Killing Me Softly: Why a dog’s safety should be our number one concern

Killing Me Softly: Why a dog’s safety should be our number one concern


Shelters have difficult choices to make when it comes to the animals in their care. You may have a number of volunteers who care deeply about dogs and about rescue, who want to do their absolute best by the animals. Unfortunately, although we may all say that animal welfare is our number one priority, there are certainly times when we need to step back and make a reasonable and rational decision based on good dog science. Caring for animals and understanding animals are not always things that go hand in hand.

Before I go any further, let me clarify. I don’t expect every dog lover or dog owner to be super-knowledgeable about dogs. I don’t expect every shelter volunteer to have a masters in animal ethology. Most of the time, we humans and our pets get along just fine. We’ve had thousands of years of collaborative interspecies learning. Some would argue that dogs understand us a whole lot better than we understand them. Most of the time, caring for animals and loving them with your whole heart doesn’t put animals’ lives at risk.

But for certain dogs, certain breeds even, they need us to have a higher understanding of what it means to be a dog. Caring for them isn’t enough. Couple our kind and caring hearts with a love of a breed type and you have a potential recipe for disaster, especially if that love for a type isn’t paired with much breed knowledge.

That’s most clear with dogs like Flambeau, on the right. Flambeau is a husky. I think that much is evident. And people generally know enough about huskies to know that they have certain physical needs as well as certain inbuilt behaviours. That dense undercoat makes them less suitable for life in a warm house. Imagine being stuck in a centrally-heated house in a fur coat that you simply can’t take off. How long would it take before that becomes cruelty? Huskies are one of the land animals who can use up the most calories in a day for their size – sometimes over 11,000 a day in sled racing. They have stamina and speed in their blood. Who would disagree with the fact that it is cruel not to give them the exercise for which they have been bred?

Flambeau came to the shelter having been surrendered. He’d been living down at the bottom of a garden for 4 years. Nobody would disagree that this is cruel. Dogs are social animals and whether they need sheep, people or other dogs around them, they don’t thrive on their own.

But Flambeau, as other huskies, attracts interest of many people who don’t put animals’ needs first. Living in an apartment, working full time, not being able to take him out for a good load of exercise every day… sure, it’s a home. But is it a good home? Many volunteers would celebrate the adoption without considering how suitable a home that is for Flambeau.

Dogs adapt. It’s what they do. But should they have to? And does that come without cost?

The cost of adapting to an unsuitable life can be high for a dog. Dog behaviours are likely to “pop out” as they struggle to adapt. They vocalise, howling, barking, whining. They chew. They may bite. They dig. They may suffer separation anxiety or boredom. They might sleep more or stress drink, pace or become depressed. These are often behaviours that cause an animal to be surrendered.

That’s why I’ve had four offers for homes for Effel, my foster beauceron, and four times had a conversation where I’ve had to explain about a dog’s needs. Effel has very mild separation anxiety. He enjoys human company and dog company. He also feeds off movement energy like many pastoral dogs, and has nipped. A home with children, or on his own, or left to his own devices is as cruel to me as a home where he is left at the bottom of the garden. If shelters think with their hearts, they may allow dogs like Flambeau and Effel to go to homes that are making high demands of adaptation that the dog may never be able to reach. If we think with our heads, we are often accused of overlooking good homes. I can’t count the number of outraged people I’ve seen on Facebook moaning about how they were turned down in the adoption process. Like, how very dare a shelter care enough about an animal that they might have a standard?!

Sometimes, yes, those expectations are unrealistic. I would like Effel to go to a home where he has a big, bouncy mid-aged, well-trained, playful girlfriend. He needs a secure garden and I’d prefer it was a big one. He also needs owners who don’t work, or who work from home. His attraction to movement and mouthy reactions mean it is essential they don’t have children in his future home. I appreciate that those things are unrealistic and I’ll have to compromise on his behalf. That said, I am not going to wet my pants if someone who works all day, has children, who has an old setter and no secure garden offers him a home. Maybe I’d think differently were he in the shelter rather in foster, but he has needs too and I need to be rational about those. To what extent can I expect him to curb his nature? How will doing so manifest in adjustment issues?

And do you want to know something? I am not at all sad that I’ve pissed a couple of people off by suggesting Effel is not the right dog for them. Anybody who can’t see that they are an unsuitable home for him doesn’t really care about him. Do I want him in such a home?

For other dogs, we can care so much that we ignore their needs. This is why we need to be so careful in how honest we are about the dog’s needs and in our screening process. If we don’t understand the dog’s nature and we don’t find a home that is a good match for those needs, we are putting the dog’s life in danger.

Take Hagrid. He’s the toothy GSD x Mali on the left. He’s been hard to rehome and we’re just starting to consider homes in other areas to help him find somewhere. One thing is for sure, rotting in the shelter is doing him no favours. But caring too much and not understanding his needs could very seriously put his life in jeopardy. His behaviours are such that, if they are not understood, he runs a risk of biting. Once out of the shelter, we have no way to ensure that his owners don’t decide he’s unworkable and take him to be put to sleep. 

Then we could all shake our heads and blame his former owner for not teaching him a soft bite, or try to be compassionate and say things like, “well, they couldn’t risk him biting the children!”

Much better to accept that some dogs will be just hunky dory in a home without small, flappy, unpredictable humans. That is especially true if the dog gets all big-eyed around stuff that moves. The predatory sequence is part of any dog’s genetic heritage. Some of those behaviours have been suppressed though selective breeding. Some have been accentuated. But all dogs have the capacity to do those things. Scan, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect, consume. Even your little poodle cross may find himself swimming upstream after a family of ducks, not quite sure what he’s doing there or how he got there. Like it or not, some of those natural predatory behaviours can pop out when a dog is excited or stressed, even if they have never done before. And if they are nearer to the surface and more easily apparent, then we have to be careful where these dogs find a home. A dog whose aim is to stalk and chase is going to find recall difficult. Can you imagine this dog in a home without a fence? Put them in an unfenced home on a main road with lots of traffic and you can see why this wonderful rehoming would turn out to be a death sentence. A dog like a terrier who was bred to enhance those grab-bite/kill-bite skills… if they find it hard to control those impulses when excited, do you want them around children? My old woofer Tobby was one of those. Add pain and old age to the mix and you can see why it was vital that he went to a home without children and with adults who knew what they were doing. His Malinois “chase-grab/bite-kill/bite” skills were close to the surface but very rarely popped out. By this, I mean we both did a good job of managing his life so that he didn’t have the urge or the opportunity. That couldn’t be guaranteed in a home with kids or kittens.

Back to Hagrid. Now, I’m not going to be all starry eyed about him, or put my rescue coat on and think that all dog adoptions are shiny-happy-marvellous. In fact, I’ve found myself explaining so many times to people about his behaviours that you’d think I wanted to keep him at the shelter forever. The trouble is that often, they are homes where he is going to be face-to-face with things that bring out his predatory drive, which he isn’t always successful at managing.

Because he’s not successful at managing these natural, instinctive, normal dog behaviours, it absolutely needs us to be on his behalf.

So what are those behaviours, and what security measures do we need to put into place to find him a suitable home?

I’ve done the C-BARQ and Monash Personality Questionnaire for him. It looks like this:


The grey is an average of all dogs who have a profile on the C-BARQ assessment. That’s interesting in itself. You can see that “non-social fear” is fairly high, as is chasing. There are things wrong with owner-reported surveys, of course, but the C-BARQ has high reliability.

What does this tell us?

Hagrid is an energetic, excitable and touch-sensitive guy. He has issues with movement and a desire to chase moving things. He’s also not a dog who tolerates other dogs in his space. Nothing that’s news to me. He can be left alone, which might give him the makings of a guard dog, but he is not aggressive towards humans and he is not afraid of humans, which makes him a rather crappy guard dog. I mean, what use is a guard dog who doesn’t scare people off?

The kind heart in me is saddened by how long this magnificent dog has spent waiting. I’m desperate for him to move out of the shelter. I love him. I’d have him in a shot if I didn’t have other males. If you ask me, he is one of the smartest, keenest dogs in the shelter.

That said, I think it’s absolutely vital that he go to a home where he is understood and where his needs are met. For HIS own safety, he needs an environment with little chase potential and no opportunity at all for him to get out. He needs a home where he never comes in direct contact with children and where his owners are both kind and experienced in channelling a dog’s energy.

If his safety is not met, it could likely put his life in jeopardy. One bite may be all it takes for him to realise that screams and flapping arms from children is the most fun he’s ever had. Whether he hurts a child (or an adult) or not, a home that does not pay attention to his safety is a potential minefield. A ticking time bomb. Safety means freedom from the risk of injury. That goes two ways. It’s not just safety for the people who keep him, but Hagrid’s own safety too. Few vets will have an issue with euthanising a dog who has bitten. Making his environment risk-free (as much as possible) is how we keep him safe.

Let’s be clear. Biting is only an issue in that it may cause injury to other animals or to people. Biting is not an issue for a dog. It’s a natural canine behaviour. They experience the world with their noses and with their mouths much more than we do. There is no need to put a dog to sleep because of it. There is a very great need to secure their environment. There is also a need to stop thinking with our hearts and to be sensible about canine behaviour. Not every dog can or should fit into every home. It makes no sense to me that people would accept huskies need to live in homes where they have space and exercise, but then think that there is something horribly wrong with suggesting herding dogs or terriers may not find living in a home with children to be an environment that is safe for them. Accusations fly in some circles if you so much as suggest a Jack Russell terrier or a collie may not be the perfect dog for young children, that a bull terrier or a Malinois may find it impossible to constantly be on their best behaviour around things that move.

We expect so very much of dogs that we forget how much we are asking them to control their own impulses with those tiny neo-cortexes they possess. When humans lose control on Facebook so easily where animals are concerned, and insults fly fast and free, it amazes me that we write off our own impulse control yet expect so much of dogs.

For this reason, we need to care for dogs by understanding them.

Only in putting their needs first can we ensure that they are in a home that is right for them. We also need to stop romanticising dogs and rescue work. Some dogs, like Hagrid, have complex needs that cannot be easily met. It doesn’t mean we should stop looking, but it doesn’t mean a home at all costs. Cooing over dogs and their plight, or taking risks through lack of assessment and understanding puts dogs’ lives in the balance. Loving dogs means we do need to consider the world from their perspective and accept that there are times that we ask too much of them. Coming to terms with a dog’s limitations and inability to adapt perfectly to human expectations is essential. Only then can we truly say we care for them.

So when I say a dog’s safety should be our number one concern, I’m not referring here to keeping them from chocolate and grapes, or having doors that lock or harnesses in the car. I’m referring to the fact that we must consider our dog’s needs first and ensure the world around them suits them as well as possible. Only by truly understanding dogs and adapting the world in which they live can we truly say they are safe.

The Woof Like To Meet Guide to Successful Marketing of Shelter Animals

The Woof Like To Meet Guide to Successful Marketing of Shelter Animals


Whether we like it or not, social media is a gift to shelters across the world, and it’s up to us to market our animals in a way that not only gets attention and shares, but is also marketing them in an ethical and honest way. Whilst many shelters are really faced with “euth” lists, ethical and honest ones won’t play on your sympathies to find a dog a home. Not even if they are a kill shelter.

There’s an amazing New York Rescue that I follow on Facebook. I have no doubt at all that they have some real issues to face, but they never, ever use emotional manipulation to get an adoption. Yes, they have dogs on “Kill Lists” and they will say that they are dogs with an expiration date which is why they need a foster home or an adoption, but they never, ever post photos of dogs behind bars or dogs on concrete.

I am so totally with them on that.

Sure, you can be honest and say what the situation is. Just because you are faced with a problem doesn’t mean you can’t admit what is likely to happen and say why a dog is urgent.

But no, you should not take advantage of people’s good natures by playing on that situation alone. The consequence is that many good people are taken advantage of and go on to adopt dogs that are unwell, unhealthy or unsuited to the home in which they are placed. I see these all the time from certain European shelters and it makes my heart hurt.

“This dog WILL BE EATEN by the other dogs at the shelter if YOU don’t save her…”

“This dog will be KILLED in this shelter if you don’t give us money…”

“This dog needs emergency adoption or SHE WILL DIE!!!!!!”


You know these appeals. They have LOTS OF CAPITALS AND !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They also have Facebook pages with thousands of followers, who all share their posts religiously. Sadly, these adverts rely on making you feel bad rather than relying on finding the best home for a dog. Any home will do.

The adverts are usually grainy, grey photos with sad looking dogs lying on concrete floors with bars behind them, or broken up wooden kennels. You don’t have to look far to find these photos. This is one of my own, by the way. I don’t take many shots like this and I never, ever stick emotive words on the photos because – well, we have different (and very successful) marketing strategies. It would be completely unethical, and it would be a complete lie.

In fact, when making up this photo, I realised that I have only a handful of photos with bars out of the thirty thousand I have taken in the last two years. Really, it was hot, he was sleeping – he was totally chilled out. I took the photo because it was the end of the day and I was seeing how far I could walk down our main block without setting the dogs off barking. But I can quite easily stick a manipulative message on there and pull on your heart-strings until I’ve got a thousand shares.

Good shelters don’t need to share photos like this, even if they face impossible circumstances.

Despite the vast problems we face, the most successful marketing is ethical through and through. For instance, we too have a number of dogs who have never lived in a home. These are hunt dogs that are hard to place in homes. Some of our dogs are incredibly fearful and need very particular homes. It’s not to say they can’t live in a home, or they wouldn’t like to, but I am not ever going to allow them to go to a foreign country to live with an unknown family in an environment that could be incredibly stressful for the dog. That is not to say I wouldn’t allow them to go to a family with whom I’ve had lots of long and serious conversations, but I won’t just package them up, bundle them over the channel and wipe my hands of the whole thing.

Yes, good shelters want homes for their dogs just as much as those who use less ethical marketing strategies.

No, I’m not ever going to lie or manipulate people via photos and appeals just to do it.

That’s why you will never see me share a photo of a dog behind bars. I’m not going to take photos of dogs in places that look like war zones. In fact, I’ll crop out anything that looks remotely scruffy, sad or heart-breaking and deliberately use background blur to avoid showing you bars or concrete floors.

The fact is that some bits of our shelter were pretty unkempt. They are all tarted up and beautiful now, thanks to a great bit of DIYing. But I was never going to take photos that deliberately captured that and then say “well, it’s important people know what it’s like.”

I’m pretty sure most people can imagine what a shelter is like. And you probably imagine many of them as being worse than they are.

Our shelter, for instance, is just like a very, very big boarding kennel. Less shiny, less well-lit and less warm maybe, but then our “guests” aren’t paying 10€ a night to be here. But it’s not any better or any worse than some private kennels I’ve seen where people happily pay to keep their dogs.

If I wanted, I could easily present dogs in a grubby, cold environment and tug on your heartstrings.

But that does both you and the dog a disservice.

So you will get a lot of this instead:


Because the day this little lady can’t look at you and melt your heart is really the day I need to show her on concrete behind bars in the rain.

Yes, there are urgent appeals. There are always urgent appeals. There are dogs who can’t cope in shelters and who need an immediate home. But an honest and ethical shelter will save the heart-rending photos for when it’s really needed.

And do you know what? It’s not dogs like the one above who need me to take sad photos. In fact, it’s the dogs who’ve been in for ages who need them. And they are the kind of dogs who, to be honest, even concrete and euthanasia notices aren’t going to help on appeals very much.


