Nature via Nurture: Why Socialisation and Habituation Absolutely Matter

Nature via Nurture: Why Socialisation and Habituation Absolutely Matter


A few weeks ago, I did a post about the importance of understanding bias and purpose for social media posts. Mostly, that was focused on the ways we take physical care of our dogs and being careful about where we seek veterinary information. I planned to write a similar post about getting to the bottom of bias and purpose in dog training, but since my gripe was really about two particular posts from one specific trainer, I thought I’d be more precise, rather than just bemoaning the state the internet.

One of the posts was a particularly click-baity one about why some trainer ‘doesn’t socialise’ her dogs. I’m not linking to it for obvious reasons. Gripes about her ethics, her marketing and her training methods aside, posts like that make my blood boil. It makes me cross that people who won’t bother getting beyond the headline will then think they too don’t need to socialise their puppies. They weren’t my main gripes though. My main gripe was with the premise of her article: that dogs don’t need early developmental experiences.

But let’s just clarify the mixed-up terms she used. Socialisation and habituation are very different things, as are gradual desensitisation and accidental sensitisation. I appreciate they are all lumped under the banner of ‘socialisation’ where puppies are concerned. But there is a difference.

Some people said that this didn’t matter.

I beg to differ.

If you don’t have a grasp of what you are talking about, how can you profess to be an expert?

That’s like me saying I don’t believe in using eggs in soufflé and then going on to talk quite clearly about something that is plainly scrambled eggs.

Am I an expert in cooking if I mix up my soufflé and my scrambled eggs?

Not really.

So, my first gripe was with the mixed-up terms she was using.

First, she mixed up socialisation and habituation, desensitisation, sensitisation and flooding. Now that’s not a crime. I’ve got a degree in psychology and I don’t expect everyone to know their Harlow’s Monkeys from their Skinner’s Rats. But for me, if your post is doing the rounds on social media, it’s kind of important to be a bit right.

I don’t take my advice on psychology from people who don’t understand the basics.

I don’t listen to people about social media who don’t understand what the difference is between Twitter and Instagram.

And I won’t be taking my advice about puppy training from someone who doesn’t understand the difference between socialisation and sensitisation.

So… with that in mind, let’s sort out that psychology nonsense.

Socialisation is the process by which we become social. It is about our interactions. That can be with your own species or with others, but the crucial thing is that it involves interaction. It is how you learn how to become a functioning member of society. For dogs, this is how they interact with us, with other dogs and with other species with which they have interactions, like cats. We don’t interact with egg boxes (or rather they don’t interact back) and so how we behave around egg boxes, metal surfaces, icecubes or sports stadium bleachers is not socialisation. Even if that’s what many people call it.

Habituation is the process by which we get used to the world around us. It is about how our reactions to the stimuli in the world around us diminish through repetition. It is about reducing the startle reflex. If you imagine hearing a loud exhaust bang outside your house, that would startle you. If you heard it all the time and you got used to it, you would become habituated. Habituation is a fairly normal process and can happen naturally. It’s how we move from conscious awareness of new stuff around us to it becoming subconscious. Like the smell at the shelter. I don’t imagine it’s any less foul than it was when I first started, but I don’t smell it any more. If you want to habituate your dog to the world around it, then your dog would be out in the world getting used to stuff. You can also habituate them to people, dogs, cats, sheep etc when your aim is not that your puppy will socialise or interact with it. I don’t want my dog to socialise with sheep. I want him to become used to the movement and presence of sheep to such an extent that they are no more interesting than a bush or a tree. But I don’t want him to interact with them. That’s habituation, not socialisation. I like French for this – ‘getting used to something’ is s’habituer. It’s easier for me to remember what it means. In French, socialiser or even sociabiliser means to make sociable, to socialise. They don’t get mixed up so easily. It’s definitely an English language thing to mix up those two very different experiences.

However, if you didn’t get used to the world around you, you might become sensitised to it. In other words, you’d never get used to it and your startle response would remain constant or even get worse. You may become anxious or fearful, living on your nerves. You might notice it and be unable ‘not’ to notice it. This usually happens with fear, but it can happen with other negative emotions too. For instance, I may mean to habituate my dog to the car but accidentally sensitise him to it. He might start panicking or vomiting. This is closely tied with flooding where we are exposed – either accidentally or purposely – and we become hyper-sensitive to something in particular. Flooding often leads to a panic state, and to panicked aggression, but it can also lead to being completely shut down.

You may then start a process of desensitisation which is a deliberate process by which you try to make something less powerful. Usually, this is done in a careful and gradual way through repeated exposure at limits that are not horrible and terrifying. Sometimes, we call this systematic desensitisation to make it clear that it’s gradual and planned.

So, now that’s cleared up, it was obvious in the post that what the trainer was actually advising was not to accidentally sensitise your dog to the world around them. So she wasn’t actually saying she didn’t help her dog learn how to interact with humans and other dogs, but that she didn’t make her dog panic about things like steps and being overwhelmed by strangers. Now I agree with her on that.

But the rest of her article was equally dubious, not least the lack of understanding of basic canine development.

She went on to say that genetics are the “major” factor in what our dogs become and that socialisation destroys the relationship you have with your dog (because hey, that world is INTERESTING and according to her, you don’t want your dog to realise that!). Now whilst I agree that it has to be a balance in that relationship between owner-environment-dog and I accept that, I want to get into a bit of discussion about genetics and the dog we have in front of us. Because it’s not as clear cut as ‘it’s either in the genes or it’s not’.

Let me give you an example.

I will show you the results of a lack of socialisation. I would share a photo but we don’t share information on social media about the dogs at our shelter who live ‘in sanctuary’.

This is a true story, though, about a real dog. He’s not that different from many of our other ‘hard to home’ dogs.

He’s a breed well-known for being suspicious of strangers and other animals. He came from a long line in that breed who had been purposely bred to be more suspicious than others. If you think these behaviours can’t be inherited, they absolutely can: aggression, neuroticism and fear of new things have a genetic quality to them. So you take a dog who already has the ‘right’ genetic building blocks. Let’s add being male to that mix as well. Then you remove him from his mother and his litter-mates at two weeks. Whether you do this on purpose to imprint him more on his owner or through some accident of rearing, the consequence is the same. You fail to socialise him with his litter-mates or his mother, and only socialise him with his owner. He is never socialised with other humans or with other dogs. What you get is a dog who cannot be around other dogs, who is selective about humans he likes or doesn’t and who will no doubt live out his days in a very limited fashion.

Don’t believe me about the genes being only the building blocks, and socialisation being the process by which they are assembled?

The breeder came to see if he could pick the dog up. He brought with him another dog from the same litter. Same breed. Same mother. Same father. Male. And that dog was the soppiest, friendliest dog ever. The breeder said he’d have liked to have taken our dog back, but there was no way he could keep him in the safety and security that he needed as an absolute guarantee.

Now you tell me what the difference is?

Life experience. Aka. Socialisation and habituation.

Socialisation matters hugely. And habituation. But socialisation is an integral part of the adult dog that you get.

For that, I’m going to be referring a lot to Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Nature via Nurture’, and to the works of Robert Sapolsky, among others. And, of course, the enormous and epic works about socialisation from Bar Harbor in the 1950s and 1960s, which focused on dogs, among other species.

Sure, breed is important.

Of course it is.

If breed wasn’t important, you’d have beagles as police attack dogs and Jack Russells as sniffer dogs. If breed wasn’t important, people would be using bichon frise to flush out pheasant, not cockers.

Let’s step back a bit. Let’s just talk ‘Dog’.

Dogs have what is called an ‘ethogram’… a list of behaviours that they are physically capable of performing, along with their function. These behaviours are typical for that species. Different species have different ethograms. For instance, ‘climbing’ is part of the spectacled bear ethogram, by which they mean ‘locomotion on structures/trees, not at ground level’. Now dogs can climb. But do they climb trees like bears do? Do they use their tail to hook around the branch like a spider monkey? Do they grasp a branch with their paw and swing from tree to tree?

Not possible.

The canine ethogram is shared across the canine species. There are things that are very similar across all canids, and things that are different. There are things dogs do that wolves don’t – dogs are much more vocal than wolves in general – and behaviour, like a physical trait, is also subject to evolution. So all dogs have a basic repertoire of behaviours and functions. For some, those are elongated – like terriers, who have virtually every behaviour in the canine repertoire – and for some that is truncated. We focus much on the predatory patterns and how dogs have elongated or truncated patterns of predation, but this forgets that dogs do a lot of other stuff as well, and a lot of that is the same as every other breed of dog. Predatory motor patterns are not the be-all and end-all of a dog.

But yes, in terms of certain traits, it’s a law of averages thing. You’d expect to find fewer Basenjis who vocalise. Fewer salukis with a kill-bite-dissect. More terriers who’ll go from orienting on a target to the final dissection. More cockers who are interested in going into bushes and sending up birds. Fewer beagles interested in disinterring your moles. More poodles who find it easier to walk on two legs than Leonbergers.

It’s not just the predatory motor behaviours or physical behaviours that dog breeds may differ in.

It can be emotional and behavioural too.

I firmly believe – and James Serpell’s work on CBARQ will no doubt be the basis of further work on this – that breeds are more likely or less likely to exhibit other behaviours outside the predatory motor patterns of orient-stalk-chase-grab/bite-kill/bite-dissect. That might include the ‘Big Five’ of aggression, neuroticism, openness to novelty etc for instance. As an example, if you compare your average Anglo-Français hound, they certainly seem to be less aggressive, less neurotic, less afraid of novelty than your average German Shepherd. There are other things too that behaviourists and trainers will become more in tune with, anecdotally, that no doubt Serpell’s work will clarify through time.

That’s really evident in my work.

Not a surprise if someone rings me up and says they have a resource guarder. My money is on spaniel or daxie. Dog who runs off with their stuff and tears it apart? My money is on terrier. Dog who has compulsive behaviours and/or anorexic? Dollars to donuts it’s a setter. Dog compulsively licking feet?  Pointer or Dally. Dog failing to connect with you? Ancient or Asiatic breed for sure.  Dog chasing tail – could be terrier  – but if self-injuring and stressed, it’ll be a shepherd for sure. We’re beginning to unpick those genetically-based abnormal behaviours – how bull terriers will ‘trance’ and move back and forwards under branches, how Doberman might flank suck, how labradors may eat compulsively – but they tell us such a lot. Breed is important, and we know that.

Although Serpell’s C-BARQ questionnaire is based on people saying what their dog is like – and people tend to agree with breed stereotypes, like their Akita being aloof when really it may be no less friendly than a cocker spaniel – it is interesting to see behaviour patterns across breeds. The work does confirm what we’d say anecdotally about breed behaviours. That could just be evidence that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but if you live and work around dogs, you know it’s not just our biases. Your herding breeds ARE more trainable in general, your gundogs ARE less aggressive to unfamiliar dogs in general, and your toy breeds ARE often aggressive towards familiar humans – in general.

You may be forgiven for thinking Serpell’s work tells us nothing we don’t already know.

But it does.

First, they tell us that genetics is absolutely important.

Secondly it tells us that the average across all breeds is more similar than the average within a breed. That’s to say you’ll get dogs within a breed who will massively buck the trend.

You’ll get shepherds who are soppy love buckets with strangers, as Flika my Foster Mali is. You’ll get collies who defy training and seem to have ADHD. You’ll get stranger-aggressive hounds (although I have yet to meet one!)

But just because there is a trend and there are ‘outliers’, does that mean we just accept it?

IF YOU KNOW that your herding breeds are more afraid of the world around them than mastiffs, do we just accept this quirk of genetics?

Heston would say both yes and no.

Just to give you his back story, he was found in a box with his siblings at the age of 1 day, and bottle-reared. Not the ideal, I know. But not to have a lecture about the needs for mothering and puppy socialisation – they may not be perfect, but they turned out not too bad at all. The point of this is not about his early social experiences but is in fact about innate breed tendencies. So, back to the breed.

Anyway, litter of 7. Several short-haired with white toes and chest patches, several fluffs. All of them were black with occasional patches of white on chests or toes.

The vet – as best as any vet can do with tiny pups – said collie x labrador, which made sense given the size, weight, colour and hair. As they grew up, several people who’d had flat-coated retrievers thought the long-haired ones were more like that, but a labrador is not far removed from a golden or a flat-coated retriever, and instead of thinking differences, I thought in terms of the group… retriever! Once or twice, groenendael shepherds were mentioned, mostly because Heston’s brother Charlton was pointier in the nose, but given the ears, the shape, the size, the weight, the popularity of labradors and their crosses, I raised him as a retriever. He didn’t look like a shepherd and given the rarity of Groenendaels and the high frequency of retrievers, it seemed more likely.

Plus, some of his behaviours fitted.

I mean, he loved retrieving.

He learned early on about game and loved to go off and flush out game. His fun ended when the chase ended. He was clearly not a ‘run off and dissect’ terrier of some type, or a ‘kill bite’ kind of dog either. We did collie-style heelwork and stuff, but what floated his boat was gundog stuff. It was his preferences as much as his looks that shouted retriever.

He is an immense dog for scent and chase, loves retrieving… finds me dogs all the time.

His brother looks a lot like him, just more pointy. One of his sisters also did. And a couple looked like fairly standard black labrador hybrids of one form or another. He didn’t have any collie behaviours that I could see. No stalking, herding, eyeing… but lots of retriever stuff. So much so we did lots of gundog stuff. He lives for blind retrieves and quartering, tracking and airscenting.

You know where this is going.

One DNA test later and 50% of those Heston Genes are shepherd. Much of him is groenendael Belgian shepherd. Suddenly, that ‘stranger danger’ barking, that distrust of anyone ‘not Emma’, that ‘love my flock, everything else worries me’ behaviour all made sense. It doesn’t make sense to have a retriever that doesn’t like people. Sure, they exist. But in general, the retriever breeds I meet are all ‘Hail Fellow Well Met’ types, not the ‘Get off My Land!’ types.

Huh, I said as I read the report.

Well, it all made sense!

And yes, there’s a bit of labrador in there, and a bit of cocker spaniel too if you believe it. Enough gundog stuff to make sense. Zero collie.

But what difference do those genes make?

According to Serpell’s research, a stranger-wary dog who is spooked by novel things in the world around him. Fearful of strangers and unfamiliar dogs, highly trainable, higher-than-average levels of energy, lower-than-average aggression to household members.

Which kind of describes Heston.

But a lot of that describes Tilly, who is an American cocker spaniel. And a little of it describes Tobby and Flika, my malinois-mutt pensioners – also both Belgian Shepherds. But they aren’t aggressive to strangers. They are highly social, highly trainable, not aggressive…. and yes, malis – highly energetic even with very genetic crippling degenerative conditions and in their twilight years.

So part of me feels like reading breed characteristics is like reading a horoscope. It hits a big target market if you hedge your bets. I’m happy to write off the heart-breaking behavioural similarities between Tobby and Flika as coincidence. Yes, they both had or have separation anxiety, but he shadowed me and she doesn’t. His was isolation distress rather than anxiety related to me, despite the shadowing. Yes, he was an escape artist and so is she – and so, for that matter, is Belle, the mali x GSD at the refuge. But then so is Shelssie, and she is an American Staffordshire.

So… the deck you are dealt genetically is of course modified by breed and by being a dog, but your dog has more in common with other dogs than they have differences.

How would knowing Heston’s shepherd background have influenced my socialisation, habituation and training?

Well for one thing, I truly believe life can make up for genetic inadequacies, or it can worsen them. If you have behavioural qualities that are less than desirable, I believe a proper programme of socialisation and planned habituation can help overcome those. I think that’s absolutely vital with herding dogs, terriers and toy breeds. If you know your dog is ‘aloof’, then it is your one goal in their development to make sure that you teach them how not to be. Within reason. I’m not saying you turn your Shiba Inu into a setter. But they sure as hell could do with being a little less aloof to get them through life.

Now that’s a fine line, I know, and I know it’s a delicate balance between habituation/socialisation and accidental sensitisation. That’s for another post altogether. How you teach a dog not to be, how you keep those genes from switching on… that is the stuff of books, not internet articles.

But you need to be aware of those breed tendencies, and you need to be aware of the flaws that don’t fit in with our modern society. That’s where habituation can smooth off the rough edges, It’d be nice if more breeders were breeding for temperament, but that’s by the by.

Looking back on two critical moments where I ended up flooding Heston rather than habituating him, I would have been more conscious of that if I thought I was raising a shepherd. There’s no way I would have let him be ambushed by a pack of six unfamiliar dogs and no way I’d have taken him to some of the very busy events I did. One of them, around the 16 week mark, was the first time he was reactive. He got over it – he does. But I took him to a very big event and it was too much. I should have been more careful and I didn’t think I’d have to be.

I’d never have done that to him, knowing what I know now about socialisation, about shepherds, about dogs. I doubt I’d do it to any dog other than a super chilled hound or bombproof gundog.

But I could never say ‘it’s in the genes’, like I would say ‘it’s in the stars’ as if it is pre-ordained, a matter of fate. Neither would I say ‘no point trying’ with any dog who has less than perfect parents. Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Nature via Nurture’ revisits a lot of ideas I studied as part of Developmental Psychology…

Genes are designed to take their cues from Nurture

In other words, they change and are influenced by what our dogs experience. Not only that, there are cut-off dates for that where pretty much everything you do after is remedial. Our innate behaviours are switched on, or not, by the world we encounter.

Niko Tinbergen, the great ethologist who won a Nobel Prize for his work showed that innate behaviours must be triggered by an external stimulus.

If nurture doesn’t matter, all puppies from one litter would grow up identical in behaviour and appearance. If worldly experiences are so unimportant, our dogs’ behaviour would not only be much more predictable than it is, but it would so be much more fixed than it is. They would be more like their siblings than they are.

The debate is not about Genes Vs Socialisation/Habituation.

It is about how socialisation and habituation affect the genes. It is impossible to say which is the cause and which is the effect. They are so tightly woven into one another that we can’t just dismiss socialisation out of hand. But to say ‘it’s all in the genes’ is a bit of a flat-earth view to be honest. And likewise to say ‘it’s all in the life experiences’. It’s not an argument about to what extent it’s one or the other. It’s both. We know this. It’s about that interplay between both of those things, about how genetic, innate factors are influenced or suppressed by experience.

So, back to the dog I started this piece with. Can he learn to be friendly to people? Sure. He has many more friends than he had when he arrived. And friendly to other dogs? Not so much. Mainly that’s because it’s really, really hard to get those other dog to modify their behaviour in the same way we can.

Would it have been easier when he was 6 weeks old? Sure. By the time myelinisation starts to happen, turning synapses into super-highways or pruning them back, setting habits in cement, we can already have done a lot of work. The extensive work of psychologists in the 50s and 60s on human and animal development shows when those windows open and when they are fairly closed. If you want to know about dogs, read the works of Scott and Fuller, and the lab in Bar Harbor, Maine, where they worked. If you want to know how canine development happens and when it stops, their work is instrumental. What they showed is that breed is part of it: how dogs play, when they bark, when they open their eyes, how they behave with humans and with other dogs. But what they also showed is how vital those early weeks are for teaching puppies how to interact appropriately with other dogs.

But it doesn’t end with puppies.

It’s not a closed door at 12 weeks, although much of what has happened between 4 and 12 weeks will influence the rest of the dog’s life.

Research is showing now that you can take the most genetically impoverished creature – and it doesn’t matter the age – but an enriched environment helps them grow new neurons. Robert Sapolsky refers here to a rat that had been purposely tampered with to have the crappiest biology for learning. Scientists had pinpointed the exact bit of the brain that is responsible for remembering, and they’d switched it off. They’d previously made a Super Learner, and now they did the opposite. And what they showed was that, in an enriched environment, it almost made up for that crappy biological deal. We know this is true for young animals, but enrichment is also a factor in keeping the brain ticking in old age as well.

So what do we know?

It’s ALL important: breed, line, heritage, prenatal experience, early socialisation, habituation, enrichment. It’s a Gordian Knot of infinite complexity. Each experience switches on genes – or not. It lays down patterns – or not. There is a degree of instinct in learning – in why Heston finds it easy to retrieve but also to bark at strangers – but there is a degree of learning in instinct, too. Fear and aggression, in particular, are such a mix of genes and learning that you cannot separate the two. It is easy to get a dog to fear another dog. It is not so easy to get a dog to fear the sound of a fridge opening. Some of those fears will be encoded in their genes: why they find the smell of onions aversive, why electric shock does not need to be taught as painful, but many of those fears are switched on, or not, by learning. A dog has to learn to be afraid of a knock at the door; the approach of strangers, the fear of being alone – they are fears dogs find it easy to learn. Learning is about strengthening connections already in use. Socialisation is about making sure those connections are solid in the first place. Habituation is part of that process.

There is nothing inevitable about innate or instinctive behaviours.

If I believed that, I wouldn’t have the world’s first Gundog Groenendael X.

Life and experience – including socialisation and habituation – flick the switches on behaviours. Some of those switches flick easily: you don’t have to work hard with a spaniel to get it to use its nose. And some of those switches are ones you’d prefer not to flick, like Heston’s fear of strangers.

So there’s no point saying ‘Don’t socialise your dogs’. It is a fallacious argument. Unless your dog grows up in a bubble, it will be socialised to the individuals around it. It will habituate – or not – to the world around it. But if you have a dog with inbuilt switches for certain undesirable behaviours, you want to do your utmost to use socialisation to make sure they are not scared of strangers or unfamiliar dogs, that they are habituated to stimuli in the world around them. Learning can smooth the rough edges of genetics. And habituation means that you don’t end up carrying your 30kg 4-year-old dog down the stairs because it didn’t cross your tiny mind that a dog might not get what stairs are, less when they’re marble and spiral and slippy and steep.

You can see now why I find it dangerous to post articles with headings like “Why I don’t socialise my puppies.”

Firstly, yes you do socialise them. Unless they live in a box, they are learning how to interact with you. Secondly, what you mean is that you don’t accidentally flick on the switches for fears. Thirdly, if everybody believed that early developmental experiences were so unnecessary, we’d have a much larger number of dogs seeking sanctuary. Thank goodness most people value the importance of early experience. I needn’t really add that the writer of the article has shepherds herself. I wonder why she thinks some of our shelter shepherds are such an unholy behavioural mess if it’s all in the genes? Maybe she would like to try and do some remedial desensitisation and socialisation with a 9-year-old mali who never had the benefit of an enriched puppyhood.

From a shelter point of view, a message that suggests you deprive your dog of early social experiences and that “it’s all in the genes”, is a very damaging one for us. Most of our hard-to-rehome dogs are missing in vital experiences: positive experiences with unfamiliar humans, positive experiences with unfamiliar dogs, experience of novelty and how to cope with it. Not exposing dogs to these things is dangerous and costs them lives. I am not saying this for effect. If your dog is so afraid or aggressive towards unfamiliar humans, many shelters will refuse to take that dog on and that leaves owners with only one choice: euthanasia.

