Problem Behaviours: Chewing

Problem Behaviours: Chewing

Or… perhaps I would be better to say inappropriate chewing since most of us would be pretty alarmed if our dogs gave up chewing altogether. I know my dogs sometimes seem to inhale their food, but there is a small degree of mastication involved in the eating process, depending on what and how you feed. A dog that never chewed anything would be as alarming as one who chewed everything.

Like other destructive behaviours such as digging and trashing, there are many reasons why dogs chew. Why they are chewing and what they are chewing has a lot to do with how you stop it, too. This post is also about dogs who eat stuff that they really shouldn’t. I dare not tell you the disgusting things that Tilly has unearthed from the trash. But inappropriate consumption of hot kitty turds… that’s Tilly. A litter box is just a hot food buffet for that pretty little monkey.

If you’re interested in stopping your dogs chewing things they shouldn’t, or avoiding costly trips to the vet to extract an army of plastic soldiers or a kilo of pebbles, it’s important to understand why dogs do this crazy stuff.

For a dog, chewing can be an age-related thing. Chewing is one way to explore the world. Where human babies want to touch and grab things, puppies want to chew it. A lot of that chewing is just pure investigation as to what is good to chew. Too hard stuff is not good to chew. Flat stuff that doesn’t have a corner or edge is not good to chew. It’s all a process of elimination to a puppy. To chew or not to chew, that is the question. At this age, many puppies can be little land sharks, running around and sinking their teeth into everything just, you know… because… well, why the hell not? They haven’t tasted your sofa cushions yet and they just might make an excellent chewtoy.

Chewing can also relieve toothache when teething, so you’ll see it when your puppy ages as well.

As your dog ages, you may find that youthful exuberance manifests in chewing. A young dog who doesn’t get enough stimulation and has too much access to the world around him will quickly work out that chewing is an effective way to while away the time. You might turn to Netflix or gaming to fill your hours, your dog might turn to chewing. For many dogs, dissection is a part of their predatory motor pattern. It’s an innate desire to shred, destroy and dismantle. For dogs with a strong desire to dissect, it’s going to be really important they have robust chews and that they do not have access to things with stuffing. Leave a terrier with a cushion and you may wonder what happened, but for dogs with strong urges to dissect, that cushion is a fabulous substitute for a small furry critter.

Chewing, like many other behaviours, is also reinforcing for a dog. It can release stress-busting endorphins too. Believe it or not, that’s also true of self-mutilating chewing. Tilly does this. She nibbles her feet compulsively. It doesn’t harm her and she can be stopped, but when she goes to bed, she nibbles her feet. I noticed her doing it when I did a video of my dogs home alone recently. A minute of self-grooming is not an issue, but for dogs like Diabolo and Lucky at the shelter, those tail-biting times have led to severe self-mutilation. It doesn’t seem logical that pain would release endorphins, but it’s as true for humans as it is for dogs. This is why you might notice your older dog starts chewing at their paws. Arthritis or old injuries can cause issues. For Gaven, who’d nibbled away a lot of his fur on one of his rear paws, an xray revealed an old fracture and some necrosis in the tissue, as well as arthritis. Antibiotics cured his chewing. Nibbling the undercarriage, tail or rear end can also be a sign of anal gland issues, particularly if your dog is a ‘scooter’, so a vet check will help rule out medical reasons for self-mutilation.

Self-mutilating chewing and another specific chewing behaviour can also be signs of psychological factors that you might need to check out. If your dog is chewing or destroying exit points when alone, you may want to explore further whether they have separation anxiety or isolation distress.

If your dog is self-mutilating, it’s really important you seek out the help of a trained behaviourist or veterinary behaviourist who can help you deal with these issues. Every programme will be adapted specifically to your dog.

Another reason your dog may be chewing is dependent on what they are chewing and whether they’re swallowing. Chewing is one thing and can be annoying or lead to damaged teeth and mouths, but swallowing is another ball game completely. Dogs are happy to self-medicate in some circumstances, and it is not unknown for dogs to develop pica. If your dog is eating turds (their own, other dogs or other animals) they could be following a happy pattern of many dogs of the past who may have survived from eating human waste – including our most personal and intimate physical waste. For females who’ve had a litter of puppies, they may find it hard to put aside their maternal instinct of cleaning up canine fecal matter. Puppies, in turn, can learn this behaviour from their mum. But if your dog is seeking out specific things to eat, like they’re mincemeat of the plasterboard, you may want to check out vitamin and mineral supplements. Parasites can also be a reason why a dog might consume things that it’s not supposed to. A vet check would be a good starting point.

Most destructive chewing when alone is not a sign of anxiety, however, but a sign of boredom and access to too much space or too many resources. If a dog is chewing when you’re present, remember that you telling them off is giving them attention. A dog doesn’t care much if your attention is positive or negative. If they chew and you say, “Ahhhhh, Nero, you bad dog!”, your dog will quickly learn that they have a magic way to get you to stop looking at the television or at your phone and look at them instead.

Once you’ve thought about why your dog is chewing, it makes it a lot easier to get them to stop. As always, rule out medical reasons first with an appointment with your vet.

For puppies, removing every single item you don’t want them to chew is vital. Managing the environment is key here. This is why pens and crates are great when you are not actively supervising your dog. By that, I mean your eyes must be on the puppy ready to intervene the moment before it starts looking at your computer wires. It also prepares them for adolescence when destructive chewing can reach epic proportions especially if you have a high-energy dog. Teaching your dog how to deal with your absence (and those ‘passive supervision’ times when you are present physically but occupied mentally) will stop them ever developing bad habits in the first place. If habits have developed already, it also stops your dog getting a fix of something that is very rewarding and reinforcing.

When you are actively supervising your dog, you can use the switch and trade method to teach them what you want them to chew. Have a range of really interesting toys in different materials and allow your puppy to decide whether it wants to chew on a chewable strip or whether it wants to suck on something softer. Making sure your dog understands what it is acceptable to chew and making sure they always have access to these things (and no access to your prized possessions) can help.

As your dog ages, it’s important to make sure they are occupied in your absence and that they have access to many chewable things. Kongs are a gift and you can make all sorts of wonderful chewable goodies that help your dog use up its chew-time wisely. At adolescence, it’s vital they don’t develop preferences for things. Counters and table tops should be clear so that your dog doesn’t learn to counter-surf to find contraband chewables. You can also help your dog out by providing lots of mental and physical stimulation, especially before absences from the home. If your dog has a strong innate desire to dissect, soft furnishings are nothing but fun substitutes for a rabbit or rat, so keep delicate toys and soft furnishings out of reach when you are absent. For power chewers, it’s going to be really important that you have a robust chew toy. Even my Ralf who could dissect a can of dog food if he felt like it didn’t manage to break a Kong Safestik. Be careful with chews and think of your dog’s teeth. Slab fractures are more common than they should be. The rule is that if it’s stronger than a tooth, it is too hard. Weight-bearing bones are not good, neither knuckle bones of bigger animals. Some soft horns may work along with softer uncooked bones, but these are things to discuss with your vet. Tendons often make good chews, where hooves and horns can be too hard for many dogs. Rawhide may seem like a good option, but often it is treated and you need to be careful about the chemicals that have been used in the process. Supervision is also important, which is why not all chews are things that a dog should be left with.

Don’t forget that if you have a persistent problem with a dog eating other dogs’ turds, or snaffling things on a walk, a muzzle can help. Muzzles are not a long-term solution but if it’s a very specific problem and a habit that is entrenched, a muzzle is certainly an option to consider, although not something that I would leave on an unsupervised dog. For a dog who self-mutilates or nibbles, see your vet and a behaviourist in tandem. For a foot or tail-nibbling habit, it’s vital you break this endorphin-producing habit and have plentiful access to more interesting chews can help stop the self-soothing and transfer it to a more appropriate chewable.

For dogs who chew or eat inappropriate things, managing their environment is crucial to preventing habits and breaking habits. Giving them lots of appropriate alternatives will help them refocus that energy. Muzzles, pens, supervision, leads and crates are your friends here. For dogs who can’t manage alone, this is especially vital. Rule out anxiety-based reasons and make sure your dog has been exercised before your absence as well as having zero access to contraband as well as bountiful access to the stuff you do want them to chew. When you’re present, a trade will help your dog understand what they should be chewing or eating.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at ways that you can deal with poor socialisation with other dogs

 

 

Problem Behaviours: Digging and Escaping

Problem Behaviours: Digging and Escaping

Okay… two very different behaviours, sometimes linked (if you’re a dog involved in The Great Escape) and mostly not. However, they have a similar solution so I’m sticking them together for that reason and lumping them under “unwanted behaviours in the yard”.

Digging

I had a digger. Ralf, who also ate a month’s supply of vitamins, a kilo of sugar and once dragged me on my arse through a cow field to see a dog on the other side. He didn’t just dig. He sculpted tank traps. He excavated. He hollowed out moats, quarried for loot, dug for victory. That dog loved digging. My beautiful flat paddock was filled with craters and holes.

And I let him.

He was 12 years old and had been a working guard dog all his life. If you can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of a hole in your retirement, when can you?

Had he been younger, I’d have put a stop to his behaviour. When you’re trying to navigate bunkers and trenches on a lawnmower, you get a little cross. As it was, he taught Amigo and Heston the simple joy of digging too. Nothing like a little social contagion between friends. The joy of digging was easily stopped once Ralf died, and my garden soon returned to its former flatness.

So why do dogs dig?

There are so many interesting reasons behind this behaviour.

First and foremost, it’s in a dog’s DNA. You don’t need to teach a dog to dig (though it helps to have a mentor, doesn’t it Heston and Amigo?) and you’ll find dogs who are natural diggers. It’s instinctive and ancestral. Some dogs do different kinds of digging… Tilly ‘digs’ in the bed or the couch before she lies down. Amigo scrabbles for rabbits. This primeval behaviour could be a throw-back perhaps to their canine cousins who hollow out a space to sleep in as well as those who dig to find hidden prey. It could be a den to raise their young in and it could be a way to find a meal. It’s what scientists call a motor pattern, and it means that all dogs know how to do it instinctively.

There can be other reasons for different types of digging, so you need to know what kind of digging your dog does.

Is it more like clearing a space or making a dirt nest? They can do it to clear a space of grass (Tilly does this) perhaps clearing it of insects, or to enjoy the cooler dirt beneath. Or they can do it in colder temperatures to make a kind of protective space against the elements. Some digging precedes resting or raising the young, and that’s a form of digging that you might see your dogs doing.

Do they run off with your socks and hide them? Dogs also dig to bury stuff. If you’ve got a little hoarder in your midst (that’s you, Tilly!) you may find that they bury things that they unearth later. Tilly once buried a bread roll. She unearthed it when it was green and moldy, and then she guarded that moldy-old bread-roll as if it were a leg of ham. We also have a burial bone that Heston, Tilly and Amigo have all buried and unearthed. In fact, when Tilly used to bury her stuff, Molly would unearth it and re-bury it. Poor Tilly was a confused cocker indeed. Digging can therefore serve as a kind of safety-deposit-box for dogs. If they are a bit insecure and needy, you may find them taking off with something that smells of you and burying their stash.

Is your dog digging because they’ve a sneaking suspicion there’s a critter to be had? Dogs will also dig to unearth stuff. Obviously. If you’ve buried treasure, you’ll want to dig it up at some point. But it might not be a treasure you buried yourself. Digging is a way of unearthing mice, rats, voles, shrews, moles and even rabbits, coypu and badgers. If it lives in a hole, a dog might like to eat it. Digging is a counter-part in the predatory motor sequence to chasing. Heston lives to chase hare – but never digs for rabbit. Amigo will happily dig away and excavate a hole if he thinks something’s down there.

Does your dog do a frantic and exuberant scrabble for no good reason at all? Digging can be a way of passing time and relieving boredom. It’s a fun pastime for a lot of dogs. Got an hour to spare? Feel a sudden surge of energy? Digging is a great workout for a dog. You know how occupied your kids are with a bucket and spade on the beach? It’s the same for some dogs. If it’s frantic, joy-filled scrabbling sometimes coupled with a mad figure-of-eight run, digging is just a dog’s way of celebrating how good it is to feel alive.

Understanding why your dog digs can help find a solution. For the insecure dog who is burying a stash, only giving them instantly consumable chews and clearing up their toys can help eradicate the habit. When nothing needs interring, there’s no need to dig. If your dog is digging in the yard, it may be hot and trying to find a cool spot, like you turning your pillow over in the summer to enjoy the coolness of the underside. In that case, putting up a parasol, using a cool mat or keeping a cooler area in shade will help get rid of a summertime digging problem. If your dog is a yard dog who lives outside in the winter, you may find them excavating a hollow to keep them away from the wind or to find a warmer spot. In this case, a shelter or nest of blankets would help.

For dogs who are ‘digging’ in their bedding before they sleep, most of them only do it a couple of times before settling down. It’s not typically a behaviour that people want to or need to eradicate.

For others, who are digging to escape, addressing the need to escape (below) will help with the desire to dig. In that case, digging is a means to an end, rather than a pleasure in itself.

But what about dogs like Ralf, who dig for the sheer joy of digging, or dogs who dig because there’s something moving down there, dammit!?

Supervision is vital here. The moment they start to dig, you have to be able to intervene and distract. That means watching them all the time they are outside and not turning your back for a second. Don’t worry – you’re not going to have to do it for long, but you will have to do it. If a dog is unsupervised, you’ve no way of intervening when you need to, so you will need to be vigilant. For my dogs, post-Ralf, supervising them in the garden and introducing a range of new toys helped them ‘forget’ about how fun digging can be. Sure, it meant keeping them in a closed yard until the urge had passed, unless they were out in the field with me being supervised directly, but a few days of complete vigilance and supervised outdoor time gives you chance to intervene. It also stops your dog getting the pleasure they would from digging, so it stops them from self-reinforcing.

Your aim is to watch for the behaviour, disrupt it the moment the dog paws at the ground or seems interested in the ground, and then redirect the dog with another behaviour that is a fun way to expend energy. Be careful though. You don’t want your dog to decide that it has to dig in order to get you to play ball. Make sure there is a change in behaviour before you throw a ball or play chase.

Bear in mind that if your dog is digging because it’s after a subterranean creature, it can be really difficult to intervene and distract. You know how your dog’s recall evaporates when they’re in the midst of a chase? Digging can be just the same. Easier in some ways, because they’re not running off twice as fast as you are. But hard just the same. In this case, you could find the digging is less if you find ways to move those blessed underground creatures on. But the following technique works too…

The key to success is to manage the environment, making sure your dog does not have access to the places they like to dig. Fencing is your friend, even if it’s only temporary. This works even better if you build in a place for them to dig, encouraging them to dig in a new, approved spot. Just make sure that it’s a good spot – broken nails and bloody paws are the last thing you want. Remember that digging is a pastime for dogs like this, and you can easily provide another pastime that encourages your dog to use another skill, like chewing, puzzle toys or a whole load of games. If you’ve got a dog who’s got a particularly hard-wired digging behaviour, like a terrier or a dachshund, then you may find that their urge to dig is better than your ability to supervise. Instead of fighting an uphill battle, go with the flow and provide your dog with a place where they can dig to their heart’s content. Some sites will inevitably tell you that dogs like freshly turned earth, but Ralf would dig in hard, compacted soil as often as not. Some dogs like sand, some like harder substances… pick whichever your dog likes to dig in and seek to replicate it in a ‘dig all you want’ zone.

But if they only dig if they’re after a creature, you either need to restrict access to that spot or find ways to move those creatures on. Personally speaking, I’m a fan of creatures in general, so the badgers who pass through my garden are as welcome as the birds. The moles are messy guests but they’re welcome here too. For me, if I had a digger, restricting access would be crucial as well as supervising when the dog is in the garden. Killing the underground creatures is out of the question, and there’s no easy way to relocate a determined badger.

Managing the environment, phasing out habits, providing digging spaces, making sure nervous dogs feel secure and energetic dogs have something to do should really help eradicate the bunkers on the lawn.

If your dog is digging as a means to an end, read on…

Escaping

If your dog is escaping regularly from the garden, you’ve also got to think about the causes of that behaviour in order to eradicate it.

Younger puppies are unlikely to escape, but they can wander off and get lost, especially if they are confident puppies and your property is not secure. Exploring is part-and-parcel of growing up. Adolescent dogs may seek opportunities to escape if they are unsupervised, bored or hormonal. Picture your teenager sneaking out of the house of an evening to hook up and have fun, and you get the picture. Adult dogs may escape if they are hormonal, and elderly dogs may escape as part of canine cognitive dysfunction.

Hormones are a big factor. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just male dogs that go a-wandering. A female in a yard doesn’t emit THAT powerful a smell that it brings all the boys to the yard. That said, with the right weather conditions, it’s not unlikely that a female outside could attract males from a quarter mile away. As many females get out to go seeking out male company as boys get out to service their needs. One village I went to last year had enormous problems with escapees because one guy let his three unsterilised females wander willy-nilly. As a consequence, every intact male within a quarter mile of their very large roaming area was then desperate to get out as Nature was very certainly calling. If you’ve got an escapee, castration is one way that is very likely to stop the urge to wander if that’s why they’re escaping.

The wind might not just be bringing the scent of mating hormones over your fence: it could also be bringing the smell of creatures. Cats, wildlife, other pets… I don’t need to tell you the sad tale of a Frenchie who escaped, dug a hole through to next door, broke in and ate the guinea pig… if something fun is over the other side of the fence (or, conversely something that makes your dog mad) they might try to escape too.