See… Junior is a prime example. He’s just not as cute. No big eyes, despite his happy face, his lovely lolling tongue and doggie smile. He doesn’t look sad or confused. But he looks like a nice dog. A nice, happy dog who is confident and sociable. I really want Junior to find a home, but taking a sad-looking photo of him behind bars isn’t the way to help him find one. In reality, he is just not that kind of a dog. I won’t say that he’s desperate or going to be put to sleep just because he needs a home. He needs the right home, and he depends on our adverts to give him the very best chance of finding one.

So how can you put together an ethical, honest advert that finds homes for your dogs without relying on heart-breaking photographs or emotive text?

The first thing to accept is that there are dogs whose feet aren’t going to touch the floor. You don’t need to market them. They could have the ugliest personalities on the planet but they are going to walk out of the place. If my dog Tilly was at the shelter, she’d be adopted in hours. I don’t need to promote her. To do so would be a waste of my time. Little, cute, blonde, female, pedigree… she’d be gone before the ink was dry on her microchip form. She is a hoardy, guardy, antisocial madam with severe health issues but she needs no help in finding a home. Market if you like, but accept that you will spend hours fending off callers who are pissed off because the dog has already gone.

The second thing to know is that a good photo will definitely draw the eye. But all your photoshop talent is wasted if you don’t have a good write-up. And yes, cute dogs will go first whether they look happy or sad. It’s important to accept that you will have categories of dogs who move more easily than others. That can be based on gender, age, appearance or breed, colour, size or personality. Know where you need to invest your time and don’t worry that the reason you haven’t rehomed a dog is because it doesn’t look cute enough or sad enough.

For us, small, young females under 10kg are going to walk out of the shelter. Our big, middle aged houndy dudes over 25kg are going to be sticking around. If you add in other factors like introverted or nervous natures, a dislike of other males, fixations on cats or rough behaviour around children and you’re talking about factors that will severely hamper a dog’s adoption chances. Not impossible, but harder.

A photo is just a mug-shot, and you can have the best photographers in the world taking pictures of your dog, but if your dog has certain requirements, these are the things you need to be honest about. It is simply no good not to be honest. If you’re honest, you narrow down your target market, but at the same time, you pinpoint the people who tick all the boxes you need them to tick. One happy-looking photo is all you need. People can imagine that happy-looking dog being happy at their house.

The write-up is crucial. Absolutely crucial.

First, you have all the necessaries: male or female, age, size, breed, colour.

For my foster dog Effel, that goes like this: seven-year-old castrated male black-and-tan beauceron. 

Then you have all the big factors to help the dog find the right home: whether it gets on with other dogs, and if not, which dogs it does get on with. A good write-up won’t say “dominant” or “submissive” because good dog people know that hierarchies are flexible. They might say “has rough manners at first” or “can be a bit of a bully”, or “doesn’t like dogs who are over-excited at the beginning”. They’ll also say whether they get on with cats maybe. A good advert will also say if the dog would be happy on its own or needs to go to a family who have dogs. Shelters can see this. This afternoon, one dog spent the whole afternoon crying because she didn’t have a friend. Another dog snapped at every single other dog that went past. It’s not a leap to say that a “home on his own would be preferable” or “needs other doggie friends”.

I can then add to Effel’s profile like this: okay with males and female dogs although he would appreciate the companionship of a similar-sized playful female. Great at greetings but needs a home where owners will ensure he doesn’t get over-excited as he gets to know your other dog(s). Effel would hate to be a lonely dog, so a doggie friend is a must. 

Sure, there’s a bit of spin. I have put a positive light on the fact he is too rough with smaller dogs or older dogs. Nobody wants a rough dog. Lots of people might want a playful dog to go with their existing playful dog. I’m also not going to say that he has mild separation anxiety which is why he needs a companion. That is something I can explain to people if they’re interested, since it is not so horrible as to be unmanageable, but it would frighten some owners off unnecessarily. I don’t need to say “he’s rough, can’t live with other small animals and he’s got hyper-attachment issues”. Firstly, I don’t know if those things are always true, generally true or only true in my circumstance. Secondly, they’re all things most dogs can live with and I’ve hundreds of videos of him with a variety of other dogs where he isn’t rough and he cried as much when his friends left at an event last week as he has ever cried for me. In fact, that’s a cute and sweet thing to know. I can add that. In my opinion, a home for Effel without dog friends would be a miserable one for him, and I want to tick that box for potential adopters.

Effel is so sad when his friends leave that he sometimes has a little cry. Life is miserable for Effel without friends. 

If you’re a potential adopter without other dogs, you’d hopefully skip on by to the next candidate. And if you have other playful dogs, maybe you’re reading on.

I can also add a bit about size, health and other physical and medical details. That’s important too. Honesty counts, especially where medical health is concerned. If it’s not relevant, I leave it out. He has a small scar on his eye from years back. Does it affect him? No. Does it need treatment? No. Will it need treatment? No. Do I need to disclose it? No.

He is a big dog, at 70 cm and 50kg, so if you want a chihuahua to slip in your handbag, you’d better have a giant-sized handbag. Effel likes to stretch out and enjoys space. 

If possible, dogs should be tested around children at the shelter, and a statement made about this. It’s not a crime to say a dog needs a home without small humans, especially if that protects both the humans and the dog. Take my foster. He’s met children and he seems fine with them. But…. but he herds the lawnmower and sometimes he tries to herd me. He’s nipped me three times, and I’m sedate at the best of times. Add a flappy child who runs like a maniac and I can’t guarantee he won’t find that super-stimulating. To be safe, I’m going to say “no small children”. Sure, it’s sad and it maybe rules out potential homes, but if I have small children and I am intent on the dog anyway, at least I know what the issue is and I can consider how to work around it. What I know I can prepare for.

You also need to say things about energy levels. People don’t care much about education, and most will be okay with a dog who doesn’t know ‘sit’, but you do need to say if the dog is energetic or highly agile. They also need to know if the dog will need a lot of education, or if the dog tries to escape.

Effel is a good boy in the house, and he never goes off on his own to find himself a pastime, like dismantling your slippers. But he doesn’t have basic commands. Effel won’t be winning obedience medals any time soon. That said, he walks well on the lead. He will need a secure garden at first because his recall isn’t fantastic off-lead. He’s having far too much fun bounding about. Boy, does this dog like to bound. You thought bounding was something that Tiggers did? Bounding is his favourite thing. He doesn’t bound near people and he never jumps on you, but he loves to stretch his legs and he loves to run. For that reason, a home with a large secure garden would be just perfect.

You can see that you don’t need to be harsh about it, but you do need to say what kind of home would suit him. 

I always like to add if the dog likes to play, if they seem like they would enjoy obedience or agility classes, cani-cross or swimming. We just rehomed a husky named Guapo who just loves the water. Paddling is about his favourite thing to do. Why wouldn’t I share that?

After this, I use basic statements about whether they are an introverted or extroverted dog. That’s easy to do. Do they move towards new things or away? Are they social? Do they come for affection? Are they demanding for affection?

For my super-tough-to-rehome dogs, I will also use the University of Pennsylvania’s C-BARQ questionnaire. That told me very little I couldn’t work out, but for Effel, it allowed me to say that he has mild attachment issues and needs an eye on his behaviour around dogs that he is becoming more familiar with. For my old mate Hagrid at the shelter, it allowed me to say that he probably needs a home on his own away from other dogs. Nothing that 14 months of shelter living won’t tell you.

And I also use the Monash Canine Personality Questionnaire to help me describe the dog’s temperament. It’s always a tough call to describe a dog’s personality, but knowing that dog feelings pass quickly and that what you have from day to day is more likely to be a reliable guide to personality, this can help you. I’m not going to say things I can’t say for sure, so if I think I’m just embellishing, I leave it out. This questionnaire rates the “Big Five” personality types, from extraversion, motivation, training focus, amicability and training focus. With adjectives like friendliness, nervousness, attentiveness, independence, intelligence and fearfulness, it helps draw up a more complete profile of dogs for me to share with their photos. It also helps me make decisions about the kind of home the dog will need. A nervous dog will not fare well in a home with many family members and lots of comings and goings. Similarly, an intelligent and independent dog is going to make her own entertainment if she goes to a home on her own with owners who work eleven hours a day.

Although Effel will need a home where owners are more often present than they are not, he is happy to accompany you wherever you go. Sure, he doesn’t look like your typical pavement café kind of dog, but he wants nothing more than to be by your side. He is attentive, intelligent and alert. To leave a dog like this to his own devices for hours on end will not make him happy, as being with you is what makes him happy. Effel is reserved at first but forms quick bonds with both humans and other dogs. 

And that’s how the MCPQ-R helps me write adoption profiles.

Some people, by the way, are worried about the effect of shelters on personality and canine reactions, whether these descriptions are true. Both the C-BARQ and the MCPQ-R have been tested in different situations and are reliable tools. Early research shows that most dogs adapt quite quickly to shelter life: what you see here isn’t going to be massively different than in the home on the whole. The exception are nervous or shy dogs who may build up confidence. Some shepherd breeds also seem to find kennel living stressful. That is also true of some uncastrated males who may find all the scents to be totally overwhelming. These dogs are the exception though, rather than the rule. You will of course notice differences in energy levels, but it is rare for a high-energy shelter dog to become a low-energy house dog, or the other way around.

So that’s it…. the way to write adoption profiles that are individual, interesting, honest and ethical! You don’t need to rely on WILL BE EUTHANISED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! or BEING ATTACKED BY OTHER DOGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Neither do you need bleak and depressing photographs. When it comes to adoption, we should be encouraging people to think with their rational side, their heads, not their hearts. This way, there are fewer returns and fewer people who have trouble with the dog that they have.

I truly believe there are homes for every dog. It is this belief that has driven the adoption of many of our “unadoptable” dogs and placed them in homes where they have gone on to be rehomed without comeback calls. In fact, one of our “tough to rehome” guys had gone on adoption and I’d not heard anything for 48 hours. When she called on the Sunday, I was convinced it was going to be a return. No. After five years of shelter life, over three-quarters of his life on concrete, he had settled in without a single hiccup. Sure, he was a great dog, but in any other home, he could have been a real problem.

Finding the right home depends on how accurately shelters market their dogs. Pepper that with a bit of humour, a bit of fun, a lot of the dog’s character and a few photos that show the dog’s nature, and you have a winning combination that takes the pressure of you for lengthy pre-adoption screening and also provides you with a template for the questions you ask at adoption interviews.

And there you have it: the winning formulas for finding your dogs their home for life.

Secret Confessions of Shelter Workers

Secret Confessions of Shelter Workers


Most of the time, we shelter folk have to exercise a higher level of restraint than the general public. Most of the time, we manage. We manage to grit our teeth and not let the emotions spill out when someone says they’re surrendering their dog because it snapped at their child. Perfectly reasonable. Until you hear the circumstances. The child was pulling the dog’s ears to get the dog out of its bed.

All you can do is nod politely when in your head you are looking at the dog thinking, “You amazing creature. You could have bitten the child and you – you! – showed restraint! I’m so sorry that it ended like this for you, but I promise to do my best to find you a family where nobody will pull your ears and where there are people who understand animals.”

That’s hard for most people to get their head around.

How could life in a cold shelter be better than life in a home?

Until I tell you that many of the animals surrendered to us have lived with mindless, thoughtless, brainless excuses for humans who have some mysterious misunderstanding of the fact that the dog in their home is a domesticated wolf, complete with a domesticated wolf’s set of specialist killing tools… teeth and claws. Yes, even your shi tzu. Respect for that has usually been sadly lacking.

Add to that all the people who really don’t seem to have been expecting a dog to do, you know, dog stuff. Digging, barking, whining, crying, wanting to be with people, killing kittens, wanting to run, licking their arseholes, eating from dustbins, digging up guinea pig corpses… all par for the course for your usual dog.

That aside, other than momentary explosions behind closed doors, we manage to restrain ourselves pretty well.

You might overhear us having conversations that go like this…

“Well, I wanted to tell him that he should tell his kids the facts of life… Daddy was too stupid to keep the guinea pig away from the dog… the dog killed the guinea pig… now Daddy’s taking the dog to the vet to be killed.”

“That couple that surrendered the labrador on Tuesday? Have you got their address? I need to add them to the black list because they’re now looking for a German Shepherd.”

“That dog that just came into the pound? Was it identified? That’s the dog that came from that farm I was at in June to investigate. Under no circumstances give that dog back to the guy without sterilising it… if he bothers to claim it.”

“Please can you add her to the black list? She’s just picked up two dogs from another shelter, including the five she already has and I’m worried about a hoarding situation.”

And that’s just in our shelter hours!

Some of us come home only have to rein in our tongues on Facebook as well.

With the lady advertising the four-year-old poodle of an 87-year-old neighbour…

With the woman who wants a “cheap” miniature pinscher (or a giveaway if possible)…

With the woman giving away a Malinois puppy…

With the people asking for 50€ for unchipped, unvaccinated labrador-mix puppies…

With the woman who wants a cheap or free French bulldog…

With the woman who says she can’t possibly consider a six-year-old dog, because that dog might die…

With the woman giving away free, unidentified, unvaccinated kittens…

With the person looking for a free puppy…

With the person who says they want a cheap or free puppy because they don’t have loads of money…

With the person who’s lost their six-month old unidentified puppy…

With the person who is pissed off that they have to pay to identify their puppy…

With the person who paid 50€ to identify a kitten and then the kitten disappeared, so they think they wasted 50€…

With the woman who always has four or five kittens to give away each year, but “they’re not her cats”…

With the woman asking for 700€ for her French bulldog puppies… who don’t have pedigree papers…

With the people who never go to shelters but happily post ‘Adopt, don’t Shop’ stickers on everything…

You just have no idea what is going on in their tiny, tiny brains.

Our work at the shelter is quadrupled because of people who have not identified their animals. In 2014, 22 cats were returned to their owners out of the hundreds that passed through our doors. Sure, you may very well lose an identified animal. It may be stolen. It might be expensive. Your dog might never go anywhere without  you. But if you don’t identify your cat or dog, be prepared for the fine you’ll get when we pick it up. That’ll be the price of the chip AND vaccines AND a fine for letting the animal stray. And we might also charge you kennel rates too. That’s going to work out a lot more expensive than the amount it cost to identify your animals.

Poverty does limit animal ownership, no doubt about it. If it didn’t, I’d happily keep Effel my foster dog for ever and ever and ever. I’d have kept Mimire and Vanille and Fripouille instead of finding homes for them. I’d have adopted Hagrid and put him in a big pen in the garden that was all to himself. I’d have my full quotient of nine dogs. I’d have whipped Amon and Aster out of the refuge and given them a home. Four is my hard limit, and when Tobby goes, I’ll probably stick to three for a time. Between specialist foods, dental hygiene, bedding, leads, blankets, medicines, vaccinations and regular check-ups, pets are expensive. If you can’t afford a cat or dog, get a gerbil. I had a gerbil. He was great. He was also cheaper to look after. But don’t go on Facebook and ask for a cheap puppy if you don’t have the means to look after it. You certainly won’t have the means to sterilise it. Don’t ask me to get out my violins because you’ve not got the money to own a dog. Most of us would have more animals if we had the means. Yes, being too poor means you shouldn’t own a dog. There, I said it.

