Training Your New Puppy? Start with Empathy

A local author’s new book encourages owners to let their dog be a dog, then teach our human ways.

On Planet Dog, this is nap time. And nighttime. And nap time again. No wonder being all alone in a crate feels scary at first! (All photos by Kathy Callahan)

Alexandria, VA – When Kathy Callahan was 12 years old, she finally got the dog she’d been begging for, and as part of the agreement with her parents, she signed up to get him trained. Off she went to a trainer who made her yank on a choke chain to get him to stop pulling, stand on the leash, and bellow NO with militant authority so he would listen. Even though this coercion was standard practice at the time (and sadly lingers), to young Callahan it felt very wrong.

“After that class I never trained with Baxter again, because it felt sad and mean,” Callahan said. “What a shame. Twelve-year-old me would have adored the kind of positive training I do today!”

Now a professional dog trainer in Alexandria, Callahan’s approach reflects a paradigm shift in the dog training industry toward force-free training. The success of positive reinforcement is indisputable, and the movement away from fear and coercion toward empathy and connection is gaining real momentum. Callahan is a learned practitioner and shows how to apply this concept to puppyhood with her signature humor and warmth in her newest book, Welcoming Your Puppy From Planet Dog.

Designating a main living area as the “Puppy Apartment” gives a new pup two key things: 1) your companionship, and 2) “yes” choices you can reward.

She likens adopting a puppy to kidnapping a baby from another planet. She reminds readers that the instinctive behavior of dogs, e.g., sniffing, chewing, biting, digging, barking, is just that: instinct. On Planet Dog, sleeping takes place lumped together with littermates, exploration and learning happens through the mouth and teeth, and dirt and grass are for running, jumping, and digging. They play till they drop and then they sleep.

Callahan teaches owners to work with, rather than against, those natural instincts. She guides her clients to meet their dogs’ needs, and their own, by asking what kind of play do they need, and how does that fit within the household? She teaches clients to focus on training that will make their life easier with their dog, such as how not to barge through the door, how not to bark at or jump on people who come to the door, how not to knock the bowl out of their hands.

Your puppy’s new best friends probably live in your neighborhood! Callahan offers great advice on setting up your home and village for mutual support and socialization.

“Dogs are sentient beings, just like humans,” said Callahan. “Fear-based training is not relationship-building. It’s a one-way street where the human makes all the decisions and turns the dog into a robot, there to cater to the human with no regard for the dog’s needs and wants.”

Believe it or not, the positive reinforcement concept was born in the care and training of marine mammals. Think about it – how do you put a choke collar on a dolphin? You don’t! Two (of many) pioneers in this industry who inspired Callahan are Karen Pryor and Kathy Sdao, former marine mammal trainers who applied the positive reinforcement methods on dogs. This positive training model uses rewards and empathy to teach animals how to coexist in peace and harmony with their humans.

Callahan entered the training world through the back door. After a career in publishing, she and her husband raised two daughters alongside their evolving pack of dogs, with three or four at a time. She worked as a preschool teacher and began fostering dogs at home. Eventually she left teaching and expanded her fostering to include pregnant mamas and their litters. To date, she’s fostered over two hundred dogs (and counting).

Alexandria author Kathy Callahan’s new book encourages owners to let their dog be a dog, then teach our human ways.

She recognized the need for positive training with the foster adopters. “The new owners would reach out and say, help, the puppy is chewing, barking, jumping, etc.” Callahan was eager to help them work through these typical problem phases so the families could return to the joy of raising a puppy. “I realized how far apart expectation and reality were for them,” Callahan said. After several teary consultations at various kitchen tables, she knew she wanted to help create a terrific dynamic in this interspecies relationship. So she embarked on the path to becoming a certified trainer with her own business.

Callahan was looking for training resources for her clients but couldn’t quite find the book she wished for. Author Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Inspired by her experiences with adoptive foster parents and informed by the latest science findings in the dog industry, Welcoming Your Puppy From Planet Dog emerged.

Under Aunt Mojo’s steady example, the puppies learn that a good sit yields praise and treats more quickly.

Part of Callahan’s goal is to empower people to embrace the basic message of positive, empathetic training so they don’t need to call a trainer every time the puppy or adolescent dog begins to display unwanted behavior. “I want them to trust their own empathetic gut and say, ‘I wonder what my dog is thinking?’ Then come up with their own solutions.”

Callahan and Georgie, her shepherd/Pyrenees mix, enjoying an afternoon walk. Building a healthy, empathetic relationship with your puppy from the start leads to a lifetime of companionable friendship. That’s the end goal.

Welcoming Your Puppy From Planet Dog is an engaging, comprehensive approach to positively adding a new puppy to your home. The book begins well before the puppy arrives and guides the reader through setting up their home and village. Callahan spends time on managing expectations for the first week, then goes into the heart of puppyhood: socialization, training, and behavior. There are actionable, tried-and-true tips as well as tons of situational advice, as Callahan generously shares her wealth of experience. It’s a resource the new puppy parent (and any dog owner, really) will reach for time and time again.


We busy humans can easily get into a pattern of paying the most attention to our puppies when they’ve caused trouble. When they are acting exactly as we’d wish them to — lying peacefully on the dog bed while we cook, keeping four feet on the floor when guests arrive — our attention stays focused on the cooking or the guests. But if pup starts jumping up on folks, chewing the chair leg, or biting somebody’s clothes, suddenly we find time to interact with her. I beg you to reverse that dynamic. Tune in and notice when your puppy is doing what you’d love to see more of. Do it enough, and you’ll start seeing a whole lot more of the behavior you want.

— Excerpt from Welcoming Your Puppy From Planet Dog

Reviews of Welcoming Your Puppy From Planet Dog

“This is an amazing, absolute must-have book for new puppy owners. Kathy Callahan’s exceptionally readable writing style combines scientifically sound guidance with humor and empathy.” ~ Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, author of The Power of Positive Dog Training

“THIS is the evolution of all puppy books…the single most important read puppy families can get.” ~ Kim Brophey, CDBC, CPDT-KA, author of Meet Your Dog

“Disguised by its cheeky title, there is seminal information in this beautiful book.” ~ Dr. Ian Dunbar, author of Barking Up the Right Tree

“A must-read.” ~ Marc Bekoff, PhD, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals and Dogs Demystified

“This short-yet-powerful handbook spells out all the puppy essentials in a fast and funny read.” ~ Justine Chater Schuurmans, CPDT-KA, LFDM-K, author of The Dial Method

“I cannot put this book down! This is the most practical puppy resource I’ve ever seen. It’s full of empathy-driven and ethologically informed strategies.” ~ Marlene O’Neill Laberge, FT-CBT Therapist

“One of the few reads I’ve found to really prepare people before their puppies come home.” ~ Helen St. Pierre, CDBC, CPDT-KSA, founder of Old Dogs Go To Helen

“This fresh voice is just what today’s puppy owners need. She knows exactly what they’re going through, and exactly what they need to hear.” ~ Nancy Kerns, editor of Whole Dog Journal

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