Dear Lisa: We have a 14-month-old German Shepherd. She refuses to bark to be let out or let back in. Instead, she scratches at the door. We've been unable to teach her to "speak". Do you have any suggestions? – Knock Knock

Dear Knock: Since your dog is smart enough to go to the same place and repeat a behavior that gets her the same desired response she needs – open the door to go potty – your training is already half done. With a little extra attention on your part making the transition to another alternative should be simple.

Many owners have reported success with hanging a little wind chime or set of jingle bells from the door handle or on the doorframe at the dog’s level. They have trained their dogs to ring the bells when they want to go out rather than bark.

Jingle Bells
I suggest you get a set of three jingle bells on a long string and hang them over where she currently scratches at the door. When she goes to scratch the first time she will ring the bells too. Then I would put a leash on her and go through the new behavior you want helping her hit the bells with her paw (or nose) rather than scratching the door. Each time you have her paw at the bell just before you take her out praise her and say “Good Bell” or some new word to identify the new behavior and give her a treat. I would do this for several days on leash each time she goes out to potty.

Next, take her off the leash and see if she repeats the behavior to go out on her own. If so, reward big time. Each time she goes to scratch she will inadvertently ring the bells. Make a big deal out of this new behavior, tell her “good bell, give her a treat and open the door to take her outside. Eventually, you can move the bells next to the door so she will no longer scratch or damage it. As for outside you can try the same process with more bells so you can hear them from inside the house.

Dear Lisa: I brought home a 7-year-old spayed Whippet/Pit Bull mix. She is a beauty and very strong willed. Her biggest problem that my vet and trainer haven’t been able to help me with is eating. She doesn't like to eat. I can't use food to train, etc. I haven’t been able to find a food she really likes and will continue to eat. I've tried leaving the food down for 10 minutes thinking that by the end of the day she'll be starving and will eat; and at the end of the day she won’t eat. She can go for four days without food but she will drink. HELP! – Picky Pit Bull

Dear Picky: Congratulations on your new pet. It’s always exciting when a new member of the family joins you. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be stressful for the pet to acclimate to a new home. Sometimes when pets are stressed they will go off their food. I’m glad she is still drinking since water is more critical than food and while they can go up to a week without food they can’t go much longer than 4 days without water.

The secret to getting her to eat might not be in what you are feeding her but in reducing possible stressful situations in her new life. For the next week keep a journal of her activities to see if there are situations that appear to be stressful to her. Is there another dog in your family that might be intimidating her? Do you take her on walks that seem to overly excite her? Does she shy away from certain people or activities? By keeping track of her reactions it will help you develop an action plan to reduce these situations and build her confidence up through positive reinforcement exercises, such as obedience training or teaching her new tricks like “give paw” or “rollover.” Once she is more relaxed and her confidence grows she will want to eat her food with gusto.

Unknown History
Sometimes with an adopted dog there is no way of knowing what her background has been or if there are any issues which might be causing her stress. Once you start to identify activities she does like and responds well to practice these before feeding time. In the meantime, you can try to feed her baby food such as strained beef from a teaspoon to see if she will eat it. Sometimes when dogs travel they also go off their food and using baby food, which is packed with nutrients and calories help keeps the dogs blood sugar stabilized. If she likes it then gradually mix it with little bits of regular food mixed with warm water to entice her to eat.

As for training without food, make sure you have tried all sorts of really tasty treats like cooked liver, hot dogs or steak. Some dogs turn their nose up at dry biscuits during training but others will literally jump through hoops for cheese and meats. Other dogs love to play with a toy as their reward for training. Again, in your journal make a note of what she likes to play with or if she responds to a simple “good girl” with a wag of her tail. Finding out what her favorite toy, tone of voice or eventually food treat motivates her will be your choice to reward her in training.


Lisa Peterson, a long-time owner/breeder/handler of Norwegian Elkhounds, is the AKC Director of Club Communications. If you have a question, send it to Lisa at and she may select it for a future column. Due to the high volume of questions we cannot offer individual responses. Read previous columns here.

© 2008 The American Kennel Club, Inc.