Fallout in positive reinforcement training: a post for trainers

Fallout in positive reinforcement training: a post for trainers

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

That isn’t quite true, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the unintended effects of R+, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He asks for a simpler behaviour and the walrus obliges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallout in aversive training: a post for trainers

Fallout in aversive training: a post for trainers

It’s not often I write a post (or two!) for trainers alone – most of my site is guidance for owners of dogs who they have adopted. Often it’s a place where I can send people who ring me who need something for those minor issues: humping, jumping, house-training and so on… things where there are well-established protocols to change behaviour quickly by changing the environment or tackling a single, isolated behaviour.

There’s a reason I have these posts for minor issues. Kathy Sdao talks of doing triage over the phone. I think a lot of dog trainers and behaviourists must do this. You do intake interviews, sure, and I have a 13-page intake assessment form, but those first phone calls go like this:

“Hi Emma…. I’ve been given your number by so-and-so. My dog’s pulling on the lead. What can I do?”

or:

“Hi Emma… I’ve just picked up a new dog and he’s humping my own dog. I’ve tried X, Y and Z but he’s still doing it and my dog is getting stressed.”

or:

“Hi Emma… I’ve just got a new dog and she’s peeing in the house. Can you help?”

Lots of my phone calls go like that. And that’s fine. These are the people you can help in an hour consultation as long as they implement your advice. Cheap and easy hand-holding with tried-and-trusted techniques.

And I don’t worry about hidden blind spots or things clients aren’t considering.

I find people usually start with the most severe problem in a couple of seconds of the call, and although there will be an enormous amount of back-story to fill in which may take an hour or so, even for these ‘simple’ cases, it’s not something that needs an enormous skill to address in non-aversive ways.

Then you get some that go like this:

“Hi Emma… you’re my last resort. Our bouvier bernois has bitten my husband.”

or:

“Hi Emma… please help. We can’t cope any more. Our labrador is growling at our children.”

or:

“Emma… can you take my dog? Otherwise we’re going to have to have it euthanised. It’s fighting with our other dogs and I don’t know what to do.”

And increasingly, I have calls that go like this:

“I’ve got a dobie/shepherd/rott that we’ve been taking to club, but he’s become really unpredictable at bitework, getting more and more aggressive in general, and the club said we can’t take him any more.”

Those are the ones that currently take up a lot of my time. It’s not that there are more of them. It’s just that I’ve got a bit of a reputation as a Last-Chance Saloon following a dog I worked with. I did an assessment of a German Shepherd who’d been trained for “protection” work and who had become mean and uncooperative, unpredictably growly and the club had banned the dog from going anymore when it had attacked the club owner. These clubs are surprisingly popular in France. Malinois and GSDs are the top two ranking breeds in terms of popularity, and a surprising number of those end up at ‘cynophile’ clubs. Whilst I don’t have any problem with obedience heeling, finding strangers to bark at and tracking scents, putting bitework in there needs to be done with care, and it’s invariably this bit that goes wrong. Trainers in France require no qualification and these clubs are renowned for high levels of confrontational training. I’m making no comment and no judgement about how these dogs are trained and the club these dogs are coming from is pretty easy-going in terms of what’s acceptable training-wise. I don’t even really know exactly how the dog in question had been trained, and to a large degree, it didn’t matter. I immediately asked the owners to do a full blood and x-ray/ultrasound work-up under sedation at the vet hospital in Bordeaux. They did so and it revealed quite significant hip dysplasia as well as problems with his spleen. Medication, surgery and 3500€ later, he was almost a different dog. Sure, he needed a bit of counter-conditioning and a complete change in pastimes – no more long walks and definitely no pretend “protection” work – but his owners really did treasure him. Well, kind of. Didn’t stop them sending him out to stud, even with his hip score, but that’s a different post altogether. Anyway, after that, every few weeks, I’d get a call from owners who’d been kicked out of club. The second is a malinois that I’m still working with. The third was a GSD in such poor physical health that the owners wouldn’t foot the bill and put him to sleep. To be honest, when the vet showed us the x-rays, I was surprised the poor dog was still walking and it was the kindest thing altogether. Subsequently, I’m the girl who puts an “off” on a bite – if it’s possible with the dog at all – and I’ve got a pretty good life programme set up for those with whom it is not possible. That programme of lifetime management does start to rebuild the bonds, re-establish trust and make bites less likely, but I’m not one to say it works until the dog is dead of old age and there hasn’t been a bite between them coming to me and them dying. Sadly, a lot of what I advise is managing the environment to keep the dog – and the humans around it – safe. But if you love your dog and euthanasia is unthinkable, then I can help you create a sanctuary-style life for your dog that will minimise the risks. Most of the dogs I work with privately over the long-term have significant health issues that are contributing to aggression, or significant genetic factors. Just so you know where I’m coming from.