We all need to be aware of the factors that influence canine behaviour. To advise people not to do the one thing that can smooth over the cracks is dangerous. To suggest that it is all in the genes is fatalistic. I believe whole-heartedly that the early experiences of dogs help shape who they become as adult animals. It is our job as their care-takers to make sure we get the balance right between socialisation/habituation and accidental flooding or sensitisation. This is especially true when we know the breed characteristics of the dogs we love. It is our job not to blindly accept those glitches as if we can do nothing about them, but to plan a careful and safe environment in which our young puppies can form a secure base.

It is also our job as dog behaviourists and trainers not to put out information as clickbait just to get people to visit our site. I’m sure the trainer in question has profited enormously from the publicity of her post. Good marketing, perhaps, but certainly not good science and definitely not good advice.

Training corner #1: Hand touch

Training corner #1: Hand touch

Most people never want or need to get past ‘sit/down/stay’, but if you’ve got a smart dog, a teenage dog or a dog who you just want to stretch a little further, I’ve been posting some behaviours you might want to teach on Facebook. Time to do the sensible thing and post them somewhere more permanent!

This week, it’s the hand touch.

Why is hand touch the thing I teach straight after ‘sit’ and ‘down’?

In fact, why might you even use it to teach sit or down?

What are the drawbacks and what other things might it interfere with?

When a dog can come and touch your hand with their nose, you’ve got an instant way to get a recall. It’s also really great because then you can use it to shape other moves, like twist, spin, through the legs, weaves, stand in between your legs, jumps, walking to heel … you name it, if you can move the dog’s nose, the rest of the body will follow. If you have a hand touch, you can even shape a down or a sit more easily.

So it’s great for trick training, agility and obedience.

But it’s also great for husbandry as well. It can start off your dog on a great pathway to standing still for nail clipping, grooming, injections, thermometers – although be mindful with these because if you’ve got a dog with a history, your hand in front of them might be the best thing to bite for redirection or for pain. This is why I prefer a chin touch for those, or a hand touch in a muzzle.

It also gets a dog conscious about touching you with various bits of their body. Dogs don’t generalise well, but once they’ve mastered this, you’ll find it easier to get them moving onto chin touches, foot touches, hip touches and chest touches. If you have a dog who will happily touch your legs with their hind quarters, will press into a hand against their chest and place their chin on another hand, you’ve got a dog who is more secure for vet care or grooming without being restrained. I saw a video of a tiger doing this on Facebook for a voluntary blood draw from its tail. It kind of puts us to shame when a tiger will let you shave its tail and take blood. Yes, there were bars between, but the tiger could have moved away easily. And there we are in the vets restraining our animals or wrestling with them like they’re alligators! A hand touch is a gateway ‘trick’.

Touch is also a great one for dogs who are reactive, for dogs who are chasers, for dogs who are overstimulated. If you have a dog who can touch your hand in all kinds of circumstances, they’re looking at your hand, not at whatever it is that is freaking them out. It is one of the first things I teach dogs who aren’t coping in the world. It can be great to build up to for ‘stranger danger’ dogs, for dogs who have a fear of hands, for dogs who don’t like to approach people. It’s a versatile behaviour for so many, many things in a dog’s life. If you have a dog who is jumping, who needs distracting from chewing, or who is doing something else undesirable, it’s a great interruptor that means you can control where the dog’s head (and therefore the rest of its body) is.

It’s also good for wriggly dogs to get them harnessed up, or to train them to wear a muzzle.

Words of caution:

  1. Put it on cue. You don’t want your dog bopping your hand all the time with its nose. You are not a treat machine that is operated by your dog’s nose. Make sure your dog is clear about the word ‘touch’ (or whatever word you are using!) When you hear the macho Alpha trainers whining about ‘touch’ as a behaviour, it’s because they think that behaviour is just spilling out of a dog all the time. It won’t if the dog understands there is a sequence. Present hand – say touch – dog touches  – mark the behaviour – give reward. Always in that sequence.
  2. Be mindful that a dog who already knows ‘paw’ can find this hard and will keep giving you their paw. You can work around this by teaching this first or also by putting your hand up higher.
  3. Make sure you have a distinctive and unusual hand ‘shape’ like a gun or presenting two fingers, or asking for a flat palm. This will also help your dog distinguish between other cues later on which also use a hand.

Some videos for you…

Emily from Kikopup.

If you’re having trouble getting the first movement towards the hand, put something smelly like fish paste on your hand – just enough to smell, not to lick.

Make sure you’ve got contact and that you mark the behaviour at that precise moment. To mark, you can have a clicker, but you can also have a word like ‘yes’.

Make sure also that you practise this in the home, in the street, in the car, on a walk, in the vet’s… everywhere you go with your dog!

In the next video, you can see Nando Brown doing the same. I like his tip about starting with the side of the face, and using ‘Yes’ – only because I’m more of a verbal girl than a clicker girl – simply because most of where I teach is In Real Life, and often that’s out on the street. If you have a lead in your hand, you don’t always have a clicker.

He also starts talking you up to taking pressure. I do love a good firm nose bop.

When you have a good hard nose touch, you can build up the duration of the hand touch as well.

Then you can put in distractions. You can see Nando using it for getting dogs onto scales or handling in the vets.

You can also use then a target stick or a spoon, which can be useful for all kinds of trick training and also for things like dogs who are afraid of strangers.

Donna Hill has some great tips in her video:

I love how she starts with a still dog and then gets the dog to move to her. I also like her explanation of how not to turn it into a ‘grab’ exercise!

Last video from Dog Charming:

If you’ve got an ‘Advanced’ dog, teach them a sustained hand target whilst you try and distract them with ham or a hot dog in your other hand.

Now you know the how tos and the pitfalls… get training your dog!

Poisoning your Rewards and Devaluing your Punishments

Poisoning your Rewards and Devaluing your Punishments

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at why order is so important in Dog Good Stuff and Dog Bad Stuff.

Seeing a few posts on Facebook reminded me why I needed to do the follow-up post about common training mistakes.

The first was a video of a ‘balanced’ dog trainer showing his dog walking with a muzzle on and finishing with a game of tug. I was laughing because this guy likes to sell himself as tough, the Alpha of his dogs, and there he is using positive reinforcement and a conditioned pairing. Also, using flooding, since the dog was clearly uncomfortable in the muzzle, but hey. Nothing the trainer would have found quite so offensive as being thought of as a positive trainer! Clear case of Dog Bad Stuff followed by Dog Good Stuff meaning the power of the Bad Stuff is not quite so BAD!

The second was a post about a bin-dipping GWP. The owner had been using something called ‘training discs’ (which sounds like another word for dog frisbees but sadly is just a bunch of some horrible noisy little cymbal-type things) and was disappointed because they weren’t working. Clear case of Dog Bad Stuff (noisy metal things supposed to discourage behaviours) followed by Dog Good Stuff (ill-gotten trash). Once again, the Bad Stuff was not quite so BAD (and the dog was photographed in amidst its ill-gotten gains) because it was followed by some major good stuff. The post unravels with various suggestions of other Dog Bad Stuff which are equally doomed to failure, including using mouse-traps, duct tape and pans. There are lots of people saying ‘put your bin away’ too, which gave me some hope for humanity. One person said they should rent their puppy out to potential owners. Now there’s a pairing! Human Good Stuff (cute puppies!) followed by Human Bad Stuff (constant vigilance and cleaning up) which I thought was funny. There’s nothing like a bin-obsessed puppy to take the edge off the ‘Awwww, puppies!’ feeling.

The third post was one sharing the despair of a good trainer that her client had sought out the ‘superior knowledge’ of Facebook for a Magic Bullet for a behavioural complaint and had a long list of painful ways to stop a behaviour that would be doomed to failure too.

And the fourth was a ‘cute’ video of a weeks-old Mali puppy who was not deterred in the slightest from biting her owner, who was telling her off and yelling ‘no!’, trying to shake her off and yelping. Mixed up Dog Good Stuff and Dog Bad Stuff = devalued, meaningless punishers.

As I explained in the previous post, I’m substituting the term Good Stuff for ‘reinforcers’ because it’s just less jargony. Good stuff includes all manner of sensory and behavioural rewards that we might consider icky or annoying, as well as those we’d traditionally think of as good. Dog Good Stuff runs the gamut from rolling in festering wild boar diarrhea (which will pull my cocker from a heel to go and find it, wherever it is) to beef treats. It includes games such as tug, chase, hide-and-seek and fetch, tapping into their natural canine behaviours like searching, chasing, biting and dissecting. It includes behaviours such as moving forwards on a walk, seeking, licking, jumping or barking. Whilst we might give our dogs a lot of Good Stuff, some of that comes from within. Heston, for instance, my Groenendael X, loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice. Like his owner, no doubt. He has such joy in a fanfare of barks, a volley of vibrant shouting. In fact, when one of my friends died recently, and we had a very windy day, I walked Heston to the top of a nearby hill and did a bit of yelling into the wind. Heston looked at me with a look that can only have said, “Now, see how good THAT feels!”

Bad Stuff is things dogs don’t like or may have to be taught to like. That depends on your dog. For my pocket cocker, that is Baths, Haircuts, Nail Clipping, Eye cleaning, Ear cleaning… any kind of husbandry is offensive to her very spirit. What dogs don’t like depends on their experiences but many of those things don’t have to be taught. You don’t have to teach a dog to avoid pain, for instance. You don’t have to teach them to avoid shocks. If I drop an onion on the floor, even the greedy pocket cocker isn’t interested (though it’s different if cooked). Naturally aversive things are equally sensory – smells, tastes, sensations, noises and sights. Sight is a little bit different. I, for instance, think the thought of Naked Donald Trump to be very aversive. If you papered my bedroom with that image, I’d avoid it completely. I don’t think that works in the same way for dogs. That said, the sight of that blessed shouty terrier down the road is aversive to two of my dogs who try to avoid him. Likewise for me, the sight of a police car in my rear view mirror is enough to make me squirmish and evasive.

If you need to recap learning, have a look at this post.

Just to make it clear – I don’t choose to use Bad Stuff in my work. But I get many clients who come having devalued their Bad Stuff and want to know why:

a) spraying a dog in the face isn’t stopping it humping

b) using a citronella collar isn’t stopping them barking

c) why their dog hasn’t learned to walk to heel with a choke collar

d) why they’ve had to turn the bark collar up to full

e) why their very expensive ‘invisible’ electric fence isn’t working

f) why saying ‘no!’ and yanking on a dog’s collar isn’t making them less reactive

And so on.

I don’t think punishers work. I think it’s easier to hype up the value of a reward than it is to maintain the value of a punisher. I think the potential fallout of punishers is too much of a risk. And finally, there are no circumstances in which management or positive reinforcement hasn’t worked for me yet. But that’s not to say I’m advising you on how to keep a range of brutal, deeply unpleasant punishers valuable. In theory, the best way to keep them valuable is to barely use them at all. (I’d say never!) That way, you can keep something mildly aversive (what Ian Dunbar calls ‘ugly face’ or a ‘no!’) and keep the power of it because you use it so infrequently. Then you never need to use the ‘heavy artillery’ of shock, chokes or prongs. The worst thing about punishers is the more you use them, the more you need to use them.

Just so you are clear.

I’m all about turning the bad stuff in dogs’ lives into neutral stuff, or even good stuff.

So last time I was writing about how one of the worst things we can do is accidentally remove the power of the Good Stuff and the Bad Stuff that we can offer our dogs. And also how we can accidentally turn something neutral into something wonderful or something horrible. It’s all about pairings.

Dogs are good at working out the meaning of things when things happen in patterns. And they work out whether that’s a good pattern for them, or a bad one.

Keys >>>>> walk

Boots >>>>> walk

Keys >>>>> you going out and leaving me

Boots >>>>> you going out and leaving me

They are SO smart like that. Can you see how you can take something that is absolutely meaningless to a dog, like a key, and turn into an object that predicts Most Excellent Dog Stuff or Most Bogus Dog Stuff? We do this every day.

We also know that we can remove the power of something that is Most Bogus Dog Stuff… I don’t yell (much!) in the home. So when I stubbed my toe at 4am the other morning when I stumbled, sleep-deprived, out of bed to let out my dog with dementia for a pee… let’s just say all four dogs shot back to bed, including the dementia dog who half the time doesn’t seem to know where he really is. But when you pair yelling with Dog Good Stuff, as I’m doing at the moment to help prepare a young dog for his trials with customs officers, every time someone yells, that dog thinks it is a bonus predictor of a game of ball. Pairings are powerful ways to take the sting out of the bad stuff.

So we know that stuff works backwards.

If Good Stuff comes last, it makes the stuff before it into Good Stuff too. Things that had been meaningless like boots, cars and harnesses now become things that Spark Dog Joy.

If Bad Stuff comes last, it makes the stuff that comes before into Bad Stuff too. Things that had been meaningless like a vet’s room, a travel crate or a car now become things that Crush Dog Spirits.

So if we follow a prong pop (Bad) with continued walk (Good) the prong pop can become a signal that good stuff will happen.

If we follow a ‘Come on! Good Boy!’ for coming back (Good) with being put on the lead (Bad) then ‘Come on!’ can become a signal that bad stuff will happen.

And we use this all the time in counter-conditioning to teach dogs that a horrible, icky thing that they’ve had a bad experience with is not so bad after all…

It’s not so tough.

When neutral stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same good stuff, it becomes good stuff too.

When bad stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same good stuff, it becomes less bad and eventually might become good.

When good stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same bad stuff, it steals the joy from the good stuff.

When neutral stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same bad stuff, it turns the neutral stuff into a sign that bad stuff will happen.

But you want to know how that works in real life.

Today I’ve got ten unexpected pairings that probably won’t work as they mix up rewards and punishments. The first includes my cat, Basil, who taught me a very important message.

Problem #1: aversion to food

Tuna (Good) followed by Pill (Bad) = turning my cat off Cat Good Stuff.

Before I knew about this powerful crazy Pavlovian magic, I only ever broke out the tuna when I wanted to give my cat a pill. At first that worked. Tricked into eating the pill. Then it didn’t. He’d eat round the pill. Then I tried to force the pill down. You know how that went. Scratches, blood, angry cat. It takes a lot to ‘poison’ a primary reinforcer (things you don’t need to teach an animal to like) yet I managed it. Not only that, I managed to take the sound of the tin opener and turn it into a cue for Basil to hide somewhere unreachable. How to turn Cat Good Stuff into a great predictor of something that is Cat Bad Stuff in one fell swoop.

Solution: teach cats about lots of foods as a kitten (since palettes are hard to expand for cats), give tuna lots more so that it is no longer a 100% predictor of ‘The Horrible Pill Experience’, use lots of different foods so that no single food is a 100% predictor of a pill.

Problem #2: pulling despite physical pain

Leash corrections (Bad) followed by continued walk (Good) = making leash corrections pointless.

I see this all the time. People who walk the dog with a Pop-Pop-Pop on the collar. It is their primary reason for spewing that “Prongs/Chokes don’t hurt” crap. “It’s not working, therefore it can’t be painful.” No, they still hurt. You’ve just made it so that you have gradually desensitised your dog to the experience by pairing it always with a reward. In fact, I was smug about the Master Balanced trainer and his muzzle training because he had to pop his GSD five times in 30 seconds when the dog was ‘heeling’. In fact, I shouldn’t have been smug at all. But can you see how that goes? The more you pop, the more you’ll need to, if you pair it with continued Good Stuff. And the more intensity you’ll need. If your leash corrections aren’t working, why use them?

Solution: teach loose-leash walking. Don’t use Dog Bad Stuff on a walk because it will inevitably be followed by Good Stuff (the walk) so there’s no point.

Problem #3: Bin dipping despite noisy Training Discs placed on top

Crashing training discs (Bad) followed by Bin Treasure (Good) = making training discs a necessary nuisance before revelling in discarded trash

So why did those training discs work once or twice and then stop? Because once the noise is predictable – and it’s always predictable on your third or fourth try – if it’s not more aversive than the treasure is rewarding, it’ll stop working. That crash is a predictor that you have completed the challenge of getting to the trash and you can take home your delightful garbage reward to enjoy at your leisure.

Solution: put the bin away. Put safety locks on your cupboards. Be tidy and don’t be cross at a dog for scavenging. They are being very good at Dog Stuff as far as they are concerned, whereas you are being very bad at predicting Dog Stuff. The mess punishes YOU, so YOU need to learn from it – not the dog.

Problem #4: Counter surfing despite sticky tape or tin foil on surface

Sticky tape/tin foil (Bad) followed by Counter-foraged Chicken carcass/Birthday Cake (Good) = making unpleasant experiences a sign that there is something really good up there.

If your dog can get to Counter Swag, your aversive is just a predictable hurdle. If they manage to get the chicken carcass, it’s a hurdle worth overcoming. Don’t forget: jackpot learning, where there is a 1 in a 100 chance of Very Excellent Counter Swag, can be more powerful than 1 to 1 rewards. Tilly my cocker knows this. Last night, she swagged two diet crackers from the table. Do you think despite their disgusting inedible qualities that she will stop hopping onto the table in my absence? Hell no. I have lived with her 7 years and whilst she only gets swag once in a while, it’s more than enough to reinforce the habit.

Solution: Tidy up and restrict access to counters. If there is never anything good on the counter, there is no reason to think it might contain Dog Good Stuff and for your dog to be seeking out some kind of treasure. A dog who never does this behaviour never learns to. Ironic that my only dog who needs a chair to assist her is the only one who does it. Thank God my bigger dogs didn’t. When I had the handsome 45kg shelf-surfing Ralf and he used to get onto the kitchen shelves, I put stuff in sealed boxes.

Problem #5: Getting on the couch despite obstacle course

Obstacle course/falling chairs (Bad) placed on couch followed by 3 hours of lazy afternoon napping on DFS’s finest corduroy couch (Good)

Another one that isn’t technically a devalued punisher (like the one before) since it depends on the fact that you need your aversive to be more powerful than your reward. But if the reward is 3 hours of comfortable napping (or even fairly uncomfortable between the obstacles) then it takes the sting out of the punisher and devalues it. A clatter of falling chairs might be enough to scare the dog a handful of times, but if the incentive is big enough and the punisher is predictable enough, it’ll soon stop being a reason not to get on the couch. Then you’re left with another situation in which you need to up the level of punishment. Mouse-traps, anyone?

Solution: make sure your dog is never allowed on the couch and that they have a very comfy bed/couch of their own. Teach them to get on or off when asked. Or crate train them. Make sure they never learn that couches are for dogs. Take my dining room chairs, for example, my dogs don’t sit on those because they have never been invited to. Or, do as I have done today and foster a very stinky, menacing Yorkshire terrier and put him on the couch in question. Strangely, the couch that he is on is empty (except for him) and the dog beds are all full. Kidding, of course. If your dogs have learned that couches are comfortable, and you have aided and abetted that, be prepared to teach them on/off when asked and allow a bit of couch time, restrict their access to the couch and make their own bed so good that a couch seems redundant.

Problem #6: thinking Ape Good Stuff is Dog Good Stuff

A dog comes to you for contact (Good) and then patting it on the head (Bad)

It wasn’t until I went in for a ‘coochy-coo’ squishy cuddle with Tilly that I realised the lip-licking, the head-turning were evasive movements. She did not like that coochy-cooing. You can use this effectively for a dog who attention-seeks. Amigo, my senile old griffon dude likes to rest his head on my knee. The problem is that he does it ALL the time and he often comes in for it when I’m sitting with my other dogs who then think he isn’t respecting their boundaries which causes grumbles. I do two gentle pats to the head and he goes away. It’s amazing to think that something we think a dog should like – being touched – can be unpleasant enough to send a serial cuddle monster into a dog who goes away. And I’m talking the kind of ‘pat-pat’ that is so gentle most of us would think it a perfectly acceptable greeting for a dog. The trouble is that if your pet arrives for contact and you touch it – completely innocuously! – in what would be the most mild aversive, you may find your dog doesn’t approach you at all for petting.

Solution: teach your dog that petting is followed by good stuff, so that your ape-like neutral/negative handling becomes a positive by association. With Lidy, she likes licking my face, so I let her do that when she has had some Chimp Hugs from me. Those chimp hugs get the backwards buzz of the pleasure of licking as they are a 100% predictor that I will pucker up for a good snog with a toothy mali.

Problem #7: turning neutral stuff into nasty stuff.

Problems getting your dog into the bathroom (neutral) because you always give them a bath (Bad) or problems getting your dog to have its nails clipped (neutral) because you pinched them once (Bad) or turning your dog’s name (neutral/positive) into something bad by always telling them off when you use it. Whether it’s turning car journeys into a nightmare, baths into chaotic maulings, turning dog coats into a wrestling match, you can easily turn neutral stuff into nasty stuff.

Take their name for example.

Now under normal circumstances, if you give your dog the occasional name call to distract them, like I just did with Heston who decided to alarm bark at a lorry for no apparent reason, it’s not a big deal, unless it’s nearing a 1:1 ratio. Now mostly when I say “Heston!” it’s for good stuff. Probably not as frequently as I would think, but if the only time I ever said his name was to tell him off, then expecting it to get his attention and aid a recall is madness. One of my neighbours has a spaniel called Filou. He quite often yells at Filou to stop barking. It’s 100% likely that when he says ‘Filou!’ that it’s supposed to punish him for barking. Doesn’t work, because barking is its own reward and shouting a dog’s name is not enough to distract or punish, but also it’s a 100% prediction of worse stuff to come because Filou has a shock collar and my joyless neighbour gives him a zap with it. When he was trying to shout Filou back to the house an hour ago, do you think it worked?

Some people will tell you that you need to teach a new cue if you’ve poisoned an old one by turning it into Dog Bad Stuff, but that’s not necessary really. All you’ve got to do is break the association. If your dog thinks cheese means a pill, make cheese mean nothing by using it all the time. If you want Come! to regain its value, make it 100% followed by Amazing Dog Stuff once more. I think sometimes we forget the importance of ‘refreshing’ the association between a name and a consequence, or between ‘come!’ and a reward. A bit of a jackpot from time to time will make sure that habit doesn’t fall out of fashion.

The only time I’d advise changing a dog’s name, for instance, is in situations like poor Filou’s. That would take a lot of work to change it back to a positive thing again.

Solution: make sure that it’s not a 1:1 relationship between the neutral stuff and bad consequences. If you need to get your dog in the car for the vet, then you need to know that there is no way your dog can predict that cars = vets. If cars mean five other things, then that association is less likely to form. Better still is to get your dog into pairing the neutral stuff like bathrooms and cars with ‘good stuff’. Do you think you’d have a problem getting your dog into the shower if you fed them in the shower? I groom Tilly in the kitchen. I feed her in the kitchen. We do other things in the kitchen too (otherwise every time I went to the kitchen, she’d think I was going to feed her) but there is no way she could know that if she goes into the kitchen with me, she’s going to get groomed. She does know when the Cupboard of Doom opens, so I put her clippers in the Kong cupboard. Do you think it’s still the Cupboard of Doom? If you want to remove the association between an event and the thing that precedes it, do the thing that precedes it hundreds of times in hundreds of ways until it is absolutely and utterly meaningless. If the event produces a fear reaction, you may need to be careful how you do this, so that it is absolutely nothing horrible and you don’t accidentally flood your dog with horrible emotions, but if it’s just unpleasant, breaking the 1:1 relationship between the two is crucial

It’s not just about following good with bad or bad with good. It can also about how you can take a fairly unpleasant thing and intensify it with Bad Stuff or how you can take a good thing and intensify it with Good Stuff.

