Puppy Power: getting your puppies off to a great start


Watching a video that Nando Brown posted of his Malinois Fizz, I couldn’t help but compare her to Hagrid, our resident shelter smart boy who’s now one of the dogs who’s been here the longest. Fizz has had everything right: good breeding, a great upbringing, an owner who more than understands the demands of the breed, who did absolutely everything he could have done to raise a great puppy; Hagrid has had nothing right: accidental breeding (he’s a Mali x GSD with no pedigree), an upbringing that didn’t teach him a soft bite (kind of essential with mouthy Malinois!) and who ended up in the shelter, aged 4.

It made me sad for Hagrid, because despite all those things against him, he could do everything Fizz was doing: spin, twist, sit, stand, down, through the legs, stay, play dead. Well, almost all. I never got him to jump on my back. It’d be like trusting Hannibal Lecter with the cooking. He is who he is despite everything. I wonder who he could have been if he’d had a great upbringing.

Having two puppies here on a 48-hour stay also reminds me just how important it is to do right by your dogs. Like it or not, puppies are like amazing little sponges, yet most of us teach them one or two appropriate behaviours and they learn five or six inappropriate behaviours all for themselves. The windows of opportunity are short with puppies, and some of them are downright contradictory. There are also a lot of things that you have to depend on someone else to do, even if you get your puppy at six weeks as I did with Heston (he was found in a box at one day old). For this reason, it’s vital that you work with the foster home or the breeder as much as you can before you get your puppy. So many of those windows of development are closed by the time most breeders are happy to hand over a puppy at eight weeks or more.

Neonatal period (0-2 weeks)

For puppies in the neonatal period, most of what they experience is with touch, since they are unable to see or hear. Even their smell is very poor. They also respond to warmth as well. Contact and warmth are vital for neonatal puppies, and you should expect the breeder or foster carer to spend considerable time with the puppies on them as well as on mum. Pups like to huddle, so spending a couple of hours every evening with a puppy resting belly-down on your chest is a great way to start getting them used to you before they are too old to be scared. It’s a good way to start that contact, touching all parts of them, especially ears, legs and feet. It’s a great way to start a puppy off in life if it is already used to human touch by two weeks. Very young puppies may easily be physically harmed, but because they cannot hear, smell or see, they cannot be easily harmed psychologically. Anything you can do to start off touch and warmth will help build a great foundation for later. This helps puppies learn that humans are safe.

Transition period (2-4 weeks)

This is the period when adult dog behaviours begin to appear, and watching puppies at this age is amazing. You get to see all those canine instincts appearing. In the third week of life, puppies begin to orient themselves, beginning to find their way around and explore. As their eyes develop, they become more interested in objects at a distance. Growling and play fighting will start to emerge, so it’s vital that puppies have contact with others in their litter to learn how to play. They also begin to hear sounds in this period. Teeth start coming in around twenty days depending on breed, so you really want to start handling your puppy before then so that they are used to it before the bite instinct kicks in. Since puppies can hear from this point on and will move towards things other than their mum, you can also start to call them or encourage their approach. Puppies will also sit at this point, and you can start off rewarding them for this simple skill too. At the end of this period, you should be rewarding your puppies for calm behaviour, sits, settles and helping them to learn that humans are safe.

Socialisation period (4-6 weeks) 

This period of a puppy’s life is marked by a lot of interaction and surveillance. If you thought you were tired before, this is when you need eyes in the back of your head, especially with a big litter! There’s a reason this period of a puppy’s life is called the socialisation period – it is the age at which they learn social play and the age at which they form social relationships with humans as well as other dogs. Their curiousity is really high but their fear response is minimised. Meeting and playing with other dogs is vital during this time – but since puppies are unvaccinated, many breeders and vets are unhappy to do this. It’s a big risk. On the one hand, you risk a number of infectious diseases or fleas being transported by the other animals, and on the other, you risk them learning to associate other dogs with feeling afraid. Even seven-week-old puppies can quickly learn to be very afraid of other dogs, trembling and yelping at the slightest contact, or taking much, much longer to interact with them.