Age should also limit animal ownership as well. Who on earth sells a puppy to a senior? Someone actually said that they couldn’t bear it if the animal died before they did the other day. There is something disgustingly selfish about people taking on young animals knowing that they will outlive the animal, that no provision has been made for it after the owner dies and that whoever clears up the estate will become responsible for taking the animal to the shelter. I am always gentle when I say “Do you think this dog is right for you? He’s very young and very strong.” but inside I am furious. What life is it to offer to a young dog? Even poodles need exercise. Really, what I am saying in my head is “selfish selfish selfish selfish selfish” … and that’s just the nice stuff I am saying inside my head. Yes, being too old means you shouldn’t buy a puppy. Glad to get that off my chest.

Your means and lifestyle should also influence your animal ownership too. If you don’t have time, don’t get a dog. Get a cat maybe. Many cats can tolerate a more independent life. Or get a fish. Unless you are dedicated to walking the dog before and after work, and sometimes in lunch-times too, don’t get a dog. Don’t assume that a garden is sufficient exercise for a dog. It’s not. If you want to get a dog and keep it in a room whilst you work, or keep it in a garden pen whilst you go about your daily business, don’t get a dog. Dogs are social creatures and they suffer when we deprive them of companionship. Yes, you are a knob if you expect a husky to be happy with a tiny back yard.

Don’t get me started on the people who feed “feral” cats. First, if they’ll approach you, they’re not feral. They’re people cats. If you feed it, that cat is now your cat. I don’t care if the law makes it your cat after one meal or fifty. Feed it once and you’re encouraging it. Feed it twice and you’re creating a habit. Feed it three times and the cat has certain expectations. If you are feeding it, it’s your job to also ensure its other physical needs are met, including sterilisation. Please don’t give me the “it was starving” line. Unless the cat is too weak to move, it’s not starving. Feed if you like. Trap and take it to the vet if you like. But above all, know that the food you give it has strong implications and that nobody in rescue will pat you on the back and say “Wow! Well done!”. If you feed stray cats and you want gratitude, you’re miaowing to the wrong person. What you are doing, and let’s not mince words about this, is creating and encouraging the baby steps of a giant ownerless kitten community who, given two or three years, will be plagued with diseases and illnesses from interbreeding. Unless you want to end by feeding twenty ill and yucky cats, don’t start feeding one. If you have genuinely found a cat you think is lost, please please call us BEFORE you feed it. Yes, lady, I really do think you wanted to have a pet, not pay for it and wash your hands of any responsibility when the inevitable happens. Don’t tell me you do it for kindness.

And puppies… oh, puppies. First, there’s a law to stop you selling your puppies. No good telling me that the 50€ from each of the puppies will be used to castrate dad. A castration is around 110€ for a big dog. That’s the profit from a couple of puppies. Shelter workers are not stupid. We can do adding up. Or you’ve got another litter due by the end of the year? You’re not a person who has accidents with your dog, you are a feckless breeder who has netted almost 1000€ without paying out. Selling a non-pedigree puppy for 600€? That dog is a mutt. A mutt! Look at the other people selling mutts. They sell for 50€. They shouldn’t, because it’s illegal, but they try. That is the going price for a mutt. A puppy without papers is not an Amstaff or a bulldog, it is a mutt. A mutt who looks like a bulldog or an Amstaff, but a mutt nonetheless. Yes, you are far too money-grubbing to be involved in dog breeding.

And the people who say “Adopt, don’t shop!”. Not every breeder is a back-yard breeder. If nobody took cautions with dogs, there would be more dogs abandoned at the shelter. The simple fact is that indiscriminate breeding leads to Marleys who eat plasterboard, have excessive energy or unmanageable character flaws. Do you think shelter pups are the best option? Sure. I like the idea that pedigrees should be done away with, but the pups that result from accidents, where dad isn’t known… they’re the pups that turn into mastiff crosses rather than boxers, who take “bounce” to the next level. Don’t even get me started on the science of stress for in-utero pups, for inherited fear or aggression, the science behind orphaned puppies and the risk of becoming a reactive, fearful dog as a result. The refuge is not bursting full of pedigree dogs with paperwork who are identified and vaccinated on arrival. That tells you all you need to know about the correlation between breeding and rescue. There isn’t a correlation. The dogs who stay a long time at the refuge are not ones born with papers. They are crazy, unregistered offspring of random dogs, sold for 50€ to people who didn’t bother to get them chipped or vaccinated. If you want to see what orphaned puppies without parents turn out like, I want you to meet my dog Heston. He is super-smart. Just so you know, my whole day is arranged so that he gets the stimulation he needs. The world doesn’t need a thousand Hestons. So what do I really think? I think you should stop being a Facebook warrior and get yourself involved in rescue. Properly. You should understand personality traits that are inherited and how stress affects canine foetuses, the difficulties of raising a dog whose very DNA demands something different. You should understand the uphill battle it can be to adopt a puppy whose parents are not known. Hestons are not for the faint-hearted or the weak of spirit. Be smart. Or be quiet. The last thing we need is to close the dialogue between breeders and rescue.

Rescue dogs are not for everyone. Dogs are not for everyone. Dogs are not really even for most people. You are not entitled to own a dog. It’s not some right you have. If you do own a dog, you owe it to that animal to look after it, to consider life from its perspective, to be respectful of its physical and emotional needs. That’s not to say there aren’t tragic or sad circumstances where people are forced to surrender a dog that they can’t handle through no fault of their own. There will always be dogs who need owners with a skill level that surpasses our own or who need a home which we can’t offer.

That said, if you live in an apartment and you want a husky, if you live in town and you want a pointer, if you work long hours and you want a shepherd, you are buying into a breed who have basic needs that you are never likely to be able to give it. No wonder so many shelter workers end up all…




Luckily, there are plenty of people to keep us from going completely insane, from the foster families who take on a mum and her puppies to the people who come and adopt an ancient German shepherd even though they’d only lost theirs a few weeks ago, or volunteers who bring a packet of biscuits with them as well as a smile.


Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool

Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool


A couple of weeks ago, I was at an adoption drive with a few of my kittens. There were a good number of dogs there from local rescues, who were by and large really well behaved given that some had come straight to the event from the pound or rescue facility.

At one point, a guy and his family came in with a beautiful Australian shepherd. Nothing wrong with that. The first thing I noticed was that the dog was wearing a halti. Nothing wrong with that, either, if you want to control rather than eliminate a behaviour. The second thing I noticed was a prong collar.

Yes, a halti and a prong collar. No prizes for guessing that the guy is finding the dog hard to walk.

No prizes either for guessing that neither the prong nor the halti are working. Definitely not on their own, and probably not in combination.

And it’s not hard to realise why.

The dog is severely stressed because he’s come into a place and guess what… right in front of him there are five dogs, two kittens in a cage, at least ten people, all the usual garden centre weirdnesses and smells. There are birds and hamsters, rabbits and fish. You can imagine it, I’m sure.

An environment like this can be either extremely exciting or extremely frightening for a dog. If I brought my super-reactive Heston in here, every single thing would be setting him off. Dogs first. He’d be yanking on the lead to get to them, pulling and making lunges towards them because he really, really, really wants to say hi. Like really. And if I brought my spaniel in here, she’d be barking her head off about stranger dangers. Amigo would be hiding behind my skirt and Tobby would be trying to lick everything that moved. Dogs, like all animals, are either attracted to novelty, or they’re not. For dogs like Heston and Tobby, they love new stuff. Neophilia means that your dog will be interested and curious about new animals or experiences and want to investigate. For dogs like Tilly and Amigo, they are neophobic, and find new experiences, things, people or animals to be overwhelming. Dogs who aren’t bothered either way… I never saw one of those. Even my mattress-back uber-zen Ralf would pull me on my arse through a field full of cows to go see a dog he’d never seen before.

Some dogs are going to be pulling to get nearer, and some dogs are going to be pulling to get away. Either way, they’re less likely to obey your commands whenever you introduce novelty into their lives.

It’s not rocket science to know that I’m not going to take my dogs into a garden centre like this during an adoption event unless I want to see them at their very worst. If I got there and it was a surprise to me, I’d have backed right off and put the dog in the car if I needed to go into the shop to buy something. Avoiding problems is perfectly okay. Our dogs don’t have to be equipped to go into garden centres and meet five strange dogs and twenty strange people at an adoption event. That’s not a usual, daily event for most dogs.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my dogs to socialise and to become habituated to novelty. I like that very much. I like them to go into populated or new areas. I regularly set up situations where my dogs go into town and see all kinds of strange things. I take Heston to the shelter when I drop the van off specifically because he likes meeting other dogs off lead and the dogs who live free at the heart of the shelter are all great dogs for him to do that with. But those are situations I set up as training events to make sure they are prepared for times when they meet other people and dogs, since we don’t meet other people and dogs often on a walk. We don’t walk in urban areas. I don’t ever plan to either. But I never know if I need to go to town with my dogs, or if I’d need to move house at any point to a more urban area, so it’s my duty to ensure that my dogs are not lacking in the ability to cope with novelty, or environments where there is a lot of novelty.

You can read a lot more about this here on Dr Jen’s Dog Blog about why avoiding a problem can work.

As she says, “you have to pick your battles”.

And this guy with the Australian shepherd had clearly picked a battle that he was losing.

I’ll describe what happened next.

He forced his dog to be restrained in approach, getting nearer and nearer to all the adoption dogs. His level of yanking and correction increased to one every ten seconds over a ten-metre approach. Then he stood with his dog, forbidding it to approach the other dogs, holding the dog’s muzzle and preventing it from growling. Finally, the dog gave in, rolled on its back and just lay there.

I’m sure some people would think that looks cute.

That, though, is a dog who is completely broken and has given up. Not cute if you ask me.

And what has the dog learnt?

That when they see other dogs, you hurt him. The more you see other dogs, the more you hurt him. You cut off his oxygen so he can’t think straight. You add a little pain which also increases adrenaline (just ask anyone who loves a little spanking in the bedroom!). In fact, cutting off oxygen, increasing adrenaline and adding pain are three things that people do with other people to ENHANCE excitement in the bedroom!! Yet they are things we do to dogs when they are excited.

Why do we think that they would work to decrease a dog’s stimulation?

In fact, they’re also what we do to other human beings in another setting too. When we cut off the oxygen of another human being, when we hurt them, when we cause them pain to get them to do what we want… it’s called torture. Sometimes it works. Often, just like our dogs, you can increase the pain and it hardens resolve to do a thing. Then you have to increase it more until you ‘break’ the person who’s resisting.

Of course, most of us don’t increase the pain our dogs are enduring to this point. You might think that low levels of ‘correction’ are okay.

But are they really as efficient as you think?

The fact is that pain works. At first. Correction works. At first. Give someone a speeding ticket, and for a few days, they’ll be careful to follow the law. That’s how we work – human beings – rational thinking beings with our giant neo-cortexes who have the power of language to be able to understand cause and punishment.

Imagine though living in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language. A police officer follows you around everywhere, and every time you think you’re doing something right, he tasers you.

And that’s what was happening to the Australian shepherd. In fact, he was just being a dog. In his eyes, he was doing a normal dog thing: wanting to get closer to other dogs to suss them out. In his eyes, it was something natural. Something normal. Something right. He saw other dogs and he wanted to approach them. He’s a social creature. That’s what dogs do. He wanted to go and see these dogs and sort out friends from foes. And every time he tried to, his owner hurt him, restrained him and punished him.

In the 1960s, Dr Martin Seligman and his colleagues undertook a series of what are, quite frankly, disgusting experiments. They wanted to find out about “learned helplessness”. Post-war Americans want to know why people don’t run away or try to escape. It’s a theme that dominates cognitive and behavioural psychology in the post-war era: human beings and what makes us hurt others, what stops us from escaping. 20 years on from the Holocaust and you too might be wondering why so few people tried moves like “The Great Escape”. Why did people just give up? And even when they could escape, why didn’t they? You can imagine the questions in Seligman’s head about why people – with our rational thinking brains, let me stress – give up. Seligman used dogs to find out. It wasn’t intended to be comparative psychology or even animal psychology. It was intended to teach us about humans. Inadvertently, it taught us about dogs.


First, he put them in something called a Pavlovian hammock. That’s a nice way to describe an “inescapable” situation in which a number of dogs were placed. And then he used electric shocks. He taught them that pain was inescapable and unpredictable. He found that these dogs, when later placed in a situation from which they could easily escape, chose not to… even if shocked to the point where their muscles no longer functioned.

His conclusion was that once you have been subject to inescapable punishment, you are so broken that you would choose not to escape even if you could. He called this “learned helplessness”. He thought that this was why people with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety or other disorders might choose not to end their anguish, even if they could. The escape routes just weren’t visible to them.


And that is exactly what this Australian shepherd went through, just on a less scientific level. He couldn’t escape the situation and so you can inflict as much pain as you like: he’s just given up.

He’s learned that there is no point resisting. He’s learned something else too.

Like being followed around by a police officer who slaps a fine on you for leaving chopsticks in rice, for blowing your nose, for looking someone in the eye, what you learn is not that you shouldn’t do certain things, but that you are in the company of someone who, to use the words of Nando Brown, is “a bit of a knob”. In other words, you don’t learn that in this foreign country, it’s bad manners to leave chopsticks in rice, to blow your nose in public or to eyeball someone (all things that are well-established cultural patterns in Japan, by the way) what you learn is that the presence of the police officer is a reliable indicator that you might get punished.

The first consequence of using punishment, then, is that you may have to administer increasing ‘doses’ of correction once the dog realises that the punishment is insufficient to make their ‘bad’ behaviour not worth doing. Like if you give me a 1o cent fine every time I swear, the swear box will be filled in no time. In fact, you’re going to have to increase the punishment if what I get from the behaviour is more pleasurable than the punishment is a deterrent. Remember that scene in The Breakfast Club where Paul Gleason is having a showdown with Judd Nelson? The teacher is trying to threaten Judd’s character, student John Bender. In the end, the teacher threatens to put Judd’s character in detention “for the rest of your natural born life if you don’t watch your step”. It doesn’t make much difference and ends up escalating the situation.

That’s what you have to do with punishment and correction: be prepared to escalate it.

In fact though, John Bender is doing resisting for all sorts of reasons. But dogs resist your punishments for one very good one. It’s not resentment. It’s not because they think they’re better than you, they’re dominating you or they’re showing off to their friends. It’s not because they’re social misfits who’ve had a hard life or a sucky home environment. Dogs resist because whatever it is you don’t want them to do is simply more rewarding and reinforcing than you can ever punish them for.

So the dog who wants to run off from the yard and needs a shock collar? The call of the wild is really powerful, or the urge to escape is overwhelming. The dog who barks and needs a shock collar? Barking is obviously really rewarding and reinforcing. You better get a collar that you can turn up, because once your dog realises that the shock isn’t enough to put them off, you’ll need to increase it. And increase it. In fact, you and the collar will probably fail long before the dog’s desire to bark does.

That’s the first consequence of punishment. You’ll need to be prepared to increase it if the dog’s desire to do whatever it was doing is more powerful than the punishment.

The second consequence of punishment is that even if it is predictable, if it works, the dog has not really overcome its behaviour. You’ve just taught the dog that it might as well give in. There is no escape, so give in and you’ll avoid the punishment. That’s not a dog who has mastered its desires or frustrations. It’s a broken dog whose spirit is crushed. That’s “learned helplessness” in action. We see this in concentration camps and in hostage situations, as well as in people suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

That, then, is not an obedient dog. It is a dog who has learned there is no point.