Problem #8: Aggression on lead

Seeing another dog (bad if you’re a dog-aggressive dog) and being told ‘No!’ or being popped/jerked/cranked or shocked (Bad +)

This just amps up the bad of the first bit, since it now predicts more bad stuff. If I don’t like Donald Trump, you pinching my ear every time I see him isn’t going to help. Remember too that it’s about that 1:1 relationship. If every time I see Donald Trump it becomes a predictor of an ear pinch, I’m going to end up dreading seeing him more than I already do. If every time my dog-aggressive dog jerks and lunges towards another dog and I pop her choke collar, it is a 100% predictor of some major Bad Stuff happening.

Problem #9: not being able to solve a jumping-up problem

Jumping up (Good) and getting attention by being told off (person thinks it is Bad Dog Stuff, dog thinks it is Good Dog Stuff)

What you are essentially doing here is reinforcing a behaviour that the dog likes doing already. If you join in and shout at them when they bark, then you’re reinforcing the barking. If you have a dog who is doing something perfectly doggie (humping, mouthing, chewing) attention for doing it, you’re reinforcing the behaviour. If you laugh at a humper, you’re more likely to see that behaviour again. If you give attention to a dog who is barking to get your attention, if you pet a dog who nudges you to get attention, you’re heaping good on already good behaviours and you’ll find them hard to break.

Solution: give zero reinforcement for jumping up, teach an alternative behaviour that you can’t do at the same times as jumping up (like a sit or a down-stay) and only reward that.

Problem #10 Accidentally turning a neutral thing like a thunder shirt into a predictor of Bad Stuff.

Amigo doesn’t have very peaceful nights anymore. That’s especially true if there’s a storm or high winds. I put a thunder shirt on him and give him herbal remedies when a storm is forecast. The thunder shirt and the pills become a very good predictor of a storm and make him more anxious not less.

Solution: use thunder shirts and give herbal remedies plenty of other times as well so that it is no longer a reliable predictor of storms.

The same is true of all anti-anxiety things you do with your dog. If you only do them when you can predict your dog will be in an anxious situation, as soon as you reach for the thunder shirt or you stick on the calming music, you are giving your dog a 100% 1:1 predictor that a storm is coming. Or, do it long enough before the storm so that there is no connection between the two events in the dog’s mind. That doesn’t have to be massively long.

So, there you have it… ways that Pavlov can massively interfere with your animal’s life and training, and some quick ideas of how to avoid some common pitfalls.

 

Fostering animals: what you need to know

Fostering animals: what you need to know

Fostering animals for your local shelter is one of the nicest things you can do, but it can also be one of the most challenging. I say that having had about four hours sleep with a howling cat, a whimpering lost soul of a York and one of my own who has dementia and is up and down all night.

Not that it’s all like this. Some fosters are absolute dreams and fit in immediately. Some are so easy that it’s untrue. Some will become permanent members of your household.

I don’t like to think of myself as a fosterer. If you asked me what I do, I wouldn’t place it high on my list of ways I support our shelter. That said, I’ve had almost fifty dogs and puppies through my doors in the last three years, and almost twice as many kittens. But I know there are people who are much more involved in fostering for other rescues, and I’m sure they’d have plenty of support to offer too.

You aren’t reading this because you have easy fosters. You’re reading this to be prepared if you’re thinking about it and to find some resources if you’re a regular fosterer. In the vast majority of cases, the advice that follows is for the worst-case scenario for dogs who arrive with every single problem on the planet. In reality, very few dogs are like this or need all the precautions, but it’s vital to understand how to prepare for all eventualities.

If you’re thinking of fostering, make sure that you are prepared both practically and emotionally.

The guidance below isn’t an absolute, but you may want to notify the shelter about your own situation and they can do their best to find a dog who suits your own practical situation.

It helps if you’re a couple or you have good friends who live very near. If you’re a single fosterer like me, it can be really hard if you have a dog who has separation anxiety or who needs a permanent presence. It’s no fun having to enlist dogsitters and neighbours to help out, I promise. It’s also really hard if you have to work. If you have a sleepless night for one reason or another, getting up to work is seriously no fun. If you work from home, that is much more practical, since you can be present. If your hours are flexible, that’s also a bonus, as you can catnap if you need to. Believe me, this morning I’m feeling the need for a lie-in! If you have a partner, if you don’t work full-time or you work from home, fostering is much more likely to work for you with a wider range of dogs than if you are single and if you work.

You also find you need the right sort of house. A secure garden is a must. You just don’t know if your new foster is an escape artist or not. When dogs arrive, they can be really disorientated and may try to find shelter. Although you mean well, your new foster may see you as a huge threat. If your garden is not secure, you’ll run into problems. Whilst it may seem achieveable to put them on a lead, it really isn’t a practical or perfect solution. If you don’t have access to a garden or secure space, you are going to find that the number of dogs you may be able to take to be very limited indeed. Younger dogs need the space to let off steam and older dogs’ bladders don’t function as well as they once did. Believe me, it’s little fun to get up three or four times in the night – and less so if you have to get dressed to take the dog out on the lead.

Having sympathetic neighbours is a bonus for barking issues.

If you are very houseproud or garden-proud, being a fosterer may not work for you. Dogs dig, and you may find yourself frustrated if your new foster digs up your newly-planted roses.

Wipe-clean floors and walls will make a difference too, since not all dogs will arrive housetrained. They may well have been house-trained once, but just because they know not to pee in one house doesn’t mean they feel the same about all houses, especially if you have other dogs. You’d be amazed by how high up a dog can aim, believe me. Low-hanging curtains are itching to be marked. Leather couches and metal chair legs are much better to clean than fabric sofas and wood. The more your house has dogs through, the more likely accidents are to happen, I’m afraid. If this bothers you, then you may find there are a smaller number of fosters available coming in from surrenders and are ‘guaranteed’ house-trained. However, with any change in environment, there can be upsets.

If you have a house with stairs or you live in an apartment that is up a flight of stairs, this may also pose problems for dogs. Not all dogs know about stairs, and stairs can be very scary. If you foster youngsters of large breeds or oldies, stairs may not be possible at all. Steps can pose a similar problem. You may find that dogs don’t cope well when they are in one part of the building and they can hear you in another. Although this is something that dogs can learn to cope with, it is not so easy to teach them when they are with you for an indefinite period.

Having indoor doors is also helpful, especially if you have dogs yourself. A makeshift X-pen or puppy pen may help, but not if you foster St Bernards. Remember too that doors pose no obstacle for some dogs, like Flika who is here with me now. Luckily, she is not an escape artist, but having bolts and hooks can also help. Secure, lockable gates can help as well. There will be times you will need to separate your animals or when you will need to have a safe space if your foster dog is upset by arrivals and departures.

Think too about the handles on your doors if you have an escape artist or a jumper. Some handles can be sadly too easy for collars to get hooked on and I’ve known a number of dogs strangled this way. A breakaway collar with your number on it is vital, as is a microchip. Newly found dogs are more likely to be disorientated and wander off, so it’s helpful that people know how to get hold of you. All my fosters get a breakaway collar (which will release if snagged) and have my number on their collar (hoping they don’t lose it!) because if they do get out, your neighbours might not necessarily realise that the dog is staying with you.

If you have a dog who escapes, you may also need good kit to walk them (and maybe to leave on for 48 hours or so). I like the Ruffwear Webmaster harnesses for this, but they are expensive and you can’t always get one quickly. The six buckles and long bodice make it practically inescapable. Greyhound and whippet harnesses may also work. Put a lead on the collar and a lead on the harness and secure both with a carabiner if they pull. Nothing can be worse than a scared foster doing a runner. Do away with walks for a week if you are worried about this. You may also need a special, secure harness if you are fostering a dog-aggressive or person-aggressive dog, as well as a muzzle and the skill  on how to train them to wear it. It goes without saying that my foster dogs don’t go off the lead – ever. Not even if I think they won’t toddle off. It doesn’t matter if they are well-balanced and follow you everywhere.

In the home, make sure you have a safe place to contain your dogs away from each other when they are unsupervised. This week brings yet another sad tale of a bigger dog killing a smaller one. 10kg is a big enough difference that a fight can end tragically, and whether it’s a case of predatory drift, where a larger dog attacks a smaller dog, or something completely different, it’s vital you can keep your biggies and your littlies apart. That is especially true in the garden.

Two of my fosters. Effel the Beauceron had some predatory drift, chased small things and nipped. No way I was letting him out in the garden at the same time as Dougie the Minpin. Sadly, Dougie had very severe separation anxiety and since a crate couldn’t contain him, it was not possible for him to stay longer than the few days he did. Sometimes, being a fosterer means admitting that there are problems you aren’t equipped to deal with. Don’t ever take your own dogs’ behaviour as an absolute. My old mali dude Tobby was the most dog-friendly non-aggressive dog there could be, and he still got a case of the chases with a young hound I had here to stay. Not so big a problem when the young hound could easily outrun an ancient old rickety arthritic malinois, but the last thing I wanted was a full-force, full-health 50kg beauceron catching a 4kg minpin.

Flika also has separation anxiety like Dougie did, but she is bigger, it’s less of a problem to leave her unsupervised with my other dogs. But know that it’s not the best of ideas to take a foster if you can’t guarantee they can be supervised a lot of the time. Being inside and dry is not the only reason to take them out of a shelter if they’ve got to spend 10 hours alone whilst you’re at work.

You also have to think about food times and sleep. It’s best to have a range of beds and not to take a dog if your own dogs have resource guarding issues that you can’t manage. Whilst your own dogs may steer clear of your grumpy cocker, your foster dogs have no idea that they’ll unleash seven circles of Hell if they so much as look at your dog. I usually feed fosters separately, and I put their food down first, because my dogs are well-trained and know how to wait. Don’t feed your foster last in some misguided ‘pack rank’ sequence as if they haven’t been trained to have manners around other dogs eating, you may unleash a very nasty fight. When I feel like my fosters are ready to join the ranks, I give them more (sometimes packed out with cooked vegetables) so that I know they aren’t going to finish first and go touring about the other dogs checking out their bowls as they finish. You’ll forget this from time to time – but with a semi-blind foster, a deaf dog, a grumpy cocker of my own who eats slowly and guards her food, a tiny York and a dog of my own who outweighs him ten times, I really don’t want the mother of all scraps in the kitchen.

Get more beds than you can possibly think you need and make sure you’re prepared for a little upheaval at night. The older the dog, the more likely they’ll have quite intractable sleeping patterns that you might need to live with for a while. You might not always know those sleeping patterns, but if they seem agitated at night, you can be sure you’ve not got it quite right. The way Dougie dived on the bed and wriggled down underneath the covers told me everything I needed to know about where he’d been sleeping – or, at least – where he preferred to sleep. I have to be honest, it’s one reason I like the oldies and the biggies – they usually are happy with a basket. Few people have giant dogs sleeping in their bed, and in general, you can go off breed in some way to help you decide. Don’t be surprised if your beagle foster is not used to being indoors, if your husky is hankering for the garden and if your minpin foster sneaks under the covers. I’d say to keep with the rules you intend to follow up on (no couches, no bedroom) or those that will make the dog adoptable (being crate-trained, sleeping quietly alone in the kitchen) but in reality, those first nights for a dog can be so unsettling that now is not the time to get into teaching plans about how you want the dog to be able to sleep. You are a vital stepping stone but there’s no point starting a crate-training programme if you don’t know you don’t have weeks to work it through.

For behavioural problems, you’re managing a triage station. That’s to say you’re there to assess and to manage rather than to treat. Whilst there will be many things that you might be able to teach, you have no idea if the dog will be with you for three days, three weeks or three months, so starting on a programme that may not suit their permanent owner is pointless. My aims are to keep distress to a minimum, not to teach the dog how to fit into my household.

You ask yourself three things: Can I manage the environment to prevent the behaviour? Can I quickly and effectively teach a different behaviour? Is this too big a problem for me to deal with and the dog needs to go to another foster home?

Sometimes you can manage. Sometimes you can treat. Sometimes it needs more help than you can physically provide. Knowing when to manage, when to intervene and when you need to pass is vital.

I think that’s the most important message about the practicalities of fostering: you have to be adaptable, flexible and ready to react. You have to fit around the dog, rather than help the dog adapt to you. Most dogs fit into your patterns very easily, but some will not. If it’s really clear that the dog needs more than you can offer, it’s vital that you get in touch with the rescue that you’re fostering for. It doesn’t preclude the dog from being fostered elsewhere or finding a home. Just because you can’t be there 24/7 for a dog with separation anxiety doesn’t mean the rescue won’t have homes where there is always someone in, or a neighbour to visit. Neither does it mean they won’t find a home. Forewarned is forearmed.

Hygiene is also a practicality I’m going to mention, because it is important. Vaccination of your own dogs is going to be important, but know that if your dog is coming from the pound, you need to be aware of things like kennel cough, dog gastro, giardia, conjunctivitis, canine influenza, skin mites, ear mites, leptospirosis and so on. These are not usually anything that would be a problem – it’s like the risk you take if you run a guest house. But… if you have sick, old or immunosuppressed dogs, you need to make it clear that you can only take surrenders or ones that have had a very thorough health check. If you have a dog with severe flea allergies, you need to make sure your new arrival is treated before they arrive. Keep up to date with wormer treatments, as tapeworm eggs are spread by fleas. Other things that are contagious and can be problematic include mange, ringworm and ear mites. You won’t even think of these things until they matter. One dog through with ear mites, could mean one ear infection for one of your own oldies, one vestibular attack and you’re severely risking the health of your own pets. A thorough check-up is more than enough, and if your dogs are young and robust, you will probably find that things pass them by. But if you have an oldie or a dog who is sick, it may be time to have a rest for a bit. Bear in mind that the risk of these is slightly higher if they have come from ill-kept pounds or have lived in communal conditions, but for a dog who has come from a clean pound or has been in isolation, the risk is no more than it would be in any social setting. If your dogs are healthy, infection may pass them by, but please check with your vet.

The emotional impact of fostering can be hard. You need to be aware of compassion fatigue. I was certainly aware of it this morning between the screaming cat and the whining dog! Sometimes you say yes when you should say no. The longer you have been fostering, the more likely it is you’ll get tired. Turnover is exhausting, for both you and your own pets. Sometimes you need a break, and that is absolutely essential. I needed a break when Effel went – I’d had almost two years of continuous fostering, with numbers ranging from between 4 dogs to 16 dogs. Sometimes it is just too much and you need to have a way to say so. Even if the dogs are really well-behaved, you need to have times when you can say no. The sheer number of kittens I’d had through was just emotionally and physically exhausting. There are times when you feel absolute despair about the way society treats its animals. I don’t need to tell you that I feel a bit like that at the moment, with an exhausted, aged Yorkshire terrier here, and a half-blind, wobbly old ex-guard dog who arrived with cystitis and no doubt had a stroke of some kind at the shelter. Doing it all the time is exhausting, even if it’s all you do. The adoptions and post-adoption stories will remind you often of the good you are doing, but it’s not always enough when you feel like you are fighting a rising tide.

You also need to be aware of the spectrum of emotions you’ll have for your foster. There will be some you will be attached to with your whole heart, who you will wish you could keep. I loved Effel, but it wasn’t practical to keep him. He and one of my own dogs didn’t get on particularly, and neither was truly happy. But I tortured myself over it. When they are easy, you may find yourself advertising them less or being less of a participant in moving them on, but that can have long-term implications for dogs who are then uprooted to go and live in another new home. When they are ‘tough’ adoptions, you may also find yourself feeling guilty for needing them to find their home, especially if they have had a tough life or if they are bonded to you. Sometimes your dogs will fall in love with them and you won’t!

Other times the foster may be really hard and you will be really glad to see them move on. Despite your feelings, you’ve got to be honest about their behaviour. Glossing over it to find them a home will only end up as a failed adoption and the dog possibly being returned. One of my fosters was a barker. Another had springs for legs. One played horribly with my own dog and had to be kept separate most of the time. For problems like these, you may find yourself needing to be honest about whether you can manage it, whether you can treat it or whether the dog requires a different foster home. Don’t feel guilty about those times you’ve felt relief that the dog has found a home.

To be successful at fostering, having a mentor to help can really help. Having someone there to help you through with the common niggles is important… what to do when they don’t eat, when they’re a bit unwell, when they won’t settle, when they’re not house-trained, when they bark for attention…

Being in regular contact with the shelter or rescue is vital too. You can neither be a primadonna nor a pushover. There are times you’ve got to say: “this animal needs a vet, now!” and know it will be taken seriously. You’ve also got to know their protocols and systems. Having a timeline in place is helpful too – in case you need to go on holiday, if you are needed for other activities. This is also useful in case the animal just doesn’t move on or find a home. You’ve got to know how long it is that you would be prepared to foster for. And you need to know who to ask to settle a bill, to cough up for washing powder or specialist food if necessary.

You’ll have to help out with advertising, too. The best fosterers are ones who make a concerted effort to keep photos, videos and information up to date. A dog who is not advertised and regularly updated is a dog who will be with you a long time. Nobody cares if your photos are poor – what matters is that there are lots of them. It matters too that dogs are accurately described.

What will also help is a basic understanding of the animal’s needs too. If you have puppies, a knowledge of canine development is essential. What point is there in ‘housing’ puppies only to turn out dogs who haven’t had the best start in life? It’s not enough to say ‘well, it’s better than they’d get in the shelter.’

Likewise with geriatric dogs. Having a good knowledge of how to cope with declining sight, hearing and bladder control is vital, but it’s also useful to know a bit about various degenerative conditions so you can keep an eye out for them. Having an understanding beyond ‘well, I had an old dog once’ is vital to understand a geriatric dog’s needs.

There are plenty of other things you will benefit from being a bit interested in: nutrition, health, development, life cycles, behaviour. You are in the scary position of acting as a surrogate shelter. Sometimes a dogsitter is more than enough (and there have been times when that is what I have been!) but there are also times when you need to know more than the average person about canine behaviour, training and health if you want to be able to take on more challenging cases. Some dogs are going to need nothing more than a roof over their heads, a bowl of food and a walk now and again. Some will need more than that.

What follows are links to some other articles that you may find helpful. They are written for adopters but work equally well for fosters. For those tackling a behaviour, look for the ‘environmental management’ tips too.

Problem behaviours:

 

FAKE NEWS! the dangers of controversial clickbait for our dogs

FAKE NEWS! the dangers of controversial clickbait for our dogs


About twenty years ago, I was part of a team who worked on internet safety for our 13-year-olds in school. We pushed several messages about bias and motivation, but we had no idea at the time that the internet, thanks to social media and Google rankings, would become a massive popularity contest.

Let me clarify my position. I’ve got two businesses. Both of them do really well on social media and on Google rankings (thank you!) and I’m regularly on the first page of Google rankings despite not paying for posts. I spend a good part of my week working out how to maximise my content, about keywords, about SEO and about how to manage a social media presence. I’ve had posts shared over 200,000 times and posts seen over 8 million times. That’s pretty tremendous for someone who has never paid for content.

I sincerely believe that you can rank highly with superior content. But I also know that you can manipulate rankings either through money or through the methods known as ‘clickbait’. Politicians, opinions and popularity rise and fall on the tides of such methods.

Sadly, clickbait is a rising trend as dog trainers fight for clients, and, more worryingly, their messages are potentially damaging for many of our dogs. But it’s not just people using unethical marketing to attract business. It’s also noisy, opinionated people who believe blindly in a food regime, in a health regime, in a supplement, in a training method.

I’m aware that puts me on the Donald Trump side of ‘Fake News!’, decrying everything I don’t believe in as phony, sham or manipulative.

It’s not just about calling people out though, especially if their views don’t support your own. It’s not just dismissing people who don’t think what you do. It’s about remembering their biases, their credentials and their purpose for posting before making a decision about the validity of what they are saying.

Time we step back.

Back to those twenty-year-old questions:

  • What do we know about the person who posted this?
  • What’s their bias?
  • What’s their purpose in posting?

I try to bring this to everything I read. It’s fine to read things that are biased as long as you recognise that bias. It’s fine to read things on the internet as long as you know a little about the person posting and their credentials. It’s fine to take on their messages when you’ve considered why they are posting. I seek out alternative views and try to keep an open mind – all time aware that challenging your beliefs can actually make your views more stubborn and persistent rather than open to fresh data.

Back to the most fundamental of those questions: what is their purpose for posting?

For some people their only purpose for posting is marketing. They’re fishing for sales. They share, not because they want ‘the truth’ out there, but because they want posts that drive traffic to their websites that drive traffic to their phone that drives traffic to their door that puts money in their bank account.

There are two ways you can do that: honestly, with authenticity, or dishonestly.

Authentic people are honest about their standpoint, their views and their purpose. Dishonest people aren’t. It’s fairly cut and dry.

I would much rather ten authentic people whose views completely contradict my own. I would rather the honesty of alternatives. It’s the deceit in marketing that I can’t stand.

That’s especially important where other living beings are concerned.

What concerns me the most are people who don’t put themselves up to scrutiny, who disguise their beliefs and values in order to get business by any means necessary, and who then deliberately write blog posts that are designed to get people sharing.

One of those dangerous trends comes from ‘pet health sites’ who aren’t clear that a) they aren’t always certified vets even if they have a title to their name b) they make up their ‘statistics’ and lie or c) they have a vested business interest in what they’re promoting, usually financial.

Not only that, for every fake story they put out, every article that isn’t rooted in reality, it damages the whole field of holistic and alternative medicine. If alternative medicine wants to shake off its snake oil and woo-woo reputation, several of those big ‘pet health’ sites need to take a good look at themselves. Anyone who would willingly damage their own field makes me question their motivation. If you would willingly spread misinformation that could seriously damage the health of a pet and also the field in which you practise, I’m sorry but you don’t deserve to have any credibility at all.

Any online vet, for instance, that exclusively promotes one diet or another when it wouldn’t be appropriate for the pet, is not a vet that I can have faith in. If that site is populated by ‘cute’ stories of dogs playing with birds or video compilations alongside scaremongering, I can’t get away from the fact that some high-ranking sites have an agenda that should impact how I read their (FAKE!) news.