During this period, it is absolutely vital that puppies have handling and contact.Puppies become fearful of handling around five weeks of age, and if they aren’t habituated to handling during this period, they can become very fearful. Like feral kittens who will remain feral if not handled around the three week mark (or at least be very, very difficult to socialise), the same is true of puppies. By fourteen weeks of age, the socialisation window is almost entirely shut, but even at seven weeks, puppies can develop a fear response to human handling. What they need now is handling, and lots of it.

At this age, puppies will also start to eat more solid food. There is no reason at all they should be eating from bowls (except to learn how to eat from one – and remember to vary the materials you feed them in from plastic to metal or porcelain!) and so you can use their food needs to build up that bond with you. The pleasure centre of the brain is part of the reward centre too, so all food and contact combined will teach a puppy how great human contact is. A food bowl with puppy food is a wasted opportunity. Burying treats in a snuffle mat, using them as rewards for approaches, teaching the puppy their name (or to respond to “puppy!”) and you’ll quickly find yourself working your way through their food needs for the day.

It doesn’t help with toileting though, if puppies aren’t getting three bigger meals a day, so this is the time that you need to take regular outside breaks and if you use rewards for toileting outside, you can use them for that. Smell and habit are much stronger tools for puppy house training than reward, so be vigilant with mopping up, change the mop water regularly and make sure that puppies go outside the moment they are awake, about ten minutes into active play and before they nap. Even at this age, puppies will build up toileting habits and routines that can be pretty hard to break.

Around 5 weeks, puppies will also start behaving as a group, following one another about. It’s important at this point to have one-to-one time with each puppy and continue individual contact and handling. Puppies who have little exposure to people and a lot of exposure to other young dogs can become very ‘dog-focused’ and can find it more difficult to form attachments to people. For some types of puppy (some terrier litters, for instance) from 7 weeks, you may find them targeting one individual of the group – which is why it becomes vital that group play is supervised. A puppy that learns early that picking on another weaker dog is fun can learn some very indesirable behaviours. The last thing you want to allow is a young puppy to learn that bullying or hazing is fun. This is especially important with breeds that have been selected for tenaciousness, like terriers or bully breeds.

Puppies also learn in this period to use chewing as a method of investigation. Mouths are like hands, and if toddlers are grabby, puppies can be little land sharks, sinking their teeth into absolutely everything. It’s vital at this point to start to swap “bad” chewing for “good” chewing so that puppies build up a preference for what you want them to chew. Towards the end of this period, you will want to be teaching bait-and-switch, where puppy will swap a toy or whatever it’s chewing for a treat or for another toy. Giving up a toy or something they’re chewing should always bring reward.

This is really the period that you want your puppies to be beginning to experience the world, without overwhelming them and traumatising them by constant, unplanned exposure, but they still need to be with mum and littermates. They are also unvaccinated. That’s a big demand on breeders and fosterers, requiring almost a twenty-four hour presence, eyes in the back of the head, lots of exposure to new things, lots of contact with humans and other animals. Since puppies should not leave their littermates at this time, if you’re interested in buying or adopting a puppy, getting really involved with them at this age will not only help out the breeder but also familiarise them with you.

Juvenile period (6-24 weeks)

This period is marked by learning all the things that are nice and all those that are frightening. Helping your puppy develop their attention spans, building in frustration training and learning motor skills is important. It’s also the period at which serious psychological damage can be done. A single event can cause a fear response and it can take some enormous counter-conditioning or desensitisation to get over it. Take, for instance, the puppy whose first experience in a car is a terrifying one. How many trips in a car where there is a positive association does it take to get the puppy to see the car as a temporary event before something very pleasurable, or a negative association where they see it as a temporary event before something very unpleasant (like the vet). It also covers the period in which puppies move from their family unit to their new family, so it’s vital there is good communication between the breeder or fosterer and the new home.

There are several really important things your puppies need to learn during this period, alongside the usual obedience programmes.