You also have to look at breed. Some breeds have had their ‘chase’ motor pattern diminished through years of selective breeding. What good would a livestock-guarding breed be if it ran off every time it saw a predator and got the urge to chase it. It’s one reason why beagles don’t guard sheep and why Maremmas aren’t good at hare-coursing. Some breeds are more ‘homey’ than others. Dereliction of duty would be a rubbish skill for any kind of guardian dog or livestock dog. Likewise, a collie or shepherd herding livestock would be useless if it had strong scenting instincts as my dog Heston does. Heston would be a rubbish herder as he’d be easily distracted by a scent of rabbit and disappear just as he was about to bring the sheep into a fold. Genetics can play a strong part in how likely a dog is to stray from a property where boundaries are less secure. If you have an active, curious, tenacious and independent dog bred for any form of hunting, your work is going to be a lot harder than if you’ve got a companion breed or a guardian breed. A shih tzu simply doesn’t have the same genetic drive to escape as a terrier might if he smells a badger beyond the property line.

There are also psychological factors at work. Dogs escape when something upsets them, from time to time. Like us, they vote with their feet. For my geriatric malinois, who was of a very sensitive disposition, he would regularly escape through a hole and wander off. Was he chasing skirt? It’s possible. He was intact and very sensitive to female hormones (I called him the canine womb-detector). He was also going out through well-used badger and rabbit holes in the fence, so he could have detected a smell that he wanted to follow. But given he only went at very specific times, I think it was most likely a vote with his feet. When puppies arrived here on foster, Tobby was off. I’d find him wandering down the road like the Littlest Hobo looking for new friends and a puppy-free home.

Another very powerful reason a dog may escape can be in an attempt to save themselves. I simply cannot tell you the sad number of dogs who have been rehomed from our shelter and then got startled by something and taken to the hills. Fearful dogs present a very high risk indeed of escape. If they are noise-phobic, storm-phobic, anxious, suffering from separation anxiety or scared, a dog will flee. Fight or flight? Flight wins out. This is the saddest form of escape and is better treated with a programme for fearful dogs than it is through the solutions that follow, but they may help too.

A final reason can be boredom and lack of supervision. I said about Tobby wandering off when I got puppies here, and one reason for that might be that he felt less secure here, but it’s also true that puppies are attention-sucks. So is gardening. When you aren’t keeping an eye on your dog and actively supervising them, don’t be surprised if your dog takes advantage of that.

The easiest way to deal with escapes is in managing the environment by which I mean that your dog will need a secure – and interesting – area to keep them in. Our shelter may not be the comfortable and stimulating environment a garden is, but by-and-large, it’s secure. Do dogs get out of their enclosures? Yes, from time to time. I’ve seen dogs use kennels to climb on and hop over, and I’ve seen dogs dismantle the gutter covers to use the gutters to get out. I’ve seen dogs who learn quickly how to flick the catches on the gates and I’ve seen dogs charge people’s legs when they open the gates. I’ve seen dogs shimmy (is that the right word?!) up over the 2m grilles that make the fencing. But I’ve never seen dogs escape from the enclosures we have that are covered over the top and where the gutter grids are fixed, where the gates are padlocked. If a dog can climb over a two-metre fence, rolling tops, inward-sloping panels or a mesh over the top will stop them doing so. If they charge the gate, put a double gate system into place like a kind of airlock. Creating a secure enclosure for your dog may cost you a fair whack, but it will work. A concrete base, a 2m fence, mesh over the top and a double gate entry will stop even the most determined hounds. And you can pretty it up. There’s no reason you can’t put grass over the top of the concrete base, no reason you can’t put artificial turf in there, no reason you can’t fill it with toys. Then, when your dog is in the garden you can keep them on a long-line so they can’t run off. 

You can buy 20, 50 and even 100m long-lines from many websites. Sadly, in France, shock collars are often used and promoted as anti-fugue or “anti-escape”. A lead is more reliable than a shock collar for stopping your dog running away, both out of your property and within your property boundaries. For dogs whose impulse to escape is based on a primary emotion such as fear or on a hard-wired predatory instinct, a shock collar or so-called ‘e-fencing’ is unlikely to work. Particularly with dogs who escape because they’re afraid, adding a shock collar or any kind of punishment will worsen the situation, not improve it. Shock collars and electric fencing can also worsen boundary and barrier aggression too.

Why do people choose a shock collar or electric fencing? Because kindness is time-intensive and requires you to actively supervise your dog. It is hard work keeping your eye on your dog at all times or keeping them on a long-line when you want to spend half an hour in your vegetable garden. This is why an outside enclosure is a bonus. For me, it was very easy as the lady who lived here before me was obviously a lover of dogs. Not only is there a fairly secure courtyard (although I’d struggle with a dog who realises you sometimes have to go up to get out as they could probably hop over the barbecue) but there is also a 2m high kennel and pen, which opens up to a 10m x 2m fenced, grassed run with a hatch. I know people might be all ‘oh, but they’re penned!’ … well, people, a garden is a pen. A house is a pen. A garden with walls or fences is just a bigger, prettier, grassier version of a pen. A house is a painted, furnished version of a pen.

Many dogs are rehomed because their owners do not have secure properties, or they are consigned to life on a chain. Every day, I walk past a boxer on a 10m chain, attached to a sad-looking kennel. His owners could so easily build him a run with two bits of fencing. It makes me so sad when I see adverts for dogs “free to a good home… must have secure garden” because it is a problem that is so easily solved.

Over time, if you prevent your escape artist from running away, you may find that their drive to do so is much reduced. This is the same if they are fearful or following some innate urge to chase. You can work on making the home environment reinforcing with lots of games (especially ones that refocus a natural urge, such as playing chase or fetch) and lots of fun stuff to do in the garden. You may find that over several months your dog is looking less to escape than they once did and the habit dies out. But you can never rest on your laurels with a dog who has ever escaped… it only takes one very powerful incentive to run off and you’re back to square one. Vigilance is essential.

If you have a dog that dashes the gate when there are visitors, you can also build in some reinforcement training. I think this is vital for all dogs, personally speaking. I live on a fast main road and a blind bend… if I can’t trust my dogs to stay calm when the gate is opened, the risk of one getting squished is enormous.

It’s not something I’d trust if a cyclist, jogger, dog or herd of cows went by, but for wagons, cars, motorbikes and general traffic, it’s one of the most useful things I’ve taught my dogs. Effel has had a month of gate-training to stop him trotting out into the road when guests open the gate, since he was nearly a squished fosteree last year. Obviously, this kind of reinforcement clicker training isn’t going to solve the problem of a hardened escape artist, but it’s a reliable way of stopping your dogs making a bid for freedom in day-to-day entrances or exits.

Next week, I’ll be exploring ways that you can use to stop your dog from chewing.

Problem Behaviours: destruction when home alone

Problem Behaviours: destruction when home alone

Have you ever gone out and come home to a scene of carnage? Got up and gone downstairs to find a canine midnight feast has taken place whilst you slept? Rubbish everywhere, bins upturned, cupboards open, flour prints all over the floor, things shredded? Christmas trees dismantled, sofas repurposed, stilettos refashioned as mules? Cowboy boots turned into moccasins, pillows destroyed, pills pilfered? This article will help you address all those times you realised that your dog had helpfully destroyed your stuff, raided the fridge or eaten your lino flooring.

My own dogs are not without sin. I once got home and this fine fellow – Ralf – had knocked everything off the shelves and used those teeth as an impromptu tin opener. Every single carton had been pulled off the shelves and torn open. There were lentils covered in flour mixed in with pasta and teabags. The joys of a twelve-year-old retiree! Ralf once won a competition for being an amazing Golden Oldie. He won a year’s supply of senior vitamins. The next day, he yoinked them off the shelf and had a vitamin party with about a month’s worth.

Hopefully, your dogs are only destroying things when you’re not there… I mean, they’re not making light work of your kitchen cabinets when you’re sitting reading this, or helping themselves to the contents of your bin while you’re actually watching them? If you have dogs that destroy stuff whilst you are actively watching them or when you intervene, you definitely need more help than this article can give you. If you’ve got an opportunistic counter surfer who takes advantage of a brief lapse in surveillance (or even right out steals in front of you) I’ll be doing a follow-up post on that another time.

But for owner-absence carnage, breathe easy… it’s fairly easy to sort out.

Before Ralf arrived, I’d had minor carnage. Tilly was so bad at leaving the bins alone that all bins were out of reach where she couldn’t get to them. Funnily enough, she never used to be like that – it was only the introduction of puppy Heston that sent her seeking out remnants of goodness in the bins. And Heston had had some minor incidents as he grew up – he went through a fair few books in his youth, chewed an electric blanket and ate my toothbrush. Anyone who’s lived with a puppy will no doubt have a tale to tell.

Destruction is a common reason for abandoned dogs or failed adoptions. Sometimes, it’s complete carnage. Other times, it was largely avoidable. Sometimes, it’s downright silly. In fact, a guy sent a dog back once for chewing his slipper. I was quite cross really. I explained why dogs chew or destroy things, and the owner was adamant that they had done what they needed to to protect the slippers. He saw nothing wrong with leaving slippers out and leaving a young dog unsupervised in the house. Clearly the dog should have been able to distinguish between those cured hide bits of animal skin we give them to chew on, and those cured hide bits of animal skin we wear on our feet and have been left in range of a dog, you know, like you do, as a test to see if they know the difference. Slippers or dog chews – you’d think a dog would appreciate the difference.

I’ve got news for you, people. It’s all chewtoys to a dog.

Out of reach? Just a chewtoy in need of liberation. Cardboard? Why the hell not? Walls? If there’s nothing else. Doors? Just things that stop me getting to potential chewtoys beyond. What dogs can dismantle in ten minutes never ceases to amaze me.

So why do dogs chew?

First, because they are creatures of the mouth. You know those signs that say in shops ‘If you break it, you bought it’ or ‘Please don’t touch with your hands’, or downright simple ‘Don’t Touch!’ signs… humans are creatures of the hand. We touch stuff. We do stuff with our hands. We’ve got a gazillion expressions like The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands and if you’ve ever sat with a hyperactive child, it’s the hands that cause chaos.

But dogs are creatures of the mouth (and nose!) Where we might take up knitting or compulsive fidgeting, sorting out Rubix Cubes or endlessly flicking through posts on Facebook, dogs don’t. Paws are pretty rubbish at that kind of thing. A mouth, on the other hand, well it’s good for big stuff like bringing back a hare, and it’s good for detail stuff like getting the marrow out of a bone.

Mouths are a good way to engage with the world if you’re a dog.

There are age-related reasons why dogs might enjoy chewing and destruction as well. Young puppies will enjoy chewing and destruction because it helps with teething. Older adolescents will enjoy it because it gets rid of a bit of that excess dog energy, especially if your owners don’t let you do other fun dog stuff like digging, barkin, jumping and biting. And like humping, once you’ve got the habit, it’s psychological too. If you chewed something or destroyed something and it was really fun, well, you’re going to want to do it again.

There are other emotional reasons too why a dog might chew or destroy stuff. First is that it was fun. I’m sure there are people out there like me who love a bit of therapeutic bottle bin time. I just love throwing the glass into the bin and smashing it. Don’t get me started on Minecraft and the whole psychology of people who like to build stuff only to destroy it… ripping stuff, tearing it up, smashing it and obliterating things is enormously rewarding if you are a dog too.

It’s especially fun if you are a bit frustrated or if you need to burn off steam. Ever gone boxing or done ten rounds with a punchbag when you’re frustrated at work? It’s the same for your dog. At moments where they are frustrated, anxious or worked up, you may find they turn to destruction to blow off steam. Yesterday, walking a malinois at the shelter, I’d navigated three cats. Three things she really, really wanted to chase. And coming out of the gate (all that barrier frustration too) she jumped up, grabbed a guy’s sleeve and started tug-of-war. She was hard work yesterday. And that frustration is enormously pleasurable to take out in a bit of destruction. When we prevent dogs from doing what they want to do (like leaving on a walk with you) then don’t be surprised if they find their own outlet for that energy.

That’s why, when walking Heston and not Effel (who has stalking issues…) Effel developed this nice habit of going to the food cupboard and helping himself. Talk about eating your emotions.

What happened when it went under lock and key? He learned to try the handle to check.

A one-off Jackpot is surprisingly hard for a dog to forget. A Jackpot that keeps paying out is one to keep doing.

Another emotion that can lead to destruction is distress… isolation distress and separation anxiety can also lead to destructiveness or chewing. But that is a post for another day. If your dog is not exhibiting other signs of anxiety, most likely that destruction is just a great diversion in your absence, a way to manage your frustration and sometimes – if food is involved – an occasional Jackpot.

Destruction can also be a social thing. We call it social learning or social facilitation – one dog is doing it, so I will join in or behave differently than I normally would because, well, those other dogs are doing it. If Ralf’s kindly knocked all the things off the shelf, am I just going to let him enjoy that picnic himself?! If my best friend dog starts to tear apart a blanket, why that looks like an amazing game of tug!

Finally, boredom can be a factor in destruction. If you find it’s happening at the end of the absence rather than the beginning, it may be a sign that your dog just can’t handle too long without occupation.

The best way to know what is happening exactly is to video it or watch it in real time via Skype or Facetime. Put your speakers on mute, keep your microphone on and video your dogs. I just did it with mine. What did I see? Higher energy when I leave, they all watch me go, watch me lock up, watch me get in the car, watch me drive off… Effel paced very slowly for 20 seconds, looked on the table (for loot!) seemed to think about where he was going to lie down, shook off and climbed on to the couch where he sleeps. Tilly relaxed as soon as the car drove off. She self-groomed for about a minute then went to sleep. Heston was on guard for about a minute, watchful, but then went to lie down. I’d thought Amigo hadn’t woken up at all (he’s deaf) but he lifted his head and put it right back down again. Within a minute after I left, all the dogs were in their beds and relaxed. Absolutely zero happens until I pulled up again. The very occasional destruction in my home certainly doesn’t happen in a 15-minute absence. They’re not all super-charged the moment I leave. That points to boredom and curiosity for mine in longer absences.

And once you can see the video, you can decide if it’s boredom, frustration, anxiety (or if you’re just like a prison warden when you’re about, and when you leave, it’s time to PAAAAARRRTTAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY!)

When you can see what is happening, you can think about why it’s happening. Then you can think about how to stop it happening. Obviously for my dogs, a fifteen-minute absence is no cause for excitement. My leaving and re-entry are the most emotional bits, and Effel whimpered twice when my car pulled up outside. Heston got into a perch position to see who it was and all of the dogs were relatively calm when I got back. Not a very good example of why Effel might decide to go and help himself to the empty box from a tube of toothpaste as he did last week (I found the evidence once he’d passed it through his bodily systems) but a reassurance there is no anxiety or distress. It’s a great way to see what is really going on. I also know that for longer absences, what they need is something when that time is stretching out too long. A Kong or chew is not going to help here, but someone coming round to let them out and give them a break sure will.

But what else can you do with a destructive dog, especially one who takes the first opportunity to go and dismantle stuff or chew things?

First, you need to manage the environment. You need to find ways to stop them getting to the things they are destroying. In Tilly’s case, that meant all bins and yellow recycling sacks are outside. In Heston’s case, it meant putting all books out of reach. In Ralf’s, it meant putting food under lock and key. Confinement is great if you have time to crate-train your dog (and you can see why crates are a popular way of managing problems as they help with many other unwanted behaviours) although if you have a big, rambunctious dog, you might need more than a crate. Doors are your friend. Crates and pens are your friend. Baby gates are your friend. Dog-friendly rooms with closed doors are your friend. If you lock your dog in the kitchen, you are taking a big risk because there is sooooo much in there that is fun to destroy. If you can open a cupboard, there’s chocolate to be had as well as other foodstuffs. If you can get in the bins, there’s juicy leftovers. If you can manage the fridge, that’s a smorgasbord of dog feasting. But there’s also a lot of household chemicals, poisonous or toxic foods, dangerous plastics… would you leave a toddler unsupervised in a kitchen? And just because dogs don’t have opposable thumbs doesn’t mean they can’t use their paws or jaws to get stuff open. No tin opener? No problem, as far as Ralf was concerned. Although a kitchen may be easy to clean, it is not a good place to leave an unsupervised dog. Find a room where there is nothing that can be interpreted as a lovely puzzle box for your dog, a room that doesn’t smell of food or have any associations with food.

Then, because your dog has a need to let off that energy somehow, you need to make sure the only things they can access are good things. The room should be filled with fun stuff and absolutely zero access to other things. That might include carpets and rugs or chewable dog beds too. But it might not necessarily need to be a room inside, and the things you think a dog might chew shouldn’t be limited to what you think they might like to chew. A lady last week said her dog was eating stones in the yard. The easiest solution is a stone-free enclosed play area. But you can’t take away a dog’s occupation and expect it to be happy. Other behaviours will emerge… excessive barking, tail-chasing, circling. That safe space has to be filled with things you have pre-approved as acceptable for a dog to chew or destroy safely when you are absent. You can’t just expect a dog who finds your absence to be arousing for one reason or another to suddenly lie down calmly when you are not there, simply because you’ve put them in a chew-free prison. Be sensible though, and make sure the toys or chews you leave aren’t likely to present a choking risk.

If you have a multi-dog household, be careful of what you leave for the dogs – the last thing you want is a fight over a toy or food treat in your absence. In those circumstances, it would be far better for your destructive dog to be left separately or crated so that no fighting will break out. Be mindful of the fact that dogs are a social species and may find it more frustrating or distressing to be alone.