We always need a healthy degree of skepticism where things are promoted or discouraged that take one side or another where medicine is concerned. I trust my vets implicitly but I’m not afraid to ask questions and they know me well enough to know they can give me an answer. But when you go to vet conferences, as I have been privileged to do from time to time, there are things that most vets do, things that all vets do, and things that divide the room. Mention precocious sterilisation, for instance, and you’ll divide the room. Mention methods of anaethesia or post-surgical care, and you’ll divide the room. Those are three simple everyday topics where the arguments can last long, long into the night or where many vets keep their opinions to themselves because they know they’ll be forever damned by their peers for revealing their standpoint. And, as most vets will agree, whether you fall into one camp or another is not an ‘always’ kind of thing.

As always, ‘it depends’.

They make their decisions on a case-by-case basis, not on a one-size-fits-all.

But just because they prefer one thing over another doesn’t mean they are wrong.

But it does make me worry when popular pet health sites promote one thing to the exclusivity of others. Not least because they don’t know our pet.

We should trust OUR vets enough to have a conversation. Not online vets who have never met our animal. If you don’t trust your vet, shop around. If the only vet you find you can trust is one online that you’ve never met, then it’s time to ask some questions about why that it is. Believe me, the answer is not because all your local vets are inept and the online ones are the only ones to tell the truth, I promise you.

It’s a good idea to go into conversations asking for all the pros, all the cons and then make your mind up based on who you trust and knowing them instinctively. I know which of the vets I regularly see are worrywarts, who are the best surgeons, who are great technicians, who are solid on dentistry or osteopathy, who can be dismissive and who are overly cautious. We need to trust our vets and get to know them. It’s a reciprocal relationship. They need to know which of us are worrywarts, which of us hand our dogs sneaky sugary treats, which of us have problems exercising our animals, which of us follow advice, who needs an explanation and who doesn’t.

I particularly love my vet surgery because when I go in with my particularly catastrophic “it’s liver failure/cancer/peritonitis/tick fever”, I never leave without feeling completely sure that it isn’t.

If you don’t trust your vet to ask “Are you absolutely sure it’s not osteosarcoma as I googled these symptoms, even though I know that is dumb, and that’s what it said”, then you need to find a different vet.

By all means get a second opinion, but don’t fall into the conspiracy trap of thinking that an online expert is right and the rest of the medical world are wrong.

Let’s talk one of those things regularly posted on ‘woo woo’ sites: vaccinations.

Someone posted an article from a ‘holistic’ vet site about the dangers of vaccinations and even the pointlessness of titre testing. Basically, it was advocating doing nothing.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a dog die of parvovirus. I have. In fact, it’s more regular than you’d realise in a world where there are puppy shows, kennels and pounds. Distemper, not so much, not where I live. I’ve never seen rabies. But parvovirus, yes. Our main problem at the pound and shelter where I am a trustee is unvaccinated dogs. So much so that we vaccinate on the first day of arrival and keep dogs isolated as long as possible to minimise risks. It’s a small number of newly arrived dogs who contract parvovirus – around 1% – and a smaller number still who die from it – but it’s a number nonetheless. We have not had a dog die of parvovirus who has had the second vaccination. Those are our statistics.

So it makes me skeptical when unqualified and uneducated people discuss the efficacy of the vaccine on Facebook, and also when they discuss not vaccinating at all, guided by advice from a vet who is a) not aware of local vectors b) not a vet for your pet c) has never met your pet d) has a very good income from the adverts and products on their website.

When it comes to vaccinations, I absolutely trust my vet.

I remember the names of every single one of those dogs who have died of parvovirus.

I remember who spent 11 days on a drip.

I remember who nearly died.

But the general public, who don’t get the health and sanitation figures for animals in their region, don’t see those names, don’t see those numbers and don’t realise why it’s so infuriating to see clickbait shared time and time again that is just plain wrong. Nobody shares clickbait that says how efficient the vaccines are, and how vaccinating against disease has all but eradicated it in some parts of the world.

Now we can wring our hands after the dog has died, wailing and beating our chests about viruses and diseases that can take our dogs away, or we can have an informed discussion with our vet. We need to stop thinking that they’re all out to become millionaires on the back of our gross stupidity or that they are too ignorant to become as informed as we are – or at least we think we are, having read biased and inflamatory articles on dodgy sites that support our nagging hesitations. When I took Amigo last year to the vet for his jabs, she advised against his yearly vaccinations and he just had the (perennially controversial) leptospirosis vaccination. Having had a stroke, I wondered if she thought it would interfere with his health or if she was just telling me politely not to waste money on a dog who probably wouldn’t live out the year… so I asked her. She explained why and I agreed, so that was that.

For my dog Heston, he’s still a young guy. He comes with me often to the shelter. He has his yearly vaccinations and he always will until he’s an old dude – because I put him at high-risk with what I do.

That’s what makes me angry – people say ‘my dogs don’t go to kennels, I don’t travel, I don’t take them to dog shows, I don’t walk them with other dogs…’

Sadly, you don’t live in as safe a world as you think you do, where disease is concerned.

I sure as hell hope that nobody ever leaves their gate open or that their dog never, ever escapes and ends up in the pound, or never comes in contact with parvo or distemper when they do need to take their dog to the vet… because they’re precisely the kind of dog who will contract the disease.

But if you have a really low-risk lifestyle and a low-risk dog, I can see why you might want to have a conversation with your vet. I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t vaccinate. That’s a conversation to have with your vet.

In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of things I like to ask my vet. My poor vet. Which chews are okay and which cause slab fractures? Have you ever seen a dog with a tongue stuck in a chew toy? Do dogs really die from eating chocolate? Is agility okay for my shepherd? What about frisbee? What exercise can I do with my dog who had a vestibular event? Can I give melatonin and valerian to my dog who has dementia? Is this food causing colitis?

I want my dogs to live long, healthy lives, and following every fad shared in kooky websites may cause more problems than they solve.

That is especially true as certain popular pet health sites are happy to run with Daily Mail style headlines about “this food is KILLING our pets”, “this pet health bombshell that everyone is ignoring that is KILLING our pets”, “This bad habit is KILLING our pets”. But because the good (eg don’t smoke around your dog – passive smoking is not good for your pets) is mixed up with the sensational (feeding X, Y or Z is killing our dogs) you end up either ignoring the good stuff because you are suspicious of everything on the site, or believing the sensational.

But pet health marketers unfortunately take advantage of our feelings, which is why we need an added layer of skepticism.

At the same time, I’m conscious that there are more things in heaven and earth than science has got round to testing yet. And I’m also conscious that we don’t know everything. If it won’t hurt and it might help, then it’s worth a look. I’m a fan of Rescue Remedy sometimes. No idea why it works – it just seems to with some dogs. Melatonin worked with Amigo, and so did valerian.

Actually, what helped more with his night-time wanderings was me taking them.

His wandering wasn’t upsetting anyone except me.

I give my dogs glucosamine and chondroitin supplements even though I know that glucosamine only had success in lab tests but not outside the lab in real life and chondrotin is practically pointless from an academic point of view. I use MSM and GLM supplements for arthritis as they seemed to give Tobby more mobility than when he didn’t have them, or when he was on anti-inflammatories alone. GLM has done well in some small tests and so has MSM.

I’m really pleased to have found a vet who is happy to discuss these things and also to recommend them if she thinks they might work.

I’m glad that when Ralf got in a fight with a badger, I walked out with arnica for his bruises, some anti-inflammatories for his fat lip and cauliflower ear, and some antibiotics against the yucky stuff a badger might have transmitted through a bloody open-wound contact fight. I wish I could have done the same for the badger. But that combination of proven medicine and great natural remedies is what I like. For me, that is truly ‘holistic’ medicine.

So it’s not to say I need everything to be governed by what I’ve seen, like the efficacy of particular vaccines. But neither do I jump on all trends. Given the recommendations on Facebook I got for my new foster who has a range of ailments, she’d be rattling with woo-woo medicines. I’ve got to sift and appraise from my friends’ experiences, but Facebook doesn’t have the knowledge that my vet does. When I read about a medicine or a treatment, I try to focus on who wrote it, their bias and their purpose. Once I’ve taken off my own blinkers, I can do better for my dogs.

After all, all of these things we do, it’s because we love our dogs and we want them to live as long as possible.

That said, we shouldn’t ever let our heart rule our heads when it comes to diet or medicine. If I see ‘products’ and ‘shop’ on an article that’s supposedly about canine health, I’ll take everything with a large pinch of very unhealthy salt. I want sponsors to be clear that they are sponsors, and if I suspect a whiff of dishonesty from ‘natural’ sites, I’m off to look for more reliable stuff. If an ‘information’ site asks me to subscribe, I’m out of there. Why on earth would they want me to subscribe unless to sell me something? I don’t want to see ‘web entrepreneur’ alongside a biography of a ‘health practitioner’ and I’m fond of visiting sites such as Skeptvet to check out the other side of the argument. And I’m aware too that it is their job to be skeptical about stuff. That is their bias.

If in doubt, look at the front page of the site.

Does it state in the headline what it’s about, or is it just ‘This THING will KILL your pet’ and you have to click to find out what?

Does it have a ‘shop’ button? This for me is the big giveaway.

Does it have a load of sponsors down the side?

Does it ask you to sign up now?

Does it have pop-up boxes to get you to subscribe?

ALL good signs that the person producing the website is making a bit of a living (or a very good living) from marketing.

Sadly, because they do not know our pets, because they do not have a whole history, because they do not know us, any online vet or health site that gives advice should be read with a healthy amount of skepticism. Any zealot who doesn’t mitigate their own advice with ‘go and see your own vet’ is lucky not to face lawsuits more frequently. And it goes without saying that if the advice is on a forum or Facebook, take it with a huge pinch of salt. Do your research if it sounds interesting. I’m in a few great groups for canine dementia, for vestibular disease and for degenerative myelopathy, and they give me ideas of things to discuss with my vet, but they certainly don’t replace my vet and they never will. Even if they were Mr Super Vet himself on Facebook giving me advice about vet care, I’d wonder why he was so happy to dole out free advice – other than the stuff that is generally accepted, like looking after your dog’s teeth, keeping their ears clean or the problems short-nosed dog breeds can face. If I follow vets on Facebook, I’m looking for photos of their pets, photos of their clients’ pets, even photos of operations, some good advice for all dogs and some posts about interesting animal facts. I’m not looking for a zealot and I’m not looking for them to diagnose and treat my pet online.

But medicine is not the only place where controversial sites publish clickbait. Sadly, this is infecting behavioural advice for dogs too. Next week, I’ll look at some of the FAKE NEWS! from the behaviour world that is potentially very damaging for our dogs.

 

 

 

Help! My teenage dog is crazy!

Help! My teenage dog is crazy!

After aggression issues, the most usual thing I get calls about is…. teenagers!

In fact, the two things often go hand in hand. But teenagers can pose problems in all sorts of ways, many of which owners feel unable to deal with. In many ways, that combination of puppyish play behaviours in a big dog body as your dog works its way through the full repertoire of canine behaviours can be a very testing time indeed.

It’s not a surprise so many teenagers end up in the shelter.

Would it be a surprise if I said to you that 80% of the dogs in our shelter are under three years of age?

Of those, 95% of our longer-stay dogs are male.

Of those, 95% are big.

That’s the sad reality.

If you are a big, young male, you are far more likely to find yourself staying for more than a couple of weeks, should you arrive in a shelter. You won’t behave any differently than a smaller dog, but it’s easier to accept some behaviours in smaller dogs.

And if you add lack of appropriate socialisation with humans, cats and other dogs to that equation, along with a lack of obedience training, you have yourself the profile of our young dogs. If you look a bit ordinary, a bit average, expect to find yourself lost in the system for a while.

You’d have thought they were from the same litter, wouldn’t you?

But our big, young guys are not just the stuff of shelters… I remember the days when my own dog Heston was a teenager. I remember the escapes, the chewing, the barking, the over-enthusiasm. I remember my frantic tears and the desperate attempts to just live with him. Everything he is now at five was born from my attempts to calm him, to occupy him and to actually manage him. He is a dab hand at freestyle heelwork, obedience and also at gundog stuff – but there were days when I’d spend hours working with him, wondering if it’d not be better for him to be rehomed.

That’s why I have a lot of sympathy for my clients who have dogs who are not exactly a teenage dream.

One of my clients phoned me, absolutely convinced that there was something dreadfully wrong with her flat-coated retriever, Murgatroyd. He’s a pedigree from great lines and many of his relatives work. What she was looking for really was a vet referral.

“He just bites out of the blue,” the conversation started.

Funnily, I’d had a conversation earlier that day with the owner of a Bernese Mountain Dog, Bernie.

“He just launches himself at my husband and grabs his leg! There’s something seriously wrong with him!”

I think there are many of us who think there is something wrong with our dogs when they are teenagers. It’s not unusual to have conversations about ADHD, about whether dogs have undiagnosed brain tumours, about rage… conversations with owners whose dogs have already seen the vet and ruled out any major health issues that may cause this.

In fact, when I mention over-arousal or over-excitement, often the owners are dismissive.

“No, he’s not like this all the time!”

But over-arousal isn’t an ‘all the time’ thing. Neither is over-excitement. Because the dogs have the semblance of some manners, the owners think that the dogs must be wired wrong. Often, it takes a full examination by a vet and some pretty heavy insistence from both of us to convince owners that their dog isn’t suffering from some kind of undiagnosed rage syndrome.

It’s only then, when we discuss common symptoms of over-arousal that owners often realise that yes, their dog is doing a lot of the other things too.

And then the penny starts to drop.

For Murgatroyd, he was a humper, a very friendly humper, but a humper nonetheless. And a digger. The lawn was filled with huge tank traps. He was also a barker. Barking, humping, digging and mouthing… bug-eyed lack of focus and panting all added up. On the diagram above, he was doing 8 of those 10 things.

For Bernie, he was jumping up all the time, circling and nipping when excited. He was regularly doing 5 of those 10 things.

Both boys pulled like a demon as well, despite choke chains (which were probably contributing to their arousal on walks, which I’ll explain later).

Once you start to see that the biting is part of a puzzle, and that the picture that the pieces make up is just an over-aroused dog, then it makes it a lot easier to devise a strategy to help your dog get through its teen years without  ending up in a shelter or being put to sleep because that mouthing gets more and more insistent.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t rule out every single possible biological or physiological cause with your vet. You absolutely should. It’s always the place to start when you have any behavioural abnormality. Even something simple like impacted anal glands can mean your dog is reluctant to sit down or is more restless than usual. But some disorders can become evident as dogs mature, such as problems with the thyroid or neurological issues such as focal epilepsy or intracranial pressure. There are many reasons to visit a vet, and teenage behavioural problems such as over-arousal and aggression are always good reasons.

So why might your teenage dog turn into a furry nightmare on legs?

Some of those medical issues above may well be behind it.

But there can also be other physiological reasons.

You’d think there may be “boy” issues, but every single dog I work with has been castrated prior to working with me and it hasn’t made a difference. Castration removes a lot of a dog’s ability to create testosterone, and whilst it may work on some problems such as roaming, it may not work on others, especially if that behaviour is driven by other hormones, chemicals or neurotransmitters. That’s like wondering why your fridge is still working when you’ve taken the fuse for the cooker out. If it’s not related to testosterone, castration won’t make a difference.

There is often a different cocktail of chemicals at work. Adrenaline is a big part of that. So is dopamine. Dopamine does lots of things, but it is heavily implicated in reward behaviours, learning and addictions, as well as in other pleasurable behaviours. It also has a central role in impulse control. Adrenaline is crucially implicated in arousal. Whilst we get bursts of adrenaline when we are under threat or stress, we also get adrenaline surges in response to excitement.

Just because it can be physiological doesn’t mean you can’t change it through behaviour modification. It’s something that doesn’t necessarily require a prescription to sort out.

And over-arousal may not be just the body at work.

There are, as I have mentioned, age-related issues. It’s unusual for an older dog who has previously been calm all their life to become massively over-aroused unless their life changes a lot. Usually, medical changes would be predictable there. We all know that puppies are balls of energy, but young dogs also need a lot of sleep. They also need to learn impulse control and they need to learn the rules of being an adult aren’t the same as being a puppy. For larger breeds, we all know it’s vital not to exercise them too much, with the risk of growth problems, but what do you do if you have a large breed who is over-aroused?

Again, lots of the strategies I’ll explore later will help with that.

Food can be an issue, just as it is in humans. Dogs don’t process sugar as we do, but if I say to you that my boss used to give me some full-sugar Coca-Cola and a bag of Haribo Sours before a meeting just to see me go, you’ll know why he found it so amusing. If you run marathons or do triathlons, you’ll know all about the importance of carb-loading for energy. Additives, sugars and unnecessary ingredients can all have a negative effect on canine behaviour, just as they do on human behaviours. As a rule, if you’re buying food from the supermarket, you may find that it isn’t an optimal diet for your teenage dog. Discuss this with a canine nutritionist or your vet, but know that there are very good diets out there, be they raw, cooked, home-made, dry or wet food, and it needn’t be inconvenient. Some will no doubt suggest low protein diets or seratonin-enhancing diets, but the very best thing to do if you think diet is the major contributing factor in your dog’s behaviour is to seek out a professional. It’s not something to tinker with yourself if you think that food is the primary cause behind your dog’s excited behaviour.

Lack of sufficient rest and sleep can be a problem and can also create young dogs who are permanently wired. Like you, your dog needs a low-noise, unstimulating environment in which to sleep. They also need a lot more sleep than you’d think. It should be comfortable and at the right temperature. Expecting your dog to cope with household arousal when they are surrounded 14 hours a day by family members and excitement is a recipe for a dog who’s living on the edge of its nerves. 8 hours of sleep may be enough for us, but it is not enough for our dogs.

Many are going to say that teenage behaviour is ‘dominance’ or a change in the rank of a family pack. So is your dog trying to dominate you if they’re showing any of the behaviours above? Whilst some dogs on occasion may be – perhaps – influenced by position in the canine group and their relationship with another dog in the family (and there are no good studies to support this for pet dogs), there is zero evidence that dogs consider us as part of their pack and are trying to dominate us. I’ve taken to replacing ‘dominant’ with ‘arsehole’ when people describe their dominant dog. I think it’s become a shorthand way to say the dog is unruly and doesn’t heed the owner as much as the owner requires without accepting responsibility for not having taught household manners. It blames some aspect of a canine ‘personality’ (and dominant behaviour definitely isn’t a personality trait!) rather than saying “hey, I’ve not taught my dog how to behave properly”. Somehow, if we say they are dominant, it sounds more scientific. Nobody wants to call their dog an unruly arsehole. Some cats behave like mannerless arseholes all the time but nobody describes them as trying to dominate their human. Dominance has become the great excuse for unruly behaviour, blaming the dog not the lack of family rules.

This is no place for a lecture on the whys and wherefores of dominant behaviour in dogs. That said, I think some of the better aspects of ‘treating’ so-called dominance may also be of help. Those are going to include clear boundaries in the home, regular and consistent handling from all the family members and clear rules. You don’t need to be a Sergeant Major to deal with unruly behaviour, but firmness and consistency in household rules and manners is vital.

Don’t forget: manners are taught, not caught. Your dog is not bound by the same social and cultural conventions as a human involving theft of food, for instance. A dog who takes food when he is hungry is excelling at being a dog. Even human beings have to be taught social conventions such as not raiding strangers’ cupboards if they are hungry. If you want your dog to do something, remember it needs to be taught.

Some people are also going to say your dog is challenging you. I don’t believe, however, that dogs push boundaries in the same way teenagers might do. I know how it is to face the challenges of teenagers who don’t understand the reasons behind social or cultural rules – believe me, when you’ve worked in schools as long as I have, you see a lot of that. I’ve certainly met teenagers who enjoyed getting a rise out of particular adults. But we do a lot of quashing teenagers’ “rebellion” with ‘Because I said so’, which doesn’t always wash. ‘Challenge’, even with human beings, is not always about pushing boundaries or rebelling against authority. I didn’t dye my hair to be rebellious but because I was finding out who I was and what I enjoyed. I liked noisy, dirty, loud music and I liked the way Lita Ford looked… It felt good to listen to Motley Crue, I got a lot of reinforcement from my friends, and I got a lot of peer reinforcement in ways that dogs just don’t. When we talk of challenge or rebellion, we need to keep those words for describing ourselves as humans, not our domesticated pets. He’s not going through a phase where he’s deliberately pressing your buttons.

Heston wasn’t showing off for his friends or rebelling against my rules.

But he was learning what felt good, what was rewarding and what wasn’t.

And sometimes that means getting attention in ways that your dog has realised is very effective, like barking at you or humping you, biting you and mouthing you.

They’re learning how to work the environment around them, finding out their preferences.

I liked, as a thirteen-year-old, to go off on the train to Manchester and explore. I liked long-haired boys and Hanoi Rocks, tight jeans and cider. I liked black eyeliner and red clothes. I very much defined my own taste and I picked and chose what worked for me. It wasn’t consciously about defiance or rule-breaking, but about finding myself. I still like to bugger off on my own and explore. I can pass happy hours wandering around cities and forests by myself. I still like noisy music, and my tastes are as broad and eclectic as they were when I was thirteen. I still have a thing about men with long hair, although I’m not a fan of the hipster man bun thing. And I still like cider, black eyeliner and red clothes. I wasn’t doing those things to be controversial or to be deliberately defiant, but because they appealed to something in me.

Dogs are the same.

Not that they like noisy rock metal or eyeliner.

But as they mature, they are developing preferences for things they enjoy, things that reward them. It’s not about defiance or dominance, but about preference. Dogs, actually, are a lot better at accepting ‘because I said so’ than teenagers. I thought, tonight, that Heston has never counter-surfed. He has never begged. He has never stolen food. He has never run off with my shoes. He has never made his own fun out of stealing things. We nipped his fun little off-site wanderings in the bud with some chicken wire fencing patches and what emerged out of the other side is a biddable, calmer dog. Sure, he has some bad habits. He loves a bark and a forage, he likes to explore, he’s a bit of a Tarzan with new friends and he is as noisy as I am. But those teen years are about trying out the full canine repertoire of dog behaviours and working out if it’s fun or not. Digging, barking, peeing on things, humping, counter surfing, stealing, chewing, biting, destroying stuff, dissecting toys, wandering, chasing things… all in the canine repertoire and all possible to be things teenage dogs will trial.

This is why, though, habits picked up in the teen years tend to be things dogs grow into rather than grow out of.

Tried it. Liked it. Worked for me. Will do it again.

This is especially true of behaviours that involve feel-good buzzes from adrenaline and dopamine.

If your dog has a particular bad habit though, and it is deeply ingrained, best to get some specific help for that problem. The longer they’ve been doing it, the harder it can be to stop.

So how do you deal with your furry teenager?

If you just have a common-or-garden over-aroused teenage dog, there are three things you really, really need to do to make a difference. That involves the right balance of mental and physical stimulation, teach focus and impulse control to help your dog manage their emotions and introduce a basic calming protocol to lower arousal.