A third consequence of using punishment is that the main thing your dog will learn is that your presence is a reliable indicator that he might get punished. YOU are the common denominator. Why do you think companies are offering “remote” punishments, so that you don’t even have to be near the dog when you administer a shock? Because the thing the dog learns is not that its behaviour is not desirable to you, only that you are a bit of a knob. But if you use a choke collar, prong collar, a physical reprimand or a physical punishment that you have to be present to administer, YOU become the reliable indicator of pain, not the behaviour.

Some “dog trainers” will tell you that it’s not just this random and dogs will quickly learn that it’s only in certain conditions that you would punish your dog, this is nonsense too. Back to the mean cop example… Even if this police officer restricts himself to only fining you for chopsticks, and you can kind of work out a pattern, that doesn’t work either. That’s why anyone who tells you that a prong collar will work because the dog will learn that it only hurts if he pulls (i.e. there’s a clear condition attached to the punishment) actually is spinning you a line that is quite anti-experience and anti-science. In other words, they’re telling you a complete fabrication that is not rooted in reality.

The reality is that, like this Aussie shepherd, you just become habituated to the pain and need more and more. Where do you go next when a prong collar AND a halti isn’t working? A zappy collar as well? Punches in the nose? A kick to the backside? At what point have you crossed a line into abuse?

Some countries have already decided that shock collars and prong collars have crossed the line.

A final really, really important reason is that punishment is proven to make dogs more aggressive. One day, that dog might really turn around and bite you. If you’ve used physical correction with a dog, you’ve destroyed all trust between you. If you hurt a dog, don’t be surprised if one day it says that enough is enough. It may never get to a bite. But who wants a dog who growls at them, who snarls or snaps out of anger or fear?

It doesn’t take the law of the land to make me realise that punishment is not working as a training tool. Whether you don’t want to have to escalate the punishment to abusive levels, whether you realise that your dog is not obeying and has just learned to give in, whether you don’t want to destroy the trust between you and your dog and ensure your dog ends up more reactive, not less… there are plenty of reasons not to choose punishment as a tool when training.

I want to finish with the story of a malinois who came in the next day. He was wearing a muzzle, so for one reason or another, this is a dog who has a history. His owners had a really loose lead, and whenever the lead got a little tight or the dog was responding negatively, they backed up a little. They went up different aisles. They took their time, gave the dog space, allowed it distance. The muzzle was a very effective way of telling other people to keep their distance as well. Ironic, really. Ten minutes later, the muzzle was off, and the malinois was happily nose-to-nose with some of the dogs for adoption.

These weren’t expert dog trainers. They were just people who understood and responded in ways that got a wanted behaviour from their dog, rather than failing with haltis and prong collars, perhaps leaving the dog with a residual memory that means “when I see other dogs, my owner hurts me” rather than the response you wanted to instill.

I long for the days when we have more Malis in muzzles than Aussie shepherds in haltis and prong collars.

Travelling between France and the UK with your dog

Travelling between France and the UK with your dog



Many people these days take advantage of EU laws making it easier to transport domestic animals between the UK and France. Gone are the times of long quarantines. Hopefully, DEFRA will continue to honour the EU passport as the UK leaves Europe. Only time will tell.

There are three main ways that pets travel to the UK from the continent. One is with their owners. Another is with a pet transfer service. The final way is as a newly adopted animal into the UK from a shelter or rescue association on the continent. The system for transferring animals from a shelter in France to a home in the UK is different and usually follows a system called TRACES which helps track animals and ensure that their health is regularly checked.

Travel with owners

For the most part, pets who travel with their owners are either travelling on holiday to the UK or on holiday to France.

All major crossings accept dogs.

For details of P&O crossings with pets from Dover to Calais, click here

For details of DFDS crossings with pets from Newhaven to Dieppe, Dover to Calais and Dover to Dunkirk, click here

For details of Brittany Ferries crossings with pets from Portsmouth to Caen, Poole to Cherbourg, Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Portsmouth to Le Havre, Plymouth to Roscoff, Plymouth to St Malo, or Portsmouth to St Malo, click here

Longer ferry crossings usually have kennels in which you can put your dogs, and shorter crossings usually expect your dog to stay in the car. Please be aware that you cannot stay in the vehicle bays with your animals so you will have to leave them for the journey or return to your vehicle only if accompanied by a member of staff. This has implications for dogs who have separation anxiety or who may find the voyage stressful. Foot passengers cannot usually travel with dogs.

You can also travel by Eurotunnel. This is ideal if you wish to stay with your pet and if you want the shortest crossing time.

Several airlines also fly dogs in the hold on short and long-haul flights. Some airlines have a maximum weight for dogs they will accept. Occasionally, airlines will fly dogs of less than certain weights in the cabin. Both Air France and British Airways will fly pets. In some cases if the combined weight of the dog and its crate are more than certain weights, your pet will be required to travel freight. For very long journeys, the advantages of flying a pet may outweigh the disadvantages, especially in comparison to leaving a dog for long periods of time in kennels on a ferry.

All cross-channel services require you to follow the PETS passport scheme.

Travel with a pet transfer service

Several companies exist to take animals back to the UK for you. These can be expensive and spaces are booked well in advance, particularly at peak times (summer holidays and Christmas). If you intend to use a pet transport service, book well in advance and make sure you have all the details of your animal to hand. You will be expected to pay in advance, have photocopies of all relevant passport pages and conform to their standards. Spaces for bigger dogs often go more quickly. Check that vans are suitable for transporting animals, and that regular breaks are scheduled. If you have a nervous or flighty dog, this may not be the most suitable method for them. Expect to pay at least 200€ for transport from France to the UK and to book a good few weeks in advance. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that communication from pet transfer services can be quite poor if they are on the road.

PETS passport system

Whether you are travelling with your pet or not, the PETS travel system is a simplified way to ensure animals are transported without the need for long quarantine periods.

The first requirement is that your dog is microchipped. Please be advised that there have been some issues with animals who have been tattooed. It is worth checking with the carrier. DEFRA specifically requests animals be microchipped.

Once your dog has been microchipped, they can be vaccinated against rabies. Usually this is done on the same day. The vet will complete an EU pet passport for you. All of the animal’s essential details must be included. Please note that changes came into play at the end of 2014, and that passports must have sealed sections so that they cannot be tampered with.

The passport includes:

  • Owner details
  • A description of the animal
  • Markings or colour
  • All relevant rabies stamps, stickers and signatures
  • Details of the vet issuing the passport
  • Details of tapeworm treatments

For dogs travelling from France, they do not need to have a blood test to prove the efficacy of the rabies vaccination. You can only travel twenty-one days after the rabies vaccination has been administered.

A vet must have administered a tapeworm treatment (and recorded it) not less than 24 hours before the crossing and not more than 120 hours (five days) before the time of the crossing. The treatment must include praziquantel or an equivalent. For short trips from the UK, you will need to administer the wormer before you leave and worm 28 days later.

Some transport companies may require you to have a letter from the vet before you leave certifying that the animal is in good health.

You can find clear details about the PETS travel scheme on the DEFRA website.

Travel from a foreign shelter (TRACES)

If you have adopted an animal from a foreign shelter and the dog is being brought to England, you will need to follow additional guidance. This is called the TRACES tracking system.

There are rules in place to ensure animals are not trafficked across borders. These rules are the same for animals from breeders on the continent, who must also adhere to these rules.

The shelter will contact the department vet around 48 hours before the animal is due to travel. A shelter or association must have been approved before this point by the department vet. At Mornac, our team contact the state vet with all the necessary information, including your address. The state vet then issues a certificate (usually duplicate) that needs to travel with the animal and its passport.

The shelter or association is not the only side with obligations: you must notify your nearest animal health office in the UK at least more than twenty-four hours before the animal is due to arrive. They reserve the right to ask you to go to the centre with the animal, to visit the animal or even to ask for the animal to stay in quarantine.

Although you will find a number of unscrupulous “charities” transporting dogs from various shelters in Europe, please be careful. There are daily arrests at Calais of people who are transporting animals without passports or TRACES paperwork. These animals are often transported in articulated lorries without adequate air. Some of them are driven over seventy hours without breaks. Even some very well-known charities in Europe transport large numbers of animals (around 70) on one crossing in one container, running the risk of getting caught against the profit of doing it without paperwork (some charge around 400€ to transport and adopt an animal).

Every single time a rescue in Europe transports animals without the right paperwork, without proper microchips, without rabies vaccinations or wormers, they increase the chance that the UK will return to a quarantine system or that animals will not be allowed to be adopted directly from the continent. These unscrupulous rescues and individuals spoil it for the rest of us, who happily microchip and vaccinate our dogs, who take them for vet visits, get all of their TRACES paperwork in place and vet homes very carefully. With thousands of dogs put to sleep every year in the UK, please consider your choices carefully. Although we are happy to help you adopt breeds that are rare in the UK, we are also mindful of how complicated it can be if things go wrong. A large number of our popular breeds that are less familiar in the UK are dogs who have lived outside, have lived as part of large packs or have been used to working. For that reason, we undertake extensive interviews and expect you to keep in touch at every point of the adoption process.


The sale of puppies and dogs in France: what you need to know

The sale of puppies and dogs in France: what you need to know

Since January 2016, new laws have been in place regarding the advertisement of dogs (and cats). This includes details about puppies too (and kittens!). In fact, laws and requirements have been in place for some time regarding identification. But, for the first time, animal welfare groups joined forces with vets and breeders to help the French government create a law that would put a stop to the backyard breeding. Or at least give the authorities powers to put a stop to it. It’s not a perfect law, but it’s a law nonetheless.

So if you’re buying a puppy, what do you need to know?

You’ll find here details relating to pedigree puppy sales and other puppy sales. Then you’ll find further details about the purchase of adult dogs, about the conditions that exist when giving dogs away, and then conditions relating to adoption of an animal from a shelter.

Pedigree puppies

A puppy is considered a pedigree if four rules have been conformed to. You need to know these rules if you are looking to buy a pedigree puppy.

  1. BOTH of its parents are “LOF confirmé”. LOF means the “Livre des origines françaises”. This is essentially the French Kennel Club papers. ONLY dogs with LOF papers have a right to be called a pedigree dog, or a “chien de race”.  However, pedigree is not granted automatically. All puppies that are born to LOF parents are LOF themselves. BUT…. they are not “LOF confirmé”. To be confirmed, the dog needs to have seen a pedigree judge. This happens at different times in a dog’s life depending on its breed, A dog can be confirmed between ten months and fifteen months. This means a judge has agreed that your dog conforms to breed standards and is a good example of the breed. There are specialist meetings for confirmation, and breeders must pay a price to do so. This means that you can’t slip a whippet X in as a Labrador LOF and breed from it. A judge will know straight away that it is not a pedigree dog and it ensures breed standards are kept to. There are fees to do this.
  2. The breeder has declared the mating. In French, this is called the “Déclaration de Saillie”. In the 8 weeks following a mating, the owner of the female must notify the Sociéte Centrale Canine in order to receive a certificate of mating. This is the first step in the process of ensuring breed standards are kept to. There are dossier fees to pay to get this document. If you try to do this after 4 months from the mating, the SCC will pay you a little visit. After 8 months, it is impossible to do.
  3. The breeder has registered the births of puppies. This must be done within two weeks of the birth.
  4. The breeder has asked for the litter to be registered. This can only be done once the puppies are microchipped or tattooed.

You’d expect such a breeder to have been on training courses, to have solid understanding of the breed and to provide all these documents without asking. They are proud of their dogs. If you can’t see mum or dad, if you can see they have more than two or three different types of dogs, if they have multiple litters, if they are advertising on the internet… they’re probably missing some vital part of this.

Non-pedigree puppies

In this case, what you are buying is considered “type”. This is only an issue if you are being asked to pay pedigree prices and if you expect a pedigree puppy, or if you are buying a dog that is subject to breed specific legislation. If you don’t mind having a poodle that looks like a poodle but doesn’t have a pedigree, then go for it. There are plenty of people who have great dogs who are mixed breeds, or, indeed, who would prefer a mixed breed.

If your dog does not have LOF confirmé parents, they are just a “type”. They may have the best and most beautiful parents in the canine kingdom, but if they haven’t been confirmed, their puppies are “type” not “race”.

Plenty of puppies slip through the net, it must be said, because their breeders have missed a vital part of the process, usually the declaration of mating, or a mating with a dog who is LOF, but not confirmed.

For some “type” dogs, you can apply to have your dog confirmed as a pedigree. Say, for instance, that I pick up a beautiful whippet and I intend to breed her. She may not have pedigree paperwork if I don’t know where she came from or she wasn’t chipped. I can apply to have her confirmed LOF even though she has no paperwork. She can go to a show and a judge will say, “yes, she is a marvellous version of a whippet” and grant her a LOF confirmé status. You would need to make a demand via the Société Centrale Canine for an inscription “à titre initial” You need to do other things, like have tests for inherited diseases, pass tests for sociability, behaviour or aptitude, and be judged as of the highest quality by an expert judge. But it’s possible.

You can, of course, do this even if you have no intention to breed, if you wanted to show them, or you just wanted to say what a marvellous example of a breed you have.

That is IF the SCC are accepting “new” dogs to the pool. For many breeds, they’ll accept a new dog who just turns up and has all the characteristics of a pure race dog. This is a good thing to improve the gene pool and make sure it doesn’t become too limited.

BUT… the register is closed for certain breeds where there are a large number of dogs or where the dogs are subject to regulations. Since 1978, the register has been closed for German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, dobermann, boxers, fox terriers, dachshunds, springer spaniels, cocker spaniels, American cocker spaniels and poodles among others. That means, even if you have the most marvellous example of a German shepherd that you intend to breed from, it doesn’t make any difference. If you don’t have pedigree papers, it’s just a “type” and it will always be so. You have no chance at all of ever breeding from that dog and it being accepted as pure race.

The register has been closed since 1994 for American staffordshires, bull terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. It is also closed for rottweilers (since 2001). That means if you own a “type” Amstaff, you have no chance at all of having it registered as a pedigree dog and no chance at all of removing the “Category 1” restrictions.

And lovely as your “type” cocker spaniel may be, it’s as muttley as the next dog. Not that I disapprove of that. But if you paid 50€ for a dog on the internet, you can call it a collie if you like, but it’s a muttley whatever it looks like.

Selling a puppy: the law since January 2016.

In January 2016, the law regarding the sale of animals changed in France. This was to shut the door on backyard breeders making 1000€ from a litter of “type” Yorkshire terriers that they’d sold on the internet for 200€ each.

Make no bones about it: for the government it’s a financial decision. This is a black market and therefore there is tax to be raised from it. By closing the door on backyard breeders, they are making sure nobody is pocketing a sneaky couple of thousand a year on the sly. Or more. The breeder we shut down in Juillaguet in March 2014 had 160 dogs on site, few of them registered. To sell them on the internet for 150€ a dog, you can imagine how much back tax she owed!

For breeders, the new law just makes it even more restrictive for unsavoury types to get involved. It gives them prestige and limits competition from those people who want to buy a yorkie. They’re no longer being undercut and the breed standard is maintained.

From an animal welfare point of view, it helps us stop backyard breeders and allows us to trace and track dogs more efficiently. In theory. In practice, some of those against the law predicted that we’d be inundated by litters that people could no longer sell. In reality, it’s not been any worse or any better this year for puppy litters than any other. We had the beagles thrown in the Charente that was obviously linked to the limitations on selling, but I have no idea if vets have been asked to put down more puppies than before.

What the new law says about selling animals

Anyone who sells a dog or cat is considered a breeder. To be a breeder, you must register at the Chambre d’Agriculture. You can get a dispensation from the Chambre d’Agriculture if you want to sell a litter a year.