If energy or boredom is a factor, you can also make sure you have planned in exercise before you leave your dogs. If they’ve had a good run, if they’ve had an hour’s walk or a half-hour of agility, they’re going to be more likely to use that time to catch up on the zees. That said, the last thing you want to do is ramp up your dog’s energy and then leave them in your home. That’s like filling a child with Haribo and coca-cola and letting them loose in a china shop. Leave a good thirty minutes after exercise or stimulation to ensure your dog has time to calm down after that exercise.

If lengthy absences pose a problem when short ones do not (like my dogs), asking a neighbour or family member to pop in and let your dogs out might be just what is needed. A dog walker can easily break up the monotony of long periods at home and ensure you don’t return to carnage.

If you manage the space that your dog can access, make sure they are adequately exercised before absences, minimise exit fuss and stop expecting them to ‘be good’ when you aren’t home, there will be fewer opportunities or reasons for them to get into your underwear drawer and scoff your socks. No amount of dog training can make a dog into the perfectly-behaved canine when they are on their own in a giant room filled with stuff that might need chewing or when nerves get the better of them and they need a little comfort from chewing your shoes. When it comes to being home alone, it’s better safe than sorry.

In next week’s post, I’ll look at two outdoor unwanted behaviours, digging and escaping.

Problem behaviours: house-soiling

Problem behaviours: house-soiling

This is Tilly. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? But Tilly has a dirty little secret… Well, not so secret, since I tell everyone about it. My little Tilly Popper is sometimes known as Tilly Pee. Yes, that’s Tilly P for Tilly Popper, but also on account of her sensitive bladder. And her occasionally sensitive bowels.

The fact is that when she first arrived here, I had to go through the whole house-training debacle with a five-year-old dog… one whose vet notes said that she saw a veterinary behaviourist in 2006 because she was having problems with house-soiling, and one who, in 2010, arrived here without having made very much progress. It took three months before she was trustworthy. Even these days, she’s happily more hit than miss. All the same, it’s inevitable to get worse rather than better.

Why then do dogs house-soil?

Firstly there are age-related issues. Puppies will soil the house because they have small bladders and small intestines. Put something in and something is going to come out. There just ain’t enough room inside to keep it all in. Plus, they’re not very good at knowing when they need to go. Anyone who’s ever had small children will know the ‘oooh, oooh, too late’ moments. Adolescent males, castrated or not, can find themselves wanting to mark stuff. At the other end of the spectrum, older dogs may have accidents that they never had before. This happened to my beautiful Tobby before he died. Neurological damage can mean they are less aware of when they need to go and have less control over the muscles that keep it all in. Arthritis can make it painful to get up to tell people they need to go. Canine cognitive dysfunction can mean your dog is simply forgetting to go. These are certainly more likely if your dog is defecating in the house rather than just urinating.

This leads us on to medical issues, not least age-related medical issues like arthritis and cognitive dysfunction. Spaying can result in weak bladders, and might not happen until a dog is older. There’s all sorts of Embarrassing Bodies kind of stuff at work in dogs as well, such as ectopic ureters, especially among the ladies. There can also be kidney problems or diseases such as diabetes, Cushing’s and Addison’s which can lead to accidents. Bacterial infections, viral infections, body parts in the wrong place, hormonal issues and medicines are common reasons for accidents. Even my poor Amigo, who is so terrified of making a mess in the house, had a couple of accidents during his recent stroke, and then regular accidents when he was on corticosteroids. They stopped as soon as the medication stopped. IBS and food sensitivities may cause accidents of a more solid variety. Tilly has food allergies, and any rogue ingredients can mean that she’s happy to leave a present in the kitchen from time to time if I’m not in.

This is why a vet should be your very first stop if you have a dog with house-soiling issues, whether they are a new rescue or not. Any changes at all in habits should be a reason for a vet visit. It’s not to say there will be anything to be done in particular, but your dog may have something physical that needs attention.

There are then also psychological issues. Changes in routine can disrupt a dog’s usual habits. This is more than likely the cause of Tilly’s regularly weak bladder at the beginning of her time here. Everything had changed. Plus, she tends to have accidents when she’s not on her best form. Any disruption of her very delicate mental or physical balance can result in a puddle. I wouldn’t go as far as saying they were dirty protests, but she certainly has a way of making her discomfort known. Nervous dogs may be so overwhelmed by emotion that they let go, sometimes called ‘submissive urination’. Often this happens when they are excited or overwhelmed. Tilly used to pee if anyone petted her within a couple of minutes of coming into the house. A sudden spike in adrenaline and whoops! Another psychological reason dogs might eliminate in the house is under severe trauma if they have separation anxiety or if they are noise-sensitive and there is a storm or fireworks in your absence.

Poor habits can also be the reason behind house-soiling. If a dog has never developed a strong instinct not to eliminate inside, then you may find it’s all a great big toilet for them. Often this is more likely with puppies who haven’t been given enough space to separate elimination spots from play spots, food spots and sleeping spots. If they haven’t been house dogs before, new rescues may find it tricky to know what’s a toilet and what’s not. And what seems like a toilet to a dog is different from what you or I might perceive as a toilet. Think of all the odour-holding things in your house that you might regularly steam-clean or spray with Febreeze…. what better material to soak up a smell than curtains, carpets, soft furnishings or a couch?

Changes of habit can also affect a dog. New food, changes in eating times, changes in routine and changes of home can cause elimination issues. Don’t forget too that dogs don’t generalise well (hence Heston trying his usual stunt of jumping from the driver’s seat into the back of my hatchback this morning in the shelter van… he really doesn’t understand why ALL cars aren’t exactly the same as our car) so just because a dog doesn’t eliminate in your house doesn’t mean that he understands that you don’t eliminate in ALL houses. It’s vital to remember that a dog who’s house-trained in one venue might not really understand that this new place has the same rules.

In their early days, puppies develop preferences for substrate – the thing they like to eliminate on. Toileting habits are also driven by scent and habit. I pee here because I always pee here and because it smells of pee here. This is why, once the scent of urine has marked a spot, dogs find it hard to resist. It’s also why it’s best to avoid those in-house accidents as best you can and why it’s so necessary to be scrupulous in your cleaning. It’s why the vast majority of dogs who come to my house pee within seconds of being here: Tobby very kindly peed on the nearest tree, the bushes opposite it and the cement plant pot opposite the door. Now everybody does that and continues the tradition months after he died. Tilly is so lazy she barely makes it out of the door to pee, and Tobby would sometimes over-mark her scent. Thus when he arrived, the areas around my door became an enormous and joyous giant dog toilet. That’s not a bad thing. Virtually every dog who comes here feels the urge to go the moment they get in through the gate… and voilà – half the battle is won because outside smells of pee and inside smells of ordinary dog stuff.

Dogs like to pee where there is pee already. Many male dogs like to pee on vertical things, and females may have preferences for what they want under their lady-garden when they go.

Solids are a bit different. Solids can often be ‘as far away from the bed space as possible’, but your dog may have a secret pooping spot or be a lazy Lilly like Tilly, who manages to get about three metres from the door. Tilly very much prefers dry stuff underfoot when she defecates, which is why on rainy days I see her toddling off into the wood shed or the tool shed, or even trying to sneak into the bathroom. It’s not a place she sleeps, so she doesn’t care that it’s in the house. Heston likes to get as far away from the house as possible. Effel likes an open space and has very strong preferences for going where there is no other poo. Amigo likes a secret spot behind a bush or near a tree. Dogs don’t like to ‘over-poo’, which is why it’s important to leave urine scents where they are for a while and why it’s important to pick up solids.

Knowing this makes it a bit easier to help house-train them or coax new rescues or puppies into good habits. By the way, just because a new rescue seems not to be house-trained, don’t be fooled. Often, stays in kennels can ‘break’ house-training habits and your job is just to help the dog remember.

How you house-train an adult rescue dog is a little easier than how you house-train a puppy simply because they’re no longer at the mercy of those tiny bladders and bowels.

The very first thing to do is avoid habits forming in the first place. The majority of that rests on controlling the space that your dog is in. From the moment you bring your rescue dog home, spending a while in the garden, rewarding them for proper elimination and supervising them for those first four or five pees will help them form a good habit of peeing in the garden. This helps them build up a preference for peeing outside (location), create smells (olfactory habits) and on the surfaces outside (substrate). Preventing mistakes at all costs is vital to good house-training. That way, you don’t have to correct mistakes after.

Managing their indoor space and supervising them every single time they stand up for the first 48 hours will also help. I don’t mean following them about… I like to move the furniture a little so I can see them constantly whilst I am sitting down. If I can see they look like they might want to pee, we go outside. Some dogs I keep on an umbilical lead that’s attached to both of us. When they move, I move. When I move, they move. It’s a good technique for hormonal adolescents who just might want to hump or mark territory. Total supervision is crucial for fantastic habits.

No matter how many dogs I have here on foster, it’s always when I take my eye off them for a second that accidents happen. Nellie was the last here to have an accident…. I went to the toilet, she went in the bedroom and had a pee. In two weeks, she only did it twice, as I was super-vigilant. But… you know that the minute I left her unsupervised, there was a puddle or a present. I crate if I can’t supervise, keep my eyes open when I can. Even puppies don’t pee or poo where they are lying once they are past three or four weeks, so if a dog is lying down, then they don’t need supervision. This is one reason people like crate training, but that can be incompatible with a new dog. The last thing you want to do is ram them in a crate. But if you are alert those first few days until your dog has impeccable habits, you’ll avoid a lot of difficulty later. If you go out, restrict their space – and don’t leave them the run of the whole house like I did with Tilly (never having had to deal with a Miss Pissy-Pants before!). At least that way, if they do have an accident, it’ll be restricted to one place. The same is true of those hours when you are asleep and your new rescue dog is wondering if these wonderful new rooms would be good places to leave you a present.

Controlling the environment is a big part of that. For Tilly, she was only eliminating during the night, so the simplest solution was to confine her to a small space during the night. It’s been a long time since I had to do that, since she quickly got out of the habit.

There are other things that you can control within the environment beyond confining your dog to a smaller space. Sticking to regular feeding times and food brands will help for solid elimination, and picking up water an hour before bed can help keep dogs dry through the night if they’re a midnight tinkler.

You can also use your great big forward-thinking chimp brain to plan a schedule for your dog. Take them out as soon as they get up, before breakfast, after breakfast, every time they stand up after lying down for a prolonged period, before dinner, after dinner and definitely get your torch out and make sure you see them pee before you go to bed. Jiggling gets the latter stages of digestion moving, which is why puppies wake up, do a wee, play for ten minutes and then do another wee and a poo.

If outside is a fun space to be, be mindful of the fact that if you take them in straight away, your dog may understand peeing as the cause for a ‘time out’ in the house. Make sure you give them five minutes or so supervised time in the garden (yes, even when it’s raining!) to make sure everything is out and make sure they don’t associate elimination with the ‘punishment’ of going back in the house.

It’s not just about managing the environment to encourage your dog to eliminate in the place you want them to. You can also train your dog too. Tilly does this rubbish ‘paw at the door’ thing that tells me she wants to go out. Annoying and mis-used as it sometimes is (she does it when I’m teaching and she’s feeling peckish – all she wants to do is check out any bins that might not have been securely stored) Tilly’s scraping at the door at 3am is enough to get me out of bed faster than any alarm. When you’ve got a dog with IBS, you don’t know how wonderful it is that they can alert you to their needs. It didn’t take long to train either. I waited a few times by the door until she pawed at it to get it to open, and there you go… a dog who can tell you when she needs to go out. She does do as most dogs do and go and sit by the door too, but the paw scrape is her ‘I’m going to shit in the kitchen if you don’t haul your arse over here in the next three seconds’ signal. Tilly’s also the water-bowl monitor as well, since she’ll stick her foot in that and scrape it if there’s no water left. She is very good at manipulating people to do her bidding is my Tilly. I’m truly thankful of that when she’s feeling bilious as well.

Telling your dog to ‘go pee’ before they squat or cock a leg, or ‘go poo’ when they circle and their tail goes up, then rewarding them for their efforts can also help put toiletting on cue. Most show dogs, police dogs, working dogs and guide dogs are trained to do this. Ian Dunbar recommends taking your dog for a walk after they eliminate at your home so you don’t have to carry poo-bags with you. He says it speeds up the elimination as well. It’s always inevitable that your dog will go within minutes of setting off on a walk and you’ll spend the rest of the walk holding the evidence or hunting for a bin. I wish I’d thought of that sooner. A dog that goes at home before you go for a walk would be a marvellous thing to have. And what greater reward for a dog who’s done its business? Tilly’s more there than not there where elimination and walks are concerned, but I’m afraid my boys have bad habits and have long since preferred eliminating on a walk rather than before it. Still, the jiggling of a walk usually gets a dog’s bowels moving if nothing else.

Next week: got a dog who likes to dissect pillows, help themselves to the contents of your fridge or rearrange your trash? Next week, it’s problem behaviour when home alone.

Problem behaviours: humping, masturbation and mounting

Problem behaviours: humping, masturbation and mounting

Mounting and masturbation… two words guaranteed to raise an embarrassed smile if you’ve got a humper. It’s a behaviour that can be completely innocuous and infrequent, or a behaviour that can cause an awful number of potential dog fights if you’ve got a dog who thinks that humping is an acceptable way to meet a new dog.

And you may be wondering about the two dogs above, who look like butter wouldn’t melt. The first is a doddery old deaf poodle with a heart condition and cataracts called Cachou. The second is a doddery old beagle cross with health issues of his own. Both of them have a dirty little secret… they love a bit of humping.

Humping is a behaviour that’s rewarding in itself. But why do dogs do it?

The reasons are often complex. Some call it a ‘fixed action pattern’, or FAP for short. Sorry, if you’re down with Internet slang, and I apologise in advance if you are not and I’ve now taught you a new word. It seems kind of appropriate that humping and masturbation would come under (sorry, again, for the inadvertent innuendo that is likely to pepper this piece) an acronym that represents the sound of masturbation. A fixed action pattern is a hard-wired, instinctive behaviour. In other words, your dog doesn’t need to learn to learn to fap, hump, masturbate or spank the old monkey: it’s one of those behaviours they just ‘know’. And once it’s reinforced, it’s a behaviour you’re likely to see again and again.

That’s to say, if it feels nice, they’re going to do it again and again. And the more they do it, the harder it is to stop.

Some humping is part of play as dogs age. Boys hump boys. Girls hump girls. Boys hump girls and girls hump boys. So my dog Heston has been humped by his brother Charlton. Tilly was humped by her older friend Saffy. Heston humped the lovely Galaxy. And Hista humped Heston. Girls who like boys who like boys who like girls… Humping happens. Often it happens when dogs are excited or anxious, and I’ve seen dogs hump during introductions or the first couple of hours of play. Greetings are exciting and also create a lot of social anxiety. Excitement or anxiety both mean your dog is aroused. Arousal gets to the parts that other emotions don’t reach. Saffy used to hump Tilly before we went for a walk. Heston humped Galaxy when their play burst out from chasing and running.

Humping can be a sexual thing, of course. Masturbation can be too. If you’ve got intact males around females in season, you might be used to a little self-pleasuring if they can’t get near to each other. Tobby, my old Mali, was always super-excited around unsterilised females, even if they weren’t in heat. He’d even air-hump if he couldn’t get to the girls, poor old dude. Some people think young dogs do it because they’re learning for future encounters. A lot of young dogs start doing it as they come to sexual maturity or even in play in preparation for that moment.

Humping can also be a positional thing too between dogs. I’ve seen intact males driven nuts (sorry!) by castrated males, and older intact males humping younger intact males. There’s no evidence dogs do this for status around humans though, and to be honest, I’m not sure what it means about any rank issues, and it is our human fallacy to read stuff into humping related to rank. Virtually every single time someone’s told me it’s about status or rank, it’s been excitement/arousal or social anxiety, and that’s as true for other interactive animals that dogs hump as it is for their relationship with other dogs. Dogs hump humans, but they hump cats too, and they will hump inanimate objects, often as a kind of surrogate.

Sometimes it’s just at greeting. I put this down to social excitement and anxiety. My old boy Ralf humped Heston when he arrived here. He never did it again after that. Tobby tried endlessly to hump Tilly when they met, but she never put up with his humpy ways. It’s no wonder she’s so fear-aggressive in new meetings with dogs. Her milkshake still brings all the boys to the yard (sterilised as she is) and who wants humpy boys in your face when you’re a demure older lady such as she is? She’ll accept other flirtatious behaviour, but no 11kg 11 year old sterilised cocker wants an ancient and arthritic 25kg malinois humping away at her.

I suspect sometimes that dogs smell hormonal or medical changes in other dogs… hence the occasional humping of young males in their prime by doddery old dogs. They never, ever humped each other and it was completely out of the blue at a time with no other arousal. Tilly, although sterilised, certainly has times when she smells good to the boys, and I’ll find Heston sticking a paw over her and pulling her in when he never shows interest at other times. Four days before Ralf died, Heston humped him. I never saw him do anything like that at any other time, but I suspect Heston sensed something that I couldn’t. As Tobby’s degenerative neurological condition worsened, he would often become aroused too – so humping can be a sign of something medical with either the humper or the humpee. If your dog suddenly starts humping more than they did before, or becomes a target for humping, it’s worth a vet check. There are medical reasons for humping, and it’s important to rule them out first, especially if the dog is known to you and there are changes in the frequency. Urinary issues, neurological issues and skin allergies can all be reasons a dog might really, really want to scratch that particular itch. We so often like to say it’s a psychological behaviour when it isn’t always.

Humping can have sexual origins, play origins, social origins or even be a response to stress or excitement then.