The first is to bring over-arousal levels down through a balance of mental and physical stimulation. That means lots and lots of enrichment activities. It means making your dog’s brain work. This needn’t be time-consuming for you, but I promise you the best ones are the ones you do in partnership with your dog. They will take a bit of a time commitment, but the trade is that they’ll improve your relationship no end.

Some mental activities don’t take any time commitment from you at all. It’s fine to scatter food from time to time, to dig out your Kongs, to buy a load of lick mats and snuffle mats, to get out bones and chews, tendons and pieces of hide, but make sure you’ve got something you can actually enjoy with your teenager too.

I did heelwork to music first. Heston knows about 100 hand and voice commands and has a good routine to ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but it wasn’t his thing. It really was going through the motions for him. Scentwork fared better, but it was only when I began to do traditional gundog activities like blind retrieves, casting and quartering that he really came into his own. Know your dog, know what they like and do something every day in partnership with them. It can be really hard to stop yourself tearing your hair out with a teenage dog, and having an activity that reminds you of just how great they are can stop you coming to resent them. Plus it builds on the owner-dog bond, which is always a good thing. Fifteen minutes a day can make a real difference. Plenty of programmes do this, from Absolute Dogs to Susan Garrett’s Recallers’ Programme

You can also check out this fabulous Canine Enrichment group on Facebook. Be warned: there are people with a lot of kit and it can sometimes seem like it’s all about the food. It isn’t, and you don’t need all the cash in the world to keep your dog busy. But if you search for scent work or non-food, you’ll find at least a handful of ideas you won’t have tried yet and there’s plenty of stuff if you’re on a budget. Some of the ideas have become absolute go-to staples for me, like snuffle mats, scatter feeding and stuffed chews. But it should never be all about the food, nor all about things for your dog to do on their own.

The fact of the matter is that the more things your dog finds rewarding, the more you can use them. That includes handling, specific touches, massage, scent work, using smell, including food and edibles, and plenty of appropriate exercise from swimming to low-impact agility as well as toys and food. Bear in mind that your teenager may also be still growing so keep an eye on the physical exertion, and this is also a time when favoured objects can become accidental obsessions. Use the teenage years to build up a massive, huge bank of things your dog finds wonderful. You want that bank of things that your dog finds fun to be absolutely flipping massive. Twenty toys your dog loves, twenty scents (including the icky ones), twenty touches, twenty activities, twenty different taught words for praise and twenty food items  – you’ve got over a hundred amazing ways to reinforce your dog’s behaviour.

At the same time you are building up preferences, activities and mental stimulation you also need to watch the physical exertion. Adrenaline is addictive. I speak as an ex-runner who used to clock up 100km every week. There is a reason I am an ex-runner. Exertion is costly, physically. We all like to recall the 70-year-old doing the marathon, but in reality, addiction to adrenaline is no fun and it takes its toll physically. When it’s 2am, you can’t sleep and you’re itching for your trainers despite plantar fasciitis, it is a real moment or realisation, let me tell you. That’s as true for our dogs as it is for us. When Heston pulled a muscle earlier this year, the vet was convinced it was hip dysplasia. It wasn’t, but it cost me some sleepless nights wondering if I had caused this. Adrenaline begets adrenaline, and it can be hard to break that cycle with a dog who is almost bug-eyed with a crazy, amphetamine-like high. Now is not the time to take your dogs on 10-mile hikes or take up canicross or joring just to tire them out. To be honest, now, I’d avoid amping dogs up in their teenage years. Calmness is your friend. I made that mistake with Heston and it took me years to put right.

You may find other ways as well to find some calm for your dog. Gentle massage, Ttouch, music, even long, gentle grooming sessions can be just as calming for a dog as they are for you. If your dog is aroused by these, go slower and for shorter periods of time. Both Murgatroyd and Bernie had (male) owners who rough-housed with them. This has to stop I’m afraid. Whilst rough-housing might be fine with an adult dog who has good impulse control, it is massively over-arousing and I work with a couple of dogs whose mouthing is a direct response to rough play. I wrestle with Heston now from time to time, but he is six. I didn’t do it when he was 18 months and I’m glad for that. Dogs do play like-for-like with us if we play back – they play bow to us, they hip-check us and body slam us. It doesn’t take much for this to pass over into mouthing if you have a boisterous breed.

If you act like a dog and play like a dog, don’t be surprised if your dog plays back like a dog as well. I know dogs don’t see us as bald dogs on two legs, but if you play as dogs play, don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t switch back to treating you like a human because they don’t know the rules have changed. How are they to know that a shoulder bump is par for the course but mouthing your limbs is not?

For dogs who do this as teens, there seem to be two agents: families who play physically with their dog, and dogs in single-dog homes who don’t get to play with other dogs, or those in homes with dogs who don’t play at all.

My sideline in foster caring for kittens involves a lot of work with small kittens on appropriate play. Having raised hundreds of non-clawy kittens, all that comes down to is appropriate play. My hands are never, ever honorary prey. We play with toys, but my kitts don’t ever chase my hands. The only thing my hands do is calm stroking and gentle grooming. People who play with their kittens using only their hands often end up with bitey, scratchy cats who don’t respect the ‘no-blood’ rule. Play finishes when this happens in my house and there’s no blood. We could all do with imagining dogs to be tigers with retractable claws and then we’d probably give off fewer mixed signals about play. This is especially true if your dog is going to grow up big.

It is really, really important as your dog leaves puppyhood around 12 – 20 weeks that you teach other things than jumping up or mouthing. Good manners are taught not caught, and there is no use crying over spilt milk when your ten-month old ridgeback or weimaraner is still nipping and playing far too hard. A puppy has no idea that the rules have changed unless you teach them.

Alongside teaching about these rules, it’s also important to teach focus and impulse control. These are things that you can be teaching your puppy from the moment you get them, because good impulse control in their teenage years will help them – and you – emerge unscathed. Dogs need to be taught that they don’t charge up to every single person or dog. They need to learn how to pass other dogs on lead without reacting or expecting to interact. They need to learn how to pass barking dogs and dogs behind fences, dogs in cars and dogs behind windows without feeling the need – or the right – to interact. This is as true for other dogs as it is for humans, cats, kids, cars, bikes and joggers. There are many great ways to teach impulse control, from Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” to Absolute Dogs’ games, from flirt pole games to games with food or other toys. A dog that knows to look to the owner before making a decision and knows that they don’t have to interact with the whole world is a dog who will emerge as a wonder-dog from its teenage years. The most simple way to do this is through toys. Once you have taught your puppy to retrieve, it’s not hard to use this to teach them to only chase, fetch and retrieve when you give the okay.

I think this is one of the most fundamental things that overly-aroused dogs lack: the ability to look to the owner or handler before interacting. The lack of understanding that there are some things we just don’t need to interact with is a big part of the problem.

The final thing I ask owners of over-aroused dogs to do is to implement a relaxation protocol, such as the one devised by veterinary behaviourist Dr Karen Overall. For this, alongside the enrichment activities, you may find you’re ditching the bowl completely and using all of your dog’s calories for learning. The Relaxation Protocol at its simplest is a “sit/stay” programme with a variety of challenges and complexities. It can be practised in a variety of environments and can build up to non-engagement in a range of more challenging situations. It’s something I adapt with owners, because some dogs find it too difficult, and every dog is different. For some, it’s a “down/stay” rather than a sit.

Other aspects of a dog’s life that can promote relaxation include Ttouch or canine massage, certain oils or flower remedies, zoopharmacognosy, white noise and music. Thinking more holistically will certainly help.

A final word is about collars. Many teenage dogs pull. The stronger they are, the more they can pose a problem for you. Whilst I have no problem with leads and flat collars for dogs who don’t pull, a dog who is pulling is in need of a programme to help them walk nicely. I heard someone say this week that harnesses encourage pulling. Hmm, I thought. Not sure about the ‘education’ harnesses that plant a dog nose-first on the floor if they pull, or those that restrict movement. They definitely don’t encourage pulling. More likely that normal collars or chokes discourage pulling, and a well-fitting comfortable harness is more likely to show how your dog walks normally. That might be pretty bad indeed if your choke collar has been the only reason your dog walks to heel.

However, once a dog starts pulling on a choke, a martingale or a normal collar (never mind a prong!) things happen that will increase your dog’s arousal, not lower it. If your dog is pulling towards something, limiting blood supply and oxygen will only increase arousal.

Nobody, not anybody, will tell you that being short of breath is good for lowering arousal.

If you have a reactive dog, the unpleasant sensation can add to those feelings. Lead tension can be a powerful clue that something arousing will shortly appear in view. Aroused dogs, in my experience, will still pull – whether you are popping, yanking, tugging or jerking, or even if you have a constant pressure. I’ve seen aroused teenagers being ‘popped’ every two or three paces by their owner. We use slip leads at the shelter at the beginning because dogs need to get used to a harness, and there are few harnesses easy to fit to a bouncing scaredy setter who has spent 23 hours confined and surrounded by 200 other dogs. But do you think those slips discourage pulling? For our pullers, we switch as soon as we can to a harness. They still don’t walk on a loose lead unless we do a programme with them, but at least they aren’t hurting themselves.

Switching to a harness at least means that YOU aren’t contributing to their arousal by interrupting their blood and oxygen supply to the thinking bits of the brain. Sure, you may then realise you need a loose-lead programme as well but this is not because harnesses encourage pulling, more that collars are unpleasant and they discourage pulling. The end-result is the same, but it’s not because harnesses make dogs pull more.

If you have a short-nosed dog, a dog with a predisposition to thyroid problems, a predisposition to eye problems, heart problems, collapsing tracheas, paralysed larynxes, heritable disc or spinal issues, syncope, retinal problems or glaucoma, the very last thing you want to do is allow them to pull even slightly against a flat collar, choke, slip-lead or half-choke. If you have a dog who has ANY congenital or heritable likelihood for anything to do with thyroids, breathing, heart problems, spinal problems, eye problems or inner ear problems, a harness may not discourage pulling in the same way, but it will certainly reduce the likelihood that you’ll accidentally spark some congenital disorder. From ataxia, bloat, cardiomyopathy and cervical disc disease right through to ventricular tachycardia and vasculitis, if your dog pulls and you want to avoid stressing your dog’s blood circulation or breathing, then a good harness and a loose-lead programme is a must.

So there you have it.

Alongside a wide variety of mental enrichment activities and a reduction in adrenaline-boosting physical activities, teaching impulse control games and using a relaxation protocol, you should see an over-all reduction in arousal and over-excitement. This programme should be specifically tailored to your dog’s own preferences and tendencies but it does no harm at all to build up other skills that are lacking. Whilst Heston, for instance, was a very independent teenager, if I only did independent activities with him, I’d end up making him even more ‘unbalanced’. By building on his tracking skills, his heelwork skills and finally his gundog skills, I was able to move him from independent to inter-dependent at the same time as building on his natural talents.

Every dog is different. For Murgatroyd, a harness, an hour or so of specific mental enrichment activities, a calming protocol and some impulse control games helped him get past his bitey stage. And for Bernie, a regular rule-structure, some scent-work, reduced physical rough-housing and a relaxation protocol helped him learn how to play with his owners without grabbing.

Please get in touch with a force-free dog trainer or behaviourist if you are having problems and you want a way forward.

 

Help! My dog keeps escaping!

Help! My dog keeps escaping!

I don’t think there’s anything more worrying than a dog who is an escape artist or a dog with poor recall. When our dogs are out and about, our modern world turns into a nightmare – one filled with any number of ways our dogs could get into trouble, become an anti-social menace, get into an accident or even end up dead. I’ve written about digging and escaping before, but today I wanted to take a closer look at the reasons why dogs escape, including four more serious reasons.

I really hadn’t thought about escape problems until I started getting the figures through for our local pound. When you see as many animals as we do at the pound coming through, you come to see the many number of reasons dogs have to escape, and the problems it causes – mainly for the dogs, for the community, for other animals, for those who are charged with capturing them and for motorists. Even for those who wander without causing harm or getting harmed themselves, it can also cause a problem if your animal is in need of daily medication.

But it’s not just about those who arrive at the pound – it’s about those who don’t, whose owners spend years looking for a fearful dog who was never captured, or owners who receive the most terrible news of all.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the corpse of a husky was found by the road near our shelter, having been hit by a car. There are several dogs who meet such a fate every single month. Barely a month goes by at the pound without an animal coming in seriously injured from a run-in with a car, a van or a lorry.

And vehicles are not the only hazards.

A hungry animal is more likely to accidentally poison themselves.

A loose dog is more likely to come up against other animals, be they wild or domesticated. You might not think a dog in a horse field is a problem until you’ve been asked to identify the corpse of the dog the next morning.

Some fearful dogs become impossible to catch, and it is only through our luck or near starvation that they find themselves trapped, as others are never caught.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you about the terrors that await a loose animal, even one that is road-savvy. You’re reading it because you already know the possible fate of dogs who escape.

And you don’t need me to tell you the feeling you have of sick dread and anxiety that you have when your dog has absconded.

You do want to know why your dogs escape and how to best deal with it.

So why do dogs escape?

There are lots of Fs involved here: fighting, fleeing, fornicating (I’m being polite because I know how uncouth I am at heart), food, friends, fun and following something.. That’s not any order of rank or merit. I would hazard a guess that fun & friends, fleeing, unexpected freedom, following something and fornication are the top reasons, but there are few statistics available based on why dogs escape – I can only go off the dogs we get through the pound and those who are returned to the shelter.

Those five reasons are behind why dogs escape – many of them emotional or instinctive. This is going to affect the choices you make on how to prevent their escape, so knowing the emotions or instincts behind the escape is fundamental to solving the problem completely. This is about the one behavioural problem that doesn’t come with an absolute need to get a vet check – although some of the solutions may call for a vet.

The biggest risk factors of severe accident or death statistically for our area are for elderly dogs and for those who abscond together. I don’t know why that is for dogs who go off as a pair, but the risks for a pair of dogs who go are much, much higher than for dogs who go alone. The risks are also much higher for elderly dogs, although the reasons behind that make more sense. Poor eyesight and hearing, dementia and poor response times are all health factors that negatively impact your dog’s chance of survival.

I’ll explore some of the five reasons in more detail. Some I have already explored in my previous post on the topic.

One of the very first things to consider is if your dog is escaping TO do something or escaping FROM something. Many dogs are attracted by something over the boundary fence, but some of the saddest cases I know are the dogs who are escaping from a perceived threat in the place where they are supposed to feel safest.

Let’s start with the easier stuff…. escaping to do something on the other side.

One of the reasons a dog might escape is hormonal. It’s not the call of nature, it’s the call of hormones. It won’t surprise you that a lot of roaming is based on our number one biological urge: procreation. Whilst female dogs won’t be responsible for bringing all the boys to the yard when they’re on heat, if they are walked regularly or they are loose, the smell of their hormones in urine and in the air may be enough to sway the usual direction of a male dog. So it’s unlikely that your male dog will wander from the yard unless a female in season is in fairly close proximity, but if your male dog catches a scent, it may be enough to cause them to wander. In one village near me, when three local females would wander around when they were in season, the number of intact male strays suddenly increased massively. That’s not a shocker, is it?

Sterilisation may reduce wandering which is caused by hormonal drives, but it won’t reduce wandering that’s rooted in other behaviours. If your dog can get out, though, sterilisation will not just inhibit their likelihood to wander, but it will also stop them taking part in any unplanned matings. A question to raise with your vet, for sure.

But if you are hoping sterilisation will stop your dogs going for a wander, you may be in for a shock if it has little effect.

Escape can be related to genes and training as well. There is a reason why my neighbour’s hunt hounds are kept in a secure pen – biology is not something that is always easy to bring under control if you’re a dog who has been bred for independence and for ability to follow smells. If gallumphing through the undergrowth as part of a team is in your blood and you’ve been trained to do it, if you’ve got wildlife regularly roaming past your home, it’s not impossible to think that it may cause some animals to go off on their travels. After all, an ice cream van will get me out of the house when nothing else does.

Roaming cats or other wildlife can be a problem for the untrained dogs who become self-employed. Cats are often lucky that dogs are secure, as they aren’t always shy of coming into gardens where dogs live. You’d think with the number of dogs I have, it’d put cats off for good. Not so. Plenty of dogs are capable of chasing a cat or a squirrel over or under a fence that they’d never normally breach. And other dogs have a better genetic sense of ‘stay put’ like lifestock guarding breeds or those used for protection work. A dog that couldn’t be left independently to stick with a flock of sheep wouldn’t be good at its job. But that is not just a question of genes, but a question of training as well. Your Grand Pyrennees may well be a homebody, but unless they’ve been specifically trained to stay with the flock, they too may wander.

Genes and hormones are only part of the equation. Learning is the rest. I’ve had two shepherds that patrolled happily or never thought to abscond, and two who did one when opportunity presented itself. You may have the right ingredients to be a homebody, but it’s not a thing dogs just do by instinct.

Much of that is about the original incident in which escape happened.

I did it once. It was high amounts of great dog fun. I’ll do it again.

I had a few weeks about four years ago where my shepherd cross Heston was always buggering off through a hole. Since the behaviour increased, I can only assume that it was very rewarding out there, otherwise he’d not have done it again.

It’s now been a good three years since he went off for a wander, even though there are certainly holes he could get out of if he wanted. Very little actually changed other than I broke the habit. I’m always vigilant for the moment where he ‘remembers’ and that epic learning experience is remembered, but it’s not a surprise that he started doing it because he was young, he was unsupervised and he had means, motive and opportunity. The holes were there. There is still a lot of game that comes via my garden. He was unsupervised. A learning trifecta that led to some very enjoyable roamings indeed.

And because it was such epic dog fun, it was likely to be repeated.

Once a dog has sussed out how, they’re quick to repeat it.

Epic dog fun is one reason a dog might hup a fence and bugger off. One of our dogs was returned after an 18-month adoption for constantly getting over a 2m fence to play with the dog and the kids next door. Another dog was returned for a very similar thing. Dogs are social species. For those kept in isolation outside, don’t be surprised if the dog suddenly finds a burst of motivation to escape if there is something willing to play on the other. Of course, there are other emotions at work here. There is a reason those dogs are not secure in the house, often. Usually that is because they are destructive indoors. There can be different emotions behind that, but if one of them is boredom, don’t be surprised if a dog finds the outside way less boring because they can get out and make their own fun. Lack of supervision with a young, energetic, bored dog and you have a recipe for an escape artist. The desire to have fun and to play can be a very powerful motivator indeed for a social animal. If all that social fun is on the other side of the fence, then you have a situation where it is not unlikely a dog will decide to

What would pull Heston out of the garden again? Threat. If his barking and growling at the fence didn’t make the threat put some distance between them and the boundary, it’s not unreasonable to think that Heston might up his own level of threat.

If you watch anything like Ring, Mondioring, French Ring, IPO, Schutzhund with shepherds, you can see at the ‘Guard of Object’ trial how they take a dog who has been bred to stay put and use training to refine and hone those skills. Basically, the dog has to stay put on an object whilst an ‘attacker’ comes to retrieve it. Well-trained dogs will circle the object, staying right on top of it and only come off to attack when the threat becomes imminent. What makes them breach that invisible boundary? Threat. And then they return to base.

For some dogs, were a threat to come too close to the boundary, be it canine or human, then they would be more likely to go off territory to increase the distance between the threat and the territory. Mondioring and sports like this just capitalise on a fairly usual dog behaviour. It’s in the canine repertoire, and dog sports just capitalise on that, polishing and refining it.

Now, this is just a hypothetical situation. Heston is not that territorial that he’s ever likely to do that, but if there’s a bit of faulty wiring or a lot of stress, it’s not unreasonable to find dogs darting out of secure spaces to force a threat to make some distance, before they return once again to their territory. The aim of this behaviour is not to escape. It’s designed to protect a territory from threat. Territorial aggression and its relation to escape needs very careful management because the risks are very high. But how you address it may be very different than how you deal with a dog who is escaping to go and chase squirrels. One of those dogs is going to need a lot of motivation to stay put and one is going to need ways to minimise their sense of threat from the outside environment.

Aggression and predation, then, can be other factors that influence a dog’s behaviour around boundaries.

Most of these situations are ‘escape to’ situations, in which something over the fence is more attractive than staying put would be. Given the choice, it’s more appealing to get out. Fun, friends and fornication make up a lot of the reasons why a dog may escape.

But some of the harder cases to work with are cases where dogs are ‘escaping from’ something in the home. There are several conditions in which a dog may feel the need to escape from a situation, and many of these happen in great homes where the dogs should feel safe. Four of these behaviours present such a level of distress that they almost certainly will need some degree of professional support, be that from a vet or a behaviourist.

Containment phobia is one such phenomenon. This is the dog who hates to be confined to such an extent that it is a very real phobia or fear. This can be a biological instinct for self-preservation – feeling cornered often makes us fearful and anxious. We want to know where our escape routes are if we are under threat. If some kind human has gone to great lengths to make it impossible for us to escape if something startles us, that is going to add to our anxiety and our fear response. These are the dogs who may trash a crate or small room, but feel happier with an open house. I know there’s a view that crates create a sense of ‘den’ for dogs, but a locked crate is not a den that a dog can choose to get in or get out of… it is a prison. If you’re used to transporting dogs in transport crates, you’ll know the sound of a panicked dog who is frantically digging at the crate or biting it in hopes that something will give. It doesn’t happen often, but the frantic scrapes of a dog who will wear its claws to the quick to get out are not sounds you want to hear if you’re moving dogs about. Vet techs and vets will know these dogs too: the ones who panic in crates and on whom sedation rarely works. When we feel trapped, we’ll go to desperate measures to secure our safety, which is why a 5kg minpin trashed a crate that has safely housed a 45kg shepherd.

For some dogs, containment phobia isn’t just claustrophobia – an enclosed space doesn’t have to be small. These are the dogs who focus their destruction on doors and windows or on gates. It’s not just generalised distress, but a very focused, targeted destruction in panicked attempts to get out.

If you think you have a dog with containment phobia, you will see that whether someone is present or not. It may present as separation anxiety or isolation distress, but a dog who has a phobia of being confined will present that behaviour when they are in company or when you are home. Don’t get me wrong: this is not just a dog who doesn’t want to be in a crate or behind a door because they want to be near you. This is a dog who is panicking because they feel trapped. This is dogs who panic when they are confined or constrained, even on a lead sometimes.

It can be hard to work out the difference between containment phobia, desire to get IN to a room, desire to get OUT of a room, even to understand who is doing it if you live with a number of dogs. Video is your friend here, and the help of someone who can identify the probable motivation behind the behaviour.

As you can see from this image, there are lots of ways dogs can cause damage around doors. Want to tell me which one is caused by containment distress during a storm, which one was caused by a greedy dog getting into the place the food is kept and which one was caused by an over-excited dog who knew his owner was on the other side?

