Podcast 10: Redeeming Dogs – Understanding and Enjoying Your Pet with Certified Dog Trainer Tod McVicker

Posted by: Penny Rackley   |   Comments Off on Podcast 10: Redeeming Dogs – Understanding and Enjoying Your Pet with Certified Dog Trainer Tod McVicker   |  Posted on: Apr 15, 2016


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Do you have difficulty enjoying your dog and keeping its behavior under control? How can we train our dogs with respect, understanding and some kindness?

In this episode, Certified Dog Trainer Tod McVicker reveals the three things that matter most to dogs, and how we can effectively co-exist with them (without being a jerk).

Tod is a certified dog trainer, and has been training dogs professionally for ten years. He has served on the board of directors for the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), and is currently one of their ambassadors.

I asked Tod to visit with us, because I know that many of you have dogs and love your dogs, but also have some difficulty in controlling their behavior. If that sounds like you, then Tod is your guy, and in this podcast he shares some insights and hard-won experience that’ll help us.


Tod came to our home and trained our dog a few years ago, and after just one meeting, he had all of us eating out of his hand.

He really does train PEOPLE how to effectively co-exist with their dogs — teaches them the appropriate expectations to have of themselves and their animals, helps clients understand more about the breed they’ve chosen, and he can even recommend a specific breed for your lifestyle. Here’s a transcript of my conversation with Tod.

What’s the most common dog training goal or problem that you see?

“My dog is jumping on me, he won’t walk on the leash, he isn’t obeying me” — all this boils down to, “I’m not important to the dog. The dog isn’t mindful of me.”

In these cases, you’ve got to become important to the dog. Dogs are amazing creatures, but we have to remember that they aren’t people, and learn what IS important to them. If we are in control of what’s important to them, then we will become important to them.

— Being important to your dog and your dog loving you are not the same thing. —

Your dog can love you to pieces, but not look to you for information. Your dog can look to you for information and not feel great about you. What we want is a dog that loves us and looks to us for information — who wants to engage with us, and does what we want it to do

Here Tod notes that the ideas he shares in this podcast are not all his own original ideas, but ideas that he’s collected throughout his education and experience learning from many other professional dog trainers.

Three things that are important to dogs 

1. Who picks what activities we’re going to do, and when those activities stop and start

There aren’t bad activities, only bad initiators. It’s a great idea for you to initiate a game of fetch, but if you’re on the couch watching TV and the dog’s over there hitting you with a ball, it’s not a great idea for you to engage in that.

A great litmus test is to take the dog out of the equation and put an adult person in its place. If an adult person was sitting next to you and poking you or demanding you rub their back or something like that, would it be considered cute or rude? If it’s considered rude, then we need to treat it as a rude interaction. 

— I want to teach people to ask for some self respect and some space for themselves. —

What I want is a respectful relationship with the dog. I want to treat them with respect, and for them to treat me with respect too. Most of the dogs I meet are grownups — once a dog is one and a half or two years old, it’s an adult — so we should behave with each other as adults.

What’s the main thing people do incorrectly with their dogs? 

In terms of activities, they let the dog direct the activities. For instance, I’m on a walk and the dog’s out in front of me and the dog decides, “We’re going to go to the left,” and pulls me along. Then the dog decides, “Oh this is a great tree for me to stop and read the pee-mail.” So the dog starts to smell, and I wait, and when the dog decides he’s done, he drags me along the road.

So the dog decided where we were going, how long we were staying, and kind of orchestrated that whole walk. The dog never looked at me, he had his back to me to whole time. He was looking forward and trying to make decisions about what’s happening next.

Just changing that to where I’m in front, deciding where we’re going to go, and when I’d like to stop, and when I’d like to move —that’s a huge relationship change.

— Now I am important — I’m deciding the activity. —

2. Dogs care about space

They are territorial creatures, and in the wild they would be checking the perimeter of their territory to see if strange predators are coming in. They’re very concerned with who is coming and going, because that effects their food supply and their ability to live. If a bunch of predators push in, then there’s pressure for resources. So dogs care about space on the larger scale.

But they also care about space on a smaller scale.  If I’m laying in the best spot and you come up and want that spot, do I have to move for you? Or do you move for me? Things like that matter to dogs.

If I jump on you and you move backwards and give me space, that’s a whole different message than if I jump on you and you move forward and take space from me. If you’re not manipulating space or having insight about space as you’re working with your dog, there are going to be lots of decisions that — to the dog’s mind — need to be made, and you’re not making them.

The dog will make those for you. The dog thinks, “They don’t really care. Or they’re oblivious. So I’ll make the decisions about space or activities.”

3. Dogs care about resources

This could be food, a toy or affection. Just like anybody else with a resource, the scarcer the resource is, the more it’s worth. So if you’re trying to give me a liver snap and I’m laying in a pile of liver snaps, it doesn’t really matter much. We want to control resources.