In short, it feels good. If the object of the humping doesn’t mind, they’ll do it again. And again. And even if the object of their humping does mind, well, it might be worth a shot anyway. Humping feels nice.

Not only that, we humans often giggle when our dog humps. Sometimes it gives us a right old laugh. If our dogs realise that we are giving it attention (either by laughing or by punishing – attention is attention whatever form it comes in) a dog can happily use it as a way to get a reaction from you. A dog being told off for humping is getting the same attention as a dog being laughed at for humping. Very often, dogs are rewarded intensely the first time they do it, either by their own feelings or the reaction/interaction they got, and that ‘jackpot’ learning experience is one they seek to emulate over and over.

So when does it become a problem we need to deal with?

Sometimes, despite our giggling and our blushes, it can be fairly innocuous between consenting dogs during play.

Heston seemed not even to notice the day he was humped by a fourteen-year-old arthritic, deaf miniature poodle with a heart condition. He just stood there, unbothered, while Cachou did his thing. He didn’t even look like he realised that he had a humping poodle behind him. It didn’t need me to intervene because Heston wasn’t bothered and Cachou, well, when you’re a poodle with a heart condition, you get your kicks where you can. Heston was perfectly able to walk off if he no longer wanted to consent. When Heston humped Galaxy, they were both having such an enormously fun time that it wasn’t going to spill over into aggression. In fact, she turned around and humped him.

That said, I will usually intervene if a dog of mine starts humping. It’s often a sign of over-arousal and it can end badly if one dog is unable to stop doing it. I’ve seen a lot of play spill over from humping, as well as dogs who are humping for a psychological ‘fix’. Two dogs at the shelter, Maestro and Mogano, humped each other fairly mercilessly for a few days. There was no fighting, there was a lot of reversal and the behaviour died out, so it wasn’t a time to intervene. That said, when Maestro met his new lady friend, I went out of my way to stop it starting…. it was all social anxieties and over-excitement, and it can really sour a relationship between adult dogs from the beginning, so I usually am very keen to make sure new arrivals don’t fall into the habit. I tend to think that if dogs never do it with each other, they don’t think to do it, and it can be a hard habit to break.

That ability to intervene is key here: if your dog cannot be stopped from humping, be it a leg, a cushion, a human, a cat or another dog, then it runs the risk of becoming a compulsion. If you can’t distract your dog and their recall disappears, then it’s time to intervene. If your dog isn’t noticing the distress of the human or the other animal they’re humping, then it’s also time to intervene.

So what can you do if you have a humper and you are worried about the humping?

First, get a second opinion about whether the humping is normal or not. Like I said, it’s part of a dog’s natural repertoire of behaviours, so a little from time to time is not anything I’d be concerned about either in multi-dog packs or with a surrogate. I’d also want to know about the object of the humping: an older dog being targeted, or one who is unwell is unlikely to find the humping fun. I am usually keen to stop humping of humans simply because we find it socially unacceptable despite embarrassed laughter, and it can point to underlying issues with arousal around a target human. You also need to think about the emotional function the humping is filling: a dog who craves attention and humps for this reason will need a different treatment plan than a dog who is humping at greetings with unfamiliar dogs. If you don’t address the underlying emotional need that humping fills, then you are unlikely to succeed long-term with any behavioural change.

One of the first things to do is manage the environment. If your dog has a favourite toy that they hump, only let them have it when supervised and when you can easily remove it (being mindful that if you take it away, you could see the emergence of some resource-guarding behaviour). But if your dog is over-aroused by other dogs, keep them on a leash. If your dog humps guests, put them in their crate or in another room when the guests are there so they can’t practise. If they’re targeting a specific individual in the house, this is an option as well whilst they break the habit. When taking a particularly prickly foster, it was vital Heston didn’t hump her and so I put him on a long umbilical line for 24 hours until they’d sussed each other out. Be mindful, though, that time outs as a punisher for humping can be very frustrating for your dog and you absolutely need something in place to divert that frustration. I’ve seen dogs get full-on obsessions through being removed, and the moment the control is ended (ie you put them back in the room with the target or you take their lead off), the humping is back with an absolute vengeance.

When a lady phoned me a couple of weeks ago about a new rescue who was humping the resident dog, I advised her to keep him on an umbilical leash connected to her for a couple of days, to make sure he was kept calm and that he was given plenty of mental stimulation. It’s always a good idea to manage a known humper’s interactions with other dogs so that they are prevented from humping in the first place. If the humping is happening because of social anxiety or the stress of a new environment, nipping the behaviour in the bud and preventing it from re-occurring is vital. Separate rooms or crates for humpers and their unhappy humpees, please, until you are absolutely sure you can leave them without any humping. As a new behaviour, it is easier to use environmental management to prevent this becoming a habit. At the same time, it is vital to have an output for that behaviour.

If you manage a humper’s environment, it’s worth bearing in mind that you are disrupting a behaviour to let off ‘arousal’ steam and that over-stimulation can present in other ways through displacement activities such as digging, barking, chewing or rubbing on other things. In order to avoid that, plenty of mental occupation is vital. Stuffed Kongs, fallow antlers, marrow bones, nosework and games that require your dog to work out puzzles can really help them burn off some mental energy. Think of it as spending a little time doing a crossword rather than getting giddy over a little light stimulation of the pleasure parts. Don’t forget that if you catch your dog in the act with a surrogate object such as a bit of soft furnishing or a toy, it could well be boredom, so it’s definitely worthwhile putting some more varied activities into your dog’s life. Video is useful if the dog is humping humans or surrogate objects. If they don’t hump on their own, you can rule out boredom. In this case, if they are only humping in company, it could be social anxiety or even a bit of a learned performance, especially if they don’t hump on their own. In this case, stopping rewarding the behaviour and managing the dog around people and/or dogs will be crucial.

If your dog humps new dogs at greeting, keeping them on a leash until their initial excitement burst can work, but it can also be frustrating for the dog and lead to barrier aggression over the leash. Far better to contact an expert who’ll help you work out those behavioural quirks without causing Fido to get frustrated. Tarzans need a bit of help to meet other animals, and it is one time I am most concerned about inter-dog humping. It can so easily spill over into a fight between unfamiliar dogs, or also grow into an obsession.

What you’re aiming for is the extinction of the behaviour. Since the behaviour is rewarding in itself (you don’t have to offer a dog a biscuit to get it to hump!) then the best way to do this is to interrupt the reward and make sure they never get the pleasue from humping. That means no pleasure from your reaction (either positive or negative) At the same time, once you’ve interrupted the humping, you want to ask for an alternative behaviour (anything will do, even if it’s just sit-stay-focus!) and reward that instead. Since humping happens often at times of over-stimulation and over-arousal, you’ve got to ask yourself whether it is better to do something to allow that arousal to manifest naturally (like playing a few games of tug) or whether in actual fact you’d be better to go for some calm behaviours. Personally, I prefer the calm behaviours. I think giving the dog plenty of appropriate mental and physical activity and building in periods of calm is vital. Often, we don’t teach dogs what to do when they’re not doing anything really. Sleep is all fine and good, and dogs need a lot more sleep than we do, but sometimes humping is just self-employment because a dog hasn’t been taught how to occupy themselves and they can’t settle. A behaviourist will be vital to help you set up a good plan to work towards extinction. 

Reward cessation is also important if your dog is humping a person. When I got humped by Jack, I didn’t stand there politely and wait until he’d finished… I turned around, asked him to sit and rewarded the sit. Stop the behaviour by moving away. Laughing, smiling or telling the dog off… it’s all attention and it’s all a reward. 

Disruption and refocusing can also work. These work if you have got a rock-solid recall and a rock-solid behaviour to ask for instead. Even if your dog’s recall is poor, a squeaker can be enough of a distraction. What you want to be really, really careful about is that your dog doesn’t think this is also worth humping for… the humping becomes a way to get YOU to get the squeaky toys out! Here, I’d be waiting for ‘the look’ – the behaviour preceding the humping. You know, where your dog gets that goofy face or starts playing about. To do this, you need to know your dog pretty well and be able to anticipate it. When Heston starts getting a bit too interested in Tilly, I call him away. No humping. Then I ask him to do something else. No lightbulb goes on in his head to say ‘I must do X to make her do Y’. But I can see it coming. I know very well when he’s going to do it. The earlier you intervene, the more chance you have of stopping the humping happening. What I absolutely do not want to happen with distraction is that the dog starts humping because they see their behaviour as a cue for a better distraction. If I only got out the squeaky toy when the humping started, Heston would very quickly learn that he needs to hump to get the toy. The toy or game must come first (which is why you need to recognise when the humping will happen) and must be used so frequently in a range of situations that the dog doesn’t pair the two events of humping = toy. Again, a behaviourist can explain a protocol for this better than I can here so that it doesn’t backfire with your specific dog. 

Some people are no doubt going to recommend spaying and neutering  if your dog is not already. That’s something to discuss with your vet. However, if you expect neutering your dog to stop it from humping, then neutering may not work on its own anyway. If your dog cannot be distracted easily from a humping situation, then the pleasure is already largely psychological rather than physical and it’ll need more than a physical approach to stop it. Early neutering is not the answer you are looking for. It’s still worth a vet check. Of course humping is a sexual behaviour: there’s a reason dogs will hump surrogates if another dog is in season around them, but unless it’s JUST a sexual behaviour, it’s unlikely neutering will make a difference. Like I said, my most prolific humpers was Saffy, and her target was Tilly, two spayed females.

And if you are in any doubt at all that your requests or attempts to intervene might end badly, contact a professional immediately to help you out. This is definitely not a behaviour to leave if there is an element of compulsion or habit: humpers rarely grow out of it, especially if they are a little nervous and socially awkward.

Next week, poor house-training and elimination in the home.

Problem Behaviours: Jumping Up

Problem Behaviours: Jumping Up

You may be wondering what this handsome guy has to do with jumping up…. if I tell you his name is Jump, does that give you a clue? I’m pretty sure that he’s one of the dogs who made it on to the top of the kennel blocks, but I could be mistaken. I’m sure that’d give rise to a name that states the obvious!

Jumping up is a behaviour that has many rewards for a dog, which is why it can be one of the hardest behaviours to eliminate. That said, it’s a problem with a lot of solutions that I’ll discuss here today. Only you will know which one will be most effective with your own dog. It may take a few weeks or even a few months to really get a consistent ‘no-jump’ greeting, so you’re going to need to stick at it. To understand why it can take some time to eliminate, you need to understand a few reasons why dogs might jump in the first place.

Whilst dogs might not naturally go for hugs with another dog when they first meet, face to face is perfectly normal. It’s usually face before butt for most dogs who greet each other. A butt sniff tells you a lot of stuff about another dog, but a face sniff is less intrusive and much more polite. In a 20-way dog greeting between 20 unfamiliar dogs, every single one went face-first. Smelling the corners of mouths is a standard behaviour. And you know what they did then? Played chase, peed, sniffed stuff. Some of them, yes, even jump on each other. If you watch a lot of dog interactions, there’s this burst of play energy, and jumping up is a natural way to express that energy too. Nose-to-nose interactions are so frequent, even among very familiar dogs.

And that’s easy if you’re a dog. Getting your schnozzer near their mouth is the main aim, and most social dogs will cooperate by lowering their heads to greet a smaller dog, or raising their heads to greet a bigger dog.

Bit difficult though when it comes to interspecies greetings… when you’re all the way UP HERE and they’re all the way DOWN THERE. And if you’re not bending down, a dog will make its own solution. Whoo hoo! I want to see your face and show you how glad I am to see you… and jumping on you just gave me exactly what I wanted.

Some people encourage jumping as well. A face-to-face, chest-to-chest greeting is a pretty chimpy-biped kind of thing to do. It makes us feel welcomed and it makes us feel happy. We like to see excited dogs. We don’t want to get down on the floor in the dirt to let the dog greet us at their level, but we want to say hi. It feels kind of vulnerable to get down there, and we know we can always push an exuberant dog off or unbalance them if they’re on two feet, which we can’t do if they’re crouching.

Plus, dogs, like humans, are excited at greeting times. We aren’t cats, sullenly spying on each other from a distance or putting plenty of space between us until we feel comfortable with a stranger. Dogs get excited meeting each other, meeting strange dogs, and they get excited meeting us. I watch an enormous amount of dog-human greetings, and dollars to donuts, dog people go right in to greet a dog way before they greet the person behind them. So we blame the dogs when, guess what, we’re responsible for encouraging the behaviour in the first place. Not only that, every time a dog does it, it feels blummin brilliant to them. It’s great to get unconditional love and excitement from a human chimpy person. A lot of dogs have learned that the reward for jumping is a real feel-good factor. The more they do it, the more they get out of it. Hence the fact your dog might turn into Zebedee… or your 60kg Newfie bowls you over.

A last reason your dog might be leaping up to see you is an appeasement behaviour. If they’re trying to lick your mouth, it can be a way of showing you they feel a bit stressed about your relationship, and they’re trying to calm you or appease you. It’s a behaviour that puppies do with older dogs to show that they’re not a threat. This type of jumping up definitely requires a gentle, force-free approach, since your dog could already be nervous about your relationship.

That’s the why.

But you don’t care about that, if you’re reading this. You just want to teach them not to. Or when to and when not to. It’s not an ‘either/or’. If you want them never to jump, that’s your prerogative. If you would rather they waited until asked and didn’t bowl over small children whilst still being able to give you a nice greeting, that’s your prerogative too. However, not everyone likes dogs to jump on them, even little 5kg chihuahuas, so it’s important that you teach your dog when it’s appropriate to jump.

There are several strategies you can use to deal with jumping up. All of them have positives or situations when they might be more appropriate, but there are some consequences to the simplest techniques, as you would expect. There are those who give a knee to the chest (which unbalances you and can leave you flat on your arse) or another punishment, verbal or physical. These can be effective, but by and large, people who contact me with a jumper who’ve used these techniques tell me that they never worked or they no longer work.

Don’t forget that what a dog wants is attention from you. It doesn’t care if that’s angry attention or happy attention. My foster dog Feff makes that clear when he wakes me up at 5am and I grumble at him to get back to bed. My “Ferfeck’s sake Feff, it’s 5am!” might as well be “Hello my wonderful and delightful fosteree… how glad I am to see you! Thank you for waking me up at 5am – it’s the early bird that catches the worm after all!”

Manage the environment

One strategy is to manage the environment. If your dog is a coiled spring when you or when visitors arrive, putting them on leash or putting them in a crate until the excitement has dissipated is a great way to do that. A leash allows an owner to control the dog effectively with guests. You aren’t going to use it to pull your dog off, just to put distance between the dog and a guest. Using a leash is pretty ineffective if YOU’RE the person the dog jumps on, unless you’re working with a partner who’s got hold of the leash.

Using a leash means that your dog will need supervision at all times around guests until their behaviour is rock solid (though you can use longer and longer lines). It can also be frustrating for a dog to do it this way if they are leash-reactive or they get excited around a leash. If I stuck a leash on Heston every time a guest arrived, he’d get more excited because a leash is exciting in itself.

Also, because he is then restricted from getting to the person, it can cause a reactive dog to react more, or even become fearful. However, it stops the dog jumping and stops them getting a kick out of the behaviour. A crate can do the same thing, as can a closed door. Keeping the dog away from visitors until all that greeting energy has dissipated is a good strategy, but bear in mind that it can be frustrating and even amp up a dog’s energy.

In this case, it’s you controlling the dog’s behaviour rather than the dog learning not to do the behaviour from the inside out, so it’s less effective than learning that comes from the dog itself. If they want attention and affection, you want THEM to think, ‘Well, that didn’t work… what else can I try?’

This is a great technique to use, though, if you have guests who may not always listen to you about the next strategy. It’s an emergency strategy for me with a jumping dog who hasn’t yet got a 100% jump-free greeting. You can also use a leash to help with teaching incompatible behaviours or using a ‘stooge’ guest.

I would never use a leash to stop a dog jumping if the dog has poor bite inhibition and/or frustration on a leash. What you are effectively doing is making it impossible for the dog to move away. Where I’ve seen instructors on Youtube using a leash, it’s with a dog who’s pretty much under control anyway. The last thing you want is to frustrate a dog with poor bite inhibition who then turns around and sinks their teeth into you. I’d prefer to keep this dog away from all excitement with a secure crate or a different room until the excitement has dissipated. With a dog like this, you need to take commands right back to the very basics: sitting where there are no distractions and when the dog is super-calm.

Manage your body language

The second strategy is also very effective… simply using your body. If you read Turid Rugaas’s excellent book Calming Signals, there are a few calming signals you can easily use that will quickly teach a dog not to jump.

One of these is to cross your arms and turn your back, moving away from the dog if the dog is on a leash too. This is a great one for children to learn around over-excited dogs. Turn to stone and stop flapping arms. Stop looking at the dog and interacting with it. Turn your head away from the dog and do not get eye contact. Hold this for several seconds at least. Turn your body away from the dog, either at 90° or 180°. Move very slowly and lower your energy levels.

This is a strategy I use all the time with shelter dogs when I have to enter their enclosures alone to get photos. Most of the time, I photograph dogs on leash as the volunteers can then keep them under control. I’ve got a lot of expensive equipment that I don’t want them to damage. Going into an enclosure alone with this equipment is a big risk if the dog is excited to see me. Even with hardened jumper-uppers, this has worked like a charm. Took me two minutes yesterday with a scratchy little terrier who was doing the Dog Dance of Delight, gave up and then sat down, looking at me! You have no idea how effective it is and how quick. It’s like she thought, ‘Ok… that’s not worked. I wonder if this will?’