Just because your dog is causing damage near doors, gates or crates when unsupervised is nothing in itself. A good behaviourist is looking to understand the motivation behind the destruction and to understand exactly what is happening and when. They’re also looking for other behaviours that form a part of the habit. For instance, I’m working with a dog at the moment whose owner told me the dog suffered from separation anxiety. It had one symptom (escape was not part of it, nor destruction to doors) and when we videoed the dog, it turned out the dog was actually fine when alone. The behaviour was unrelated to anxiety from being left alone and was related more to lack of supervision at that time.

The moral is that you’ve really got to know what’s going on before you make a judgement.

Often, there’s evidence that containment phobia or distress at being confined is the result of a fearful dog having a one-off learning event in which they were confined. A very poor vet experience, poor crate training, being found roaming and trapped into a transport cage, being cornered, being moved about in a small crate or being kept in a small crate during trauma may cause this, but so can being confined during a storm or some other event that the dog considers to be traumatic. If the dog associates the fearful event outside the crate or space with the crate itself, then it may well panic if unable to escape.

The key thing here is that you will see this panic whenever the dog is contained or confined, or in a small space. Other than that, it may manifest similarly to separation anxiety or isolation distress. Attempts to escape are rooted in panic and a sense of relief from the choices the real world can have. If you’ve saved a streetie, you may find they panic in the home if they’ve only ever roamed. For dogs who have not been used to walls and doors, it can be very distressing to have an event occur that scares you and then not be able to get away, especially if your journey to your new home was also under stressful circumstances in a small transport crate. You can see how easily those things can be linked –  the movement, darkness, other animals who are also afraid and the sense of confusion only happen when you are in the crate. It is rare, but increasingly more common because of the number of fearful free-ranging dogs being rehomed. How you deal with containment phobia or claustrophobia should only be worked on with a vet and a behaviourist if symptoms are extreme. For my dog Amigo, who hates storms and confinement, he copes with storms as long as he can find his own safe spot, but his symptoms are minor compared to some dogs I know.

Separation anxiety can also cause a dog to want to escape from confinement. It is not the fact that they are contained that they are fearful of, but the fact that they are not with you. Again, escape is only one factor in this and you will no doubt find other symptoms. Video is the quickest way to clear up whether your dog has separation anxiety or not. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, you may also wish to get expert help. It is not easy to deal with on your own, and a planned programme is more effective than hit-and-miss attempts to help your dog feel secure. How you treat separation anxiety is different than containment phobia. One relies on teaching your dog to feel okay on its own. The other relies on teaching your dog to feel okay in confined or closed spaces. And the two behavioural labels are not mutually exclusive: it’s not uncommon to find dogs who have developed a sense of containment phobia because they associate it with separation.

Isolation distress is another reason a dog may seek company and seek to escape from a situation where they are on their own. Dogs are social species. Whether they feel most comfortable with their owner or are happy as long as there’s a familiar creature around, separation anxiety is different from a dog who just feels anxious because they are alone. Malena diMartini-Price, who wrote the excellent Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs says that, often, mild cases of separation anxiety do not involve hyper-attachment to the owner (ie your dog isn’t trying to escape to find you specifically) but for my old mali, he certainly had isolation distress (any old warm body would do for company) but he also had some hyperattachment/shadowing, and his distress was certainly not mild – it is not mild when a 14-year-old dog who is crippled with arthritis will move furniture, destroy window fittings and break gates to come and find you. On the whole, though, I do tend to agree. Isolation distress is an easy rule-out as well. Is their behaviour different when left with a friend than it is when they are left alone? Tilly howls constantly when left alone, but sleeps in company. Amigo paces when alone, and sleeps in company. Though they are relatively mild symptoms, they are both relieved completely by being left with other dogs.

In most cases, a gradual and carefully planned programme of desensitisation will help your dog habituate to isolation, separation, small spaces or confinement. However, it is what you are desensitising them to that will change. No point desensitising a dog to small spaces if they are not claustrophobic, or to isolation if they are not distressed when alone.

With programmes such as these, it can also be easy to inadvertently sensitise the dog more to the situation, making them worse not better. You need a ‘Goldilocks’ of a programme: not too challenging, not too easy. That in itself can be hard to do, which is why for these four types of behaviour, working with somebody else will really help. Accidentally making the dog worse is not something you want to happen!

Just a final note on how you secure your distressed dog… I’m becoming less and less of a fan of invisible electrified boundaries (or even visible ones). For a dog who hups a fence in search of fun, the motivation to cross the fence in search of it can be huge. Because you’re pairing a negative stimulus that is then followed by a positive one, the negative stimulus risks losing all its power, as it’s just a clue that fun will happen. For a dog who hups a fence to escape from something, the shock also precedes the sense of freedom, and will not prevent a distressed dog from seeking out the relief of space. Negative experiences followed by positive ones may only serve to take away the power of the punisher. That means you’ll need more and more power to that punisher. Are you prepared to keep turning the level up and up until you reach the maximum?

Funnily, I was just watching Mondioring trainer Michael Ellis (I wanted a photo of mondioring object-guarding) and he talks about shock collars in the world of mondio. Now I don’t share aversive stuff (which is why you don’t have a photos of a mali guarding a stop sign with this post) but I do listen to trainers talking about the use of bad stuff, as I hope they listen to us about the use of good stuff. He talks about when they use shock and when they don’t, but he also talks about the accidental factor of causing superstition when you use electricity. He says, and I totally agree, that using electricity is like no other sensation a dog has, and he talks too about how that can inadvertently cause a dog to generalise about the wrong stuff. Because it is such a novel punishment, it has to be used so, so carefully – more carefully than I think most people are capable of doing, or more carefully than most dogs are able to experience.

I think that what he said about superstition is SO true of invisible fencing. Mostly, when a dog will approach a boundary is when it wants something on the other side. Now that may not be such a horrible thing if the dog is seeking a squirrel or a snake compared to if a dog who hates dogs has seen another dog on the other side of the fence. I have much less of a problem with Lidy the Lou learning that if she tries to chase a cat over the fence, she will get a bad thing happening than I do with Heston learning that every time he approaches the fence to bark at the postman or a dog on the other side. I absolutely do not want, at all, my dog to feel WORSE about stuff he already feels bad about. Now I’m not about to use shock on Lidy to tame her predatory instincts, but it would be way, way worse if I tried to use shock with Heston. Do you think he will feel BETTER about the bad stuff outside if I add shock, or WORSE? Imagine if, for some easily understandable reason, he comes to associate the passing dog outside the fence with a punisher such as a shock? Horrific learning consequence right there.

Not only that, electric fences are completely incapable of determining whether your dog is coming or going. If a dog goes over, how do they get back when their motivation to be inside the boundary wasn’t so great to begin with? If I ran off because of a storm, and the pain wasn’t big enough to keep me in, do you think I’ll risk crossing back again once the storm has gone? If I escaped to have fun with my mates and risked a shock to do it, do you think I’ll hup back over it to get back into a place I didn’t want to be in in the first place? Were they one-way, that’d be different than indiscriminately shocking a dog whether it’s coming or going. For the time it teaches the dog to use an invisible electric fence properly, you can easily have taught other behaviours. Makers of invisible boundaries – or even visible ones – don’t tell you that, do they? Nor do they make clear the risks associated with the fact that their fences don’t distinguish between coming or going. Now you don’t want them to go, that’s for sure, but if they do, you definitely want them to be able to return.

If your dog is reactive, fearful or aggressive towards things outside the boundary, a shock collar or electrified fence is not the answer. If they are attracted to the world outside and the shock is just a precursor to fun, don’t be surprised that they don’t feel motivated to come back under their own steam and if that threat of shock is enough to keep them out when it wasn’t enough to kep them in.

 

 

 

The Carrot and the Stick: Why Order Matters (and why ‘balance’ is a fallacy)

The Carrot and the Stick: Why Order Matters (and why ‘balance’ is a fallacy)

In the last three posts, I’ve been looking at some trainer stuff about how animals learn, and trying hard not to be too ‘techie’ when explaining the fallout of punishments, why positive training isn’t the easy option and why your training method might not be working. Today, it’s about the fallacy of ‘balance’ and why it’s so important not to mix and match your carrots and your sticks when training your dog. Whether that’s clipping their nails, training a sit, getting them to be okay in the car or even training for the ring … what follows is perhaps THE most important stuff you need to understand about why mixing and matching is going to fail.

In fact, it’s what you need to understand about all your training methods, even if all you do is try to stop your dog getting on the couch.

Trainers talk lots about punishers and reinforcers. We’ve got a bazillion words that all mean slightly different things… it’s so ridiculously technical that it makes little sense to the average pet owner.

Reinforcers can be primary reinforcers, secondary reinforcers, conditioned reinforcers, unconditioned reinforcers… sometimes we call them ‘rewards’, but that’s not always right, and we hear ‘click and treat’ a lot of which is also not really accurate… none of this helped by the fact that the original words for these things are often in Russian and nobody knows quite how to translate them accurately into English. This is not helped by the fact that they are not all good, but they still make you increase a behaviour. For instance, stopping the kettle whistling is not necessarily a good thing, but it increases your behaviour in taking it off the stove. When you start talking negative and positive reinforcement, it’s no wonder people’s eyes glaze over. Add a bit of maths in there with your S-deltas and your US and your CS and what you have is a minefield of psychology that makes great sense when you understand it and really makes animal training much easier, but is just geek stuff to the average owner.

Punishers or aversives also have a gazillion names, and not helped by the fact that they’re not all bad.

It gets more complicated by the fact there are positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers and positive punishers and negative punishers, and some trainers don’t like the word ‘punisher’, but ‘force’ isn’t quite right, and ‘aversive’ isn’t always exact, or ‘coercive’ is also not kind of right. The technical side of animal training is where science and semantics meet and have hideous, hideous octopus-like babies.

So for the sake of this, I’m taking Maureen Backman’s great explanation about “good stuff” and “bad stuff” when we’re talking about dogs. Good stuff starts. Good stuff stops. Bad stuff starts. Bad stuff stops. It’s not brilliant, but it’s clear and it avoids confusing and inappropriate attempts to translate from Russian into an English so obtuse you need a dictionary to understand it.

Good stuff implies everything your dog wants. That might be stuff it doesn’t need to be taught to like, such as food, sex and sleep. Or it could be stuff you’ve had to teach your dog to like, but your dog really, really likes now, such as balls and squeakers and ropes and petting and praise. It could be sensory, like tastes, sounds or smells. It is highly individual to your dog. And this ‘good stuff’ is highly dependent on your dog’s needs at that moment in time. Like smelling lady wee is ‘good stuff’ where Heston is concerned, except for those times when he can see a hare in a field. Then the field could be drenched in doggie lady wee and it would no longer be ‘good stuff’.

Good stuff to a dog is often bad stuff to a human, or at the very least, icky stuff to a human. Biting can be just wonderful to a dog. Biting and shaking toys is GOOD STUFF to a lot of dogs. Dissecting toys, cushions and furniture is GOOD STUFF to a dog. Chasing squirrels is GOOD STUFF. Barking, digging, jumping, stealing stuff and running away… it’s all GOOD STUFF to dogs. You know how it goes.

But it’s situational and it’s hierarchical. Heston doesn’t want to play tug when he’s tired. He doesn’t want paté when he’s over-aroused. He doesn’t want to chase rabbits if he can chase a deer. Chocolate is ‘good stuff’ to me, until I have eaten a box of chocolates in one go and I feel sick. Someone could offer me a box of my favourites and I’d flinch. Good stuff is individual and situation-specific. It’s based on need and function. What do I need right now? What function does doing this serve?

Bad stuff is things they don’t want. It can be stuff they have never been taught, like the smell of overly-strong perfume, or physical, like a kick, being swatted with a fly swatter or a ‘bop’ on the nose. It can be taught, like a verbal reprimand. It can be environmental, like a snake bite. It can be stuff that is sensory, like someone touching a paw, or the smell of onions. Like the good stuff, it has scales, from mildly unpleasant to the ‘heavy artillery’ such as shocks, chokes and prong collars. It is also individualised and situation-specific.

Whilst many things may be the same for most dogs, you don’t get to choose for your dog what they find good or bad. That said, there are generalities that are often true. Dogs aren’t so individual that some only like rolling on squashed frog and some only like rolling in stale caviar. I walked 10 dogs last Tuesday and every single one of them stopped and sniff-excavated the exact same spot (suspect wild boar had been visiting) and five of them rolled on the exact same spot. You’d have thought I’d have learned to avoid it!

As I wrote about last week, there are basically only four combinations of conscious learning:

Good stuff starts

Good stuff stops

Bad stuff starts

Bad stuff stops

That’s what’s known as ‘learning by consequence’, or operant learning. Yes, it too has a lot of different names and associated terminology. This is a higher cognitive process in some cases. It is not emotional learning. It is ‘switched on’ learning where the dog has learned how to operate their environment. If I do this, then this happens.

But there is another kind of learning – learning by association – that I want to write about today. This is Pavlov. You know, that guy who made dogs salivate by ringing a bell?

It’s emotional, reflexive, physiological learning. I’ve stuck emotions in there because they are reflexive and physiological. Can you control your anger? Yes, absolutely you can, but for animals, this is definitely something happening at a much higher cognitive level and it can be much more difficult. Does it happen at a physiological level? Yes absolutely. There are biophysical changes taking place as your neurons fire up and release hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, cortisol and adrenaline that course through your body causing a cascading sequence of physical responses. Can you stop them? If you are very, very mindful and emotionally intelligent.

Your dog? Not so much.

Your cat? Good luck with that.

Go ask a cat to control its anger and come back to me and show me your scars if you don’t believe me.

“Now, now Tybalt, no need to get angry. I just want you to get in the travel crate so I can take you to the vet…”

Can a setter control its joie de vivre? Can a beagle contain its delight at rolling in the grass?

Emotions are not so easy for us as humans to control. If you don’t believe me, go ask a primary school teacher how hard it is to teach on a day when there is a) wind b) rain c) snow d) a dog in the playground e) a wasp in the room.

Emotions make learning more complicated. Gold stars stop mattering when there’s a flutter of snow or a joyful labrador bouncing across the football pitch. Emotions can make learning really, really secure (I’ll never forget the science lesson where my friend Anne made me be the tail of a sperm…) Emotions embed learning and that can work in your favour or to your disadvantage. But what you can’t do is take them out of learning. Even operant, conscious learning has emotional effects, from the pleasure of satiation or play to the anxiety and fear inspired by punishments.

Emotions make learning inevitable and unavoidable. They lay down the tracks for information storage and retrieval in ways we haven’t even begun to comprehend.

If you’re a dog… even if you’re a highly trained dog… emotions sometimes get the better of you.

Just ask this Bolivian police dog

Emotional learning is MASSIVELY powerful and we underestimate it all the time with ourselves and with our dogs. I just had a sip of cider – haven’t had cider for years – but the smell of it made me smile for the 14-year-old me who loved a bottle of Merrydown Cider whilst hanging around on street corners like a hooligan. It reeked of pleasure. I could have stuck my face in it and rolled in it, it was that nice.

But… A whiff of Thunderbird is still enough to turn my stomach, however, 30 years after I had to clear up a friend’s vomit.

When we learn by association, most of it is learned (so it’s a consequence – waaaah! Gordian Knot of Knowledge!) Pavlov didn’t need to teach dogs to salivate to the smell of meat, but he did need to pair the bell with the meat. Finally, the bell ringing meant the dogs were salivating even before the meat.

The key to learning that bells mean meat is to always put the meat after the bell.

You can’t put the bell after the dog eats the meat. That doesn’t work. They don’t learn that the bell predicts the good stuff.

You can’t put the bell thirty minutes before the dog eats the meat. That doesn’t work either. It’s too big a gap between the bell and the good stuff for a dog to connect the two.

You can’t put the bell on a random repeat and expect a connection. You can’t just ring the bell at random and sometimes give meat and sometimes not. That doesn’t work to make the bell a strong predictor of the good stuff.

You always, always have to pair up the bell and the meat (either simultaneously or with the meat slightly after the bell) and you can’t unlink that link. If you start ringing the bell without it meaning meat, the bell becomes meaningless. It is no longer a strong indicator of meat. It’s amazing how quickly that links breaks.

What is important is the sequence by which we teach dogs that everything is either good or bad.

If I want my dog to learn that the word ‘yes!’ means meat is coming, I need to make sure the word is ALWAYS before the food, not too far before the food and that it always, always (or as near as dammit) means food will come. Eventually, I’ll phase out the food, but until that word ‘yes!’ makes my dog wag its tail, I’m going to keep using the food.

Dogs are great at this stuff. They are such great clue-readers. Much of their life is spent working out the connections in the human puzzles that surround them to make sense of our world. Leads are predictors of walks. Boots are predictors of walks. Keys are predictors of walks. For me all of the following are a predictor that a walk may come… going to the toilet, putting socks on, brushing my teeth, putting my hat on, putting my coat on, locking the door with the dogs outside…

Now my dogs weren’t born knowing that if I put my boots on, I’m taking them for a walk. It’s come through the sequential pairing of these things.

Boots >>>> walk.

I never do it in reverse.

It’s not

Walk >>> boots.

The putting on of boots wouldn’t be exciting because it comes after the good stuff.

And when I wanted Heston to stop excitement barking before a walk, I put my boots on hours before a walk. And I took them off. I put them on. I took them off. I used other shoes. It’s easy to break the connection, but my boots still make Heston have a little leap of joy.

And that’s just my boots.

How powerful is this stuff that your boots can make your dog joyful?!

Worth stopping and taking that in;

You have the power to make stuff like boots and keys exciting to your dog. That is just so powerful. You can turn metal bowls and cars, brushes, fridges, cupboards, leads and harnesses into predictors of VERY GOOD DOG STUFF.

It works to take the unpleasant out of something that your dog doesn’t like as well. Can a muzzle make a dog jump for joy? Hell yes. Can you take those icky nail-clipping sessions and get your dog so excited that they can’t wait to give you their paw? Sure you can.

And it works the other way. Can you make keys a predictor of something unpleasant, like your absence? Absolutely. Can picking up your coat make your dog shake with fear? Absolutely yes. Can a phrase like ‘Be a good boy!’ make your dog start to drool with anxiety? Of course.

We do this all the time – consciously and unconsciously – with our dogs.

And when you start using it to your advantage, it is perhaps the most powerful teaching tool you have in your box, where emotions are concerned.

For Heston, boots = walk was causing him to be so over-aroused that I couldn’t get a sit or a down. Using this ‘if… then’ model Pavlov so kindly gave us, I can uncouple the association between the two events.

Eventually, I decoupled that ‘Boots >>> Walk’ thing because it was driving me mad him whining in anticipation of the one great highlight of his day.

There is a lesson here.

Association works backwards. Good stuff is preceded by random stuff. Eventually the random stuff comes to predict good stuff. It doesn’t work forwards. Heston does not care two iotas what I do after our walk. Unless…. the walk predicts something else after. Sometimes that’s pleasurable. When we get back to the car, I quite often get a ball out, and that infects the last two or three minutes of our walk, where the association between finishing a walk/seeing the car means ‘time for football.’

Positive stuff works backwards to ‘infect’ the cue with the same emotion. If you don’t believe me, go and pick up your dog’s food bowl or their lead. Whatever announces that good stuff will start becomes a massive cue for joy.

Like this:

Dustpan and brush >>>>> play bow and tummy tickle.

How does that work?

Every single time I sweep up, Heston races over and the sight of me bent over triggers a play response. He playbows me, he rolls over and I tickle his tummy. That is how you make a dustpan the most exciting part of your cleaning routine for a dog. It is an absolute predictor of another (taught) pleasure, a bit of a tummy rub.

And that works backwards. The things that regularly precede the now joy-making dustpan become a predictor of the sequence.

Broom >>>>> dustpan >>>>> playbow and tummy tickle.

Now the broom is the cue that finishes with a playbow. Thankfully the rest of my cleaning routine is random enough that Heston isn’t following me around like ‘come on… do the thing…’

But this association is how we teach dogs that neutral or meaningless stuff is a predictor of Very Good Stuff.

And we use it all the time in training. I’m doing it right now with Massimo, the black dog in the photo, and a muzzle and harness. He had a fear-aggressive response in the vet’s for his routine jabs. Fear is one of the best teachers of all. One sight of that muzzle and the memory of its connection with a time of trauma and Massimo was backed up in his kennel. Now my training goes like this:

Muzzle >>>>>>>>>> very stinky amazing cheese.

I don’t mess with the second thing. It’s always very stinky cheese. It is never ham, never paté, never peanut butter. If I want the muzzle to mean something, it always has to mean Very Good Stuff. And overripe French cheese is a great way to get a dog’s head in a muzzle. It is VERY GOOD STUFF to Massimo.

But… and here’s the kicker. It’s not a bribe. It can’t be presented before the muzzle. That muzzle absolutely has to be first, otherwise it won’t work. Even if it’s a nanosecond before, the muzzle is first, the cheese is second.

How many times do you think it took before the presentation of the muzzle got a jump for joy?

Two. By the second time I presented the muzzle, a week later, he was WHOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Muzzle me up, baby!

See how you can take something horrible for a dog, something terribly aversive, the worst of the “bad stuff” and make it into a cue for something fabulous?

We do this ALL the time with neutral or meaningless stuff…

  • fridge >>>> treat for dog
  • bowl >>>>> food for dog
  • lead >>>>>>>>> walk
  • boots >>>>>>>>>> walk
  • open door >>> garden >>>> play session

In these ways, we turn something meaningless into something pretty cool for a dog. Once a dog catches on, you can capitalise on ‘jackpot’ learning, wherein that meaningless cue becomes a thing of excitement even if the reward doesn’t always follow. I did this inadvertently with Tilly and my cat Fox. Tilly was ambivalent about cats. She’d never lived with them. Fox was in the habit of stopping out all night. When he came to the window in the morning, I’d let him in and feed him. Tilly got his leftovers.

So it went …

cat eats >>>>>>>>>>> get leftovers

Then it went …

cat arrives at window >>>>> cat eats >>>>>>> get leftovers

Pretty soon, the appearance of the cat meant Tilly’s little stumpy tail was on overdrive. Six years on and she is STILL happy to see cats even though she has had six years without a jackpot catfood leftover bowl.

Learning by association is so super powerful that it’s mindblowing.

This is how you change something a dog doesn’t like into something they love. If you use head halters, collars, leads, harnesses, muzzles, coats… they’re not necessarily ‘good stuff’ to a dog. But you can make them into something good if what follows is pleasurable enough.

That’s why you’ll hear, “but my dogs LOVE their prong collars! They’re so excited when I get them out!” or “My dog loves the choker! He wags like mad when I put it on him.”

Yes. Because the good stuff of a walk means the prong collar is no longer ‘bad stuff’.

Take a moment to take that in. It’s really important.

That thing you are using as an aversive, as a punisher… has stopped being an aversive or punisher. It is no longer aversive. You have conditioned it not to be aversive.

Now….

You’re using that thing because you want the dog to understand that if it stops pulling, it stops being painful or restrictive (or unpleasant, if you have issues with those words). But what you have done by pairing it with Very Good Stuff is turn it into something that isn’t bad at all. You want it to be aversive. But if you pair it with a pleasurable thing, it has lost its aversive magic.

