you should know what to do. Consult a certified professional trainer or behaviorist to help you determine the safest way to manage your dog and help its discomfort through training. (Hint: we know some good trainers).

Please feel free to share, print, copy, and distribute this art, attributing authorship and copyright where it’s due!

APD – Know the signs (PDF)



Love camping? Love dogs? Afraid to combine the two? Don’t be!

Camp Patrol

Bing at camp at Grand Teton National Park

With a little planning, most dogs (even reactive or fearful ones) can enjoy camping right along side you. At A Pleasant Dog, we love taking our dogs with us to camp locally and at the National Parks, and you can too! Just follow these easy steps:

PACK WISELY. We know you all do anyway, but the items you pack for your dogs can make or break your trip. Here’s what’s on our list:

  1. Composure (sold at your Vet’s office) or Pet Naturals of Vermont’s Calming XL (sold locally at Chow Hound and others or online everywhere): This tasty chewable supplement contains a number of natural calming ingredients, including the supplement L-Theanine, which has been demonstrated in studies to reduce cortisol levels in the bloodstream by 50% . Dog afraid of fire pits, cars, packing and unpacking, or change? This is your best friend. Dose them up a half hour before leave, and twice a day while out on your trip. You may also safely double the dose or give additional doses prior to or just after scary incidents.
  2. Medications: Is Fido on an anxiety drug already? Insulin? Anti-inflammatories? Don’t forget any regular medications your dog takes.
  3. Food and Water: Bring your dog’s regular kibble and treats, so that they aren’t faced with tummy troubles. Gassy dogs and tents do not mix. You should also bring a bowl for each of food and water for your dogs. If you elect to use a collapsible bowl, make sure you acclimate your pups to it for a few days before while still at home.
  4. Leashes and Tie-Outs: Bring your regular walking equipment (a harness or collar or head halter) and a four to six foot lead with you, but also a long line or tie out. We tend to use retractable leashes for allowing dogs to potty away from us (not in the presence of others, and attached only to a harness (not to a collar or head halter) until the dog is fully trained on its use). We also bring a tie out cable to keep the dog contained at camp. Not a fan of tethering? We don’t blame you. An X-pen can be a great tool for containing your dogs at camp when you are occupied, but it’s bulky to transport. Do what works for you. But, whatever you do, do not leave your dog unattended on a tie out or in an X-pen, or off lead in new territory.
  5. Bed or Blanket: It’s helpful to have a familiar resting place. If you have time to acclimate your dog to a towel or blanket as a “place”, do so in advance and bring it with you on your trip. If not, stuff your dog’s regular bed on the floorboards of your car, and lay it out at camp. Having a familiar place helps with the uncertainty of new digs.
  6. Chew Items: The first few camping nights can be a little barky. Dog hears raccoon > Dog barks fool head off > Human fails to let dog out > Dog continues to bark. Having a tasty chew item you can pull out and give to a dog after asking for a sit can help them chew quietly off to sleep.
  7. Flea and Tick Prevention: Make sure your dog is up to date on parasite prevention, preferably one that includes coverage for fleas and ticks. There are also natural mosquito repellents you can purchase and apply to your dog in the woods. This helps make things comfortable for everyone.  Is your dog prone to mosquito bites and irritation? Bring some Benadryl just in case (but clear it with your veterinarian first).
  8. Emergency Veterinary Numbers: Look up the number of a veterinary office nearby your camp locations. You’ll thank us if your dog gets too close to a porcupine.
  9. An Extra Key For Your Car: Plan on eating at a mom and pop restaurant on the way? Your dog can’t come with you, and even springtime temperatures can rapidly heat a car to dangerous levels. Bring an extra key for your car and leave it running with the air conditioning on. Lock the exterior door with your extra key, and voila! Mobile dog kennel. Just be sure to  park in the shade and check the car every fifteen minutes or so to make sure the A/C is still working. It is also a good idea to leave a sign with your mobile number in the window, in case passersby become concerned about your dog’s welfare.  We also use this trick when we have to run to the restroom or shower.  But mind the 15 minute rule.



  1. Exercise Exercise Exercise. A tired dog is a good dog, and the camping trip is no exception. Going on a long haul? Stop every couple of hours to take a walk with your dog. Your legs will thank you, and your dog will ride easier in the car.
  2. Have a determined barker? Try using an interrupter like the Pet Corrector (http://www.amazon.com/Pet-Corrector-Behavioral-Training-Aid/dp/B000UCH02O) or a citronella collar (http://www.amazon.com/PetSafe-Gentle-Spray-Bark-Collar/dp/B0002D31QU) to interrupt the barking, so you can use positive reinforcement to reinforce the quiet. Practice this for a few weeks prior to leaving.
  3. Reactive dog? Take time to acclimate them to people walking by them on a tether or in an X-Pen by throwing a high value treat in their direction whenever they pass.  A distance of 25-30 feet should be manageable for most dogs. Can’t get them to adjust to this exercise? Use your car while you’re setting up camp, and keep your dog tethered to you the rest of the time. Don’t forget the treats. If your dog is very reactive, acclimatizing them to a muzzle for safety is a good idea. We can help.
  4. If you’re a back country camper, modify the prep list to work for you! You can do it!
  5. RELAX AND HAVE FUN! If you do your homework and prep your dogs before leaving, camping can be your most fun and relaxing adventure together!