This technique has only failed me once and allowed me to effectively stop dogs jumping up at me thousands of times. If I want a photo of a bouncy, off-leash dog in less than five minutes, this works like a dream. It even works with excited puppies and bouncy Newfies.

On this particular day, Megane was in with five other big puppies, including a nipper. They were all very excited to see me. Here, I’m using a kennel between us, but you can see she wants to see me at eye level and she’s up on the kennel.

And here you can see she is off-lead, feet on floor, slightly to an angle. There are less than 5 minutes between the two shots. Your body language is by far the best way to manage jumping up. You can sometimes speed the behaviour up by rewarding “four feet” but to be honest, I find this is only useful when it is NOT a greeting jump. A reward like food or a toy can sometimes amp up the excitement, and possibly the jumping. With my ex-jumper, he’s not interested in food at a greeting. What he wants is attention and to greet me. I reward him with that only because he is not interested in food at that point. Here, I’m letting the behaviour reward the dog, not a reward in itself. But you might find that could work with your dog if they’re not quite as excited.

A side-effect of using your body is that it’s very hard to get guests, visitors and strangers to do this, and I feel that it’s also a bit of a knock-back for the dog. All it takes is for one guest to ignore your advice and you’ll be back to square one. I think it’s important that the owner continue to make reassuring noises and to praise the dog copiously for “four feet”, and that the guest greets the dog as soon as the energy has dissipated, turning away again or turning to stone if the dog starts jumping up again. I find that it can also be a little less effective with small dogs who dance on hind legs, because they can’t see your face anyway and are used to jumping up to legs, whichever way they point.

You may also find that dogs try it more for a little while before giving up completely. If it seems to be working and then it wasn’t, persevere! This is known as an extinction burst and often happens before someone gives up altogether. Like me pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL a hundred times when my computer freezes before giving up.

The only dog this didn’t work on? A beauceron x setter, Jack. He got both his paws over my turned back and started humping me against the bars of the enclosure. I was just his prison bitch. Actually, turning around and telling him to sit worked much better! But that is the only time that happened, promise!

Teach the response you want

If you want your dog to do something other than jump up, you can use a clicker or a word such as “Yes!”

This is a great technique using a treat on the floor to help direct the dog’s behaviour. You can’t eat a treat off the floor if you are jumping on your owner! Here’s Emily from Kikopup demonstrating. Don’t be put off – this works just as well with adult dogs. By the way, when shelter jumpers Hagrid and Jack are a bit exuberant, I’ll wait until they’re not jumping and put a few treats on the floor. The reason I use more than one is that because by the time they’ve searched in the grass for a treat, the urge to jump for joy is gone. The floor treats distract them from jumping on you.

I love this technique because it doesn’t require you to control the dog with the leash. It also doesn’t rely on you calming them with your body (although you’ll notice Emily doing it a little when she’s initially teaching the behaviour). It teaches them that you can have a lot of energy and still keep four feet on the floor. I especially like the part of the video where she is proofing the behaviour, adding in the toy and the squealing retreat, both of which it’s important to teach your dog. I taught Heston this way using his favourite toys at the end to really ensure it was rock solid. Remember your 3Ds and put plenty of distance between you and your guests at first (I use ‘stooge’ guests) as well as asking for the behaviour for a short duration, and making sure that there are no other distractions. You can make it closer and ask for longer behaviours as you go on, including more distracting situations, but less is definitely more. Stop whilst your dog is successful and never ask for too much.

It does take some time to do, which is fine, but it doesn’t always prepare your dogs for guests who might encourage them to jump up, so I’d also teach them when to and how to jump up and manage the environment with guests who were causing the behaviour rather than eliminating it. This isn’t a good technique to start with if you haven’t taught sit as a very minimum. Don’t forget to phase out the treats!

Teaching an incompatible behaviour

I’m a firm believer of teaching incompatible behaviours. Some people ask a dog to sit rather than jumping, but sit can be a good base for a jump, so a ‘down’ is a better position to stop the springing. You can see that in the Kikopup video too. You’ll see the puppy offering a down and a sit, which is often what dogs do to test out what you prefer. Putting a verbal cue or gesture in there is also important and something not done on the Kikopup video. “Four feet” is a good one.

I also like to teach the behaviour itself and put it on cue. Heston very, very rarely jumps these days, and mostly it’s because it’s a cued behaviour. I ask him to jump and he does. Here, I use a gesture and a verbal cue. I pat my chest, say “Up!” and put out my arms as the cue to jump, he jumps, rests on my arms, and I bend forward for a nose-to-nose greeting. Again, it’s a behaviour that is intrinsically rewarding in itself, so you may not find you need to use much by way of treats. What I get is a really nice, steady jump with his paws in my hands.

There will, no doubt, be people who think that it’s not good for a dog to be on its hind legs, and it isn’t, not for prolonged periods, or if your dog has problems. But if your dog is doing it anyway, putting it on cue means that you can ask occasionally for them to do it, if they look like they might, and all the other times, they just don’t do it. Heston only ever jumps on me when I pat my chest and say “Up!” – and I maybe ask for that behaviour once every month or so.

If jumping is a behaviour your dog really, really enjoys, it’s worth using it as a reward for an incompatible behaviour. Thus, if I’ve had a calm greeting, I’ll sometimes ‘reward’ Heston by asking him to jump. I only do this when he’s got his emotions under control though. That way, I get a lovely, gentle “Up!” and none of the full frontal savagery. This technique is not one to do if your dog seems at all stressed, if they are desperate to greet you because they’re suffering from separation anxiety, or if they are a face-mugger. By the way, this video below is what I’m working with Mr Hagrid, mouthy shelter Mali, as he mugged my face (with some level of terror on my behalf) when I bent down to tie my shoelace.

It’s also worth considering two other things: the age of your dog and their breed. Certain breeds do love the Doggie Dance of Delight more than others. If you know a toy poodle, you’ll know what I mean. And some dogs have bodies designed for off-road agility, for whom a little agility training or light frisbee (and I mean light!) might help channel their natural desire for air space. Young dogs are more likely to do this too since dogs need to be taught that it is not appropriate. The time to teach this is when they are a puppy, not leave it til their 2nd birthday and being jumped on by a 40kg shepherd is no longer any fun.

Between teaching them to keep four feet on the floor, teaching them an alternative behaviour, controlling how your dog greets guests and using body language to help you, you should find that issues with dogs jumping all over you is quickly resolved. There really is no need to use the ineffective knee to the chest, and you certainly don’t want to punish your dog or reprimand them for being pleased to see you. Hopefully one of these solutions will suit you perfectly.

In the next post, to come back to being Jack’s prison bitch, I’ll be tackling the socially embarrassing problem of humping and mounting!

Problem behaviours: poor recall

Problem behaviours: poor recall

Fact: it’s not just rescue dogs who can be off into the distance off-leash, but a rescue is perhaps more likely than most to lack this particular dog skill. The sad fact is though that a rescue dog may have the best recall in the world but if he’s a dog whose name or recall signal has changed, you’re likely to have a dog who has either not been given the right recall cue or who never had one in the first place.

And let’s be honest: 80% of our dogs come in via the pound. That’s a lot of strays. It leaves us with a conundrum as well – did the dog have poor recall in the first place and that’s why it’s in the pound? Is there some owner out there still shouting for their dog to come back?

If you’ve picked up a rescue, you could have a dog who had terrible recall in the first place, who’d never been taught, whose original name has been forgotten… there can be any number of reasons why your new rescue would be best to stay on a leash.

But if you’ve got your own dog and you’ve had them since they were a pup, you could have a potential pound dog just biding his time. There are many, many dogs I meet off-leash whose recall is shocking. Their owners are lucky they don’t go missing or they aren’t hit by a car.

Of all the dogs I have had, all of them are potential pound dogs in certain situations. Or proper pound dogs for three of them, picked up as strays. Tobby used to like to toddle off on his own – no surprise how he ended up at the shelter. Ralf liked to go for a wander and desert his guard dog post – and no surprise there either. Amigo is a pound dog whose hunting ways have left him with bullets and a habit of selective deafness where rabbits are involved. Tilly will happily chase cyclists down the road and ignore me if there’s a cow pat to be scoffed. Molly once disappeared into the bushes and wasn’t seen for hours. Heston has either perfect recall or zero recall and once went missing for four hours, and Effel chases Heston wherever he goes.

I’m pretty sure most households are fairly similar. Poor recall is endemic. If you ask me, it’s one of the most frequent problem behaviours.

Three of my current four here have lovely leash manners. Two of them are real homebodies who’d never leave the gates. Two of them are reactive around strangers. Two of them have house-soiling issues – one because he’s on cortisone and the other because she’s a monkey for forgetting. One of them jumps up from time to time. None of them chew anything they shouldn’t anymore. None of them dig (any more!) None of them escape (any more!) None of them bite or fight. But all four of them have poor recall in certain situations. That means it’s the number one issue in the Woof Like To Meet house.

Poor recall is also obvious in several viral videos on Youtube. You’ll remember Fenton, of course.

There is potential for every single dog to have a Fenton moment.

If we remember that recall is largely dependent on situation, you’ll understand that good recall depends on controlling the situation. Sometimes, recall is called “situational recall” for that very reason.

Why do dogs have poor recall? There are a number of reasons. But the main reason number 1 is that it is part-and-parcel of being a dog. What do dogs get out of coming back? A biscuit, some praise maybe. What do they get out of running away? A game of chase. Ten minutes of snouting out some amazing and wonderful smell, wrapped in the delight of a behaviour that is quintessential, hard-wired DOG. Couple that with the chase instinct and you’ve got a tough problem indeed. David Ryan’s very excellent blog post and book will help you if you have a hard-wired chaser. It’s a behaviour that needs more than this post can give you. But it’s not untreatable with dedication and commitment.

If you have a dog, however, who is just a bit haphazard rather rhan a dog who is completely obsessed, then this post is made for you

First you need to know how bad that recall is.

Think you’ve got a dog with poor recall? How poor? Completely zero? Want to put it to the test?

Wait until your dogs are in the house and they’re kind of otherwise occupied, like mine are now. I want you to get up, sneak off and go to a place where treats come from. Mine get home-made peanut butter for pills from the fridge, and occasional bits of meat and treats as I’m preparing Kongs and rewards. The fridge is a treat dispenser extraordinaire in my house. The shelf where I keep the Kongs is also a good bet. And the room where I keep the food.

I want you to sneak off to the spot where you dispense most of your really high-value treats from or the dog’s food and I want you to call your dog. Call them excitedly, like you’ve got something amazing for them. And give them some really amazing contraband from the fridge.

What happened?

Did your dog come? If not, it’s probably not a place with a strong enough appeal or your dog has very poor recall habits. Your dog may also have hearing issues. How long did it take your dogs to come? You can see from this that it took Effel 5 seconds, Heston longer (8 seconds and a second call – he needed the T word to break his usual ‘out of the kitchen’ habits) and Tilly even longer (12 seconds).

I apologise for the blurry low-light video. And you’ll see there’s only three dogs here too. This fridge test was actually a really good test to see how Amigo’s hearing is right now. Not working at all from five metres. He was asleep in the living room.

Now they’re a bit slow on the uptake. I don’t feed them often from the fridge and I’ve never, ever called them to it before. It’s not food time and my dogs (except Tilly) don’t come in the kitchen unless it’s food time. In fact, I’ve trained them to stay out of the kitchen unless I invite them in. I love how they all stand around like, “Put the Treat in the Mouth, lady.”

Now give it five minutes and do it again. Call your dogs.

It took seven seconds to get all of them in the kitchen. Tilly first. The Tilly is smart when it comes to food. That dog will do anything for a biscuit. Effel’s quick because he’s a beauceron shepherd and if you can’t do this with a shepherd, you need to give up straight away. They don’t have ‘personal time’… they have ‘stand-by time’ when they’re awaiting instructions from you. In fact, if you have a shepherd, you’re probably not reading this post unless their recall is poor when out on a walk and they go all “must see off the moving thing”. You’ve probably got bigger problems in the house in not being followed around by your dogs constantly! Heston’s a more independent kind of guy, but even he’s in there super-quick the second time.

If your dog was confused in the first test and took a while to come to you, they won’t be by the second, I guarantee it.

But if after four or five attempts, you’ve still got a non-existent recall, time for the vet’s for a hearing check or a great positive gundog trainer I think!

The good news is that if you’ve got recall with this test, you’ve hope of getting recall in other places too.

There are three factors that make recall good here: you’re close to your dogs, your dogs are inside (and therefore prevented from leaving or being distracted) and you’re asking them a thing that is not difficult. My dogs are all just waiting for their walk or snoozing, so they’re alert and doing nothing else. No real distance. No real difficulty. No real distraction.

I can do other things to reinforce recall as well. Social facilitation (peer-pressure!) is strong with dogs, so if you’ve got a multi-dog household, it’s more likely they’ll all run off after a deer together and ignore you, but it’s also more likely that if you call and one comes running, the others will as well. You could encourage speed among your dogs for recall by having one treat for the dog who gets there first, but that feels a bit mean to me. Dogs are very good at fairness and their obedience drops if another dog is rewarded more than they are. But it could still hone their competitive edge. More research needed on that!

Another thing that changed the difference between the first twelve-second recall and the second five-second recall is habit. The first time, that recall was slow because I don’t make a habit of calling the dogs into the kitchen. The second time it’s become a habit – albeit a two-time habit. I’m going to share a secret. I’m never ever going to call my dogs to the fridge to feed them again as I don’t want to encourage them to the kitchen. I don’t like them in there unless it’s meal-times. But I do use my mantlepiece as a toy/treat and Kong storage facility, so I guarantee I get quick recall if I stand there. Making a habit out of recall is vital to increase speed and reliability.

You should also think about your cue for your dogs to come. It’s worth teaching a new word completely from scratch if you’ve had a lot of recall fails. I use ‘doggies!’ and you want an excited, lively tone. What you want is that word to become associated with most wonderful, amazing, fabulous events. High-pitched, positive, giddy… it’s all good. How fast was your arse on the seat when your mum said “Dinner time?” compared to how slow your arse hits the seat when your teacher said “Spelling test!”. You want the ‘Dinner Time!’ response. No good if your “come!” makes your dog think a spelling test is on the way. If your dinner time has been seven days of sprouts and cabbage, you might be a bit reticent about coming to dinner.

Besides social facilitation and habit, you should also use high-value rewards at the beginning with your dogs. Be mindful that you’ll need to phase them out and have times where you don’t reward them for recall. After ten tries or so, have one or two where you call them and don’t reward them. Give them a fuss by all means, but no food. Variable rewards create a more reliable recall than a reward every time, I promise! You should start phasing them out quite quickly.

With these three things, I bet you can get a reliable, fairly instantaneous recall in the house in less than five tries over a day or so.

Next is the bit that people find hard to understand. Dogs don’t generalise well. When you cue a dog by standing in a regular spot and rewarding fairly regularly for them to come to you, it doesn’t mean they think they should do the same when you move to another spot. So you have to teach them. Time to move spot, improve the quality and reward rate of your rewards and try again. You absolutely need to use your dog’s food allowance for this as well, so stop feeding them from a bowl and make them work for it! See every biscuit in a bowl as a wasted learning opportunity. You’ll even want to space it out over a few hours because otherwise you will end up like the Pied Piper of dogs, with them following you everywhere, I promise you. That’s pretty annoying.

Once you’ve mastered that second spot inside, move again!

Remember… call your dogs (cue), get a behaviour, reward your dogs (and phase out the reward) so that eventually, you’re going from request to response without any need for a reward.

What you want is a 98-100% recall indoors in four or five different spots, over a range of distances and into places your dogs don’t usually go (or don’t like to go… the bathroom being one such place for my dogs!) with a variable reward schedule before you even move it outside. Over 100 trials, you can have a couple of mistakes. But if your mistakes are too regular, you need more work in the house first. You can (and should) also build in distractions in the home, like trying to do this when your dogs all have a bone or a chew. My test is doing it when the post lady’s van pulls up… not 100% there by any means, even in the house. Before you move outside, you need a rock solid recall in the house first. I’d also build in a sit-stay-release response, as you don’t want your dog running off the moment they have the reward. A sit-stay-release response is easy to teach here. Most owners should have a release cue. Mine is “Allez!”. I’d also build in a ‘look at me’ or ‘focus!’ response (Mine is “eyes!”) For me, my cue sequence goes: “Doggies! Sit. Eyes.” and then I give the treat. Then I say “Allez!”. No point giving a break cue and encouraging them to stick around for a reward.

Once your dog can come to their name (or a group name), sit on cue, stay on cue, release on cue and look at you the whole time, you’ve got a great in-house recall. You can even use your body language in there – what I call a ‘rolling recall’ – where you walk off and call your dogs to you. Patricia McConnell in The Other End of the Leash makes a compelling case for dogs interpreting our body’s forward motion. Calling your dogs (because they can’t see you so they need to hear you), turning your whole body to point away from the dogs and walking briskly in the opposite direction is the best signal that your dogs should stop the course they’re on and follow you. I can’t count the number of times this has worked. If I call them and run away from them, not only do I become a great game of ‘Chase!’ in myself, but it’s very clear to the dog that I’m going in the opposite direction. I can’t tell you what a life-saver this technique is when I see a deer appear out of nowhere, or another off-leash dog, and I don’t want my dogs to see it and give chase. Starting this in-house can help it become a really reliable device to get good recall at critical points. I’d also include a few collar-grabs in there, since outside many dogs end up getting their collar grabbed as a consequence of a recall (or having their leash put on!) and who’d come back if you’re going to have your collar grabbed? The ONLY consequence for recall should be positive. But as soon as my dogs come towards me, I can practise the collar touch and reward them for it too, so they are used to it – and they don’t end up being one of those dogs who dance just out of reach and abscond when you really need them not to.