That is the whole point of aversives. They’re meant to be aversive. They aren’t meant to ‘Spark Joy’.

You get the idea if I talk about canes. They are meant to be aversive. Imagine if you’d only met canes in the bedroom, with a saucy vixen dominatrix. How much of a threat or aversive is a cane now if you’re threatened with it as a punishment for shoplifting? No aversive at all. You’d be all ‘ooh, Matron!’

So if you want your aversives to be truly aversive, and to remain aversive (ie to keep working), you have to never, ever hook it up with something pleasurable.  Not ever. This is why things like chokes and prongs stop being effective. Kind of weird why we use them with a dog’s primary Number 1 pleasure time – the walk, I know.

Now when I tell you about a local trainer who is using a “yank and jerk” choke chain to stop dogs pulling on the lead, and then using food alongside this to ‘reward’ good walking to heel, you can see why it’s totally and utterly ineffective to use the choke.

Yank and jerk >>>>>>>> food reward & relief from tight choker >>>>>>>>>> continue on walk.

They’ve taught the dog that yanking and jerking is an absolute predictor of some great dog Good Stuff.

In other words, there’s no point in the yank and jerk. You’ve rendered it powerless. It is simply a cue that good stuff is coming. In fact, you’re infecting that yank and jerk with a sense of pleasure. That’s why punishers often stop working if they are followed by good stuff.

If you’ve turned your bad stuff into good stuff by linking them together, is there any point in using the bad stuff to change behaviour?

Wouldn’t it be more simple to go straight to the good stuff?

You’ve added an unnecessary complication to your training.

This is a really, really simple, powerful concept. If you’re going to yank and jerk, do not, under any circumstance, follow it up with the reward of a pleasurable functional behaviour (like continuing the walk) or  – worse – something lovely like food. All you are doing is making your aversive less powerful, which means you’ll have to increase the force with which you use it, or the frequency of its use.

You can see why you’d THINK this would be kind of effective. I mean, it is a bit with humans. Threat followed by nice stuff if you behave nicely. Except the threat becomes meaningless if it’s always paired with the good stuff after. It just becomes something you tolerate to get to the good stuff. Like cold changing rooms before going swimming. This is especially true of animals.

That’s why there’s no “push/pull” in animal learning, there’s no “aversive/reward” sense of ‘balanced’ training that works with dogs. Stick an aversive before something pleasurable, and the bad stuff will simply become a signal that good stuff is on its way. If the bad stuff is no longer bad stuff, might as well stick a clearer non-aversive signal in there and go straight to the positive reinforcement corner, because like it or not, that’s what you’re doing.

This works in the opposite way too. When good stuff is ALWAYS followed by bad stuff, it starts to infect the good stuff by working back.

Lazy Sunday afternoons >>>>>>>> crappy job on Monday.

Sooner or later, you’re going to start feeling less relaxed on those Sunday afternoons, as the association of them with your Monday morning will infect your pleasure time. This is often how school phobia presents itself, by the way. I’ve got a friend with Seasonal Affective Disorder who starts getting depressed on the 21st June! The antipation of misery infects the very lovely long days and hours of sunshine. We do it automatically too, ‘rewarding’ ourselves after unpleasant stuff. Retail therapy and Friday night drinking sessions anyone? We set up our lives to make the predictable  bad stuff less bad, but often that predictable bad stuff infects the good stuff that comes before it.

Now dogs may very well live in the present moment, be unable to think into the future very much. They don’t plot or collude, make plans for their retirement. But they are better than many at working out IF blah, THEN blah.

How many vet visits did it take Massimo to end up hating vets, the vet room, the people who were in there with him, the muzzle, the harness and the needle? One. One single, horrible visit.

How many times did it take me nicking Tilly to make her hate me clipping her nails? One.

How many times did it take Tilly having food taken from her by a child to make her fearful of children? One.

These are what we call One-Off Learning events. And they work best with fear, though it works wonderfully with jackpots of amazing dog “good stuff” bounty as well.

Sometimes they build up slowly. Like what happens if you always pair cheese with the bitter aftertaste of a pill? Your dog will soon realise that you offering cheese is a clue that there’s a nasty pill in there.

So let’s think about that, because it has implications for reactive dogs, and I’m convinced it’s behind a lot of on-leash aggression.

Dog appears >>> yank on the lead, yelled at by owner.

How many times do you think it takes your dog to associate the appearance of another dog (especially if they have negative feelings about unfamiliar dogs anyway) and being choked, jerked, yanked or even told “no!”

The dog’s appearance is the cue for bad stuff to happen. It’s like if you see the police sitting outside your home. You don’t think “Yay!” (unless you have previously associated the police with all things wonderful), you think “oh no!”

And I think this is how using aversives with dogs who are ambivalent at best around other animals can turn that negative-neutral experience into something absolutely horrible.

So if we’re going to use bad stuff with our dogs, we have to be absolutely sure that we don’t put good stuff before it, otherwise it’ll poison the good stuff.

Imagine this neutral thing for a newbie dog: a car ride.

It’s perhaps meaningless to a dog. Perhaps it’s fairly unpleasant. You’re in motion, you’re confined. You can’t escape. It doesn’t make sense to you. To a dog, it might well feel like how we’d imagine an alien abduction to feel.

What comes next is vital.

Car ride >>>>>>> walk, play, agility class, amazing fun stuff.

or:

Car ride >>>>>>>>>> vet, groomer, nail clipper, sickness/vomiting

Now you see? That first car ride is an absolute predictor of Dog GOLD Standard GOOD Stuff. Cars = the best thing ever because whatever comes next = the best thing ever.

That second pairing has the potential to turn into Dog BAD STUFF. If your dog doesn’t like the vet, that is. If your dog loves the vets, then it goes into the first line with the amazing fun stuff. That’s what I mean about it’s the dog who chooses. But a dog who only thinks of the car as the precursor to the Most Amazing Dog Stuff isn’t going to connect the car with the trip to something aversive.

This gets even more complicated if you put good stuff after the bad stuff again.

See dog >>>>>>>> owner yells and jerks collar >>>>>>> owner says ‘sorry baby!’ out of earshot of other dog’s owner, and pets them out of guilt for being angry

What happens then is that the yelling is still just a precursor of good stuff so all that telling your dog off isn’t going to do anything other than be a great big, fat signal that you are going to give them some good stuff.

You can see then why the following scenario means the dog is paying no attention at all to the owner.

See dog >>>>>> owner yells “no!” several times and pulls dog back >>>>>>> owner says “good boy!” once the other dog has gone out of sight and their own dog has calmed down.

The last thing that happens is the important one. If you’re going to use punishment, don’t ever follow it up with anything that you’ve taught your dog means good stuff. Seriously. I can’t count how many dogs are messed up through techniques such as these. Either miss out the yanking and the yelling, or miss out the good stuff. You don’t need both, and using both is making one or the other meaningless and taking that tool right out of your box. What good is a conditioned punisher such as “No!” if it’s got no power? No wonder people end up having to dig out the heavy artillery of punishers: they’ve taught their dogs that the light infantry is a predictor of good stuff!

However, if you only use the car to take your dog somewhere they don’t want to go…  you know your dog is going to be quick to catch on that cars are vehicles of the devil.

So, a simple message at the end of all of this:

  • Don’t always put bad stuff before good stuff, unless you want the bad stuff to become good stuff.
  • Don’t always put good stuff before bad stuff, or your bad stuff will end up poisoning your good stuff.

Either way, you render what comes first powerless as a reward or a punishment.

If you’re going to do either of the things above, don’t do them in the same time span. Make absolutely sure that you use the first thing out of pair with the second so that your dog doesn’t use one as an omen or portent of the next. For me, this means I get to keep a sharp “no!” as a very effective punisher, because I’ve not taken all the power out of it. Likewise, I can make ‘bad stuff’ like muzzles, nail clipping, vaccinations, pill-taking, ear cleaning and eye wiping into something quite delightful. You don’t need to see a video of Tilly skipping when I get the ear pads out, because ear pads ALWAYS mean paté, in order to see the logic in that.

Finally, though, you can see why I am skeptical of ‘balanced’ training methods. They are often confusing and make poor pairings unless they are used in a skilful way that doesn’t accidentally end up removing the power of an aversive or poisoning the food. Balance, especially in the same learning moment, flies in the face of how animals learn. If you are a trainer who uses aversives, be open about it and keep the cookies out of class. Be mindful though that dogs are very good at working out what’s present in the environment when they receive a punisher, and that can be working out that you are the common denominator.

Handler appears >>>>>>>>>>>> bad stuff happens

Owner gets home >>>>>>>>>> get shouted at

If you want a good relationship with your dog, using aversives can really poison your relationship as by pairing yourself by something unpleasant, you’ve ‘infected’ your dog with the fact that your appearance predicts bad stuff.

I don’t guess many of us want our appearance to mean our dog is filled with negative emotions?

And if you do, I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want your dog to fear you and to associate you with bad stuff, then make sure you keep the good stuff out of class. Your dog might turn around and bite you, but I guess you know that already. If you consistently arouse negative emotions in your dog, don’t be surprised if they then have nothing keeping their teeth in check.

But if you want a good relationship with your dog, don’t confuse your dog by removing the power of your bad stuff and poisoning your good stuff. Be clear, keep them distinct. Mixing and matching is perhaps the most damaging thing we can do to our training and the one thing we really, really haven’t got our head around.

Long, but a crucial and very misunderstood reason why punishers and reinforcers can sometimes become totally ineffective. If you ask me, it’s the most fundamental part of teaching your dog, and it is so powerful in a ‘holy crap’ kind of way that it is something you don’t want to get wrong.

Next time: some accidental poisonings and removing of Kryptonite that we do in our everyday lives through accidental pairing of stuff that we can un-do by breaking the association.

Carrots and sticks: why your training methods might not be working

Carrots and sticks: why your training methods might not be working

One thing I hear often in the world of dog training is that if you put three dog trainers in a room, the only thing that you’ll get two of them to agree on is that the third is doing it wrong. It’s a phrase that’s used often by trainers who are trying to excuse the fact that the world of dog training is mired by conflict and controversy.

To be honest, it’s not true at all. There are many, many trainers I agree with 100%. Many of them don’t just train dogs. When you’re talking to someone who trains killer whales, you aren’t talking about right and wrong, you’re talking about what works and what doesn’t. There are different ethical discussions, sure, but what it comes down to is what works, to what degree it works, and whether it continues to work without fallout. All I’m interested in is what works, how effective it is and what the consequences of it working are.

That’s all I want to talk about today: what works and how effective it is.

Whenever we ask about effectiveness, we should also always ask: “Is it ethical? Does it have emotional fallout? Are there other ways I could train this behaviour that have less potential fallout?”

When you stop asking if everything is right or wrong and focus on whether it works and whether it’s ethical, you stop having those arguments with other dog trainers and you start agreeing much more.

For instance, at a local event, I was in the happy company of one of my favourite local dog behaviourists and trainers, Lydie. We had one of those eyebrows-and-looks moments over another trainer’s methods. It wasn’t a ‘right or wrong’ moment, but a ‘it doesn’t work’ moment. And that we can agree on. Our raised eyebrows weren’t ‘right or wrong’, but over the fact the methods were counter-intuitive and running against the grain of what is effective.

You all know I disagree with aversive, coercive, forceful or punitive methods. But people call me all the time with their dogs who are trained in those ways. Mostly, they are calling me because those methods aren’t working, and I have to get to the bottom of why. I don’t judge them for using them: if I turned away every client who had used aversives with their dogs, I’d have no clients. And I’m sure trainers who say they are ‘balanced’ or use coercion get plenty of calls from people who have tried using food or reward-based training and had problems.

A bit of empathy is always required alongside a lot of problem solving. We’re all just trying to change behaviour in the best way we know how. Mostly, why people choose coercive methods is just lack of knowledge about more efficient ways to achieve the same ends without emotional fallout that essentially leaves our dogs unable to trust us. Often, people choose unpleasant methods because of that never-ending tide of well-meaning but inexpert advice from every single person out there who thinks they know how to change animal behaviour. You know, the well-meaning people who’ve been to one or two training classes back in the 90s and suggest you put an electric fence in if your dog is getting out. Chokes, shocks, raised voices, electric fencing, weird ‘interrupter noises’ like Cesar Millan’s famous ‘tssst’, water sprays, citronella collars, and physical manipulation are so often recommended that you’d think they work. I know I don’t have to tell you that we get a number of dogs who turn up at the pound with an electric collar on to stop them escaping…. or who arrive with worn-down teeth from being tethered, or even who arrive with the tether itself. And I don’t need to walk far around our local parks to see people popping, jerking or yanking a choke chain with absolutely no change in the dog’s behaviour.

What’s that famous quote about insanity?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I’m sure the person popping a dog’s choke collar ten times a minute and offering treats for good walking was expecting different results. But ultimately, the dog was still pulling, still walking out of the heel position and still more interested by the other dogs than by his owner.

It’s the same for the people who I hear saying “No! No! No! No! No! No! No!” with their reactive dog.

If it was working, they wouldn’t need to do it.

But when clients call, it’s important to get to the basics: is the thing you’re doing – whatever that may be – working with your dog?

So if someone tells me they’re using electric fencing to stop escapes, I ask, “How’s that working out for you?”

You might hear sarcasm. It’s not intended. I genuinely want to know. Is it working?

Sometimes they say that it is. And if I see before me a happy, healthy dog who is full of joy, then I move on. There are other battles to pick and I understand the complexities of trying to teach a dog to stay on the property. I’d prefer a lovely fence and some shrubbery, but if electric fences are working and are not having emotional fallout, then so be it. I’ll never recommend electric fencing myself as I think it can have unintended side-effects, and I might point out some of the potential bear-traps of electric fencing, but that’s not the problem they’re calling for. And if their dog is anxious, upset or shut-down, we’ll have a discussion about how that fence could be contributing to that.

Mostly though, the aversives haven’t worked, which is why they’re calling… and business is brisk, which means those aversives fail pretty often.

Choke chain and verbal reprimands not working with a dog who is reactive around other dogs…

Electric fencing that is not working with a dog who is an escape artist…

Spraying with a citronella collar not working to interrupt humping…

Banging on the crate and saying “no!” not working for a dog who is howling in a crate…

Spraying a dog in the face with a water spray not working to stop in-house canine conflict…

Kneeing in the chest not working with a dog who is jumping up…

And there are lots of times when people think that what they are doing is working, when it quite clearly isn’t. People using choke chains with dogs who are still pulling, for example, or bark collars on dogs who are still barking.

It works the other way too. It’s not just aversives that fail.

Squeaky toy not working with a dog who has poor recall…

Food not working with dogs who are barking…

Food use ending in greedy dogs who mug their owners…

Toys becoming a source of obsession and frustration…

Dogs who won’t do something unless you bribe them…

So why do our attempts to change behaviour fail so often? And yes, it is often, otherwise all our dogs would be PERFECT! I think they are perfect as they are but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t wish Heston didn’t bark so much, that Tilly didn’t feel the need to roll in stinky stuff and Amigo wasn’t quite so shut down on the lead. And I wouldn’t volunteer at a shelter where

Behaviour is SO simple. SO, so ridiculously simple. You’d think we wouldn’t need it explaining to us, it’s that simple. It’s so straightforward to understand that you think it’s a trick.

What is behaviour? And how does it develop?

There are two main types of behaviour: reflexive, automatic, physiological, emotional, unconscious, involuntary behaviour (sometimes called Pavlovian, classical or respondant) and conscious, reflective, voluntary behaviour (sometimes called Operant). These are intertwined in a kind of chaotic Gordian Knot. Sure, we have automatic, emotional physiological responses (like the look of disgust I give from time to time or the way my eyes go big when I don’t believe something) that are often emotional, but not always, like goosebumps and shudders, salivating and blinking when air is blown in our eyes, but these behaviours function in the same way as conscious behaviour.

Behaviour can only do two things.

Increase (or maintain)

Decrease (or disappear)

And that, my lovely readers, is behaviour in a nutshell. Not so complex is it?

In order to have one of those two outcomes, I can use two methods to bring it about.

Let’s take the crazy circling that Heston does before a walk. That behaviour is a response to me locking the door. It can only go one of two ways. He can either circle more (or keep doing it at the same frequency, intensity and duration), or he can circle less (or stop completely). If I change nothing, that behaviour is probably going to stay the same. I lock the door, he circles, we go for a walk.

So how do I increase or decrease voluntary behaviour?

There are really only a small handful of methods.


This is adapted from the work of certified animal behaviourist Kathy Sdao and canine behaviourist Maureen Backman.

So often, clients tell me they want behaviour to decrease. They want their dog to stop barking, to stop pulling, to stop biting, to stop chewing.

Because as human beings, our natural modifiers are sticks rather than carrots, we think the same is true of animals too… that the bad stuff is the best way to teach. This flies in the face of science and experience, which teach us the best ways to increase behaviour are by starting the good stuff, and keeping it going.

Sometimes, that means we have to change how we phrase things … “I want my dog to heel more… I want my dog to have increased calm… I want my dog to chew appropriate things” instead of saying “I want my dog to stop pulling… stop barking… stop chewing…” and it also means we have to think about the methods we use to get that increase.

My main problem with decreasing behaviours is that it has one huge, glaring issue.

We spend so long wanting to decrease behaviours that pretty much our animals would be lying around in a sleepy heap most of the day. The dogs that people describe to me, the ones who don’t jump, who don’t bark, who don’t chew, who don’t engage with the world, who don’t pull… they sound like stuffed toys rather than real dogs. We do our dogs a disservice to expect them to have no behaviours at all. What do we want a dog for if we don’t want it to be a dog?

Also, I’m of the opinion that behaviour abhors a vaccuum. Have you ever tried to just sit and do nothing for more than 30 seconds, not sleeping, not moving, not fidgeting with your hands? Imagine if your only option was sleeping, but you were more than well-rested? I think that would drive me crazy. Even meditation or mindfulness is focused ‘doing nothing’.

But we often, by eliminating or decreasing our dogs’ behaviours, give them few things that we want them to do instead. That’s when they become self-employed and start doing other behaviours that dogs do to occupy themselves… digging, foraging, wandering, barking, chewing, jumping, spinning, circling, tail-chasing, licking, flank sucking… not all of those canine behaviours are productive, and several are a well-recognised sign of distress in animals.

That’s why I ask my clients to rephrase what they want, thinking about what they want to increase.

It’s also why I tell them they can’t ask to increase ‘dead men’s behaviours’ – are you asking to increase things a dead man could do? Lie still, be quiet, stay on the bed. All things a dead man could do.

So if I wanted to change Heston’s circling, I have to think of several questions:

“What behaviour do I want to increase?”

That means coming up with a behaviour that is not circling that I want him to do instead.

I ask myself for a replacement behaviour that has the same function as the other.

I have to ask myself, “what function does the circling have?”

I think that it is partly frustration, as he wants me to stop locking the door and start the walk. It is partly excitement and over arousal. It is partly a way to get rid of a burst of over-excitement. It feels good and, as anyone who’s ever spun until they’re dizzy will attest, it gives you a sense of euphoria. It feels good. So I need a behaviour that is equal to this. He needs to do something that gets rid of that burst of over-arousal, something that feels good, something that gives him a feeling of euphoria. So I get a big bag of his favourite squeaky rugby balls. I teach him “Find it!”. I hide a rugby ball in the yard before the walk and I tell him to “Find it!” so that I can lock up in peace. By the time he has his ball, I am ready to go and the circling is no longer. The best thing about this is that it’s also dealt with his excitement barking and also my own frustration at trying to manage getting all the dogs out of the door.

Coming back to “does it work?” – the proof is in the pudding. It does work. Using food wouldn’t work here because dropping treats on the floor is not going to give him the sense of euphoria even if it dissipates his arousal burst. I use this sometimes, but it depends on the dog. Putting him on a tight lead before we go out of the door and bopping him on the nose if he tried to circle may also work, but I bet I’d see the circling move up the chain, if you like. I’d see that circling before I put the lead on him, in the house. As soon as he realised a walk was on the way, I’d still get the behaviour because bad stuff never addresses the reason why the dog is doing the behaviour in the first place. And because aversives may lead to the animal putting distance between themselves and the handler, I would predict that he would be harder to put on the lead and be less likely to approach me to have it put on until he’d stopped circling.

This is also why you’ve got to think of the individual dog. What is it that motivates them? One of my shelter dogs was happily jumping and bopping handlers on the face before walks. Same function, different behaviour. What replaces bopping and greeting? First, five minutes of a low-down face-to-face greeting where she doesn’t have to jump to say hi, and then lots and lots of hand-targetting. She loves to bop with her nose, and a hand target is a great way to have a bit of a bop. Hand-targetting, is, guess what, great for heel walking and getting dogs in position as well as preventing them from jumping (or also redirecting them away from your face) and that’s why every bit of “good stuff” is as individual as your dog.

When it comes back to it then, whilst there will be trainers out there who would do alternative things instead of “Find it!” or hand-targeting, really, those of us who know about behaviour know that we have a few simple routes open to us. How we get there may be different – we can use the whole world of doggie “good stuff” to meet the same ends. We may do things differently, but we don’t disagree. We know that you need to use good stuff to increase behaviour and that this has the fewest side effects. There is no disagreement about that unless you don’t have a grasp on how animals learn.

Where Lydie and I may have sometimes different methods or different approaches, the result is the same.

That’s not to say I couldn’t pick other training methods. They’re things that just end in emotions that aren’t particularly conducive to the relationship I want with my dog. Nor are they as effective.

I guess I could use time-outs to decrease the circling – go back in the house, go out of the kennel, turn to stone until the behaviour stops, but that is why I stuck those feelings on the diagram … frustration is not so fun when you are dealing with an animal. Though I think it absolutely vital to teach dogs to tolerate frustration and to be able to “do nothing” (as all three of mine are doing as I write this), an over-excited animal is going to find some other behaviour for the emotions behind what they are doing, and I don’t want to add frustration to the mix. When you deliberately choose methods that rely on a feeling of frustration to increase a behaviour, and you do so with a dog, you should expect that frustration to pop out in other ways. For dogs, that is normal in a fair few ways, including barking, jumping, pawing, leaping, but also biting. Displacement bites and frustration bites are far too common, because witholding the good stuff depends on frustration to change the behaviour.

Coming back to the central premise of this article, it’s clear to see why I think it’s carrots all the way.  The good stuff is not without its pitfalls, but the pitfalls are much less severe than the bad stuff. That’s why, if you put me in a room with two other trainers, if they understand behaviour, then we’re all in agreement. You can’t argue with outcomes.

