By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

The “Big 3” are three concepts that are so important that they apply to every dog, every situation. Before we can begin a successful behavior modification plan, it is crucial to understand and implement all aspects of the Big 3: Exercise, Nutrition, and “Say Please”.

#1- Exercise

Dogs were originally bred for a purpose. Each breed was given a specific job to do and certain traits necessary to do those jobs were selected for through careful breeding. In almost every case, high energy was among the chosen traits. After all, these dogs were expected to work long hours and needed to have the stamina to do their job effectively. Today, we keep dogs as family pets rather than as workers. We expect our dogs to hang out at home during the day, quiet and well-behaved. When we get home from work, we will give them a quick walk or a few minutes of play, and then time to settle in for the evening.

This is simply not enough for our dogs. They have all this energy built into them, and if we don’t provide them with good, constructive ways to use up that energy, they are going to invent their own, often destructive, ways to use it. This is where many problem behaviors, such as inappropriate barking, chewing, and digging, begin to crop up. We have all heard the expression “A tired dog is a good dog” and there is much truth to that. If your dog is exhausted from a great work out, he is not filled with excess energy just waiting to come out in inappropriate ways.

It is extremely important that we get our dogs out there to burn off that energy as much as possible. Daily walks are a great start, but for most breeds it is only a start. Jogging, roller-blading, or bicycling with our dogs is a great idea. We should set aside extra time to play games like ‘fetch’ and ‘tug’ with our dog. We can teach our dogs to jump for a Frisbee. In addition to giving our dogs additional exercise, playing games and working out together is a great way to strengthen our bond with our canine companions. Taking our dog to Doggie Daycare or setting up a neighborhood playgroup is another wonderful idea. There is no exercise as good as playing with other dogs! There are many ways to help our dogs get more physical exercise, we just need to be creative!

There is absolutely no substitute for physical exercise, but that being said, mental exercise is a great addition to physical exercise to prevent boredom-based problem behavior from cropping up. Mental exercise means making sure that our dogs are using their minds in constructive ways as much as possible. There are many great ways that we can implement this.

Interactive toys are a wonderful way to stimulate our dogs’ minds. There are several such toys on the market today and more being introduced regularly. A few of my favorites include the Everlasting Treat Ball, Twist’n’Treat, Kong Wobbler, and Buster Cube (any brand of treat-dispensing ball will do; fill it with your dog’s breakfast and a few treats, and let him roll the ball around as his kibble is dispensed bit by bit.) The Kong, also know as the “puppy pacifier” is one of the best interactive toys on the market and something every dog should own. Hand your dog a fully stuffed Kong and he is completely occupied for at least 20 minutes as he chews and bangs the toy around, trying to get all the goodies out. (Kong recipes abound on the internet!) These are just a few of the interactive toys out there. Remember when you are shopping to choose toys that require your dog to think and do things to them.

We can also play games with our dogs for some extra mental stimulation. Teach your dog to “find it” by hiding small piles off kibble and some treats around the house. Then, have him hunt for his breakfast as you get ready for work in the morning. Play “hide-and-seek”, practice obedience cues, learn new tricks… be creative! Your only limits are your dog’s physical capabilities and your own imagination!

#2 – Nutrition

What we eat is literally the foundation of what we are. The proteins that make up our cells come from the nutrients that we ingest. If we exist on a diet of poor quality nutrients in a low digestibility form, we will not be able to operate at peak performance. Think about how you feel after grabbing a junk food meal at a fast-food place versus how you feel after eating a nice, home-cooked meal made with quality meats and fresh fruits and veggies. Now, imagine eating that exact same fast-food meal day in and day out for the rest of your life. Kind of makes you feel sick to your stomach, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is just how many of our dogs live as we (often unwittingly) feed them low quality kibble at every meal. Now, for most of us, making our dogs delicious, nutritious home cooked meals everyday is simply not feasible. We need to rely on the convenience of kibble. This is fine, but it is important that we do our homework and make sure that we are choosing a quality kibble that is made with high quality, highly digestible nutrients. We need to take some time to educate ourselves on how to read a dog food label and evaluate what we see. Unfortunately, we cannot simply choose a brand based on the advice of television commercials (heavily advertised brands are spending their money on advertising rather than ingredients. Often, the most familiar brand names are among the lowest quality foods.) or even many veterinarians (vets have so much to learn in school that nutrition is often a topic that only gets cursory coverage. Most vet schools require that students take only an introductory nutrition course, and often it is sponsored by a big-name pet food company.).