If you sell more than a litter a year (and are therefore not a “hobby” breeder) you must also register with the departmental health authorities (DDPP) so that you can have obligatory training, be taxed and be subject to site visits. You must have proof of training to be a breeder.

All dogs or cats (and puppies and kittens) must be microchipped or tattooed before being sold. Normally, the law says that all dogs older than 4 months and all cats older than 7 months must be identified, but to sell, you will need to do it younger. Vets do this on tiny kittens of 700g at the refuge, so find a vet who will if yours is delaying and you want to sell your animals.

You must declare the sale on your tax return. (Told you… the governments will agree to anything if there is revenue for them!)

If you advertise your animal for sale you must:

  • Mention the age of the animal and state whether it is LOF or not
  • Give the number of its identification or that of the mother
  • Say how many animals were in the litter
  • Give the SIREN of the seller

If you sell your animal, you must also:

  • have an “attestation de cession” – basically a transfer document that shows you have given the animal up. This should mention: the seller’s name and address, the name of the animal, its ID number, the date of the sale, the name and address of the person buying the animal, the sex, race, type of fur and colour of the animal, the animal’s date of birth, any distinguishing features, LOF details (if LOF) and LOF details of parents (if LOF) and the price of the sale. It should be done in duplicate and signed by both parties.
  • have a document that explains to the buyer about how to care for the animal.
  • have a copy of the provisional or actual ICAD document.
  • have a health certificate from a vet for any animal over three months of age.

A health booklet is not necessary. You do not have to supply details of vaccinations as they are not obligatory. However, a good breeder will have a health booklet or “carnet de santé” for their puppies or dogs, cats or kittens.

If you buy a pedigree dog or “race”, you should get a birth certificate for the animal from the SCC.

You can see why breeding should really be left to people who know what they are doing.

You will also notice that shelters will have a contract for you to sign that includes much of the information. That’s why our dogs and cats leave vaccinated, with a health booklet, and identified. It’s why we stress that our fees are not to “buy” the animal but to cover the costs incurred. It is an adoption fee.

Free to a good home

Ahhhh, don’t get me started. Even if you offer kittens or puppies as “free” to get around the law, you STILL need to identify them. That is the law. Maybe the 50€ microchip cost puts people off, but it also means that anyone who has to pay 400€ to identify a litter of accidents just might think about sterilising their animal (or keeping them out of harm’s way if they’re in season)

It is not difficult to keep an in-season dog away from others. Thousands of breeders do it every year to give their females a rest between litters. Even if you have dogs in the home who live together, you’ll find breeders using kennels with secure facilities to ensure there are no accidents.

Ultimately, the “accidents” need to stop. People need to be more responsible about their animal’s reproduction. If you can’t be good, be careful, as my Grandmother says.

It is not a myth that these “free” dogs end up in shelters, or lost on the lam, or much, much worse. Where do you think the 350 unidentified dogs that the pound picks up every year in North West Charente come from?

They are free dogs. They were given away to neighbours. They were passed on to strangers in carparks.

They are not pedigree dogs, on the whole. And if they are, we can often get in touch with breeders who come and pick up their pedigree dogs to rehome themselves.

Responsible breeders are not causing shelter problems.

Backyard breeders selling dogs for 150€ on the internet are.

Irresponsible owners who don’t take precautions when their female is in season or their intact male is free to roam the streets are a massive contributing factor.

Don’t be a Dick.

How to manage a multi-dog household

How to manage a multi-dog household


One reason dogs can be surrendered to the refuge is that the dynamic in the group is hard to handle. It’s also a source of a good number of calls post-adoption trying to negotiate pack issues, as adoptants try desperately to ensure everybody rubs along okay. Often, it’s not a problem with their new dog either, or it’s a combination of issues with their new dog and a resident. You can, of course, read up on how to introduce dogs to established groups here and here which should help you a little with that.

The hardest thing for people who have adopted a rescue dog rather than buying a puppy is that you are dealing with dogs who have already established preferences for things but dogs who may have had as little training as a puppy. They come to your home with their baggage about what home means to them, and a set of rules that have been lost in transit. They come with an unknown level of training, too.

You take them from the relative routine and security of a shelter and it’s hard to understand that, often, your new home is WAY more stressful for a dog than a shelter in a range of diverse ways. Shelters don’t have couches. They don’t have five other dogs hanging around you at feeding time. There might not be a squabble over beds, resources or affection. Get a new dog into your canine family and you’ll soon find yourself with dynamics that you just don’t understand. If you’re lucky, there’ll be relatively few teething problems. For most people, though, they’ll find themselves trying to referee issues they really don’t always understand.

Take yesterday, for instance. I spent the day at an event with one of my foster dogs. He’s been here for twelve weeks. There’s been one scrap in that time, but it was all noise and posture. At various points in the day, the dogs are split up. Yesterday, I got back and there was an almighty growling session that lasted a good couple of minutes. It’s hard with your own dogs to remember that growls and grumbles are their way of sorting out their own battles. Sometimes, intervening can make the problem worse, not better. It’s worth seeking advice about how to help out persistent growls and grumbles though.

It is hard to accept as well that dogs have preferences for each other. Although Mim and Fefelle arrived as a pair, they are certainly not a bonded pair. They don’t actually seem that interested in each other. Amigo and Tobby seem to have an easy friendship and never squabble, but they never get cuddly. Tilly and Heston have a tenderness that is quite touching.

We have this vision, however, that dogs are 100% or 0%, or that they have types they prefer. They’re either social or they’re not. They get on with big dogs or they don’t. Both of those things can be true, of course. There are dogs at the shelter who we have consistently been unable to pair up with another, be they male or female, big or small. There are little dogs that we’ve been able to only pair up with giants, and there are big dogs who look at little dogs like they’re the next meal.

The truth is that for most dogs, it’s somewhere in between. Tobby is great at social encounters, except for that one time he wasn’t. Amigo is reserved in social encounters, except for the eight weeks he hated Heston. Heston generally does okay these days despite the fact I spent a good two years of his life thinking he couldn’t tolerate male dogs, and then under the misnomer that it was to do with castration or not. The truth is that he’s as good with boys as he is with girls as long as they’re cool with him. I’ve seen him playing with uncastrated males and castrated males, big and small. So why won’t he play with Féfelle, despite all of Feff’s play overtones? And why do I even care? Is it not enough to say: “He just doesn’t like this dog.”

Sadly, the number of people who expect their dogs to play with each other or even like each other means that there are very high expectations placed on dogs and we don’t always do our best to manage a multi-dog household. We also have high expectations of the level of training of a new introduction, and their lack of training sometimes means we might blame them for problems that are really nothing to do with their behaviour, per se. The first step is to truly accept that dogs, like people, have preferences. You don’t know why that is. None of us do. Until dogs can explain stuff to us, we’re not likely to know, no matter how much we study them or how well we know them. The second step is to accept that it’s not easy to understand what’s going on between dogs. The new dog isn’t always the problem.


My baseline is expecting dogs to tolerate each other. If you start with that as your baseline, you’ll feel much more confident about their progress. Accept too that fights may seem loud, violent and dramatic, but know that your dogs could, if they wanted to, have killed the other. I’d advise you to seek out help if your dogs have had a fight, especially one where there were wounds, but know too that many dogs go on to live peaceably with each other if they are carefully managed afterwards. Most dogs’ scuffles don’t escalate, but I really recommend you get a professional opinion if your dogs come to blows.

Be aware that your other dogs may well have joined in, and that they won’t always side with the established pack member. Dogs have remarkable social talents (better than we know or understand) and a strong sense of social justice within a group. It’s not uncommon for dogs, (especially females) to intervene to keep the peace or to tell off the dog who’s crossing boundaries, even if that is a dog who’s been with you for years!

What follows are ten things you can do that will make your multi-dog household easier to manage. It’s a great reminder each time a new dog joins your group, even if you are a seasoned fosterer with a high volume of dogs through your home each year. You may not need to do all the things on the list: it depends on your dog family.

The ten things you can do to manage your multi-dog household

  1. Manage food! Food is such a flashpoint for a lot of dogs. If your dogs are working on tolerating each other, feeding separately can help. Eating requires you to be relaxed. You can’t rest and digest if you are stressed. Imagine trying to eat if you’re sitting next to someone you think is a serial thief out to steal the most important thing in your day. It’s a situation that is edgy and confrontational. Space is your best friend here (and you can use the 3Ds from the last post to bring bowls into the same room). If you want your dogs to get along, don’t force them to eat near each other until you know how much they will tolerate it. No matter how comfortable I am with the tolerance levels between mine, I never, ever leave them unattended whilst they eat. With new dogs, they eat in a different room and there are always two doors between them. I gauge the dog’s food reactions before using those 3Ds to bring bowls closer over time.
  2. Manage treats. If you have resource guarders, those habits will be intensified in a multi-dog home. Treats should be instant and go from your hand to their mouth. We’re at the rawhide stage here, where they will tolerate longer chews, but if there are dogs who haven’t finished, it’s grounds for bickering. So two have weenies. Four have bigger treats. And I do a trade-swap and take every single treat off those guys before they’ve finished, rewarding with a high-value quick treat like a piece of ham. It’s up to me to read the situation and know who is bored and likely to need to move on, causing the inner guarder to erupt in those who are enjoying their chew. Again, the 3Ds will help you to move from ‘Can’t stand the way that beast is eating his treat’ to easy respect.
  3. Manage toys. Again, toys are a valued asset. Many people think it’s really sad that my dogs don’t have free access to toys. I am not. I am very glad that I have a home without jealousy and bloodshed. And a home without Heston dropping toys at my feet when I’m teaching, attempting to engage me in a bit of play. We have toys. We have supervised play time every day. Tobby is allowed to walk around with his toy – as long as I have other dogs who tolerate that. Sadly, no toys for Tobby when I have new dogs, especially puppies. I’ll reintroduce them gradually, but under supervision. Toys can quickly become flashpoints with over-excited playful dogs.
  4. Manage beds. If anything causes agitation here with new dogs, it’s the “where do I sleep?” question. Couches are a privilege here, not a right. You only get on a couch if you will get off it when asked. You’re allowed to have a preference as long as you don’t grumble at others who bother you. I’m happy to move newbies out of my own dogs’ spaces if it’s bothering them. I choose where they sleep those first few days, and I do that by asking my dogs to stick to their favoured places so that the new arrivals can make their own choices. Crates can help that if your dogs are crate trained, but crate training can be difficult and time-intensive. Having more than one dog is not a reason to put them all on lock-down. I always think it’s my goal to facilitate their comprehension of each other. I’m not doing that if they’re on lockdown permanently. A bit of Goldilocksing is okay at the beginning, but a dog who bullies another for a bed or a ‘dog in a manger’ who starts lying in another dog’s bed for kicks when they never have before are both situations that need a bit of managing.
  5. Manage space and alone time. When a new dog arrives, I don’t leave them with my own dogs. If I have to lock a door and use the two-doors-between-them policy, I will. I also like my dogs to feel happy with themselves and picking their own space. Every dog should be able to get away from the others. For instance, when we’re in the garden and I sit down, there’s some good distance between most of them. Many dogs appreciate their own space (which is why crates can work in a multi-dog household, but separate rooms can work just as well.) Let’s face it: you’d fall out with people who you were with 24/7. That’s not healthy at all. Neither, though, is it viable for dogs to have to live separate lives. They want to be with you, and to deprive them of that contact because you have to split your time between warring factions is neither necessary nor healthy. A behaviorist can really help your Kramer vs Kramer dogs if it’s really not working.
  6. Manage doorways. Doorways and narrow spaces can cause real conflict. Corridors, landings and stairways can also be flashpoints because they are so enclosed. Yes, I forgot this yesterday. I got back with one of my fosters after a day out and we unlocked the door to two minutes of growling and snapping. I should have managed it better. It’s worth bearing in mind that reintroductions of dogs can be fraught with tension, which is why I would not recommend those separate rooms for very long times. I like my dogs to be able to choose to go into another room and settle down, or go outside if they want, but bear in mind that constantly splitting up and reintroducing two dogs who have a hard time tolerating each other can make it way, way worse. That is tripled if you do it in a small space.
  7. That said, have alone time with each of your dogs if possible to encourage their preferences and build your bond with them. That can be cuddles on the couch, a walk in the park, a ride in the car, a grooming session, a nap in the garden, games, treat sessions, agility training, obedience training or other activities. Don’t expect all your dogs to enjoy doing the same things, especially if they are diverse breeds and ages or health levels. You don’t have to split them up to do this.
  8. Spend time working with them as a group and getting them to do group things, like “sit” or “wait”. When you have 180kg of dog as I do at the moment, the last thing you need is dogs who can’t wait or who barge you. A group “wait” is vital. A group “sit” can start that off. A group “all eyes on me” can also help them take their minds off each other and focus on you. And, let’s face it, if time with you and other dogs is highly rewarding, it won’t take long for grumbles to cease.
  9. Teach “Enough” to those dogs who compete for affection or attention, and be prepared at the beginning of your newly-formed group to have to reduce petting to a minimum as well. I’ve found that calling a dog who is greedy for affection, or going to them when they are calm or quiet is great. Teaching “Enough” will also stop them coming and sticking their dirty great heads in when you’re petting others. Guess what? The 3Ds work here too! Pet your dogs separately and build in petting if you have a dog who is greedy for affection. In this case, you are their resource and it does you no favours to oblige them every time they demand love. Neither, though, does it do you any favours to punish them or completely ignore them. Don’t accept impatience or bad manners. Adult dogs do need to be taught that all good things come to those who wait if you want them to be patient and polite. Don’t just expect it, or put it down to ‘jealousy’. It’s just something they haven’t learned yet.
  10. Practise walking on leash all together. Someone asked me how I walk all my dogs… well, we know where we walk! And although we often go places where we don’t always need to be on a leash, I practise anyway. My own dogs know where they walk and although it takes a bit of time to walk with a new dog as well, we manage. I like to walk my dogs. I appreciate there are times when I might have one or two on the leash, all four off leash, or times when I need all four on leash. Guess what? Those times when I need to put all four on leash are times when they’re highly reactive, stressed, excited – blah blah. The last thing I need is to have four dogs who are uncontrollable on the leash. Any reputable dog walking business will give you great guidance on how to do that.

You will also find lots of great guidance in two of Jean Donaldson’s books, Fight! and Mine! as well as with Patricia McConnell’s book, Feeling Outnumbered.

Knowing these ten simple things and reminding yourself of them can be the difference between a hostile, tense household and one that is calm, relaxed and at ease.

Duddley Dog to Dog Skills Ninja in three easy steps

Duddley Dog to Dog Skills Ninja in three easy steps


There are times when you may find your dog completely and utterly untrainable. Why is it that his sit in the house is perfect and his recall in certain place is amazing, but then he’s off like a shot in others? Why is it that you can walk past one house on your walk and you’ll find your dog absolutely and utterly going nuts at the dog behind the fence? Often, the moments when our dogs are Duddley Dogs and not Dog Ninjas is the time we seek out help from trainers. It’s also the number one reason I get a call back after adoption.

One of the questions I ask most often when problem behaviours occur is how reliable is your dog’s ‘Look at me’?, or how reliable is their ‘come’? Can they do a ‘sit’? 

“Oh yes,” say the owners. “Maniac is very good at sitting.” I can sense in their voice they are wondering what this has to do with Maniac’s running feud with the neighbour’s dog.