This period is marked most by the fear response, so teaching your puppies how to handle the introduction of novel experience is key. What you really don’t want (even if you are teaching a gun dog or a SAR dog) is a puppy who investigates without checking in with you. Puppies who learn that humans decide when things need investigating and when they don’t are puppies who end up as safe dogs. Even hounds, gun dogs and SAR dogs need to know a cue to investigate. Take it from me… puppies who investigate everything without your supervision are puppies who become Hestons. My collie x retriever had some amazing self-taught investigations during his formative weeks, and although that’s bloody marvellous for an independent dog, it’s a recipe for disaster. He may be the best tracking dog in the town, but it took me a gazillion years to teach him to investigate on cue. “Find it!” is a great cue for dogs of breeds who have great eyes, noses or investigative sequences. “Leave it!” is also incredibly useful!

It’s also the period when puppies get vaccinations and meet the vet, which makes it vital to make that experience as positive as possible. Sadly not all vets are as keen to help you habituate young dogs to the vet, so choose a vet and a surgery that has minimal stress for your puppy. The movement for fear-free veterinary care is only just in its infancy – kind of strange when you think about it! – but if you think of how hard dentists had to work to overcome their fearful reputation in the 60s and 70s, it’s the same with vets now.

Vaccination health is not the only crucial health care you need to begin at this age. Puppies should also get used to having their teeth brushed. Seriously! If I were starting again with a puppy, it’s the one healthcare routine I would build in from the beginning. Dental hygiene is so fundamental to other aspects of health that you need a dog who has a clean set of gnashers. The toxins from mouth bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause all sorts of health problems, including problems with the heart and kidney failure! So many people are obsessed with what they feed their dog as a way to prolong their dog’s life and extend a healthy lifespan without taking into account that the biggest difference you can make to the lifespan of your dog (other than long-lived parents and grand-parents) is dental hygiene! Unlike the “raw food/biscuit” debate which will rumble on until proper longitudinal surveys have been completed on both sides, there is no debate about dental hygiene and its importance. Handling your dog’s mouth will also help with “mouthiness” as well. The last thing a vet needs is a bite for looking in a dog’s mouth! Just make sure you use specialist dog toothpaste! Minty breath is not for dogs. This from a girl who used to laugh at her neighbour for brushing his cat’s teeth! Now I think it’s the most fundamental aspect of health care.

No article about good starts for puppies would be complete without a mention of food. Although you may think that a packet of dog biscuits from the supermarket is suitable, puppies need specialist foods for their age and also for the size of dog they will become. It’s vital that large breeds or those prone to dysplasia or muscular issues don’t grow too fast. It’s also essential that the balance of energy and protein is just right for a puppy. This is why home-made meals are not recommended by your vet. Indeed, early research on a litter of Bernese mountain dogs showed that their home-made raw diet had left them with severe nutritional deficiencies. There are plenty of good freeze-dried, pre-packaged raw diets or biscuit diets for puppies constructed by veterinary nutritionists that you can buy from internet stockists. But the packets sold in the supermarkets are unlikely to offer the nutrition your puppy needs. One thing is also for sure: one size does not fit all. The biscuits for a small breed dog are not suitable for an older dog, and young dogs have different calorific needs and nutritional requirements than an adult dog.

You can also follow Kikopup on Youtube for lots of great videos. She has some great videos about teaching calmness, settling, sitting, following and not teaching other skills that encourage excited behaviours. Ian Dunbar’s excellent books on Dog Star Daily are free and vital for everyone with a young puppy. He has free books for “Before you get your puppy” and “After you get your puppy”.