Add to that the other ‘quicker’ cases: over-aroused big dogs who are nipping and/or pulling, uneducated little dogs who guard beds and resources, dog-dog aggression, dog-human aggression, and most of my work is with canine emotional issues. By that I mean that they are either fearful or over-aroused. Many have learned to be aggressive as a very effective tool in their behaviour repertoire. All, and I mean all, have been subject to aversives – be they ‘mild’ like water sprays and spray collars, or more severe – from chokes (prongs are not really well-known in France, but choke collars are everywhere) to electric collars and physical manipulation, stare-downs, rolls, restraint or hitting/kicking. and these have not worked. That’s why they are with me. If these methods worked, they would not be calling me for help.

So, not only have the aversive methods failed, which is one potential hazard of punishers, but you get to see all the well-known behavioural ‘fallout’. These dogs come to me as the poster dogs for why it’ll be a cold day in hell before I use them. They are all I work with. My conversations go like this…

“So, what methods have you tried already to deal with this behaviour? [Insert aversive of choice] … Okay…. and what happened when you tried that?”

Now I’m pretty non-judgey. Plus generally speaking, my clients have no idea of the consequences of their actions or how their behaviours may have contributed to the situation. I might be cross at the trainer or the TV programme or the book they got the advice from, or the breeder, the neighbour or the friendly neighbourhood know-it-all, but my clients have dogs, not a long-term interest in reading scientific manuals and watching endless DVDs about dog behaviour. In my opinion, their ethics are severely out of whack, but I keep that to myself. I like to think that if someone had offered me that advice, I’d have gone, “yeah…. no thanks!” even if it had been the most effective thing on the planet, but I’ve been bonkers about animals since I was a nipper. Plus, I like my clients’ dogs and I want a chance to work with them. That’s not going to happen if I say, “Are you effing kidding me? You thought that forcing your dog to the floor and holding him there was going to work? What planet were you born on??! How about I try that on you?” etc. etc. etc.

But through the owners’ own admissions, they have tried some pretty hideous and gruesome training techniques – and those methods have failed.

Now I realise that kind of statement can attract the comments of trainers who use aversives who say that the owners must have been doing it wrong. I don’t know enough to know how you should punish animals for emotions, but I do know that there is fallout, even if you do it ‘right’. I don’t, by the way, think there is a right way of doing it, for the following reasons. Whether you are using punishment or escape/avoidance methods, the potential fallout is the same whether you do it ‘right’ or you make a hash of it.

The first risk of aversives in learning is that an emotional risk of anger and aggression, which then interferes with your behaviour modification.

Herron et al. (2009) documented the reactions of dogs to a range of aversives (direct and indirect aversives as Doctor Jim Ha calls them) including yelling, staring, water sprays and also those such as hitting or kicking. Some of these methods are almost a 50:50 for aggression as a consequence. Kick or hit a dog and 41% will respond with aggression. But some methods which you’d consider less intrusive, such as staring, also had a high rate of aggressive response. Growling at a dog is almost as likely to elicit aggression as kicking or hitting. Staring has a 1 in 3 chance of causing aggression.