Sure enough, Maniac’s “come” is perfect… if he’s following you into the kitchen. On a walk, well, “Oh he’s never been so good at recall out of the house,” say the owners.

The truth is that dogs don’t generalise well. They don’t understand that the behaviour you’re asking them to do in one place is the same behaviour you want them to do outside. Example: I was trying to teach Heston to play bow on cue. He’d already started bowing every time I got the dustpan and brush out in the house, so I knew they 100% predicted a play bow. I took him out into the workshop to try there. 0%

Not the same at all, is it?

So when it comes to problem behaviours, if your dog has never, ever been asked to look at you outside, if they’ve never been asked to do a sit on a walk, or if their recall is atrocious, then you may find your dog looking at you all…



When it comes to training or replacing habits with new ones, there are 3 Ds that you have to take into consideration. This includes teaching behaviours like ‘Maniac, come here!’ and training replacement behaviours, like walking nicely on a lead around cows rather than dancing on hind legs barking at them. With the 3Ds, you can turn your Duddley to a Ninja much more easily.


As I tried to get Heston walking on a loose lead yesterday in the forest, the 1st D reminded me just how hard it can be. Distraction simply means all of those things that make it more difficult to get your dog’s attention. That can be things you can see, such as bikes, joggers, other dogs, cats, deer, toys and cars. It can also be things you can’t see, but your dog can hear or smell. For Heston, the sound of jays drives him mad. He can tolerate virtually every sound distraction but that. Don’t forget that whilst there are things you both might hear or see, your dog will be able to smell things that you just can’t. So when Amigo went after a deer that could have been no more than 10 metres into the forest from the path, I had no idea it was there, but he certainly did.

Distraction means that you are fighting for your dog’s attention. It means every single thing that you are fighting against. If your dog is a Duddley sometimes, this is mostly why. And this is also where we need them to be a Ninja.


There are two distances you should be aware of. The first is the distance that you are from your dog. Simply put, the closer you are to your dog, the more likely they are to respond to training. That’s why your dog may do a perfect sit right up close to you and struggle when you are two metres away. Mind you, sometimes that’s just a lack of ability to generalise and a firmly implanted habit. Your dog has always sat within 50cm of you and therefore he won’t think that you might ask him to sit when you are a metre from him.

The second distance you should be aware of is the distance between you and the distractions. Simply put, if you’re up-close and personal with a distraction, you may not have a cat in hell’s chance to get the dog’s attention back on you. Thus, if Heston is ten metres from another dog, the chances of him performing a requested behaviour is almost zero. When we’re two hundred metres away, it’s a good start.


So if I’m walking my dog or working with my dog and he’s right near me, the further he gets from me and the nearer he gets to a distraction (like a lovely bunny rabbit), the harder it will be to teach him new behaviours or to expect him to offer behaviours that are rock solid. If the rabbit is 200m away and Heston is 2m from me, he’ll do pretty much everything I ask of him. Likewise with Hagrid at the shelter. If we’re 10m from another dog, he’ll do everything I ask.


But if the distraction is right there in my space up close, the task is suddenly impossible. For Hagrid, if a dog is within 4m, I could be waving a leg of lamb and he wouldn’t care less. For Tricki Woo dancing on his lead when he sees a cow, nothing is pulling him back from that. And for Heston, if there are swallows dive-bombing us, what I’m asking him to do will be impossible.


The longer I ask my dog to give a behaviour, the harder it is. Not all behaviours have a duration. Holding a sit, keeping eye contact, staying in a down position, keeping in a stay position… all get harder the longer I need a dog to hold them.

Put all three together and you’ve got three Ds that make learning either very easy or very hard. They are also things that we can manipulate to get the best out of our dog and to make sure that learning is rock solid under all circumstances.


You can see them here on this simple diagram.

Step 1: Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy



Here, I’m starting to teach a behaviour (and yes, I’ve just realised the smiley face and the Duddley face are the wrong way round for Distance, but hey ho)

There are few distractions. There is a long and large distance between me/the dog and any potential distractions (I’m taking it as read that you are close to the dog at all points for the 3Ds and that you might start putting distance between you and the dog at another point). And I ask for a very brief behaviour. Here, the learning is most likely to succeed. No distractions. Plenty of distance. Short duration.

So… can I get Tricki Woo to stop dancing when he sees a cow and to walk calmly when he sees them? It’s easiest when there are no other distractions (so a quiet road or space with no other dogs, passers-by or crazy cyclists) and when there is a big distance between us and the cows, and when I don’t ask him to walk calmly when looking in the direction of the cows for very long before stopping and rewarding him.

Can I get Maniac to stop barking and lungeing at other dogs? Again, easy when it’s a calm environment with few other distractions, when there is a huge distance between us and the other dogs, and when I expect him to walk calmly for just a short burst. I might even then walk away completely. Those first times, I have no intention of changing the bars on this chart. He has achieved the learning goal for the session so I’m not going to add more challenge.

Step 2: Increasing the challenge


For this, I’m going to expect a little longer duration for the behaviour. If I’m teaching my dog to heel around people, I’ll ask them to do it a little longer. Not much longer. I don’t want to do it until they fail. I want to stop whilst they are succeeding and reward them for their learning. I’ll keep the distance the same and the low level of distraction the same. So if I want Loobi Loo to stop and stand when a cyclist goes by, I’m going to ask him to do that for a little bit longer than he was doing before, and I’m going to stop before he fails.


Once I’ve upped the duration a little, I’m going to bring them a little nearer to the distractiony things. Thus, if teaching Tilly to walk to heel when we pass cow pats and not scamper off to feast on such delights, I’m going to keep doing a heel and start just that bit closer than before.

When Heston was barking at cyclists out of the car window, I asked him to look at them from a distance. The looks got longer and I got closer. Like before, quit whilst you’re winning.


When I want to add in distractions again, I’m going to take away some of the other challenge and go back to a shorter duration (or even a safer distance). Thus, rabbits might be a distraction for Amigo, but rabbits and pheasants is going to require a bit less of him in terms of duration. I might even up the distance again.


Some days the universe does not cooperate and gives me a world with a lot of distractions. This can even happen in the garden if there are vans going past or stopping, or the post lady, or there are dogs barking or tractors. In the forest, it is full of unseen distractions and asking for a behaviour is tough. For instance, if I want to improve Heston’s recall, I’m going to put a big space between us and those distractions. That might be 400 metres or more.


This is how I use the three Ds for recall.

First, I know where the distractions are (red). These are areas where I will get recall only when Heston has completely exhausted his sniffing. Therefore, he is on the lead when I get too close to those distractions. Distance is my friend.

You can see there are parts of the walk that are green, because his recall is 100% here. There are parts that are orange, where I will get a fab recall about nine times out of ten.

Then there are pink bits where I might as well have gone home.

The red bit on the left is either uninhabited most of the time, or the deer graze on the other side, or the smell is weakest. Thus, even though it is only 300m away from the path, it is less distracting.

The red bit at the top of the diagram is heavily distracting (and of course, is filled with hunters and their dogs at the moment) and there are plenty of deer in that small bit. So although it’s 500m away, if the smells are strong, Heston is off.

Off the map on the right is a heavily wooded area with boar, deer, roe deer and plenty of other things. Thus, there is no way he goes off lead here because it is too close and too distracting. Although he could happily (if he wanted) run off into this forest from his ‘green’ bits (it’s only a kilometre across the field to the forest off to the right of the map) he never does. Thus, on a good day, as long as the wooded areas are more than 300m away, his recall is NINJA level!

That means I need to set 300m as his default ‘distance’ and work on his recall with maybe a less distracting environment at 250m, then take it back out and trial it at 300m in a more distracting environment. At the same time, I have to say “Wow, you’re doing great, Dog Ninja… a 450m recall is AMAZING!”

PS… here, his recall is zero metres.


Why? A gamillion gazillion distractions all far, far too near. He’ll come back when he’s good and ready if he’s off lead here. There might as well be lions, elephants and ogres here.

I also have to think of the task I’m asking him to do. Recall is TOUGH NINJA stuff. Doing a sit on a lead and a down… well even Duddley here can manage that despite the distractions.

Step 3: Moving to Mastery


So in a distracting environment, I’m going to keep duration short and my expectations low. I’m going to manage distance carefully and know that 500m is safe but 450m is not.


I can then ask for longer behaviours. This doesn’t need to be Heston’s recall over a 500m testing ground. It can be Hagrid and his 4m comfort zone for giving eye contact instead of lunging and air-snapping at a passing dog. I’m only going to ask him to do it for a short while at first as we have more and more dogs about invading his space, but we’ll step up the length gradually and I’ll be happy to have eye contact for a couple of seconds as those dogs get nearer. I still don’t want any fail moments though. Time for us to put distance between us before he fails. It’s also true of Tricki Woo and his field of cows. I’ll ask for that 4-paws/non-dance loose lead walk for a longer duration before turning around and saving the next step for another day.


Just before we get to Ninja Dog Skills, I’ll ask for a longer duration and a very close distance to fewer or less challenging distractions. For Dances-at-Cows, that will be to be up-close-and-personal doing a loose-lead walk with all four feet on the floor… and I’ll make it a less challenging distraction – a non-moving cow facing away from us minding its own business.

Finally, when my dog is ready, we’re ready to master Ninja Dog Skills Level: Expert. He can handle multiple distractions at a close distance and for a longer period of time.

If you just have the 3Ds in the back of your head when you are asking your dog to do stuff, you’ll be able to help make their learning much more effective. Be aware though that if you’re constantly asking your dog to do difficult stuff over a long period of time in a highly-distracting environment in close proximity to those distractions, they are likely to fail even if they never have before.

Notch back on one of the Ds and you’ll find your dog much more able to cope. So for Toby today finding it very hard to sit and NOT be fixated on a cat sitting on the table whilst his owner ate his lunch, distance made things much more manageable. I’m pretty sure he could cope with that usually, but then he was also surrounded by a lot of very distracting stimuli.

So when we talk about challenge for our dogs, we need to think in these terms, and then we will find that our dogs are much more able to make great progress in their learning. Next time your dog has selective deafness, ask yourself how next time you can keep within safe limits and you’ll find your distracted, reactive dog is biddable, willing and keen.


How to help your rescue dog become more resilient

How to help your rescue dog become more resilient


With the number of people who read and shared my post about trigger stacking, I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in making a difference to the lives of their rescue dogs. Having listened recently to the very excellent Dr Patricia McConnell’s talk for the ASPCA about building resilience in dogs, which you can listen to in full here, I thought I would share some of the ideas I found most interesting, as well as a few of my own comments.

If you work in a shelter, if you volunteer, if you adopt a dog who comes with a range of traumas and terrors, the webinar is a fabulous guide that will give you a better understanding, a lot of inspiration and plenty of practical ideas. I thought some of the ideas I found most interesting, and share with you the story of a resilient little soul named Lucky, and a family of not-so-resilient spaniels (namely Zakari, Zouzou, Zoe, Zelda, Suzette and Teddy) so that you can see some of these ideas in practice.

Why is resilience such an important quality for our dogs to have?

Resilience is the ability we have to bounce back from adversity, trauma or tragedy. It’s how we cope with stress, how quickly we deal with those flight, fight or freeze hormones.

With shelter dogs who come in having faced a range of traumatic and tragic events, you can see how important it is that they have that “bouce-back-ability”. Resilience can prevent stress and can help us cope with physical or psychological trauma. It can also help us heal more quickly. But it can be damaged by trauma. It can also be healed through careful training. Resilience is also how quickly we bounce back, be it seconds or minutes, or even months or years.

What does a traumatic event entail?

In short, it’s any event the animal deems it to be. Sometimes, dogs face enormous adversity without batting an eyelid. We call these dogs “bomb-proof”. For others, even the arrival of a familiar face can stir up feelings of unrest and agitation. For some “bomb-proof” dogs, they can have exposure to events from which they don’t bounce back. But we have common ones that we see more often in the shelter:

  • dogs who have been hurt in some way, physically or emotionally;
  • dogs who have been exposed to aversive training methods or who have been punished during their training;
  • dogs who have come in from “backyard breeders”, kept in squallid conditions;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from other animals;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from human beings;
  • dogs whose owners have been sick or ill for a long time;
  • dogs who have been neglected;
  • dogs who have come in from a puppy farm;
  • dogs whose owners have died.

In short, these are dogs who have had a situational stress. For Lucky, that was living in an abusive household where he was eventually thrown out of a second-floor window, breaking his back leg and fracturing his pelvis. For the seven spaniels, that was living in a barn with little light, with minimal contact from human beings except for food. Why then is Lucky a resilient little soul and Zakari a shadow of a dog?

What we know about resilience

Some of what we know is related to our studies of fear and anxiety. Resilience is, after all, how we cope with fear and anxiety, as well as the stress from trauma. Thus, for Lucky, his traumatic past has not made him a fearful or anxious dog. The opposite happened for Zakari and his family: trauma has resulted in a family of fearful, anxious dogs. Why do dogs have such different reactions to trauma? Why do some dogs bounce back and others don’t?

We should be clear here. It’s not just trauma that makes for a fearful, anxious dog, we’re talking about a dog who finds it hard to cope with traumatic events and harder still to bounce back.

Science tells us that much of how we deal with fear and trauma is inherited – either through genes or through how we are nurtured as we grow up. Our understanding of that comes from much post-war study of the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on humans. Research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has also given us insights into the effects of psychological stress. Many studies of the offspring of Holocaust victims showed that they were more likely to suffer from a lack of resilience: anxiety, depression, PTSD. What studies are telling us is that if you take a stressful event, it can affect generations to come.

You would expect their parents to be more likely to suffer anxiety or depression, but how does that affect their children?

Some of that is no doubt as a way the events affected parenting, how the children were nurtured. However, one small study pointed to something worth further consideration, that compared with a control group, there were epigenetic changes as well, suggesting that the effects of trauma on our parents and grand-parents can cause changes at an epigenetic level in us. We know that the environment can cause genetic changes in plants; what we don’t know is exactly how that functions in creatures. In other words, trauma may cause changes in our biology that we can pass on to our children.

Further studies in animals (Dias & Ressler, 2014) have shown that animals can inherit a fear of certain smells from their fathers. Epigenetic inheritance studies are trying to say more about this tendency, but it’s a new science and there is a lot to learn. For now it’s safe to say that qualities like fearfulness pass through the generations in more ways than just learned behaviours we’ve picked up from our parents.

That said, our early experiences are also important. Studies have also shown that animal offspring that are nurtured become less fearful than animal offspring who are not. This passes down the generations too (Weaver et al, 2004). This suggests that a mother dog who is not nurturing towards her puppies may pass on not only fearfulness to her puppies but also the lack of nurturing will pass forward down the years too. This has huge implications for puppies removed from their mothers, like my dog Heston who was found in a box at a day old. Without that nurturing, fearfulness is a likely consequence. Either through lack of contact with their mother or through poor mothering, a dog may become fearful – and therefore less resilient – as a consequence. That behaviour too is at a genetic level. Licking and nurturing literally makes a baby animal less likely to be stressed as an adult.

And that’s not all. Parenting and a nurturing infancy is vital for a resilient dog. It’s also necessary that mums have a pregnancy that is free from traumatic stress. There are many studies in animals (though none in dogs) that show that there are links between traumatic stress and the way offspring process cortisol, the stress hormone.

So, who a dog’s parents are, what they dog’s parents are afraid of, what stress their mother was subjected to during pregnancy and how the puppies were reared are all vital in giving a dog a solid genetic predisposition for handling stress.