People kind of get that. They say, “If you’ll sit, I’ll give you a treat. If you are good I’ll pet you.” But control over resources is really important to the dog, and if we don’t control them when the dog thinks they need to be controlled, then we cede that control to the dog.

What I see a lot is that people have a romanticized ideal in their head: “I’m going to bring this dog into my home and we’re going to co-exist — you’re going to hang around and I’m going to hang around, and every once in a while something’s going to become important to me, and I’m going to have to tell you do something, but since I’m fair about not asking you to do many things, you’ll abide by wishes.”

But what the dog sees is: “There are important decisions that need to be made all day around here, and you don’t want to make any of them. I fact, you abdicate and make ME made them. And that can me feel aggressive or fearful or overwhelmed. And so if you make me those decisions all day, then when something important comes up, well guess what. I’m still going to make those decisions, human, because you don’t have any practice. You’re not qualified for the job.”

So what we need to do is live with our dogs in such a way that proves we know what’s important to them, that we have an opinion, we’d like to give input. Then when important things come up, the dog will look to you to ask, “Is this okay? Can I go there? Is it alright if I have this?” We want that kind of relationship.

Watch videos on Tod’s YouTube channel for some terrific examples of how he teaches this.

We’ve got to have engagement. That means you’re interested in what I have to say. Or you believe I have a controlling interest in space or resources. I don’t want to lord over my dog. You won’t see me doing Alpha roles.

— I’m not trying to dominate the dog. I want to be a partner with the dog, but I want to be senior partner. —

I want to make sure the dog gets that full respect. When a dog does something I like, I say “thank you”. You can be a leader without being a jerk. You can be a nice leader.

Is there one specific thing that’s the most difficult for dogs to learn?

Behavior is a habit, a repetition, so once a groove gets cut with repetition over the years, that can be a hard habit to reroute. It’s like a big river that runs through a valley. The longer that river has run, the deeper that gully is, the harder it is to move the river.

Probably the hardest thing for people to learn about dogs is that they learn things in little-bitty bites. People try to make big changes. They might teach the dog to sit in the living room for a piece of food, when no one else is around. Then they’ll take the dog to PetSmart and tell it to sit, and it doesn’t sit. The person thinks, “I taught you this in the living room. Why are you disobeying now?

Dogs don’t learn like that. They don’t generalize a lot. So anytime I change something in the environment — maybe add a variable such as more people or a house cat — the equation doesn’t add up for the dog anymore. He has to be retaught.  If your dog learns a trick in the front yard and you move him to the back yard, he may need to be retaught.

When you change variables, the dog honestly doesn’t know what you want, and you’ve got to patiently reteach. When I make changes, I make them in little dollops so the dog can stay with me. What often happens is people establish a behavior and then they change all the variables, and then say, “The dog doesn’t do what I want anymore.” The dog has no idea what you want, because you changed all the variables.

— 99% of the time when a dog is not doing what you want it to do, it’s not being disobedient or stubborn. It honestly does not know, and it doesn’t know because you didn’t take the time to teach it. —

What made you decide to become a dog trainer?

I started off later in life with dogs, and when I got out of college I got a dalmatian named Bandit. He had a lot of weird behavior issues, so I took an obedience class with him. He was obedient, but when I moved out of my house into an apartment, I couldn’t take a large dog like Bandit. After that, I wanted a dog that I could take anywhere. I never wanted to have to give a dog away again — it was very hard.

Marta and I got a Cardigan Welch Corgi, a Corgi with a tail.  We drove twelve hours all the way to Baton Rouge to get the puppy. The breeders were a gay couple in the later, terminal stages of AIDS. It was the eighties, and I didn’t really know much about the disease. The couple was trying to disband their kennel, and take care of their dogs. When we got there and met the gentlemen, it was obvious that they were both very ill. We took our puppy, and as were getting ready to go back to Dallas, one of the men said, “We have a condition for you taking the puppy.”

They wanted us to show her in the show ring. We decided to try it, and started raising this super-smart dog. We showed Shasta, and she was the worst show dog ever! She was very obedient — she could herd, retrieve ducks — but she was terrible to show. This experience gave us the bug to show dogs, and we did for about a decade.

Even then, we always had lots of dogs, and when they would fight, we didn’t know how to fix it. I wasn’t a dog trainer. If there were fights or problems, I’d sell one of the dogs, move them out.

In my life then, I was agnostic. I’m an alcoholic, and I was drinking a lot, and I felt that those dogs were a reflection on me. If they weren’t perfect and didn’t win, they were out. And if you’d asked me what to do with mixed breeds or mutts — I’d have said to put them all to sleep, put them down. Why would you waste your time with a mixed breed dog?

It was not a healthy place for me. As time went on, Marta and I got married and had kids, and then the dogs just became dogs. We didn’t go to shows anymore, and became more typical dog owners.

By then, I was pretty heavily drinking. I was not a very fun person to be around. This damaged our marriage. I was miserable. I decided that if I got a new wife (because the problems couldn’t be me!) then I’d have a good life. It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore.