I can’t stress one thing enough though. The ONLY consequence a dog should have for coming back to you is the most amazing love and fuss. Like you have been apart for months and months. But building in a collar grab practice can prevent a bite or any resentment that a dog might feel for coming to you rather than going off doing their own thing.

When you are absolutely sure that your dog’s recall in-house is rock solid, even with distractions and definitely without bribes, you are ready to level up!

You can move outside into a quiet, safe space. That might be your garden. But if you have a noisy garden or live in apartments, a quiet spot in a park can also work. I’d keep your dog on a long leash first and here’s where you really, really will need a sit-stay-focus-release cue. The leash here is acting as your walls, and only when you can get a reliable sit-stay-focus outside can you even think of moving up to testing with a longer leash and bigger distances. I use a 3m leash then a 10m, then a 20m. I’ll do a few positional requests, like ‘sit-focus-down-stand-sit-stand-down’ and build in the ‘stay’ before using my new (and proofed!) command, ‘doggies!’ or whatever it is I’m using as my cue word. Then when it’s good at 20m, I’ll take the dog off-leash to try it. And at this point, I am going to have some of the best, most wonderful, most stinky rewards. I want that first time off-leash to be THE BEST-EVER MOST WONDERFUL recall. I’ll do it when the place is completely and totally distraction-free. No cats. No squirrels. No squawky magpies. No passing traffic. No noisy neighbours. I’ll then increase the distance too.

After, I’m going to build in some distractions, too, just as I did in the house. From chews to toys to a game of Sprinkles, and I’m going to try recall there as well. And only when I have 98%-100% recall in the garden on and off-leash, with and without rewards am I going to take it beyond this safe, walled outside space.

My emergency garden recall, by the way, is to run away, off up the garden as fast as I can, shouting “Whooo! tea time!” and heading to the food cupboard. This worked perfectly with a guardy terrier who’d stolen my shoe and run off down the garden hoping for a good game of chase. I even got the shoe back. ‘Tea time!’ is my twice-a-day failsafe excitement word that always, but always gets 100% attention. It only works if you have a food cupboard to hand though.

The technique of turning away to encourage recall is a great one to inspire your dog to follow you. You can find more details and more tips in this article on the Whole Dog Journal website.

Once you’ve got good in-house and in-garden recall… time to level up.

You know how it goes. Out of the garden, no-distraction environment, on-leash. Sit-focus-down-focus-stand-stay repetitions out there in the big, old world. Fantastic treats, high-ratio of reward. Then a longer leash. Then one that’s longer still. Then build in distractions. If it gets too hard, take it back to the last known rock solid place and make the distractions or distance less difficult. If I can’t get good recall on a 20m leash in an open field, I’ll try with a 5m leash. If that’s too hard, I’m going to maybe take it back inside the gates, or wait until I’m on a walk and I can see my dog is paying attention, giving me lots of eye contact. I’m going to borrow my friend’s secure garden and try it there. Or a tennis-court. Basically, if it too hard to get reliable recall out in the world, I’ll try to manage the environment better so it’s less distracting. If I’m really going to struggle at this point, David Ryan’s “Stop!” programme that I mentioned before is a real life-saver.

When… and only when… I have reliable recall on a 20 or 50 metre leash, I’ll take the leash off. I’m going to do it in a really distraction-free area on a day when I have been practising on-leash recall and I’ve got an excellent response rate without rewards. I’ll bring out my best rewards and that dog is going to think he has won the lottery when he comes back to me. I’m not going to try more than one or two times that first day and I’m going to up the level of challenge so slowly that my dog is never going to have a Fenton moment. If he does… I’m not going to stress it. A Fenton is not coming back until he’s done what needs doing, believe me. My aim is to avoid Fenton Moment Potential.

In fact, if I am ever in Fenton Moment Potential situations, I am going to keep the leash on. Period. You know yourself what distractions are too much for your dog. You know better than anything what causes recall fail. You’re reading this post after all, and you know better than anyone if it’s rabbits or hare, boar or buffalo. I suggest you make a list of Fenton Situations for your dog and you never, ever let your dog off-leash in those situations if you want them to come back. For my dogs, that list is this:

Heston: swallows, crows (less than 20m), pheasant, squawking jays, magpies, hare (but not rabbit over 50m away) deer (within 2 hours and 20 metres of walking zone) other dogs, puddles, rivers, streams, lakes, boar, starey cows, people, walkers, cyclists, joggers, hunters, hunt dogs. Heston has great situational recall in very familiar empty spaces with no wildlife. He is reliable with cows, horses and rabbits.

Tilly: cowpats, other dogs, cyclists, joggers, hikers, rubbish bags, food waste, pheasant, stinky manure

Amigo: is deaf now. No recall at all, bless him. Used to be rabbits or boar and cow pats.

Effel: everything but Heston running or other dogs leaving the pack, which he likes to herd up and move on. Also has a roving eye for orienting towards moving objects when he’s over-stimulated.

You can, of course, build in recall-proofing with leashes and then without, gradually decreasing the distance between you and a cause of poor recall. I did this with cows, horses and rabbits for Heston and we’re working on him not racing off to dive in the water. But generally speaking, if your dog is unreliable around certain stimuli, keep the leash on and go right back to recall basics around that situation.

Remember that even the mildest aversion can be a massive deterrent. A bit of rain and my dogs think they’re made of sugar…

The day Effel’s rock solid recall fails is indeed the day that it is heaving it down. Remember, recall fails happen to everyone, and if you are in any doubt the recall will fail (I had no doubt at all that my dogs would not venture into the rain!) don’t expect your dog to follow you.

Recall, then, is only as good as your environment. Managing the environment for a dog with poor recall is absolutely vital. The predatory motor pattern sequence that comes part and parcel of your dog’s genes means that unless you have a dog with a genetically-inhibited sequence (so livestock guarding breeds) you are likely to have a living, breathing dog. If you have a hound or a terrier, you will no doubt have moments where the Call of the Wild will take over. That’s what leashes are for. Even if you have a rather jolly labrador, you might want to stick a leash on as well.

And… if you’re having problems walking your dog on leash, try this post from last week!

Next week… jumping up.

Problem behaviours: pulling and jerking on the leash

Problem behaviours: pulling and jerking on the leash


Confession time. Before I knew how to stop it, I had a dog who pulled like a demon. Once, he was part of a group of four dogs I was walking that pulled me on my arse through a field of cows to see a dog at the other side. He pulled so much that it made my hands and shoulders sore. It made me really cross with him too, and I’d finish walks furious if I had to walk him on the leash the whole walk. For this reason, I’d let him off leash more than I should and I even contemplated choke chains. I didn’t get as far as thinking of prong collars, but what I wanted from my dog wasn’t what I was getting.

Sadly, it was all my fault too. Before I knew better, I’d clipped an extending “flexi” leash on him. I used one with my cocker spaniel and it suited us fine. But that flexi-leash taught my young pup about constant pressure and snapping to an end. It taught him he could go where he liked and to feel the constant pressure until it jerked to a stop. This is how he thought dogs walked on the leash.

Not only that, I did another bad thing. I let him off leash at 20 weeks of age for the first time. For a few weeks, it was great. He could walk without pulling and his recall was great. Until he saw a deer. And then a rabbit. His 100% recall was shot and he had to go back on the leash. But he’d got smells by then. Making a lunge to a smell, dragging me from one side to another, wrapping me up in that nasty nylon flexi-leash… so I moved to a 1 metre flat leash, which is the standard leash length. He couldn’t move anywhere and spent the whole time trying desperately to get to a scent. The leash became a punishment in itself. Not only that, but trying to walk past various dogs behind 100m of open fencing meant he too got barrier aggression. Two great reasons to pull and lunge: barrier aggression and over-excitement around scents.

And I did that horrible thing. I expected him to grow out of it. I thought that, by the time he got through his teens, he’d stop.

The dogs I’d had before either walked nicely on leash or had great recall. Molly wasn’t so great on the leash, but she had good recall (on the whole!) and she was never aggressive with other dogs. Tilly and Saffy walked nicely on the leash and good recall (unless there was a cowpat or a cyclist!) But Heston was neither 16kg of easy-to-control dog nor was he a homebody wanting to stay with the pack. No. He was an independent spirit who wanted to chase jays and crows, sparrows and starlings, deer and boar, cyclists and joggers.

While I didn’t get it right with leash walking, I did with a lot of other stuff. We negotiated destructive boredom and he had lots of other ways to burn off energy at home. Heelwork, agility and obedience training were good for him.

But a walk was a living nightmare, with me constantly on edge.

I think that’s the same for a lot of people.

I suspect that walks are the biggest point of conflict between dogs and owners. We love going for a walk with our dogs, otherwise we really wouldn’t take them. And lots of people don’t walk their dog. For 23 hours of the day, you have a great dog who you love very much, and for 1 hour a day, you have a dog that you’d surrender to a shelter. For 23 hours a day, you’re all treats and rewards. For 1 hour a day, you’re at your very worst.

Let’s face it, more people let their dog off the leash than should. I can’t tell you how many accounts of poor dog/dog greetings on a walk I read in one day. For those of us who walk our dogs on a leash, being approached by an unruly off-leash dog with zero recall is our worst nightmare. The Dog Lady posted yesterday about an off-leash incident that cued a lot of comments from owners whose dogs on leashes were attacked by dogs off-leash.

But I know why so many people walk their dogs off-leash.

On-leash, their dog is a nightmare. Off-leash, their dog’s recall may be poor, but many dogs kind of pootle about near the owner. I let Tilly, Effel, Molly, Saffy, Ralf or Amigo off leash and I know that I could walk and they’d be somewhere near me. Sure, they all have their moments where they go all Benton (remember that viral video of the dog chasing deer, much to the frustration of their owner?!) but off-leash, they’re a happy dog and I’m an owner who isn’t having my arm pulled off.

This has consequences of course. More lost dogs is one. Dogs run over is another. Dogs being self-employed on a walk is a serious side-effect. I can’t tell you the number of times Heston disappeared whilst on an off-leash walk. I can’t tell you how many times Tilly has disappeared after some distant cow-pat. But the risk of them doing so was always less than the daily pain in the arse of walking dogs on a leash

Most off-leashers seek out quiet spots away from other dogs. But you can’t predict when someone else will appear. By far most common side-effect of walking off-leash with a dog with poor recall is that if your dog sees another dog or human, they are going to approach it. I think most of these incidents end without bloodshed. The psychological trauma of repeated incidents for both dogs is enormous though. And for vets who deal with dog bites, what percentage of those happen between unfamiliar dogs where they were out on a walk with one or more of the dogs off-leash?

So why do so many people let their dogs off, knowing that their dog is a bit of an arse with others and that their dog has zero recall when confronted with other dogs?

And why do so many good people turn to choke chains, prong collars or gentle leaders to help them out in what is, quite frankly, often a daily battle? If you ask me, the daily walk is the last bastion of punishment training, the one point in a dog’s life where we feel like punishment might work even if we feel uncomfortable punishing a dog at all.

The answer to these questions is simple: walking your dog is often harder than it should be. For many of us, we feel strongly enough that we should walk our dogs but we focus too much on control rather than communication. We haven’t got good enough communication with our dog to have a fool-proof recall or a jerk-free leashed walk, so we try and control the dog instead.

Think about it, though.

You and your dog have different goals on a walk. You want to see some nice landscape, hike across the moors, take a gentle amble to the paper shop, feel good about making your dog happy, enjoy a little time with your canine friends … your dog wants to cram as much into that brief walk as they possibly can. It’s their dog time. The rest of the day, they have to refrain from doggie behaviour. No nuisance barking. No investigative chewing. No hole digging. Is it any wonder our dogs are so excited? They are FREE! But that freedom is short-lived, and they know it. Most medium-sized adult dogs are capable of a good three or four hour walk every single day. And unless you are a jobless walking health freak, there’s no way your dog is doing that.

For this reason, it becomes a really high energy moment for many dogs. I bet you any wager you care to offer that a dog who walks eleven hours a day will not be quite as excited about the prospect of a walk as your dog who gets an hour a day.

A dog’s motivation is to smell and investigate everything they can. Your motivation is… to do enough of a walk so you feel like you’ve done your bit and get home for a drink. Especially if it’s cold, windy, wet, hot, early or late.

We have other conflicting goals. We want our dogs to enjoy the walk. We don’t want automatons walking perfectly to heel, unless we are doing dog obedience or schutzhund, or unless we work in the military. We don’t want to frogmarch our dogs down the road whilst they watch us without any interest whatsoever in the world around them. By the way, if you do want this, don’t get a setter. Or a spaniel. Or a terrier. Get a shepherd. But don’t get a super-smart shepherd like a Malinois or an Australian shepherd. Get a low-maintenance German shepherd or a rottweiler. They’re more likely to see their walk as impromptu bodyguarding. They might bark at cars and grumble at passers-by if you’ve not taught them right, but they like to walk with you. It’s their body guarding job. Getting a good heel walk out of a shepherd isn’t hard. Loose-leash with a socialised shepherd is easy. Getting one out of a hound can take the most patience you’ve ever had.

Our personal goals are incompatible. Most of us want a happy medium between dogs who use what leash they have to go and smell stuff, but dogs who don’t lunge and jerk the leash. We don’t want frogmarching, but we don’t want the dog to walk us. It can be really hard for a dog to work out that some sniffing is okay but pull-sniffing is not.

Clicker training can certainly work. Watch Dr Sophia Yin or Emily Larlham teaching young dogs to walk to heel with a treat bag and a clicker, and you’ll no doubt think it’s a miracle. Their methods are perfect for young dogs who haven’t yet learned about all the other rewarding stuff they might find on a walk if only they lead you and not the other way around.

But clicker training to get a good on-leash walk with an adult dog can be really frustrating and doesn’t always work, even with minimal distraction.

I couldn’t see why clicker training wasn’t working for my puller. My clicker-trained dog who can perform a perfect peekaboo and can jump over my back, spin and twist through my legs like a slalom skier can walk to heel perfectly like an arena show dog…

And then he catches a smell and yanks me to the other side of the road.

No amount of ham, chicken skin, turkey, beef or duck is going to bring him back to me when he has caught a smell.

The fact is that once you have a dog who has learned that there are many, many more fun things on a walk than you can ever provide, you’re going to have a battle bringing it back to non-yanky, non-pully walking. How can a piece of chicken skin compete with the smell of dead badger?

For Heston, it just didn’t.

Funnily enough, it was a video about prong collars that got me thinking. The trainer kept explaining how the prong collar was a communication tool. I disagree. It’s a control tool. Sure, it communicates, but it does so with the appalling ability to shout so loud it’s like a Sergeant Major screaming in your face. It says, “you are under my control” to the dog. The dog gets to say nothing in return. That’s not communication.

A leash is a method of communicating with our dogs. It should tell them the speed we’re walking at, and the direction. Most humans are fairly predictable. We walk rather than running, and we go forward, the way our feet are facing. Sounds dumb, I know. But this isn’t always clear communication to a dog.

Not only that, dogs don’t walk like us. Most don’t walk at all. Walking’s what you do as a dog when you’re completely worn out and someone is coaxing you, or if you’re in trouble. Dogs trot. Watch your dog’s natural gait and they trot. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they gallop. But dogs don’t walk, not often. Effel lopes along. Tilly scurries. Amigo trots. Heston rushes.

And we humans tend to walk or run at a steady pace. Go run a marathon and you’ll see all the pace setters. Run a 6-minute mile? Run with the 6-minute pacer. What we don’t do is run and stop, run and stop, run and stop, run and smell stuff, run and investigate. But that’s what dogs do on a walk. If they’re setting a pace, they trot. So walking for a dog is a thing you have to teach, a pace thing.

So there are two fundamental issues with leashes. Firstly, our dogs don’t understand what we’re communicating mainly because a leash is silent and you only know it’s “talking” when you’re at the end of it. Secondly, how a dog walks and how a person walks are two very different things. What we need to teach is not how to realise they’ve got to the end of the line, whether that’s a metre or forty metres, but how to walk.

For that reason, we have two things to do. One is use our voices more and in the right way. The second is to teach dogs about speeds.

We may also have an issue with rewards and with more distracting environments for a dog.

How do you teach when the rewards you have are not as good as the rewards a dog gets for pulling you all over the path? How do you teach when the environment itself is so filled with interesting distractions that sticking a prong collar, halti, gentle leader, choke or slip leash on a dog isn’t ‘loud’ enough communication to combat the distractions?

The first thing to do is treat the walk itself as its own reward. The behaviour of going forward is rewarding in itself to a dog. On a walk, that’s what they want to do. Or zigzagging. But generally forward. Training a dog to walk loose-leash, you can use this to your advantage where chicken and ham may fail.

A walk is its own reward. For Heston, all he wants is to be on the walk. I’ve seen him spit out treats, even high value ones. He’ll take them, but he wants to walk. It’s the same with toys. He doesn’t want to play fetch or frisbee. For this reason, the best motivator is the walk itself. Moving forward is the reward. Exploring is the reward. Smelling stuff is the reward.