If you haven’t booked your puppy in with a really great force-free positive trainer to learn a reliable recall as their flight instinct kicks in, I can’t stress this enough, especially if you have dogs who are led by their eyes or their noses. Okay….what I should say there is ANY dog! All dogs, even ones bred for territorial behaviours, can get into real trouble if you don’t have a recall that has been tested every which way you can. For dogs who are particularly territorial, such as shepherds, you also need to get that socialisation in. This is also very true for dogs who are bull or terrier breeds. Top notch manners around other dogs are absolutely crucial for independent dogs, especially if they have an instinct for the tail end of the predatory sequence. If you get off on attacking moving objects, is there anything more important than learning how to behave around cars, small furries and small humans with faces in the bite range? I couldn’t help but see all those rehoming announcements yesterday for shepherds who need homes without other animals and without children and think that there is a lot to be said for more careful breeding and for the right socialisation to combat latent behaviours that you don’t want to encourage. The cattle dog that nips at children, the collie who stalks bicycles and the shepherd who bites passers-by are all examples of dogs who really, really needed their owner to teach them when it’s okay to do these behaviours and when it is not. All dogs are individuals and all can be very poor examples of their breed, but you owe it to your dog and the people around you to know what floats their boat, effective ways to channel that behaviour and effective ways to focus it in the right way.

That said, all dogs have sets of behaviours that are incompatible with good manners. Biting, jumping up, mouthing, barking and helping themselves are also all behaviours that will need a bit of work.

This is why it’s vital you get your puppy from a breeder or fosterer who knows what they are doing, who knows more than the average human being about dogs. It is their responsibility to do everything necessary until the dog passes over into your hands. The best breeders and fosterers will actively encourage you to help them out in that four-eight week period, or will be happy to do those things themselves. Then it falls on you to take up the reins.

It’s also why a puppy is not for everyone, and not for every period of your life. If you don’t have the time or the skills to take on a puppy, you might want to consider an older dog. Next week, I’ll tell you why.





Why 2017 is the year to volunteer

Why 2017 is the year to volunteer


I’m not going to lie to you. Volunteering can be emotional and it can be messy. Somewhere between the people who come once and make a big song and dance about how magnanimous they are on Facebook, and the volunteers who always, no matter what you ask them, and who say yes time and time again, there are the regular volunteers who are the lifeblood of any charity.

These are the volunteers who come up with new ways to raise money, who offer new ideas. They’re the volunteers who are there on a quiet Friday morning or a lazy Sunday afternoon. They’re the ones sharing on Facebook and helping out behind the scenes. They’re the ones quietly drip-feeding the world around them, keeping the name of your charity in everyone’s minds. Sometimes they’re the volunteers who come in and get their head down and get on with it. Many times, they’re the quiet ones. Often they’re the ones who bring a smile to the world-weary, the ones who turn up and make the impossible into something that’s – well – possible.

In animal rescue, these are the quiet guys who turn up and walk the dogs week-in, week-out. They’re the ladies who you see in the vet’s with a carrier full of sick kittens. They’re the names you see on facebook who run groups and make sure lost pets have the best chance of finding their owner. They’re the faces you see day after day, offering advice to adoptants, doing home visits, helping move animals from one place to another. They’re the people who come up with fundraising ideas and muck in at events, the people with grimy hands who’ve spent an afternoon sorting out assorted bric-a-brac to sell at a car boot sale or yard sale. In between the Armchair Warriors who paste a thousand petitions on their feeds and the weary full-timers, these volunteers are the mainstay of any organisation. And all organisations depend on volunteers like this to keep going.

So why should 2017 be the year to volunteer? What’s holding you back?

Many people think they don’t have enough time to volunteer.

I confess I had a silent tut to myself when I saw someone saying they didn’t have enough time to volunteer because they had ironing to do and a car to clean out. I’m just going to share with you the life of one of the ladies I most respect: six kids, a business, studying a masters degree, 17 chickens, 10 sheep, 4 dogs and two cats… and she runs a rescue voluntarily. I would say this lady lives life to its fullest, but she’s not sacrificed her own life for work or rescue.

Most people don’t have quite that life (and if you do, you’re forgiven for taking a bit of a back seat!) but don’t think you don’t have enough time to dedicate to volunteering. Some roles take three or four hours, an afternoon maybe. Some people give an afternoon a week. If everybody did three hours a week, charities would be cock-a-hoop. If you have a hundred volunteers who give three hours a week, every week, that’s three hundred hours. That’s only fifteen volunteers per day. Only! But it equates to almost eight members of staff. That three hours a week for a hundred volunteers works out at a budget of almost a quarter of a million euros. Small drops make big oceans.