Want to learn more? Call us today! (616) 633-6323. Happy camping!

“Once upon a time in a land not far away…”


We are OVER THE MOON to announce our new collaboration with Nature of the Dog and Shaggy Pines Dog Park. We’ve long admired the job these two companies do for their clients, and come to find out, the feeling is mutual! So, we are excited announce how the GR TRIPLE CROWN works. If you are a client of any business in the TRIPLE CROWN realm, your client relationship entitles you to steep standing discounts with the other two members, and periodic giveaways and additional perks.  Specifically, GR TRIPLE CROWN members get 20% off group classes with A Pleasant Dog, a free MONTH of membership at Shaggy Pines, and a free WEEK of walks with Nature of the Dog.

To claim these perks, simply mention the GR TRIPLE CROWN when you book your service through any member. We three proudly serve thee!

Wealthy and Barth Shop

Hey there, Pleasant Dogs. Long time no write. That’s because we’ve been so busy growing! This year we’ve already added a new trainer (and rumor has it another is on the way). With all the demand for our services, we finally took the plunge and signed the lease on our very own bricks and mortar facility. Our new shop will be located at Wealthy and Barth S.E. and includes the barber shop you see above, plus a lot for dog exercise and classes. The facility will allow us to see more dogs, train more people, and even have more community events. The best part? We’re planning on a small doggy daycare at the facility. You read that right.

To get this bad boy off the ground, we need your help. So, we’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to help us raise funds to fence in the yard, outfit the shop with dog friendly rubber flooring, add furniture, paint, and sundries. Wanna help, go here to donate: Indiegogo . We’ve got some great perks for those who donate. Wanna help but short on cash? Please share our campaign and help us spread the Pleasant!

We’ll be shooting a video and adding more news about the shop soon. In the meantime, we wish you…

Happy training, Pleasant Dogs!


A Pleasant Dog is pleased to announce the addition of Rick Wiersum to our team.  Rick is one of West Michigan’s most experienced trainers, having helped dogs and their people for forty years. Rick thrives on helping owners communicate better with their dogs to enrich the human dog bond.  He is well versed in reactive and aggressive dog training and bully breed training. Did we mention how much we love pitbulls?

Rick’s experience includes years as head trainer and behaviorist for a well known local rescue, training of rescue and shelter groups in behavioral assessment and enrichment for shelter dogs, and the development of an enrichment plan for a shelter that garnered him national attention .  He has studied with some of the greats, including Patricia McConnell. He resides in  West Michigan with his faithful dog, Sam. Rick will be helping us with  group classes and private in-home sessions. To schedule with Rick, please fill out our contact form, specifying you would like to see Rick!

We are happy to report we are finally on Instagram.  Check us out as @apleasantdog and under the hashtags #apleasantdog and #grdogtraining !


2749193“My dog, Snarky, is fine at the dog park, but he barks at other dogs when he’s on leash.”  This is more common a problem than you might think.  There are a lof of reasons dogs might not behave pleasantly when they meet another dog on lead, and we can’t go into them all in a short blog post. However, we know that dog greetings often go sour about three seconds into a greeting. You can circumvent a lot of problems in your snarky dog if you teach a polite, three second greeting: “Say hello.” DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS WITHOUT THE ASSISTANCE OF A PROFESSIONAL TRAINER IF YOUR DOG IS REACTIVE OR AGGRESSIVE OR POSSESSIVE OF FOOD (a so-called “resource guarder”). 
The Steps
1. Start with a dog or person your dog *likes* and one at whom you know he or she will not snark.  Face each other about ten feet apart and, with your dog at heel and treats in your hand, approach the helper dog/person at a casual walk. Make sure to keep your leash loose – a taut leash is a signal to a dog that something is not quite right. When you reach each other, say in an upbeat tone, “Say, hello!” and give your dog a treat or two.  At the same time, count aloud “1, 2, 3”, and use a stop command like “Thank you”, and turn and walk away.  Our goal is to teach the dog that greeting a new dog on lead is a party! This is why the treats appear as we approach and disappear when we walk away.

2. Watch your dog carefully for signs that the interaction is going to go sour. If one dog is staring at the other, someone’s body grows still, a tail is tucked, jaws are tight, or heaven forbid someone starts growling, walk away using a happy tone.  Then call a professional.

3. If your dog remained relaxed throughout step 1, repeat this step, first asking your dog “Should we say hello?” and then repeating “hello” when you reach the helpers. Give treats while greeting, and then stop treats as you say “Thank you” and walk away. Remember to keep your tone upbeat at all times.

4. Repeat frequently with known helpers and dogs. When you are consistently getting a relaxed, happy dog in “hello saying”, you may attempt the exercize with a friendly stranger dog.

If at any time your dog vocalizes, exhibits stress signals like licking his lips, yawning, turning away, showing the whites of his or her eyes, or shaking like he’s wet, STOP. Or, If you can’t get close to another dog and handler without your dog remaining calm, STOP. Contact a professional for help.  Ahem. We know a good one.