For this reason, one of the easiest motivators you can use with a dog on a walk is… the walk itself. It might be why your cheese is failing and your ham-scented biscuits don’t get a second look. You can see Emily from Kikopup using smell as a reward here:

Once I’ve understood that the behaviour itself is rewarding (like barking or chewing… you don’t need to teach a dog to do these on the whole!) the next thing I need to do is think about what I want from the walk. Do I want a frog-marcher, stepping alongside me, Malinois obedience style? It’s feasible if I do. You will need to do a lot of work on place-boards and turns, but you can do it. There are about forty mini-steps within an obedience walk. Any good trainer will tell you that it takes a long time to get the dog in the right position without a food lure, being able to turn on the spot keeping their front legs still and their back legs moving. Spins and twists are okay, but you need higher level stuff, like putting a placemat under your dog’s front feet and getting them to do a 360° on that. From here, you want to teach them to contact the side of your leg with the side of their body, as well as teaching the dog to circle on all kinds of different objects, including flat ones. You need to teach about eye contact too, as well as turns…. okay, so it’s feasible if you have fifty hours to train your dog to do it and lots of time to practise.

But most of us don’t want an obedience walk. Most of us just want a leisurely stroll where our dog can have a sniff from time to time without pulling us off our feet.

I don’t want to ‘control’ my dog, but I want my dog responsive to communication and I want them not to run on the leash or jerk towards a smell. When I’ve taught my dog to maintain communication during a walk through my voice signals, I won’t need leashes that control a dog: I can throw away the halti, the gentle leader, the head halter, the prong collar, the choke, the slip. I can also use longer leashes so that the dog can interact more with the environment and get the mental stimulation they crave from a walk rather than walking with me.

What I need to teach, then, is not the perfect heel or goose-step, but the perfect speed and some voice commands. If my dog is walking, they can smell as much as they like. If they’re doing the hoover-trot, where they’re simultaneously hoovering up smells and dragging you along, then this is not working. I need to take it back to a less stimulating environment where the dog is less aroused by the smells around them. I also need to teach them a cue word when I can see they’re going too fast and they’re going to get to the end of the leash. I think this is where a lot of the training videos fall short because a scrabbling, pulling dog is often trotting or running on the leash and they aren’t at all interested in food. This is where I’m going to use going forward as the reward in itself. But I still need to practise good leash behaviours like walking on the lead instead of trotting.

One of the problems I find with trying to use traditional clicker training, rewarding a dog for walking at your side and looking at you is that it only works if your rewards are more high-value than the environment, and you can spend literally months building up a ‘strong behaviour’ based on food without ever getting to the point where your food (or even play) will be more of a reward than the environment itself and your dog’s desire (and need) to interact with it. If a dog has to walk at your side and look at you (and thus interact with you rather than the environment) to get a reward, you aren’t going to win when your dog is full of energy and when the rewards for not walking at your side or looking at you are bigger than whatever treat you have to offer. Otherwise, I’ll be happy to show you Tilly’s ‘perfect’ heel walk when she knows I’ve got a pig’s ear in my pocket. But is she interacting with the environment? Not at all.

Also, there seems to be something inherently flawed about trying to teach a dog to interact in less crazy ways with the environment by rewarding them for interacting with you.

For this reason, I’m going to use the environment first as the reward, use treats/play if my dog will accept them and teach them verbal cues to tell them that they are going too slowly, too quickly or I’m going to change direction so that they can hear it coming before it does. For most leash-walking videos I see, whether prong or clicker, there’s no verbal communication at all between the dog and the walker. We’re using the leash as communication in both methods and that seems ridiculous. The dog only knows that they are out of leash when they feel the end of it which is why I think so many dogs walk at the end of the leash. If the only way to communicate that they’ve gone too far is the fact the leash jerks, then we’re failing in our desire to communicate with the dog, which is where a verbal cue is the missing link.

In the teaching world, getting your class to stop what they are doing is a similar situation. Imagine if you will a drama class in full engagement with their work, or an exam hall where you have two hundred candidates doing a paper. How do you get them to stop? You give them verbal cues. You don’t want your students constantly keeping an eye on you for some silent signal that they’re doing the right thing, or only knowing they’ve done the right thing when a buzzer goes and they get a biscuit. Dogs are capable of understanding our tone of voice, so we should use that. It seems silly to me to see gundog or working dog trainers using all kinds of aural cues like whistles and commands, and never see that in the dog walking world.

For this reason, I’m first going to teach my dog a cue to trot: “Quick, Quick, Quick”. Read Patricia McConnell’s thoughts about the effects of sound on speed and you’ll know where I’m coming from on this. Horse trainers and sled drivers use this all the time. Sounds and words equal a change in pace. Words and tone can encourage a change in pace. In fact, I’m going to teach my dog to trot on cue to “quick quick” and to walk on cue to “sloooooowww”. I’m going to teach them “stop”, too.

I promise you that people who run with their dogs have fewer problems with leash-pulling… having seen some of our great pullers at the refuge (Manix!) going for a trot with a volunteer, he doesn’t hardly need to be taught a trot because it’s his natural gait.

You don’t need to trot far, either. Ten paces following a “Quick Quick Quick!” will do. And before you go to a walk, teach your dog “Sloooooooowwww”. And use that tone. Anyone who’s had puppies knows that a “puppy, puppy, puppy!” call will bring them all to you. A “Quick Quick Quick” command is great if your dog is spending too long on a smell… and a “slooooooow” command is good if they’re trotting.

To teach these two commands, start in a safe, distraction-free zone. An empty car park if you need it. Your garden if you can. A car park is good because there’s no clear ‘forward’ direction or back, whereas a road or a path goes only in two directions, making it more predictable that you will go backwards or forwards. I’d recommend a shortish leash at this point so that they’re within your range of communication. One metre leashes are a little short and I think they can encourage pulling to get to smells, but even a three-metre leash would be too long for many dogs. Once a dog has mastered this with a two-metre leash, I move up to longer leashes and long lines when I know they’re responsive to commands further away from me.

Start this training after a walk, when your dog is not going to go mental at the sight of a leash, leave the leash on and try it then. If your dog is full of pent-up energy, you’re going to fail from the outset. And play before a walk can run the risk of amping the dog up — although I always find that my own dogs are much calmer after ten minutes of play to get that energy burst out of their system. You can use food rewards if you like to teach these two speeds. But you’re going to cue a run by saying “Quick, quick, quick”, then go at your dog’s trotting pace for a few metres. You can click and reward if you like, or give them a verbal praise. I promise you, it does not take long to teach a dog “quick, quick, quick.” You’re ‘teaching’ them to trot at their natural pace when you say. You can also build in, “Let’s go!” to show them how to turn and move in the opposite direction. The Kikopup videos show a great “Let’s go!” command.

Just remember… verbal cue AND THEN behaviour.

Then, before you stop running, say “sloooooowww” and bring the dog back to a walk. Click and reward if you like, or praise. When you slow, you’re going to walk at your own normal pace. It’s really important to reward the dog loads at this point, because this walk is hard for a dog. Before your dog gets to the end of the leash, say “stop!” and teach them to stand without moving. Teach the verbal cue “Let’s go!” to turn around and go in the opposite direction.

You’ve got to forget walking in a straight line or in one direction until your dog has learned this, frustrating as this can be. You’ve got to forget your nice little circuit, or the need to walk a kilometre or so. If you only make ten metres progress on a loose leash in an hour, that is progress enough.  You can see how frustrating this might be for a dog, which is why some off-leash walking or play would be good beforehand. No point trying to reeducate your dog on how to walk properly when you’re just back from an hour of reinforcing pull-and-jerk.

Once you’ve mastered this in your garden, a closed field or an empty car park, move up to more distracting spaces. If you give a verbal cue then turn every time your dog lunges forward, every time they trot and jerk the leash, you will soon get to a point where you can use “Quick Quick Quick” as the cue to speed up (if they need it!) and “Slow” or “Stop!” to stop them getting to the end of the line. If they get to the end, I say “Too bad!” and turn in another direction.

I generally use the two-metre leashes with dogs who are in a distracting environment, three-metre ones and five-metre ones for areas where we might come to distractions like other dogs or people, and a twenty or fifty-metre long line when I’ve got one single dog on a leash in a non-distracting environment – for example, when all my other dogs are okay off-leash, but Heston’s still a bit whooo-hooo! and might do a disappearing act if he catches a smell. If I’m walking in town, it’s a two metre leash, maximum. If I’m walking a number of dogs, it’s usually two metre and three metre leashes. I actually have a carabiner attached to a short leash for Heston so that I can clip on different leashes at different moments without fumbling about.

Here’s a really good video from a BAT trainer about long line hand positions that really helped with Heston:

This is a great explanation and demonstration from Grisha Stewart that made a big difference for Heston.

As she says, it’s about walking in balance and in tune with each other. Her slow stop method was what got me thinking about teaching speed of walk and giving a cue before the stop. It’s a team exercise, but I need to make sure my dog understands that.

Teaching that you only move forward on a loose leash is vital. Teaching them to speed up and slow down on cue means that your dog can more easily predict what speed you want them to go at.

The five things that have helped most then are:

  1. Having the right equipment: the right leash for the right time.
  2. Teaching verbal cues for speed that tell a dog they are going too fast or too slow without them needing to look at me, remembering that a leash is one way of communicating with a dog, but my voice is better.
  3. Actively teaching on-leash walking skills when I’m not actually walking my dog and when I have no walking agenda.
  4. Using the environment as the reward and use forward motion as the reward for good leash manners remembering to be absolutely consistent about never letting my dog to go forward on a tight leash.
  5. Using long lines and Grisha Stewart’s methods of holding and handling the line to reduce pressure

You can see in the video below how Heston’s made such great progress that straight out of the car, he can walk at a loose leash. The wind’s coming in from the south carrying the scent of the wild boar from the forest a hundred metres away, so he’s a bit more distracted than usual. I also use “gentle Heston” because he knows this from a puppy, but he knows slow as well. I try to give him lots of verbal feedback about how he’s doing and he needs more at the beginning of a walk because he’s more excited. It’s a bit jerky – you’d expect that with three dogs in one hand and a camera in the other! He’s got his three metre leash on here so that he’s got some range of movement, and he does cross the road to keep an eye on the forest, though he usually walks on my right. Tilly and Effel walk to heel with no pulling, and they have great recall, which is why they’re off-leash. Amigo is partially deaf, which is why he is on-leash, and Benji is a foster, which is why he has a slip-leash and is not off leash.

Turning Heston from a dog who jerks on the leash, or trots and lunges, to a dog who gives some eye-contact during the walk and never has a tight leash has taken some time. It’s a combination of Patricia McConnell’s ideas about vocal commands, Grisha Stewart’s BAT loose-leash methods, and Emily Larlham’s clicker-training methods that has made the biggest difference for him.

Next time: how to improve your dog’s recall

Problem behaviours: over-excitement before a walk

Problem behaviours: over-excitement before a walk

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be tackling fifteen very common problems that owners have with adolescent or adult dogs… behaviours that are so super simple to avoid through good puppy training but also cause problems for owners who have adopted adult shelter dogs or who missed a bit in the puppy department. These fifteen behaviours are ones that often lead a dog to be abandoned at the shelter too. The good news is that even if your dog had all fifteen of these behaviours, they’re things that can be addressed very well. I’ve yet to find a dog who does all fifteen, but it’s not uncommon to find a lot of them in combination. They’re also all problems that people ring about in the first few days of an adoption, as well as being ones that – sadly – end in owners returning dogs to the shelter at the end of their tether. What makes me sad is that if they’d called us, we could have helped them with the problem.

The fifteen most common problems that people call about or lead to returns are: house-soiling, chewing, barking, digging, escaping, jumping up (exuberant behaviour), humping/mounting, leash pulling, no recall, poor socialisation with other dogs, biting, fighting with other dogs, fearfulness, resource guarding and problems being left home alone.

In this post, I’ll be exploring one that is very close to home… one that had me exasperated yesterday. Over-excitement before a walk and poor impulse control on the leash. Yes, you’ve got it… crazy behaviour before a walk, and not much better on it.

I’ll be splitting these up into two posts as really they are two separate problems, so I’ll to start by looking at how to bring pre-walk excitement back under control.

Let’s be clear… ALL my dogs, (that’s three of my own and two in foster care) are excited before a walk. But Heston… ah, Heston. He lives for a walk.

Circling, barking… kind of the same behaviour we see in a lot of shelter dogs at walk time.

In the interests of clarity, by the way, this used to be Heston’s default pre-walk behaviour. He’d already had a walk that morning and I usually don’t allow this level of excitement. You can hear me encouraging it for the video. Normally I don’t flap a leash at him, stand by the gate and mention the dreaded W-word with a camera on him. That said, sometimes I am incredibly busy and it’s harder to be consistent. Also, to be completely honest, he can be much, much worse than this. Yesterday morning, he was so over-excited that I spent it doing remedial pre-walk exercises. And then, when I wanted to make a video to show you all… he’s all “What?! Me? Over-excited? Never!”

But he’s not alone. All four of the other dogs here right now can also be agitated before a walk if I let them. Amigo whimpers and runs about. Tilly also cries and runs about. Effel has this weird behaviour where he comes barging in, lifts his paw and then when you put the lead on him behaves like a greyhound in the slips. He’s also a giant knob in the car. Benji barks and won’t stand still. Try putting five leashes on that lot of 200kg of excited dogs and walking out of the gate or putting them in the car.

You’ll notice that I put “if I let them” in italics way back there.

That is because this excitement is caused by me either intentionally (particularly in this video) or unintentionally. Heston does not spend all day circling and barking of his own accord. It’s me (or in this case me taking him on a walk) that has caused this behaviour. Can you imagine this 24/7?!

But because I cause this, it’s also up to me to manage it. What I cause, I can control. You can see though why a lot of people simply stop exercising their dogs or doing fun stuff with them, which can worsen other behaviours.

No, whether I like it or not, I’m the only one of us in that partnership that can also bring this lunatic back to non-crazy behaviour. I can’t expect Heston to “grow out of this” (he’s almost five!) or to stop because I’m telling him off.

Calming a dog’s pre-walk energy is up to you.

It depends on you understanding the prompts and cues you give, and taking a bit of time to address the problem. The good news is that it is a problem that is easy to solve, if a little frustrating. Don’t get me wrong: that frustration will certainly be yours, not the dog’s.

I think one of the most frustrating things about managing this behaviour is that even human beings just want to get out of the gate and have a walk! The first thing to do is put the idea of “a walk” out of the way until you’ve got this behaviour under control. Sure, that might mean your dogs only get a 5-yard ‘walk’, but a couple of weeks addressing this behaviour and I promise you that you’ll have an end to pre-walk excitement – and a dog you can communicate with right from the very first moments of your walk.

So what do we need to do?

The first is to understand the unintentional cues we give our dogs. Cues are “signals, words or other stimuli” that “reliably result in the animal performing a particular behaviour”. There’s bags of science behind this: unconditioned stimuli, conditioned stimuli, secondary reinforcers, antecedents and all kinds of trainer talk. Blah Blah sciency words. Cues can be deliberate, like asking for a sit, or they can be unintentional, like going to the fridge and being followed by a pack of dogs. When I bend down with a dustpan and brush, Heston reliably play-bows. My actions cue him to play bow. Who reading this avoids saying “walk” or “bath” because of the signals it gives to the dog? We are very adept at noticing the things we say that turn our dogs into lunatics, but not always good at noticing what we are doing.

These cues… they’re not all deliberate. Nor are they all avoidable. I may not mean to give them or even know I’m doing it. It’s only when I thought about it that I realised every time I stand up and push the chair under, Heston makes for the door. Or I may be aware that I’m doing it and be unable to avoid doing it. Like I know my keys set him off, but how can I lock the door to go for a walk without using my keys?

If you want to see cues at work, go and pick up your dog’s leash and see what happens. Stand up. Notice what your dogs do? Move towards the door. Do they look interested? That’s an action prompting a response from your dog. In the shelter, walking past the dogs with a leash is a massive prompt of excited behaviours. In the home, picking up your keys or a leash can be a cue for excited behaviours.

So why do these cues make dogs circle, bark or whine before a walk?

Because a walk is a massively fun and rewarding thing. It is the highlight of many dogs’ days. You might get this when you come home too. Benji, one of my current fosters, does these because me coming home is like hitting the jackpot and he’s excited to see me. Effel is just as excited at food time. If I say “Does Tilly want a treat?” she’s going to whine and whimper and race about like a fool.

You can get these perfectly normal doggie behaviours at any point when a dog is excited.

But when it can be cute from time to time, it’s not cute when five dogs are doing it before you go for a walk. And once one starts barking, the likelihood is that the others will all follow suit. That’s something else about canine excitement: it’s contagious. Thus I’ve got five barky, over-excited, whining, circling dogs to get through a gate and along a narrow path, past four houses with other dogs, over a main road and around ‘dog pee’ central where all my neighbours’ dogs also pee on the corner. I really, really don’t want that excitement behaviour.

How then do I stop it?

The first way to stop it is to break your cue-chain. This is a chain of classically conditioned associations. W leads to X leads to Y leads to Z.

Dogs are super-expert at reading cues and putting them together. Heston’s go like this…

Am I awake?

Yes.

Have I had breakfast?

Yes!

Did we have a nap?

Yes!!

Is it light outside?

Yes!!!

Is she standing up?

Yes!!!!

Is she putting socks on?

Yes!!!!!

Is she putting shoes on?

Yes!!!!!!

Has she opened the shutters?

Yes!!!!!!!

Has she brushed her teeth?

Yes!!!!!!!!

Has she picked up her keys?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!

Has she put on her hat?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!

Has she got her coat?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!

Has she got a leash?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Has she locked the door?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then it’s WALK TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’ve talked in previous posts about trigger stacking, but the same is true of cues we give our dog. A combination, particularly in a formula, is very predictable, like the pins falling into place on a lock. Every single one of those cues contributes to the excitement the dog feels. But when they’ve learned W leads to Z, and all the other cues before lead to Z, they’re going to get excited when the first of those pins falls into place. And that excitement is just going to grow and grow.