Can you see how important it is then to choose a puppy that comes from great parents with a responsible breeder? And why cheap backyard breeder pups are a catastrophe for resilience? For Lucky, his bounce-back-ability is no doubt a result of his parents, his time in the womb and his puppyhood. Life has thrown all kinds of crap his way and he’s just his happy-go-lucky self. But for Suzette, Zakari and Teddy, as well as their various offspring… take a fearful mum, a stressful environment during pregnancy and you’re two-thirds of the way to creating a dog who has less resilience from birth.

We also saw this lack of resilience with the twenty-odd GSDs taken by another shelter, (three of whom came to us) or indeed the seventy mixed-breed cane corso/doberman that were seized last year, six of whom came to us. More work needs doing before we can fully understand this. It’d be interesting to see those genetic changes under the microscope, but I don’t need science to tell me that – for whatever reason, be it nature or nurture – change is passed on from parents and early experience.

What this tells us is that shelters would do well to work closely with good breeders (and that’s not necessarily a pedigree paperwork thing) to ensure that we think as much about the emotional state of the parents we choose for our puppies. Fearful parents breed fearful offspring.

As McConnell says, you can only work with what you’ve got. If you think of resilience on a scale of 1 – 10, with lack of resilience being 1 and ease of resilience being 10, some dogs don’t come to us having anything more than the ability to reach a 6. You are either bomb-proof from the base, or you are not. Not only that, there is a limit to just how bomb-proof a trainer or behaviorist can make a dog. For Heston, deprived of early parental nurture, he is never going to be a super-resilient bomb-proof dog. 10 is not in his range. For Suzette and her offspring, they are never going to be bomb-proof either. For Lucky, well, he’s a “bomb-proof from the base” kind of guy.

That has a big impact for shelter work and for you as rescuers. What you expect of your dog may be too much: you’ve got to respect your dog’s limits. Depending on how resilient your dog is also impacts upon how they can cope with new stimuli.

It doesn’t mean that we should give up hope though. Even if we have a dog who is genetically predisposed to be fearful and anxious, or less likely to have that bounce-back-ability, there is still a lot we can do.

And, let’s face it, if we didn’t believe that, every single one of us should give up our work in rescue right now.

There are four strategies McConnell says that we can use to help our dogs be more resilient: safety and security, social support, autonomy, and a healthy and balanced physionomy. Two of those are ones that I’d like to explore in a little more detail here.

Safety and security

One of the major things you can do to make your dog feel safe and secure is to remove sensory overload. When you are not resilient, every walk can be the equivalent of a PTSD sufferer walking through a warzone. This can be hard in a shelter. It’s why our least resilient dogs are in quieter enclosures, sometimes on the periphery of the shelter. McConnell talks about limiting exposure to noise, sights, smells to make it less overwhelming to a dog. Shelters can do much by removing novelty for fearful dogs, whether it’s new smells or new sights. The same is true for rescue dogs too, especially in those first moments out of the shelter.

For many of us, we take our new dogs home and subject them to an endless onslaught of new stimuli. We show them new beds, take them round our homes which are filled with new smells, give them new toys, new food, new water bowls.

New is not always good for dogs. Some dogs love new experiences. Neophilia – or the love of new things/novelty – is a key sign of an extrovert. For an extroverted dog who enjoys and thrives off novelty, new things are curious and interesting, not frightening. For an introverted or neophobic animal who is fearful of new experiences, the adoption process can be very hard, even though you think it is a great thing. The shelter, for all its faults, is predictable. It is familiar. It was new once and the dog has adapted. Routines are obvious. Smells are familiar. Sights have become expected. Don’t be upset if your newly rescued dog seems to be more terrified at first, not less.

The ASPCA rehabilitation centre has done some interesting initial work with dogs who come to their centre from animal hoarding situations. It’s only small scale, but it’s very promising and has implications for shelters and rescuers.

One group of their rescued dogs have been kept in kennels where the stimuli has been minimised but where they are quickly introduced to shelter routines: they can’t see other dogs, they have little human contact, routines are established after three days. They are counter-conditioned, desensitised to their fear, involved in active rehab programmes right away.

The other group have a very limited stimuli for three weeks. They have muted sound, few distractions, no sensory overload.

Guess what? The animals who bounce back quickest are those who have three weeks of limited exposure to sensory overload and who are just left to “be” for a little while in a quiet, unstimulating place with limited interaction.

For me, this is very promising. It ties in to what we know about cortisol, the stress hormone, and its “bodily shelf life”. Cortisol can take up to eight weeks to be completely reabsorbed (especially in those dogs who have a genetic glass ceiling on their resilience levels) and until then, it’s floating around in the body. What this shows is that our dogs need time for those cortisol levels to return to normal.

To help them do that, a stress-free, stimuli-free environment is crucial. You should think about how your dogs acclimatise to the noise of your home, and minimise unfamiliar noises. You can also think about keeping novelty to a minimum. Is taking them for a four-km walk every day through what is essentially a warzone for a stressed dog going to help them build resilience? Far better to keep those things to a minimum so a dog can feel safe and secure. Gradually reintroduce walks, new stimuli and new experiences and you’ll find your new rescue dog better able to cope.

McConnell suggests that we take each sense in turn and try to eliminate as much as we can control. Closing curtains or shutters in the home can help if the dog can see a lot of activity outside. Putting a screen up across French windows if you live on a road can also help. Likewise in the garden.

In shelters, there are also things we can do to help stressed dogs recover. Ensuring dogs aren’t facing other dogs’ enclosures in shelter situations is one way we can eliminate visual stimulus (or at least putting a screen up so they aren’t permanently faced with other dogs) and putting them in a low-traffic zone in the shelter can also help. If you have rescued a fearful or anxious dog, ask how you can remove as much visual stimulation from outside as possible so that they can acclimatise quickly to what there is, and not be bombarded with additional stuff to process. A quiet corner can help those who are aversive to noise. At the Refuge de l’Angoumois, we use our ‘satellite’ blocks for this, as the dogs aren’t facing one another in the same way across a corridor. Even in the main block where dogs are, we keep the corridor dim for the most part. Some of our enclosures are out of the way of all other dogs. It’s why Hagrid and Daluk, who find it harder to deal with stimuli, are in the outer parks. I don’t need to tell you the difference in Hagrid when a quiet, non-reactive GSD moved in next door and took the place of two dogs who would regularly run the length of the park barking and jumping up at the panels that separated them from Hagrid. Actually, it wasn’t good for me as a walker: Hagrid was more alert, more energetic, more his “normal self”. He was quite literally worn out from all the noise!

Aim for predictability and as little novelty as possible for a good three or four-week period, longer if necessary. If you must walk your dog, walk them in predictable, open spaces where there is little sensory stimulation from other humans or dogs. For Teddy and Zakari, adopted from our pack of spaniels, having regularity, stability and a lack of stimulation has been vital. Their progress has happened largely because Liliane, their owner, has made sure that everything is the same. They live in a quiet house with few visitors. They have an open, secure garden. Liliane has regular routines. The dogs have regular routines. Their progress has happened because Liliane has turned away visitors and has stuck to those routines. Safety and security has been her path forward and it has made a huge difference. She has also used her regular dog walk in a quiet, predictable space to ‘mop up’ some of those stress hormones.

As for Lucky, there’s a dog who thrives off novelty but has also come to appreciate regularity. Novelty does not frighten Lucky. Rat poison? I’m not going to sniff it – I’m going to scoff it right out. New shoes? Well I’m just going to run down the garden with them as they must be a marvellous new toy. A resilient dog is one who loves new experiences, or, at the very least isn’t frightened by them.

Once your dog has had a chance to reset its stress hormones, it’s time to reintroduce them gradually and carefully to some of those stimuli. Bear in mind too that exercise is a good way to use up adrenaline (and release endorphins) and that movement uses up adrenaline. Mental and physical exercise are vital for dogs to help them build resilience as they use up those stress hormones.

Social support

Social support helps us build resilience and overcome stress. This is also something that is true for dogs. Dogs are social creatures. Living in complete isolation can be stressful for them. Some dogs prefer other dogs, especially if they have not been socialised with people. For our hounds who arrive, many have had little handling. The presence of other dogs is critical. It’s why we refused to adopt our pack of seven spaniels to single-dog homes and why it is best for our scared hounds to go with other dogs. To cut them off from the only social support they have ever had would be akin to removing all connection with the rest of the world. When Zoe and Zouzou were adopted together, Teddy and Zakari went rapidly downhill. Sure, they made each other more fearful, but they also supported each other. Now Teddy and Zakari have been adopted, they need each other to make progress. If a dog comes from a hoarding situation or a pack group, they NEED other dogs. If they come from a home where it has been them and a treasured master, they NEED human contact. Dogs who have been completely isolated from both humans and dogs can take an awfully long time to build resilience with.

Even for our bomb-proof little Lucky, having a stable family home and owners with whom he can find support from has no doubt made that bomb-proof-ness even more rock solid rather than being passed from pillar to post in those first twelve months of his life.

Some final thoughts

Balancing a lack of stimuli to reduce stress, and then building in appropriate mental and physical stimulation to use up stress hormones is a challenge. It depends on each dog to tell you when they are ready for novelty and when they are ready to move on. There will be failures. There will be set-backs. There will be times that your Zakari comes in contact with something that really freaks him out and it may set him back for weeks. There may be times that your bomb-proof Lucky, who has lived through trauma after trauma, finally decides there IS something after all that he is afraid of. Resilience is easy to damage and hard to build.

For shelter workers and rescuers, there WILL be dogs you will fail. There will be dogs that you can never teach to be resilient. For every traumatised Kiki and Coco, eating out of my hand within two minutes, there are uncountable hounds who will never, ever be bomb-proof and for whom life is equivalent to living in a warzone.

We should remember too that learning curves peter out and level off, that learning and progress are not linear. Learning resilience can come in fits and starts. There will be days when there is a lot of progress, and days when there is very little. There will be setbacks.

As we set off on our mission to desensitise our rescue dogs to the stimuli around them, we should remember that the opposite of desensitisation is sensitisation. We can very easily, and accidentally, render our dogs more sensitive to stimuli, not less. Our daily walk may start with the intention of habituating our dog to the world beyond the fence, but can end up putting our dog on edge. Our attempts to introduce sounds and novelty can easily backfire.

But despite the fact that dogs are a result of their genes and their early experiences, we need to remember something. All dogs are more than their genes. Ask any geneticist. Genes are not our destiny. Or, should I say, they are not our only destiny. Nor do they have to be our destiny. Nor are they for a dog. The way we help them to be resilient is vital as well. We can teach our dogs to be resilient, through providing safe and secure environments that do not overwhelm them. I’d like to leave you with something that McConnell said that really resonated with me.

You don’t know how much difference you can make until you start

Pre-walk excitement and how to deal with it

Pre-walk excitement and how to deal with it

At the shelter, we have a number of dogs who get really, really excited before you take them out for a walk. Whether it’s circling, excited barking, jumping up or biting the leash, they’re behaviours that dogs find very rewarding but can also be dangerous. For some of those dogs, they are so excited that they end up biting their walker. These are not behaviours that are isolated to shelter dogs, though, and I see plenty of frayed leashes and chest-height mud-prints that show lots of owners have similar problems in the home.

In the home, you may find that your dog quickly associates the putting on of shoes or the picking up of keys or a leash to be a predictor of a walk. And when we know we’re about to do our most exciting thing of the day, what do we do? We might bark. We might circle. We might decide that the leash is a marvellous opportunity for a game of tug. We might be much harder than usual to bring back down to a level where we are a thinking dog, not a reacting dog.

The thing about excitement is… it’s like a big wad of €100 notes. You’ve got lots to play with and you’re like a gambler at the roulette wheel. I call these ‘Excitement Dollars’. Those dollars accumulate through natural energy levels, age, genetics and associations. Some dogs are Excitement Dollar Paupers, turning up with a few to spare when there’s a walk on offer. And some are Excitement Dollar Millionaires who seem to regenerate those millions in minutes.

Take your average doggy pensioner who came from great doggy lines (no crazy-eyed loons in the old family tree) … a pensioner who’s pottered about the garden all day and is sprung a walk from out of nowhere. Well, there’s fairly few dollars available there.

But take a one-year-old Breton spaniel with excitable parents, negligible training, who’s had a nap and had food and can see people walking around with leashes… who knows that after sleeping and eating and cleaning, people come with leashes and walk him… it’s 2pm and he is BOUNCING with Excitement Dollars. One huge wad of excitement dollars.

Between those two, there are a million different dogs with different amounts of excitement stored up when a walk is on the cards.

Until that wad of excitement is down to a manageable level, you may find that your dog simply won’t listen to you. And if you close the roulette, they’re just going to go and try and spend it at the dice. In other words, you may well deal with leash biting only to end up with a jack-in-a-box Zebedee dog on a spring.

Let’s not forget that a walk for many dogs is the highlight of their day. It’s an arrival in Las Vegas with a million dollars to spend.

Take my young collie x retriever cross Heston. Excitable genes, youth and a lifetime of getting used to my habits. Those dollars stack up quickly. Add shoes, keys and a lead…. 2 + 2 = TWO MILLION EXCITEMENT DOLLARS TO SPEND! It used to be that I couldn’t put my socks on, or even look as if I might put my socks on without frenzied barking and circling. Heston LOVES his walk. Now we’re at the point where he’ll wait until I’m at the door. It’s progress. Shoes are on, socks are on, teeth are brushed, keys are picked up and then we have a 30-second bark and circle burst until we’re out of the gate. To be honest, it’s not perfect, but I can live with it.

Part of the process is realising that sometimes, we’re paying out dividends on those Excitement Dollars. Whenever I get excited, whenever I put on my shoes, whenever I put my keys in my pocket, it’s like I’m that roulette ball slowing down and getting closer and closer to PAYDAY!!!! Those cues that a walk is on the cards give a dog even more to spend. Sometimes, they’re the reminder that they’ve got two gazillion Excitement Dollars burning a hole in their fur.

What worked were removing a lot of the cues and also repeating a lot of the cues. I had to stop giving Heston more dollars to play with. I wanted him to understand that me picking up the keys didn’t mean that he was going out. So I picked up my keys a hundred times a day and made for the door. I rewarded calm behaviour and Heston quickly picked up on the fact that keys didn’t always mean a walk. I did the same for my shoes as well. And then I did the same for the lead.

He still gets a bit excited when I pick up a lead but he’s still biddable and his excitement dissipates quickly once he realises we’re not going for a walk.

I walk Heston for 4km at least once a day and mostly twice. At least 2km of each walk is off-lead unless there’s a reason to put him on the lead, like other dogs or joggers. He runs for that time and a lot of it is at full gallop, chasing swallows or distant rabbits. I want those dollars spent, please. We do scentwork, agility and obedience for a good thirty minutes at least every other day and we play fetch a lot too. More expenditure. He doesn’t have as much exercise as he needs to tire him out, but he has more than many dogs and his behaviour as a result is pretty biddable. That’s a lot of work, but he’s not your normal dog. He came with a big vault of everyday excitement in the bank. I just had to find more ways for him to spend it.

Still, that’s a dog in a home, who doesn’t have 200 other dogs barking at him, circling next to him, snapping at him from behind bars. Talk about other dogs giving you a payday! Heston’s a dog who is exercised in the day, has obedience training and an owner he can bond with. For dogs in the shelter, it’s a bit different.