Around this time, my parents were visiting Texas, and although we weren’t very close (they are Christian and I was atheist/agnostic), I told them, “I want out of my marriage, I can’t stop drinking, my life is just a mess.”

And my dad said, “Tod, the reason your life is a mess is because you’re trying to run your life. And you aren’t meant to run your life. God’s meant to run your life.” I told him, “Dad, I’m an educated guy, I went to Purdue, and I don’t believe in this stuff.” And he said, “Why don’t you pray for faith?”

I would have done anything at this point. So I prayed for faith and faith was given to me. I changed right then. I changed that hour, and I was a new creation.

I went home and I didn’t want to leave my wife anymore. She was on a business trip and I sent her an email, and she said, “What is going ON?”

I’d tried to quit drinking before. I’d been a hard drinker since I was sixteen, and I’d tried so many times. And I quit in three days. I’ve had over ten years sober, and it was just something that God took off my back and said, “You can’t deal with this so I’ll take care of it for you.”

But your choices in life have consequences, so working through those things has taken a long time. But it’s funny, once I quit drinking, I thought about my life as the dog in the pound. I almost got put to sleep. I was the mutt that nobody wanted, I was the misunderstood dog.

I sort of had a new heart for those dogs — and I had a lot of time on my hands. Because if you’re getting ready to drink, and you’re drinking and then getting over drinking, it’s very time consuming. I had lots of new, free time.

I went and got a rescue from a shelter and I did everything wrong, I just picked out a dog by a picture, and it was a dog that no one would adopt, because it was big and strong, and pulled, and I said, “Just bring it over.” I had it walking on a leash in about five minutes. So I took him, and I still have him. His name is Major, and now he’s about thirteen.

He was a grown dog and had some behavior issues. Then we got another rescue dog, a rat terrier, and she was grown and had issues too. As I was working with these dogs, I was on a dog training news group, and as problems would come up, I’d offer advice on what to try. And if they couldn’t work through their issues, I’d go over to their house and help them with their dogs, just for free. I found I had a talent for it.

Here Tod tells a story about how he helped a household way back then, and how it surprised both the dog owner and himself.

When I got home, I told Marta, I think God wants me to be a dog trainer. Until that moment, I’d never had thought about training professionally. That had really been the last thing on my mind.

She was very encouraging. After that, I went from being an instinctual dog trainer, and realized I was writing a check I couldn’t cash; I was going to get in a situation that was too dangerous or over my head, and I needed a lot of help.

I started looking for the best dog trainers in the United States, and I contacted them and asked to train with them for a week. I went to Florida and trained with Martin Deeley, one of the best gun dog trainers in the world, and a guy that’s super knowledgable about electronic collars. I spent time with another trainer who had great training techniques, Heather Beck in Utah. I went all over the United States trying to get caught up.

I worked part time at nights and weekends, and kept my corporate job, but it was hard on my family and hard on me. Marta came to me in 2008, and said, “Why don’t you just quit your job and train dogs full time?” This was walking away from a good job in corporate America. And I did it.

God has blessed it. Dog training been a way for me to help people with their dogs and to speak into peoples’ lives. It started off with my helping clients to understand their relationship with their dog, and also sometimes our relationship with God. I see a lot of parallels there. But over time, it seemed like I was being called more to help dog trainers. So I spend a lot of time with new dog trainers trying to develop them, helping them through issues. Sometimes it’s more like life coaching.

I find that super rewarding. I love to help my clients, don’t get me wrong, but I’m sort of like a secret agent for God that’s a dog trainer.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

It’s funny. A lot of dog trainers are in it for the dogs, and they don’t like people, and they don’t make very good dog trainers, because the people are the essential part — if I can’t change the person, I can’t change the dog. The dog just reacts — I need the person to act. I think that helping people is the best thing. If I can make your quality of life good because your dog can be with you and do things with you, I want to do that.

Having pet problems in the house can cause marital issues, can cause anxiety, so many things. I can make someone’s quality of life so much better just by helping them with their dog. It’s very rewarding to see the dog blossom and have a good quality of life — to be a dog and not wedged into trying to be a person, because dogs make horrible people. They make great dogs, but they don’t make good people.

That’s a very rewarding thing for me, to see people be able to engage with their dogs, and for their lives to improve through their dogs.

What’s your one big tip or piece of advice for the listeners on co-existing with their dogs?

— When you’re struggling to teach your dog something, make the problem simpler and go slower. —

If I was teaching a two-year-old person the alphabet, I’d help them along and reward them with each success and make the problem simpler — even give them the answer — when they got stuck. And when you took the help and got the answer right, I’d congratulate you instead of punishing you for not knowing.

As you get older, I’d spoon feed you less and less of the information and expect you to know more — you wouldn’t be in kindergarten forever.

That’s how dogs need to be taught too. You feed them a little piece of information. And if they get stuck, you make the problem simpler so they can’t help but solve it.

How to reach Tod

The best way is through his website at redeemingdogs.com. Complete the contact form on that site and he’ll contact you.

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