Some people think they couldn’t handle working with animals. They think they’re not strong enough or that they can’t handle the emotional intensity of animal rescue.

Believe me when I say there are jobs for everyone. You’ll have seen, no doubt, the video of the lady in her nineties who volunteers every day in the UK. We had our own nonagenarian, Louis, who was our “petting therapist”. Every day, he’d sit in reception with a dog who needed cuddles and companionship. Big or small, they hopped up next to him and he spent the afternoon giving some of our dogs the attention they craved. If you can sit, then you can pet.

Other people do other kinds of jobs if they can’t work with animals directly. Some do admin jobs. One volunteer comes in every single time our shelter computers break, which is pretty often. Seeing Florian under the desk is a pretty regular thing. He designs logos for associations as well. Just because you haven’t got time when the shelter is open or you don’t feel able to work directly with animals doesn’t mean there’s not a job for you to do.

Some people feel that language is a barrier – here, in France, if you’re a retiree or a mum who spends most of her time with other ex-pat mums, it can be quite understandable that volunteering can be a bit of a stretch. For that, having bilingual members of staff makes a huge difference. But, where there is a will, there’s a way. I can’t count the number of times our shelter directrice has come up to me and said “I smell a rat!” – I don’t know how much English she ever spoke in her life before so many English speakers descended on her shelter, but I do know that I’ve never seen so many French speakers who aren’t confident with English trying to speak to English speakers who aren’t confident with French. I think that is pretty cool. And, let’s face it, there are jobs that require no interaction at all, if you’re the antisocial type. We have 200 dog bowls that need washing, and 30 cat litter trays to clean out. Grunting is more than adequate. Volunteering in France will definitely help your language skills. Believe me. When you’re trying to explain the consistency and colour of diarrhea, you’ll find your language expanding miraculously. And there is always someone to help you.

It’s not all about what’s in it for the shelter, though.

What’s in it for you?

Volunteering in France is a great way to learn the language and to become truly part of something. It was through volunteering that I actually – after five years of living in France! – found actual, real-life French friends. Not clients or people I work with. Not mums from school. Actual friends who invite me to their houses sometimes. If you live in the Charente, you’ll know that this kind of stuff usually doesn’t happen unless you have known someone for fifty years or you accidentally married a French person.

You learn a language and make friends because, guess what, volunteering is great for building a sense of community. Doing good things makes you feel good too. It reduces depression and it gives you a purpose. The routine is vital for those who are suffering with depression, and feeling part of a community is a big part of great mental health. It brings you in contact with people you would never have met in any other way and it forges friendships that would never have happened in a world beyond volunteering.

When you volunteer, you meet people. If you’re like me and you work too, that puts you in touch with a whole new business market. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tired of the cynical sellers connected to the pet industry who want to use the shelter as part of their plan to branch out to new customers. Be they pet food sellers, dog trainers, photographers or kennels, there are definitely some pet industry professionals who are in it for clients. But there are plenty who are pet industry professionals because they love pets, and more clients are accidental by-products of volunteering. If you come at it from the angle of “this will expand my target audience”, you’ll fail miserably. If you come at from “I love animals!” that will stand out a mile. And you might be at odds for how this will help you if you’re in an unusual business. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed my crafty friends in the direction of one of our volunteers who also runs a craft business. Personal connection is everything for word of mouth, and volunteering gets you out of your usual circle of contacts. You just don’t know what other volunteers get up to in their day jobs, but you can bet your bottom dollar that once they find out what you do, they’ll be happy to recommend your services.

Volunteering is also a way to improve your confidence, especially if you’re more wallflower than party animal. Most of the volunteers at our shelter are fairly extroverted, but there are plenty who are shy guys or prefer to just get on with it. It’s great for reminding you what you can achieve, especially if you’re feeling unsure of yourself.