So, we must learn to evaluate pet foods for ourselves. Begin by reading my handout on “How to Choose a Quality Pet Food” and check out websites such as and Talk to the staff at independent pet stores that specialize in healthy pet food. Then, choose 2-4 quality dog foods and rotate among them every 6 months or so. Your dog will begin to feel much better and healthier, and it will show!

# 3 – The “Say Please” Program

Establishing leadership over our dogs doesn’t require force or “domination”, or that we engage in silly rituals like eating a snack in front of our dogs before feeding them. It can be as simple as gently communicating to our dogs that we, the humans, control the resources and our dogs must do as we ask in order to receive access to them.

We have to go to work every day in order to earn the money to pay for our food and shelter and other good things in our lives, and so too should our dogs be given a job to do in order to earn their food, shelter, and other good things. The job that we need to gives our dogs is simply to perform a simple behavior, such as “sit” in order to earn their good things.

So, we need to start having our dogs “sit” every time they are about to get something that we want. (It does not matter what behavior we have them perform, so long as they do something. “Sit” is usually an easy cue that every dog knows.) They should be sitting before we set their food dish down, open the door to go outside, put their leash on for a walk, throw their toy for them, give them treats, allow them up on the sofa… you get the idea. Basically, our dogs need to “sit” in order to earn any good things.

This wonderful program has so many benefits! It teaches our dogs that they need to listen to us to get things that they want (leadership!), that they need to exercise self-control (great for off-the wall dogs), that they have some control over their environment (great for shy or anxious dogs). It is something that should be implemented with all dogs.

Teaching “Say Please”

Let’s take feeding time as an example of how to implement the “Say Please” program. (You can begin the program using any “good thing”, they all essentially work the same way.)

First Feeding:

The first time you feed your dog, you will pour his food and, holding the dish, cue your dog to sit (it is crucial that your dog already understands the word “sit” before beginning this program!). If he does, say “Yay!” and put his dish down. If he does not, you can wait 20 seconds and then cue him again. If he sits, “Yay!” and give him his dish. If not, (or if he walks away any time), say “too bad”, put his dish up on a counter where he can’t reach it and go away for a few minutes and then come back and try again, following the same procedure.

Second Feeding:

The second meal that you practice for you will only be cuing once. Holding your dog’s full dish, ask him to sit. If he does, “Yay” and give it to him. This time if he does not sit, “too bad”, you will set the dish out of reach and go away for a few minutes before coming back to try again.

Third and all Consecutive Feedings:

At this point, you are no longer going to cue your dog. We have shown him what is expected of him, and now we need to wait for him to figure out what he is supposed to be doing. Stand and look at him while holding his food dish. If he sits, “Yay!” and put it right down. If not, just stand and wait. He may offer all sorts of different behaviors including jumping, running in circles, or barking at you. Ignore all of them and simply wait. At some point (for some dogs, this may take several minutes) he is going to sit. The instant he does, “Yay!!!” and set down his dish. Each feeding, follow the same procedure and you will find that he sits faster and faster each time as he figures out the “game.”

The reason that we stop cueing is that I have found that dogs are much more well-behaved when they are expected to understand and follow the rules, rather than simply wait to be told what to do. Dogs that are always cued will often feel that is acceptable to jump and run around like a maniac until he is told to do otherwise, while dogs that are expected to simply offer the correct behavior on their own will usually sit and wait as soon as they hear the rustle of the dog food bag.

Once our dogs have learned the rules for “Say Please”, we can start using it in all aspects of their life. Before long, our dogs will be so well-versed in the idea of the program, that they will start automatically sitting whenever they want something!

While implementing the “Big 3” in our dogs’ lives will not automatically cure their behavior problems, they are the first steps in a successful behavior modification plan. These three concepts are so important that they should be used with every dog. In fact, if we begin practicing them from the day we bring our dogs home, we can often prevent behavior problems from developing in the first place.

* With some dogs, we use a modified version of this program to teach them owner relevance and get them used to listening carefully for direction.

– Make a list of all of the cues that your dog knows.

– Instead of waiting for your dog to sit automatically to earn a resource, ask for a random cue from their list. The dog will need to successfully perform this cue to earn his good stuff.

– The cue you ask for should be different each time so that the dog does not begin to anticipate you, but waits patiently for direction.

– Do not continuously repeat your cue until the dog complies. Ask him once and if fails to comply, he loses his opportunity to “win”. Walk away, and a few minutes later, come back and try again.

– Your dog will quickly learn that he must wait patiently and listen for your instructions to earn his good stuff!