What always depends is what the dog understands to be good stuff (and this is where basic trainers can get trapped into very limited thinking) and whether that stuff is good stuff at that moment in time. Food is not the only tool in my toolkit, and a good trainer will be thinking of scent, play, touch, behaviours, interactions, praise and functional behaviours in the “good stuff” camp too. What many beginners fail to get their head around is that many of the ‘good things’ we tend to use with dogs need to be taught. Praise is meaningless to a dog who doesn’t understand it, and likewise touch. At times or with certain dogs, touch can fall solidly into the “bad stuff” camp. Ironically, the stuff that dogs don’t need to be taught to enjoy, things like chasing a rabbit, flirting with the opposite sex, rolling in dirt, smelling other dogs’ urine, are the icky things that many trainers wouldn’t even consider using to shape behaviour. And there are things dogs enjoy themselves which they have learned pay off, like the crinkle of a crisp wrapper. There are things that a dog would consider to be “good stuff” having been taught, like laser pens, but that many trainers wouldn’t use because of the risk of compulsive behaviours.

So if your training method isn’t working, one of the common reasons is relying too much on punishers that are ineffective. Another can be choosing either positive or unpleasant stuff and keeping doing it even if it’s not having an impact on behaviour. Expecting to always decrease behaviour and ending up with the equivalent of a dead dog is another reason training using aversives can go wrong. If you don’t address the function or emotion behind the behaviour, you’ll probably not succeed in the long term in making any behavioural changes.

One very big reason why training doesn’t work is in mixing and matching the good stuff and the bad stuff. Whilst I have my own feelings about aversives, there are some really, really powerful reasons you shouldn’t mix the two. So if you’re going to use aversives, then use aversives, but the ‘balanced’ training is a complete fallacy for reasons which deserve a post of their own. You either go with the good stuff or the bad stuff, but if you mix and match, you may certainly not get the results you want. So if you use punishers, aversives, shocks, prongs, chokes or other unpleasant things such as sprays or ‘interrupters’, make very sure you only use those. Behaviour is not a pick and mix.

In the next post, I’ll look at how training goes wrong when you mix and match the good stuff and the bad stuff – the potential side-effects of using both the carrot and the stick in the same sessions. There are some very big reasons for not using the two together that are worth exploring in full, which might explain more why I’m so skeptical of ‘balanced’ trainers who use both methods without clear distinction.

Fallout in positive reinforcement training: a post for trainers

Fallout in positive reinforcement training: a post for trainers

When you start using positive reinforcement to train a dog, you are often operating under the notion that it’s almost fallout-free, that there are few negatives associated with it. Indeed, I’ve only ever used positive reinforcement to train my pup Heston and it wouldn’t have even crossed my tiny mind way back when I started that there were things that could go wrong. I’d happily sing the wonders of positive reinforcement training with my friends. And as I learned more, I read more. Academic textbooks, papers, studies. Back to undergraduate psychology textbooks and Applied Learning theory. I can’t tell you how many courses I’ve attended, how many DVDs I’ve watched, how many books I’ve read. Few people talk about the challenges or difficulties of positive reinforcement training, leading to a view that it is somehow easier than using aversives.

That isn’t quite true, however.

So often, positive methods of reinforcement are seen as a panacea for all behaviours as well as being the ethical choice. I personally operate under the notion that you almost can’t go wrong when you’re a ‘cookie pusher’. I hate this term, but I know it’s how many of the French dog trainers see me, as they don’t understand what I do. It’s not about cookies, though, is it? I have a wide repertoire of reinforcers (including toys and smells, functional behaviours and other conditioned environmental reinforcers – I really try to keep that repertoire of reinforcers as big a basket as I can) and I’m still at the beginning of a marvellous learning journey, where I have the privilege of being able to practise these methods in the shelter where I am a member of the board of trustees. I’m always learning about how to use reinforcers and different cues, and it’s so much more than being a cookie pusher.

I think that’s why positive reinforcement is seen as the ‘easy’ option. It has been reduced by critics who don’t understand it to a simplistic explanation of what R+ trainers do.

Because, too, they imply that we don’t work in ‘all’ the quadrants, we’re kind of ‘quarter’ the experts. That also contributes to the notion of how ‘simple’ R+ is. We must be idiots if we only use a quarter of the available ‘tools’.

There is also a cheery enthusiasm associated with positive reinforcement. A glossing over of the negatives or difficulties that is sometimes coupled with a righteous indignation about ethics.

And I try to be open-minded. Really I do.

That said, I’m hyper-critical of aversive methods. I know I am. And I recommend nothing other than the most minimally invasive training or Premack methods with a “do-this and have this” methodology that is as minimally aversive as I can make it. As my last post no doubt made clear, I’ll happily tell you about the fallout of aversives. They are etched in my mind for every single time I think, “Wouldn’t it be quicker just to…. ??”

But one thing I think is necessary for those of us who use the least aversive method available is that we deal with all the potential effects of the methods we are using. Some of these effects may be ones we hadn’t thought about, and I certainly feel that some of the effects of R+ are not things often discussed – or as often as they should be.

If we gloss over these effects or don’t pay them enough mind, we run the risk of passing them onto clients who are ill-prepared for things that might go wrong or the potential ‘fallout’ when you use reinforcers. I know it’s a line I often use, that you can do little harm if you get R+ wrong, but that’s not entirely true and it’s rose-tinted thinking at best. Ironically, where I think this is most true is with ‘cross-over’ adult dogs who have been used to aversives.

So many great presenters and great teachers of trainers gloss over some potential undesirable consequences of positive reinforcement , especially with owners. By not being mindful that positive reinforcement can have unintended effects too, we’re damning dogs and owners because we’re not being honest enough – in the same way as ‘balanced’ trainers who are not honest about the potential fallout from aversives! Certainly, having had hundreds of hours of training, the ‘fallout’ of positive reinforcement is rarely mentioned, yet in practice, it’s my view that we need to be aware of these, especially when we promote it as a fail-proof method when it is not. And we need to share these potential ‘risks’ with clients, who may fail if we do not.

Not sharing the difficulties of R+ training is a massive blind spot that I see across the industry.

First off, we need to stop being humble about how easy positive reinforcement is, and share the benefits and the consequences in the same way we wish our aversive-loving colleagues would do. R+ is not the easy option.

We spend so long as positive trainers being humble. We pick up on things like that great statement from Dr Ian Dunbar about “to use punishment effectively, you need a thorough understanding of canine behaviour, a thorough understanding of learning theory and impeccable timing… and if you have those things, you don’t need to use punishment” (apologies for misquoting, but you get my drift) and we say things like “I’m not a good enough trainer to use punishment” in mock humility. Honestly, there’s something a little wrong with this approach. It suggests R+ is easy. Sure, there is much less that can go wrong, but there still are things that can go wrong, and the view that R+ is free from side-effects and that it is better for beginners or owners belittles what great trainers do and underestimates what our clients will find difficult about it.

Of course we are good enough trainers not to use punishment. We know that too. That’s why I said ‘mock humility.’ I got a dog to stop being so aroused around bikes and joggers last week. Do you think that I truly think I’m too crappy a trainer to have done it without a shock collar or choke collar? Yet I often hear trainers use this as an ‘excuse’ for why they use the least intrusive methods of behaviour mod. “Oh, I use R+ because I’m not good enough to use other methods.”

We need to be honest about the fact it is hard work – sometimes harder and usually more time-consuming than punishment is. Who knows? One high jolt of electricity might have put that dog off bikes and joggers for life. But the risk of fallout is too big to risk getting it wrong.

That’s why I spent hours working with this dog.

I’d have been disingenuous to promote this method to the owner without saying the method may be hard, may be time-consuming and may be frustrating. It’s that lack of honesty that sometimes sends our clients from us back to balanced trainers for a quicker and more immediate intervention. Sure it adds another ten minutes to an already-overscientific explanation to owners. I am a fan of putting all the behaviour mod programmes out there for owners and saying, “these are the possible – and likely – consequences of X, Y and Z… ” without always making it explicit that there are consequences of games, toys and food too. I need to change that.

That self-effacing mock humility some positive trainers use covers up a kind of smugness that, in fact, we are good enough trainers that we have never found it necessary to use those ‘most intrusive, most aversive’ methods. And that smugness can be hard work for owners as well. Our sometimes saintly ethics can be a real aversive to owners.

I am proud to have found a workaround to those typical horrors such as kneeing dogs in the chest, using electric collars for recall, jerking on their lead to get a heel, or using bark collars.

I also know it takes a lot more time and it can be difficult to stick to. That’s something owners and novices need to know.

We need to prepare novices and owners for the frustrations of positive reinforcement. Those frustrations are often ours, not the dog’s. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that sometimes I let out a big “For Fuck’s Sake, Heston, that hare’s over a bastarding kilometre away. Chill your fucking beans.”

Aversives are our species-wide preference and I am not a saint when my dog is going mental about a hare in a field and I’m trying to finish the walk so I can get on with my actual job. Frustration is a big part in my own autoplay behaviours and preferences. Our own frustrations are something we need to share with our clients, as well. They need to expect to feel frustrated at times and to know that using aversives is our natural autoplay as a species. It is so easy to turn to them the first time our own lack of skill with reinforcement lets us down.

As Balsam and Bondy (1983) point out, there can be symmetrical undesirable consequences to positive reinforcement too. I’m not sold on ‘symmetrical’, more ‘parallel’ or ‘similar’. If you ask me, they are not symmetrical because the consequences or risks are not of the same intensity. They don’t do the same damage and they can be easily worked around or anticipated to avoid.

Most of these unexpected effects are rarely shared with owners, or rarely discussed, as if the only undesirable consequence of training with food is that a dog may gain some weight unless you’re careful. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most trainers know the fallout of positives from their own experience, but there’s little literature out there that actually makes it clear. Ironically, if there were, the “balanced” trainers would probably be hot on pointing out the ‘drawbacks’ of positives, rather than resorting to ‘cookie pusher’ insults, saying our dogs will get fat, or that we aren’t using ‘the full quadrant’ as if we’re somehow deficient and inadequate.

It behooves those who use positive methods of reinforcement to understand each of those parallel consequences, to be prepared for them, to know when and how to use R+ properly instead of using it as a remedy that anyone can use – R+ is not “Training for Dummies”, safe in the hands of non-experts.

What are the unintended effects of R+, then?

Where an undesirable consequence of aversive methods is anger and aggression, there are times when R+ trainers will have faced frustration, even anger and aggression, most notably when withholding a food or toy reinforcer or when they aren’t coming quickly enough.

In my experience, this is most likely to happen with ‘crossover’ dogs who are suddenly faced with the joys of reinforcers for the first time in their life.

This is what I call the ‘put the fucking lotion in the basket’ response after the scene the Silence of the Lambs where the serial killer Jame Gumb has repeatedly requested a behaviour from his would-be victim (in a scene that is coincidentally a perfect example of an escape/avoidance routine which hasn’t worked – the frustration of which is the handler, not the subject… another side-effect of behaviour mod we should all be conscious of – handler frustration!)

Of all the dogs I’ve worked with, I’ve had anger and frustration a couple of times. For me, I think it’s related to control, and has both times been with dogs who had issues with handling and coercion. This is why I think it’s more a problem for cross-over dogs. The moment they get the illusion of control (I do this… she gives me this…) there can be real issues regarding who has access to the reinforcers. “My treats. Why is that silly woman holding the bag? I could quite easily snatch it for myself.”

For dogs who have never known anything but R+, this isn’t an issue. Certainly for my own dogs, I’ve never seen anger or real frustration that they have had a reinforcer withheld either accidentally or on purpose, and I’ve never had a “just give me the fucking cookie” moment – but they have a clear understanding that their behaviour is operating on my giving the reinforcer.

I also understand that if I don’t get the behaviour, I’m asking too much.

Ken Ramirez on video not getting a walrus to open his mouth is a good example.

He asks for a simpler behaviour and the walrus obliges.

Then he goes back up and escalates through behaviours, asks again and gets a flawless open mouth.

Good trainers know this. Increase the rate of reinforcement, lower the complexity of the task. Get some reliable behaviour and then try the unreliable behaviour again.

Poor R+ trainers get stuck in the loop of asking for behaviours and coming unglued when they don’t get it. This can lead to frustration and anger from both handler and animal.

For me, this frustration and aggression will come early in the process where a dog has not grasped the notion of control-within-control, where the task has been too difficult or where reinforcers have not been rapid enough. With crossover dogs, then, go easy and have a really, really high rate of reinforcement for simple behaviours and keep sessions really short. Be mindful that this is going to raise eyebrows with owners and critics alike. There’s this assumption that you are always going to need to do the same level of reinforcement that frightens the unfamiliar. Working with one dog at the beginning, I burned through a pouch of chicken in about three minutes. You can see why that might raise eyebrows among people who don’t understand R+. But it’s a good way to avoid anger or control problems with dogs who have only known punishment. Watch Ken Ramirez in action and you’ll realise short bursts, the right level of Goldilocks’ challenge (not too easy, not too hard) and rapid reinforcement avoid these emotions on the whole. See what I mean about how we shouldn’t suggest R+ is the easy option?

One factor I also noticed in the two dogs who were aggressive with reinforcers was that they had little relationship with me. If you think that frustration could be an issue with an unfamiliar dog you are training (often with big, male, unruly, mannerless dogs who have been ruled with an iron fist previously) build up a conditioned emotional response to you first and then start doing other things afterwards. Channel your inner Ken Ramirez: reward frequently, back up if it’s too challenging, keep it in small bursts.  You may also find that having a two or three hour neutral period with no food or toys with new dogs helps you get to know each other better. I do a couple of walks with no reinforcers from me.

When you work with animals with a history of aggression and punishment, don’t be surprised if you get a moment where the dog looks at you and you find yourself wondering if they are weighing up whether to mug you with menaces or do your silly little game. I had a moment with Lidy where I’d just started reinforcement training – basics like ‘sit’ and ‘four paws on the floor’ where she turned around and looked at me – I swear she looked like she was weighing up the pros and cons of stealing my treat pouch and running off into the forest in a blaze of glory. By using reinforcers frequently – copiously, even – for stupidly small behaviours, every dog I’ve worked with has come to realise that they can quite literally have their cake and eat it in return for our silly little games. But there can be moments where you are praying to the Gods of Dogs that an unruly, powerful dog who has a well-defined history of using threat to get what they want doesn’t decide that mugging with menaces is a better option. It is a behaviour they have honed already. Cooperation has never been a concept they understand. Lidy and Hagrid were like that at the beginning. For dogs who have always been coerced, cooperation is a taught skill. I think this is where some less polished R+ will fail.

Make it easy and build in ‘no mugging’ training as you do with puppies fairly early on and you avoid the accidental P- of positive reinforcement. Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” is still viable with unruly dogs who have had a lifetime of aversives. Not something I would do with a dog with a history of using aggression to get what they want though, not until we’ve got a working relationship in order to avoid those ‘put the fucking lotion in the basket’ moments.

Over-arousal is another side-effect for some dogs around reinforcers: shall I tell you about the day I started using food with one dog and it was obviously too highly arousing as I got humped every time there was a lull in action? You have to be mindful that for some dogs, whatever you are using as a reinforcer is just too much of a distraction and it interferes with the learning. Working with a hungry Hagrid on his bite inhibition is like running the gauntlet. I absolutely have to back up to some fairly undesirable treats that are the size of my fist and taste like flour. I also do it after he’s been fed and when he’s had a good meal.

These issues come back to poor impulse control and frustration tolerance. But you have to be mindful that you may have to put those things to one side for a while with some adult dogs who come to you with a history. For me, that’s one reason people might stop using R+ with a dog who has not been used to reinforcers coming from humans.

So unexpected emotional issues can be one side-effect of R+ training that you need to prepare yourself for. Always have a contingency plan and always know that whenever you start working with food or toys with a dog who has never had R+ training, you may need to address a few emotional issues first. It’s not to say you can’t use them or you will never be able to, but just you might need a workaround whilst you find the right level of reinforcer – reinforcing but not distracting and whilst you find a natural rhythm with the dog – frequent enough not to be frustrating. Be mindful of what you do with dogs with RG issues too.

A second issue relates to proximity. If aversive methods lead to animals who don’t want to be near you, R+ can lead to animals who want to be near you all the time. You might not think this an issue until you are working with a dog who is hyperattached or who suffers separation anxiety. But it’s true of a range of ‘normal’ dogs too.

Once, my little cocker spaniel heeled in perfect position for 5km. She didn’t drop a step. Why? I had a pig’s ear in my pocket from something unconnected. That promise of a pig’s ear meant that the maximum distance she was from me was about 50cm at most. The pig’s ear had become a stimulus, not a reinforcer, and whilst that might seem like a dream dog, that’s the mindless automatons R+ training is sometimes criticised for making. R+ means dogs want to be near you and want your attention. Live in a multi-dog home and YOU can become a highly-valued resource to guard… or a source of wars. I’m not suggesting R+ is responsible for velcro dogs or inappropriate attention seeking, but if aversives send dogs from you, reinforcers can bring dogs in. If you think this is an issue, remote training devices like remote treat dispensers can help, as well as the strategies specialists in separation anxiety use to occupy a dog when teaching them to cope with absence or distance. I read tonight the criticism that R+ dogs can be constantly waiting for training, and in a horrible ‘R+ gone wrong’ world, you can see how you could create a monster. Easy to get around by building in ‘release’ cues and encouraging interaction with the environment. I start all my sessions with “Ready?” which is my cue that we are working. But I guess there are a few trainers out there whose dogs are constantly hanging around in the hopes of a little learning. Those reinforcers and that learning can be addictive. R+ plays on the same reward pathways as other addictive behaviours, and then the moniker of ‘cookie pushing’ is not far from the mark. This is another accidental by-product of R+ training that you might see in novice dogs or in novice practitioners.

Another drawback comes in the form of increased behaviour. If aversives diminish behaviours, reinforcers can not only increase the target behaviour, but other behaviours too. Dogs who are clicker-savvy offer lots of behaviour. It can be a bit “how’s this? What about now? I’m going to try this… now this? What do you think of this?” To me, this is not a problem. I don’t mind my dogs doing more. I don’t mind them offering behaviours either. I’ve been doing leg weaves and stationing between my legs with Lidy and she is fairly delighted with her behaviour so she does it often. You don’t want to get caught out by an excited mali-mutt doing leg weaves when you don’t expect it.

Get the behaviour-offering mixed-up and cue-less and you can also make yourself a problem. I had this with Hagrid. This is a mali x GSD who has arousal issues. He is 40kg of jumping, mouthy, hard-mouthed dog. I like him to walk in front of me where I can see him (he has a thing about coming behind and herding, so I don’t ever let him walk behind me so we can avoid the ankle and calf nipping) but Hagrid and I had a dysfunctional relationship for a while. I’m going to call it reverse heeling. I wanted him not to heel. He would move in to heel position, so I would throw him a biscuit to get him to move away and in front. He increased the moving in as I increased the biscuit throwing. There’s that ‘dog gets closer to handler/reinforcer’ side-effect too. Only the cue became him moving in, the behaviour was me throwing the biscuit… and we had a horrible circle. I got out of it by withholding the treat throwing for a millisecond at first, then building up his ‘heel’ and teaching it like a proper heel on the 300-peck method (he walks to heel for one, I reward…. for two, I reward…. up to three hundred paces per reward) and gradually spacing out the reinforcers to 6 minute intervals… so he has now a perfect heel and it looks like I taught him rather than the other way around. What this is is a cautionary tale. Rewarding offered behaviour which has not been cued can lead to a rapid increase in offering behaviours and dogs who seem to be “testing” you. What you need is a dog who understands ‘no cue, no reinforcer’ so they don’t keep offering and offering. A dog who doesn’t understand that behaviour must be cued is a dog who is a nightmare to teach hand-targeting to, as they are constantly butting your hand to see if it works. So clients need to have a modicum of understanding that the dog can’t just go around ‘behaving’ and being reinforced – it must be cued. At this point, I’m reminded of when Heston was a young pup and he would bring me toys constantly during my lessons. I became a dab hand at pulling a tug whilst teaching A level English Literature. It got manageable when I realised I had to ask him to play and ignored his attempts otherwise, but how many of us explain to clients that they must initiate the behaviour, not the dog? Therefore, another important potential fallout to be mindful of.

The final parallel side-effect of R+ training is in generalisation and specificity. This tends to be the one drawback most trainers are aware of and talk about – how clients must practise behaviours everywhere beyond the classroom, otherwise the dog risks never generalising the behaviour. The need to generalise is well-accepted as a potential sticking point for R+ training, so I won’t labour the point. Likewise with the need to fade out reinforcers… where punishment and aversives may stop being effective when their application comes to an end, so behaviours that have been subject to reinforcement may also fade if you don’t practise and reinforce them from time to time. They stop being habits without at least occasional reinforcement.

When we are mindful that reinforcers may have emotional fallout, that they may cause an animal to decrease distance to the source of reinforcement, that reinforcement – like punishment – can get in the way of learning, that it can lead to a lot of increased behaviours as well as offered behaviours, that animals may fail to generalise unless we teach them to, and that unless we keep practising from time to time, behaviour may fade or become extinguished, we are better prepared to help our clients navigate these issues. Although the fallout of aversives is enough to keep me from using them, the fallout of reinforcers just makes me a little more careful in how I use them myself and in how I explain them to clients.

In response to Balsam and Bondy, I think it is fair to say that there is not perhaps a symmetry but an equal and opposite reaction. Punishments and aversives create negative emotions. On the whole reinforcement creates positive emotions (which is why I could only find you two examples of dogs at the beginning of R+ who had some negative fallout). Punishment increases distance; reinforcement decreases distance. Punishment decreases behaviours offered; reinforcement increases behaviours offered. Both can have transient effects if the consequences are discontinued, and both may face issues with generalising and specificity.

To finish, whilst I am mindful there will be some “balanced” trainers who will seize on the notion of flaws in the great panacea of R+, it is timely to remind people that, in general, organisms seek out reinforcement and avoid punishers/aversives. For that reason, reinforcement is what an organism chooses. The ethics of that should not be overlooked. Although I may be very much in control of the rates of reinforcement, the schedules of reinforcement, what the reinforcement is… reinforcement is how an organism chooses for themselves. Thus, it is the only method for those who want a partnership with their animal, who want to work with their animal and although there are occasionally unintended effects of positive reinforcement, they are engineering and management issues rather than ethical ones. Most are tied up with getting the reinforcement just right. If you get the reinforcement rules, rate and schedule right, those accidental effects cease altogether. That cannot be said of aversive training. The “side-effects” of reinforcement can be eradicated by becoming better at R+ training – they are beginners’ errors (whether the animal or the trainer is a beginner!) Eradicating the fallout of aversives is a much more complex procedure and not always possible.

It is vital that we talk about these unintended effects that positive reinforcement can have. This way, we can avoid them altogether. Maybe with a more critical eye to balance out our enthusiasm, we can ensure our clients don’t make these errors and are therefore less likely to default to aversives. We can also ensure novice R+ practitioners get the best out of their experience, meaning they are more likely to use it again in the future. R+ is not the easy option. The fallout is far less frequent and much less dramatic than aversive training, but if we don’t think about those parallel consequences, we do our clients and their dogs a disservice.