It can also help you learn new skills, or apply your skills in ways you never did before. Take me. I’d studied photography, but had never really done much between landscapes and travel photography. Now I have 30000 photos of dogs and kittens on my laptop. I’ve had to use Photoshop and editing programs like Inkscape in ways that I never had before. It also got me interested in how animals learn. I’ve got a masters in how people learn and I loved psychology at university, but now I am loving having this mid-life turn of focus. I still love teaching English Literature. It will always give me a thrill to get teenagers to the point where poetry isn’t horrible anymore. And I still love writing. In fact, it’s given me something to write about! But volunteering is also the reason I’m studying further, and almost half way through a canine behaviour and psychology course. I’m really, really looking forward to writing my dissertation and blending all that I know about changing people’s mindsets with working with animals. So many dog behaviourists say that the owners are the problem not the dogs that I’m looking forward to exploring the shadow side of working with human clients over dog problems. Volunteering has invigorated me and given me an opportunity to bring what I know to a different arena. That’s pretty exciting. My book list is enormous, and it’s all about animals – so much so that I have turned into a colossal bore, I’m sure. I was talking about altruism in birds at lunch yesterday. I’m sorry to the people I was with. Luckily, they tolerated my enthusiasm and we ended up talking about sweary parrots on Youtube.

Volunteering also allows you to give back to a cause that you believe in. For so many years, when I worked full time, my donations were financial. Now I’m really enjoying the practical side of volunteering and a chance to do something a little different. It also turns you into an advocate. How many of us have been convinced to adopt a shelter animal by someone who worked with or believed in second chances for animals? That’s pretty powerful.

It can be fun too. I mean belly laugh kind of fun. You’d probably not think that working in animal rescue could be fun. A few weeks ago, a member of staff enlisted me for a pick up in a dodgy part of town. We had a nervous Amstaff and a Malinois who hated the Amstaff to pick up. And a cat. It was pretty horrendous, and it was pretty sad. The poor Amstaff wouldn’t get in a crate at all, so we had to drive kind of holding her over the seats, and the Mali was so distressed that she did a massive poo in the transport crate. When we got back, there was shit everywhere. I mean everywhere. And you can’t leave that shit for someone else to clean up. Nope. That is YOUR job. Well, the unfortunate member of staff hadn’t got the hose pressure just right and ended up getting a back spray of dog shit. I cried laughing. It just couldn’t have been any more shitty than it already was. We both ended up crying laughing, and it was absolutely the best medicine. If you don’t have people to help you find the ridiculous in amongst all the shit, helping work is pretty flipping miserable. In the rain, in the mud, the sight of two volunteers wearing bin bag skirts and silly hats just turned the whole sad misery of life in an animal shelter on its head. Now I know that dogs appreciate laughter more than tears or anger, and our laughter is vital to the animals’ mental health. That’s what I tell myself. I can even show you studies about tone of voice and what’s going on in a dog’s brain when we smile. Smiling volunteers are essential for sad dogs. Fun and laughter is good for our souls as well as for theirs.

And if, just if, you find a dog or a cat that you fall in love with? Well, who’d argue with that?

So go on, I dare you. Make 2017 the year you volunteer. Stick it on your New Year’s resolutions list. Sign up today. Don’t put it off a moment longer. We need you! Dig out your Yellow Pages and find somewhere – anywhere – that needs a helping hand. I guarantee you’ll start 2018 feeling really glad that you did.



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. It is also important to consider your own health while travelling with pets, London Travel Clinic has clinics throughout London and the south of England that provide vaccines for a range of diseases. Its well worth checking out before finalising any travel plans.

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. It can be especially hard to figure out they will react will the established alpha dog of the household. This can be a challenge. There are ways you can make it easier for you and your dogs. For example, a friend of mine recently decided to buy a stroller for her old dog when taking him out with her newer and younger dogs. It is important that they still have the time to socialize with the younger dogs even if they don’t quite have the legs for it. That is why strollers for large dogs can be very useful. This can help them all get used to the new routine.

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.