The fact is that Heston realises there’s quite a long chain of events that lead up to a walk. There’s a lot of predictable cues that let him know a walk is on the way. Our main job is to disrupt the sequence, desensitise the dog to various cues that are absolutely necessary and make whatever leads to the excitement much less predictable, so that the dog is calmer and you can work with them.

Ever tried calming a dog like the Heston in the video? Not so easy, is it? Couple that with frustration, a barrier… bringing a dog back down from that into a learning zone can be really a challenge.

One of the main things that we need to do is stop this level of over-arousal ever happening in the first place, so that the dog is listening and responsive.

The first thing to do is identify every cue that excites our dog. I need to make a list of every single thing I regularly do before taking my dogs for a walk. That can include things like pushing a chair under (because I have one dog who likes to get up on the table) and locking the food away (because I have another dog who likes to break into the food room and have a picnic). I make a list of every single movement I make in the half-hour leading up to a walk, including the time I regularly walk the dog. What’s tipping Heston off? I’m going to list everything.

Then, I’m going to eradicate every single cue that has become an accidental part of the chain… the non-essentials. Is it essential I walk Heston first thing? No. Could I walk him before breakfast? Yes, if it’s light enough. Do I need to open the shutters? No. Must I put on my boots right before the walk? No. So I get rid of every inadvertent accidental cue. Do I need a hat? Could I keep it in my pocket? The shorter the time that excitement has to build up, the easier it is to manage.

Identify every single behaviour or object that gets a reaction. Put all the things on a table a couple of hours or so after a walk, and pick each one up in turn then move to the door. What does the dog do? Which ones cause the most excitement? Which ones are “hot” objects that really indicate a walk? I just did this… put my hat on and moved to the door… picked my keys up and moved towards the door… picked a leash up and moved towards the door. The hat caused a marginal response. The keys caused a lot of interest. The leash, well, that was a ‘jackpot’ cue… Heston’s scrabbling at the door to get out. Pushing my chair under also has the same effect.

Once I’ve identified the problem cues that I can’t eradicate, I need to choose a programme to tackle this. I need to break the connection between these things and the consequence being a walk, and I need to be less predictable.

For the rest of the cues, well, unless I want to leave my house naked and barefoot, without a leash, without my keys, I need to find out just how stimulating each one of those things is.

Part of lowering this level of over-arousal with a stack of cues is to change the sequence. For anyone whose dog gets excited when they put a harness on, the simplest thing to do is put the harness on when you are doing something else – like they’ve just eaten – and leave it on until you take them.

Your aim is to stop the harness meaning a walk.

Once the dog comes to realise there is no longer an association between a harness and a walk, the harness going on doesn’t trigger excitement. It’s the same with a leash. One of the best things to do is have a harness that you put on when it is nowhere near walk time, and clip a leash to it at the same time. Wrap the leash around the dog so it’s not dragging on the floor but is easy to unwrap, and then you’ve removed a very significant cue from the order. Taking the fun out of a leash is vital. Put it on 50 times a day. 100. Carry it around with you all day. That leash needs to mean nothing at all. That can be hard with a dog who knows what it is, but you will notice that your dog becomes less and less excited the more you handle the leash.

Another way you can do this is to switch the normal walking tools. If you use a flat collar and leash, switch to a harness and a new type of unexciting leash. If you use a harness, switch to a flat collar and leash for a little while and let your dog wear the harness round and about the house until the harness stops meaning “Walk!”

I’m also going to do that when I have absolutely zero other cues around. Nothing on my list of cues can be anything that vaguely raises an eyelid. If I go and start messing around with leashes when I am in my coat and hat, wearing my boots, got my keys in my hand, it’s going to be too much.

I’m going to do it when he’s had a walk already.

I’m going to leave his leash on in the house for five minutes or so, and then I’m going to take it off and carry it about a bit. I’m going to sit and watch TV with it in my hand.

Then the next day, I’m going to do it a bit more.

This way, the dog has zero expectations. Who goes on a walk when they’ve just got back from a walk? No dog on the planet. Never in the field of canine walking has a walk come immediately after a walk. It is a very safe time to teach a dog that a leash is meaningless. Leave it on, take it off after five minutes, play with it. Put it away. Next day, do it a bit more. Within a week, you should have a dog who is happy for you pick up and move the leash without assuming that a walk is going to follow. Stop hanging the leash in its habitual place, too. Keep it around and about you.

When your dog is no longer as aroused by you picking up the leash, you can also use post-walk time to get the dog used to you taking off and putting the leash back on again. When’s the best time to practise putting a leash on without excitement? When you’ve just taken it off. If you use a clicker, you can reward calmness. A lot of us ask our dog to sit before we remove a leash, so keep them in a sit and immediately clip it off, then clip it back on. Do it ten times or so in the first couple of minutes after a walk and you’ll have a very different reaction from the one you get trying to do that before a walk. I’d also vary it – try taking the leash off and putting it back on five minutes after a walk. Leave longer intervals between taking it off and putting it back on. If your dog gets excited, leave it til after the next walk and do the same, just with less of a duration.

If I take him for a walk before he’s eaten, he isn’t as excited. It’s unexpected and unpredictable. If I went out barefoot, that would be too. If I didn’t have my keys or lock the door, that would be too. All of these tiny, tiny prompts add up together, and if I miss one out, it decreases his excitement because it becomes an unexpected walk and he hasn’t worked himself into a frenzy.

For many excitement behaviours, doing things out of sync can reduce them, or mixing them up. The more of those behaviours that Heston understands make it more and more inevitable that a walk will happen. If I could do them all simultaneously in one second, it would catch him off-guard, but the fact is that some of those things are ones I have to do.

I don’t walk Heston in the dark. I don’t walk him barefoot. I don’t walk him without having locked the door, and I don’t walk him without a leash. Some of these things are going to have to happen in an order. But some don’t have to happen in that order, or only happen right before a walk. For instance, like the harness or leash, I need to take the fun out of my keys, and the door being locked whilst we’re both on the “walk” side of it. I need to disconnect my boots from a walk, and my coat. Yes, I’m going to have a few days where I’m just picking up stuff and putting it back down, right after a walk. I’m going to do it at random and schedule it so that it will seem random to the dog but that I am being systematic.

At the same time, I’m really, really working on some trainable calmness. Sit. Lie Down. Settle. Look at me.

But you want to know five biggest changes that turn a crazy-eyed loon into a mild-mannered dog, reversing the Tasmanian Devil effect…

  1. The first was making sure my dog has had some exercise before the walk (avoiding making pre-walk exercise the cue for a walk!) and I’m going to do things that are mentally taxing, not physically taxing. Thirty minutes of searching for breakfast in the garden will do that. Chewing is also a great activity to get dogs to calm. Working on a bone for half an hour before a walk is no bad thing.
  2. I’m also going to make sure that my multi-dog household are not feeding off each other’s excitement. Actually, that means really messing with my schedule for a couple of weeks until the dogs are all calm and sometimes only taking one dog.
  3. Eradicating cues is a big game changer. I put my shoes on when the dogs are eating breakfast, and leave my coat to grab on the other side of the door. I don’t push my chair under or put my hat on. I leave the leash wrapped around Heston’s collar from dawn until a couple of hours after the walk. I practise putting it on and taking it off before the walk. Heston’s two biggest excitement factors are the keys and the leash, so I make them meaningless.
  4. Shaking it up with the cues you can’t eliminate also helps. Instead of moving towards the gate, I move away as if I’m going into the garden. I don’t even go five yards before he’s looking at me like, “the walk’s this way, dumbass” and he’s so bemused, he’ll sit.
  5. The fifth tip is to increase your expectations about calmness and to stop wanting to go for a walk yourself. If Heston’s barking and circling, I go back in. Barking and circling mean “too bad!” and he knows that’s a great big end to the fun.

What works, then, is a high expectation of calmness and careful exploration of your cues. Manage both, and you’ll have a calm dog waiting for a walk without going mental.

For further information, if your dog jumps up, leaps or grabs the leash, you can also check out this post which will also help you bring those excitement levels back down so that you don’t have to put up with a lunatic on a leash. In the next post, I’ll show you a video of Heston’s best ‘leaving the house’ behaviour before explaining how to stop leash-lunges and poor on-leash behaviour. Guess what? He’s my poster boy for that too!

Woof Like To Meet Dog Fails

There are times when I look back at something that has just happened with one of my dogs and think that a situation could have been completely avoided with a bit of common sense. In fact, I shouldn’t call these ‘dog fails’. I should call them ‘colossal lapses in human judgement’ – because when my dogs fail, it’s inevitably because I’ve taken my eye off the metaphorical ball. Every time I see one of those Dog Shaming posts, I want to get the tippex out and write “Owner Shaming” instead. There’s inevitably a human who took their eye off the dog there too. Unless there are a lot of people who let their dogs rifle through the bins or destroy sofas whilst they watch on. I look at those ‘dog shaming’ photos and sites, and it makes me sad. It’s not the dogs who should be ashamed, but their owners.

One of those lapses in judgement happened here last week. In fact, it was a string of Owner Fails. The first fail was four years ago, letting my collie x retriever Heston explore off-lead aged 4 months. His recall was blown because chasing deer was so much more fun. Four years on, I’m still working on recall. The second fail came at the same time. That was using an extendable lead and not teaching him that walks don’t involve pull-and-stop with constant pressure. And four years on, I’m still correcting that Owner Fail too. The follies of a new puppy owner who didn’t know what she was doing! On the day last week, there were a series of fails, all because I was distracted and a bit overwrought. I don’t take Heston out first thing in the morning because there are too many fresh smells. But I was due at the vet’s at 9am. Really, I should have kept him on the lead since we had to leave for our walk when it was still dark, but I felt guilty that I was so busy, so I let him off. I was still waiting for him 45 minutes later. Luckily, he taught himself to come back to where he left me … eventually.

Owner Fail #1-3: not teaching a reliable recall to a puppy, using an extendable lead, letting an unreliable dog off-leash in a space that’s too distracting.

Another fail happened to me at the weekend. I’d taken Heston on a long leash walk (because I’m still working at two hours a week to stop the lunges and leash craziness!) and the first quarter-mile, I could see a man with an off-leash Jack Russell and chihuahua. He was dawdling and I should have turned around and gone another way. It was too challenging an environment for Heston to handle and quickly gets him into old habits, like lunges when he sees other dogs. What did I do? Because I wanted to do my loop (I’m doing a sponsored 1000 mile walk in 2017) I followed but we inevitably got too close a number of times and it took me ages to get Heston back to a calm point again. Luckily, having had enough of him going crackers at a dog behind a fence halfway around, I avoided the third “dog” blackspot and went another way instead.

Owner Fail #4: putting my dog in a position where he has no choice but to react. 

I have had a few fails with Tilly, my American cocker. She is temperamental with toileting at the best of times. We have months where there are no accidents, but it is vigilance on my behalf rather than great toilet behaviour on hers. I’m meticulous about getting her out first thing, then after food, then around eleven, then mid-afternoon, then before dinner, then before bed. Meticulous. Except when it’s a bit damp or cold. I do exactly what she does and I feel the same. I do not want to stand outside with my eleven-year-old dog who should know better to check she’s been to the toilet because it is cold and wet. She does not want to go outside to the toilet because it is cold and wet. When she wasn’t moving at 9pm, I left her to it. When we went to bed an hour later, she got up in the middle of the night and left me a lovely puddle right by the door.

Owner Fail #5: letting toilet vigilance slide with a dog who needs you to be vigilant. 

Amigo, my collie x griffon doesn’t give me cause for many fails, but his age is giving me a couple. His hearing is going. Some days, he’s all but completely deaf. Others, he can hear a little. Because he can’t hear my other dogs (and his eyesight is not good either) sometimes he gets too close and he can’t hear their warnings. He’ll keep moving in and their warnings get more and more noisy. This means I need to leave the lights on until everyone is properly settled down, and not encourage midnight roaming. Still, one day over Christmas, I was more tired than usual and I switched all the lights off. Amigo came up to the bed for a little petting before he settled and stood on Heston. Luckily, it didn’t come to blows, but only through chance.

Owner Fail #4: not keeping my older dogs safe by sticking to a routine. 

Amigo also doesn’t like to be on the leash. He is usually great off-leash, but he can’t always hear us when we’ve moved on, and even 10 metres away, he can’t hear a car. However, he’s obviously been mistreated to get him to walk to heel, so he cowers, his ears back, his head down, the whole time on the lead. So I let him off because he looks so sad. Instead of putting his safety first, I let him off in places where it’s unlikely there will be cars or other dogs, but not impossible. It’s time to seek out new, secure walks, or to get him happier on the leash.

Owner Fail #5: not using a leash with a dog who has hearing problems. 

When Tilly arrived, we had a good few Owner Fail moments, including bin-rifling. I’d never owned a dog who would rifle through the bins before. I could leave anything out for Molly and the worst thing she would do would be collect a few of my things together and sleep on the bed with them. Tilly was fine if the things were in an enclosed bin. At first. But then there were a few times I’d come home to an upturned bin or a bin bag that had been torn apart. Once she ate some lambs’ kidneys that had been in the fridge for two weeks. How she’s only had an overdose of e-coli once, I don’t know. Anyway, I got pretty good at ensuring there was no food left out.

And then I got Heston. He did what adolescent dogs will do, and he chewed stuff. Not often, but enough. Four or five books. A toothbrush. My electric blanket. He liked blankets to chew too – that’s what can happen with a hand-reared pup. I got vigilant about picking stuff up and leaving him in the living room without anything bad to chew, and only good stuff to chew.

When Ralf arrived, he liked to break into the kitchen and take cans of dog meat, or bags of sugar, or pasta, or anything else he could find as a snack. Cue closed kitchen and stuff on high shelves. Food got locked away and the cupboard was under lock and key. Twenty months of life with Tobby after Ralf died got me sloppy about locking food up, but Effel my foster dog broke into the room one day and a habit was born. All food is now back under lock and key.

Owner Fail #6: not ensuring my dogs are left alone safe in a temptation-free zone.

Tilly is a scrounger, a scavenger, a shameless bin-dipping floozy; I daren’t tell you some of the more disgusting things she’s retrieved. Treating the cat litter tray like a hot snack buffet is the most publishable of her dirty sins. For that reason, bins are outside in what functioned as the dog pen for the previous resident of the house. If dogs can’t get out, dogs can’t get in. It still didn’t stop her sneaking up to lick out the cat litter trays or root around the bathroom for tasty non-flushable items.

Owner Fail #7: not ensuring bins are dog-proof. 

Despite all of these Owner Fails, I generally operate a safe environment, especially where foster dogs are concerned. These days, I’m much wiser.

But how many dogs are sent to the shelter or banished to outdoor pens where they have very little human interaction and virtually no stimulation at all, simply for doing what dogs do? How many dogs end up in yards because they haven’t been taught rock solid house manners? Banishing your dog for peeing on the couch is easier, is it not, than teaching a dog not to eliminate inside. Banishing your dog for counter surfing is easier than teaching them to stay out of the kitchen unless they’re with you. Leaving your dog in the yard because they eat the walls is easier than thinking they may be suffering from an illness, they may be bored in your absence or they may have separation anxiety.

Looking through the photos on a popular dog shaming site, all I can see are dogs who’ve not been taught better alternatives. Dogs who haven’t been taught where to eliminate. Dogs who haven’t been taught what to chew. Dogs who are bored when home alone. Dogs with possible separation anxiety. Dogs with poor manners around their humans or around other dogs. Dogs with too much freedom and owners who think dogs should know better than to counter surf. Dogs who don’t know how to behave around other dogs. Dogs who don’t know how to behave around children. Dogs who are unsupervised. Dogs afforded trust to be alone that they have not earned. One pair of dogs were “shamed” for chewing the cat basket when the owner was out. She says the day before they’d destroyed their own beds. If you ask me, it’s not the dogs who should be ashamed, but the owner who is not only giving her dogs far too much space and freedom when unsupervised, and not giving them the right things to occupy them, like a stuffed Kong or an interactive toy, or a marrow bone.

It makes me really sad that dogs are given so much freedom and so few rules. It’s not the dogs who should be ashamed. It’s the owners. I’d be ashamed to post a photo of my dog having eaten the Christmas tree. All it shows is what a knob I am for leaving a dog unsupervised around something dangerous, or for not teaching my dog to leave stuff alone. For all the things I do wrong with my dogs, all the owner fails, many have consequences that could end up at the vet – or worse. The dog who gets shot accidentally for having poor recall. The dog who gets run over when straying. The dog who eats rat poison and ends up at the vets.

There’s another thing too…

Chewing stuff we’re not supposed to, barking, digging, chasing stuff, peeing where you’re not supposed to, destroying stuff, playing, jumping up, counter surfing, escaping, poor recall, poor behaviour around other dogs, humans or children… they all have one thing in common.

They’re all things we need to teach our puppies not to do, or to do appropriately. They’re all things that lead to dogs being abandoned in shelters and things that lead to returns. If we want our dogs to fit into our lives and if we want them to be easily adoptable should the worst happen, we need to start when they are puppies and stop expecting them to grow out of poor behaviour. They’re all things that are simple to teach puppies, but time-consuming to teach an adult dog. Wouldn’t it be nice if our dogs grew up without us failing them quite so badly? When I talk of “Dog Fails” these days, what I mean is “the way we fail our dogs.”

It would be nice if instead of failing them, we addressed those very simple behaviour problems instead. It would be even better if we did it when they were puppies and they never learn how much fun the other stuff is.