Imagine your dismay at walking past a house with a reactive dog behind a fence. And then times that by at least thirty that you have to get past before you can get out for a walk. Imagine the excitement of your dog if you’ve had a couple of days off from a usual walk, or your dog who hasn’t had any way at all to let off steam. Those dollars have just been sitting there gathering interest unless they found a way to spend it themselves, like racing a figure-of-eight in the garden or digging a giant hole.

Our dogs at the shelter, even if they go out for a walk every single day of the week, only have a maximum of 30 minutes of one-to-one with a volunteer. That is a very short amount of time to expend all that excitement. This is what life is like for Regis, Estas and Hagrid. No wonder they’re bouncy or leash biters. When I had a couple of weeks of high temperatures and other shelter work to do, I realised Hagrid had not been walked for ten days. Other than a bowl of food twice a day or occasional people who stop by, or the staff who bob in for a few minutes, Hadrid had perhaps two hours of human contact and two hundred and thirty-eight hours with no contact at all. And we wonder why he is so excited to see a walker that he’ll launch himself off the ground, bite at their hands or air-snap at the other dogs as he’s leaving the site for his walk. Just think of all those dollars sitting there, waiting to be spent.

I have a confession to make too. I have, in all my years walking dogs at the shelter, only ever ‘lost’ one. His name was Jony. He was a one-year-old beagle who needed to blow off some of that excitement more than others.

Let me describe what happened, because it’s very relevant here.

Jony came to us with a good level of obedience. Here he is doing a sit when he first arrived. What a great, attentive, focused dog!

Soon, though, all that excitement and lack of stimulation got a bit much. Normally, for safety, we lasso the dogs from one side of the gates with a slip lead. We’d use harnesses but with 200 dogs on site, we’d need 200 good-quality harnesses of varying sizes. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to fit a harness to an over-excited Anglo who’s not used to touch, or a fearful Ariegeois who doesn’t like to be cornered, or an untrained shepherd who’s a bit mouthy. Ethically, my heart is with harnesses. Practically, slip leads fail less than the alternatives and they fit all. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is. A dog can easily slip out of a harness if it’s not fitted properly. I don’t believe haltis are a solution for our dogs. We don’t use flat collars because we can’t leave it on a dog as they can accidentally hang themselves far too easily if a collar is on. Jony was just new in, which is why he still had his collar. Usually, collars are removed. Only very few dogs have a collar. They are never housed with another dog and we have to be very careful that there are no pegs, nails or edges that a collar could get stuck on. Thus, every time our dogs go for a walk, a pair of hands materialise and offer them a cord slip-lead. Or, in doggy terms, what looks like both a walk and a great tug toy all in one.

Anyway, fast forward twelve months. Jony had been getting more and more frustrated. Once, he learned that the fabric slip-lead coming at him through the gate was actually a very great game of tug. We see us trying to lasso an excited dog. They see a human being offering a game of tug. For that reason, I went in to put Jony’s lead on inside the enclosure. Usually we avoid doing this because dogs can rush out. You don’t want a loose dog on site with dogs being walked, with cats on the prowl… you just don’t. So I went into the enclosure to get Jony. Bear in mind, too, that we have to make a choice. Go in and you risk an over-excited dog putting their teeth into your body if a leash is not on offer or even if it is. I got a slip leash on him, and he grabbed the leash. Thus, the leash wasn’t securely fastened and every time he tugged or shook his head, he was actually getting looser. The only reason he was still “inside” the slip leash is that he was enjoying this wonderful game of tug. I put another on him and he did the same with that.

You can see how this is also a vicious circle, because which volunteer wants to walk an over-exuberant dog who’s hard to handle on the lead? It’s the same reason that people stop walking their excited dog: no matter how much you want to, the situation is a nightmare, so you just try to avoid it as best you can. We do the same at home. Hence why many people also let their dog off the leash when really they shouldn’t. If leash skills are poor, we often either let our dogs walk off-leash, stick an aversive shock or prong collar on, or stop taking them out rather than deal with the problem. Poor leash skills are the number one reason for a whole host of poor decisions we make as owners.

Anyway, here’s Jony… And here’s Emma. And I’d just not realised how loose Jony had the slips, how his tug was the only thing keeping it on, and how he was one back up away from running off into the wilds. Which is exactly what happened. He dropped both leashes. He backed up. He was out. He was off.

Luckily, he did no damage and we got him back on in seconds. We were still inside the compound and the gates were shut. Plenty of staff were around to shout him over. He was such an affectionate guy that he went to the first person who called him, and we could then make sure his leash was absolutely secure. By the way, just because you’ve never taught a dog to play tug doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyway… although some dogs who’ve never been taught to have anything in their mouth have a natural aversion to doing so, and will probably exhibit another displacement behaviour instead like circling, leaping on you or barking.

So, for dogs who are over-excited, who leap, who tug the leash, who bite hands… what do you do? Here, I’m thinking about dogs who are not in a shelter situation, but is tailored for dogs who range from gentle over-excitement where you can easily distract them with a high-value treat or favourite toy, to dogs who are extremely over-excited and either have no training at all, no play experience at all or are too excited and focused to want to do anything other than play tug with the lead, jump all over you or nibble your hands. In this article, I’m just looking at leash biting behaviours and will explore jumping up and excited barking or circling in the next.

Leash biting

The simple solutions to this come in several forms and it depends very much on the level of excitement your dog is presenting as well as the level of obedience training they can demonstrate at this moment.

If your dog knows how to play and has some obedience training (even just a sit) the first thing that will make a real difference is to expend that energy before you go for a walk. A dog who has lost that initial burst of energy is less likely to want to pull on the leash and play tug with you. A good game of fetch, frisbee or catch is just a great way for your dogs to get rid of that burst of energy. Ten minutes followed by some simple routine obedience like ‘sit, focus, paw, down, stand’ and you’ll have a dog who has already worked a bit of their steam off and who is more in control of their choices.

You should think carefully about playing tug before a walk… sometimes it is exactly what your dog wants to do, and a good game of tug before a walk can get rid of the desire or need to play tug if your dog will tire of it, but if your dog is the type who can play tug for hours, you should avoid encouraging that tug instinct right before the walk itself. At least have a good period (at least five minutes) of doing something else. I do try to encourage a range of play from my dogs. Whilst I like them to have preferences, I don’t want those preferences to become obsessions. That is very true in this situation.

For dogs who will sit and can be distracted with a high-value treat or toy. 

When the dog takes the leash in its mouth, simply ask them to ‘sit’ and do a couple of other things instead. If they start to bite the leash, interrupt them, ask for a behaviour and then reward it. Distract and refocus. You can use a high-value treat (like chicken, ham or turkey) or a favourite toy as a lure, but don’t give the dog the reward until they’ve done the behaviour you’ve asked for.

In other words, distract with the lure, ask for a different behaviour, use the lure as a reward for the new behaviour.

Be vigilant and watchful, and as soon as you see your dog beginning to look as if they might bite, interrupt the behaviour, ask for another behaviour and refocus your dog. This builds up the connection with you and they’re paying more attention to you, and less to the leash. You can also “tease” your dog with the leash a little to ensure your dog understands that the leash is not a chew toy. Once you’ve done it a fair few times, offer the lure less frequently to get the behaviour and phase it out completely over time. Use it as a reward if they give the behaviour and transition that to a more intermittent reward over time.

You can see the first part of this in the video here: distract with a lure, refocus with a new command, use the lure as a reward.

I would caution however to watch for other behaviours popping out as ways to expend that excitement. You can see this dog will also need a little work to make sure that excitement is not popping out as a jump rather than tug-of-war on the leash.

Also, remember that the dog in the video IS easier and more biddable even after two minutes, because sometimes that’s enough for that burst of Excitement Notes to be spent. That’s why you could make LOADS of progress in one session, but it’s the beginning of the next session that will be vital, when you wonder why Johnny has forgotten exactly what you did the session before.

What about dogs who are too excited to be distracted with even half a leg of lamb or the best of frisbees? 

Pre-walk exercise is really, really important here. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t use your walk as exercise with a dog who is over-excited. Let them burn it off a bit and you’ll have a biddable dog once more. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a no-win situation.

You also need to avoid all the cues that a walk will happen. If you put your shoes on and your dog knows, put your shoes on at the beginning of the day, take them off, put them on, take them off… you get the picture. Break every single clue that your dog can use to get excited.

The third thing you should do is think about the type of leash, harness and collar you are using.

Anything that has to go over the head (and is thus presented face first to the dog, like a slip lead) is more likely to be something they want to chew. The same is true of a front-clipping harness. Haltis for dogs who bite the leash can be very frustrating.

The best solution for a dog who bites the leash is to have the leash out of the dog’s mouth area, so a leash that fits to the top/rear of a harness is the best solution. If the dog can’t reach the leash easily, they can’t grab it to pull. It’s that simple.

The type of harness you fit is important too: you want to avoid your arms going near the dog’s mouth. A playful, mouthy dog who doesn’t have good control at that moment in time has a stronger propensity to bite and to present yourself to a dog in an excited state with poor bite control is a recipe for disaster. It must be quick-fitting and something you can fit from behind or above.

The best solution, until you have eliminated mouthing altogether at walk time is to keep the harness on for much longer periods, so that the harness itself doesn’t become associated with the walk ritual. For instance, fitting it immediately after breakfast and leaving on until you’ve walked your dog can break the habit of thinking ‘harness = walk’. For this reason, it should be a high-end harness that does not rub and does not give your dog anything to chew. For those first few days, supervise your dog very carefully to ensure they are not chewing the harness during this time.

For over-excited dogs, I cannot stress enough the need to have a securely-fitted harness. They are more likely than many dogs to make a bid for freedom. If you’re lucky, like I was with Jony, no harm will come of it. If not, an over-excited dog could run into traffic, could chase another animal or could simply run off.


I’d also advise you to wear good gloves. They will shield you from nips and will make it easier to control the leash.

Having chosen a harness that is less easy to chew, you will then find it much easier to present your dog with great choices to bite, mouth and chew instead. Don’t expect that mouthy energy just to disappear: an excited dog wants to use its mouth to express its excitement, just as some dogs bark or circle. Encourage them to have something in their mouth and you will find your job much more easy. That can be a treat or a toy. I find toys work better here as the energy levels are higher.

Why do you think my Mali Tobby ended up with a toy at the shelter? Because he was a mouthy leash biter who thought he was being presented a toy.


As a consequence, he was given a toy. Tobby loved that toy. He’d only put the toy down to eat, and that toy-habit is one he still has. That came out of our need to stop him biting at the slip leash when it was presented to him.

The tactic here is exactly the same: ‘distract and refocus’. You distract with a toy, especially one they are happy to carry, and you can begin your walk in peace. Be prepared for them to drop the toy after a couple of minutes as their excitement level drops though. That toy will stop being a great thing to carry the minute that first burst of excitement is gone, I bet you.

Absolutely never walk a dog like this until you’ve got rid of that energy burst though.

I also want to take the excitement out of the leash. Here’s Emily from Kikopup showing how to do it with a young pup. I would do this AFTER the walk when the dog is calm and relaxed. And I am really, really with her about using a partner to help if it’s very challenging indeed.

What about dogs who’ve never learned to play, or have no obedience skills and have taught themselves tug?

We have a number of dogs adopted every year as adults who have never learned to play. I have four of my six who have never been taught (or appear not to have been). Tobby will carry a toy but never give it. Tilly only cares if her toy has wings and feathers and goes by the name of ‘pheasant’. Mimire doesn’t care for toys and Féfelle wouldn’t know a toy if it bit him. Heston dropped every single toy in his possession at Féfelle’s feet and Féfelle was completely disinterested. Worse still, though Tilly and Tobby have obedience training, Mim and Féfelle don’t. What do you do with a big lump who has no training?

Surprisingly, most dogs who don’t do toys don’t actually understand tug. It would never cross their mind to put something in their mouth in that way. That’s what it is like with Hagrid. He never, ever grabs the lead and though I’ve tried all sorts of toys with him, it all means nothing to him. Féfelle is the same. Don’t understand toys = don’t think a human will ever play tug with a bit of rope. I mean, why would you?! I don’t go up to Japanese people, drop sticks at their feet and expect them to Morris Dance.

For these dogs, they may pull, they may bounce, they may bite through displacement, but they don’t often put the leash in their mouth and play tug.

Worse is with a dog who has taught themselves to play tug but don’t have any other tricks in their magic box and/or you don’t have the facilities to allow them to expend that energy.

The first thing to do is to teach them some skills. Féfelle doesn’t do sit. But we’ve done ‘focus’ and we’ve done ‘follow me’ and ‘play bow’. Even six-year-olds with nothing have something they can learn. At least with this, we can get somewhere.

The second thing is to condition calmness around the leash, as shown in the Kikopup video. Again, a partner is a really valuable tool here so that you can add some distance. You want a calm, non-stimulating environment when all those Excitement Dollars have already been spent.

When I’m attaching a leash in these circumstances, I want to make sure that we are in closed quarters and that it doesn’t matter if I drop the leash. This is precisely what I’m going to do. I’m going to drop it. Instead of participating in the super-fun walk-tug game, I’m opting out. I’ll even go and stand in the corner and face away from the dog. I’m so totally not interested in that game of tug. And tug is only fun when someone is providing resistance. I’m going to drop that leash as soon as the dog’s mouth makes contact with it. I’m going to turn around and I’m going to ignore any jumping up or barking, or other ways this frustrated dog is going to get me to interact. If I bend down and the dog goes for the leash, I’m going to stand up, back off, disengage. The very first time I get hold of the leash and the dog has not got the leash in his mouth, I am going to give him such a massive celebration that he is going to forget about the leash altogether. I’m going to keep the dog in those close confines with the leash, dropping every time it looks like becoming tug and reward every time the dog doesn’t. I want this to be rock solid and I want to be absolutely sure that I can move it on beyond the closed quarters because dropping the leash is not something I want to do outside.

With Regis and Estas yesterday, I spent twenty minutes dropping the leash and picking it up, practising sit, habituating them to the leash itself. I didn’t get to the point where I walked them (they’d both been walked already anyway, which is great). I want to stop the leash being such a fun item so it becomes as meaningless as my t-shirt is. I say this with a degree of irony, having had my jean cuffs involved in a game of tug with a terrier puppy. Both Estas and Regis can sit, and they both responded to a tug rope and a toy too – they might be older gents, but it’s this precise combination of savvy tug knowledge and the stressful environment of the shelter that is leading them to ‘play up’ in this way. Like I said, dogs who have no toy or chew experience usually don’t think to pop the leash in their mouth. In all the times I’ve walked Hagrid, when the leash is accidentally in his mouth, he’s like a young horse in halter for the first time: he can’t get it out of his mouth quick enough. But then Hagrid doesn’t respond to a ball or ever walk around with a toy in his mouth. Luckily, dogs who know toys often know some obedience (both Regis and Estas can sit when asked) and that makes it much easier to teach them to stop tugging the leash when we walk. It’s the dogs who don’t tug – who circle, bark or jump – who often have little by way of training and who face a bigger battle.

I’m looking forward to continuing with them as well. They’re both lovely dogs who just have a lot of excitement to expend.

Hopefully with these tips, you’ve got a good range of ideas to help you manage leash biting and reactivity. I promise to make a video of a couple of our worst leash biters (and sorry Kevin and Emily, but they make your dogs look like stage props!) and demonstrate how these techniques can stop frantic tug-of-wars with a leash that can end very badly indeed.