That is one thing that ‘balanced’ trainers either don’t know, don’t understand or don’t explain to owners.

I picked up three dogs this year on my books who had escalated aggression in consequence of stare-downs. One of the dogs was up for euthanasia as a result of their new response, not as a result of the initial behaviour. That is aggression that is a direct result of an intervention – caused by the programme – not by any other environmental change.

That anger and aggression, by the way, may be to the handler, or to others in the environment. You might not see a rise in anger directed to you personally, but the dog can easily redirect. Redirected bites make up a good number of the bite cases I do… dogs who can’t get to a target and turn to the nearest available biteable thing. Often that is another dog in the household. Sometimes it can be a child. Anger and aggression are not the only emotional fallouts. Aversives run the risk of increased anxiety and fearfulness, so I see a number of dogs who self-harm through tail biting or chasing, or flank/foot licking or chewing.

The second risk of fallout is a reduction in all levels of behaviour.

Punish a dog or use escape/avoidance methods and find yourself getting less behaviour in general.

I’m reminded of an A-level class with a teacher who would constantly tell us off, so we gave up responding. We stopped offering responses, our homework was minimal but on time, we arrived on time and we left on time. Being late and not handing in homework were also punishable, otherwise you can bet your bottom dollar we’d have stopped offering those as well. We engaged as little as we could.

Now some trainers (and many owners) like dogs that behave less. They do less. A shut-down dog is one step up from an automaton, and that is a dream dog for some people. Not so good if you want to show them, do classes with them or enjoy them. Plus, you find that there is a reduction in behaviours around the primary handler/punisher and a spate of those canine behaviours out of sight. Barking, digging, chewing and roaming are all things the dog does out of sight, as all they have learned is not to do the behaviour around the person dishing out the aversive. Dogs are dogs. That behaviour will more than likely pop out somewhere. And do you want it where you can’t see it (and you can’t intervene or address it) or where you can see it and do something about it?

The third risk of fallout relates to escape and avoidance.

If a dog connects something unpleasant with you, then you’ll notice they want to be around you less. Sometimes that’s inadvertent. Last week was really cold here. I called Heston back and he stood on a frozen nugget of mud that got stuck in his paw. He came back and I picked it out. But the next time I called him, I noticed the latency of the behaviour was less strong. Somehow me calling him and that nugget of mud had become attached, and I noticed hesitance in his recall even though those things were not connected. Avoidance of aversives is well known. It is the principle upon which electric fences work. Businesses use it to create items that make dogs avoid places because of the consequence. This is why someone who uses aversives with a dog may find their dog reluctant to approach. That sucks for recall, even with the best and most well-trained dogs, and I know a good few owners who can’t let their dog off-lead at all, not because the dog goes off exploring the environment, but because the dog leads them a merry dance to get them to come near them at all. Taking dogs to the vet in the shelter is a good example of this. We have to sometimes use quick and dirty muzzling with closed muzzles, and the fallout of this is enormous. The dog wants nothing but to be away from handlers and vets after that.

This leads us to the final risk: generalisation and specificity.

Fear is a great teacher.

Here’s an example. I got in a car accident the other year. A car came towards me and cut right across me so I clipped it. Now I generalise like mad. I’m nervous around cars coming in the other direction. I avoid the place the accident happened. I hate the type of car. I’m on high-alert when I see cars of that colour. I won’t drive into that town on market day. I hold my breath every time I see the spot it happened. I also generalise about things that didn’t happen: I’m nervous around people pulling out of junctions or who look like they won’t stop. My general anxiety when driving is much higher than it was, even in situations that have nothing in common, like driving on motorways.

Animals can do the same and generalise that fear, connecting unconnected things and finding causation in accidental correlations. Our primitive brains handle startle responses inappropriately well and our “mum-mind” or “parent-mind” kicks in, our mind’s airbags, helping us to avoid everything our tiny lizard brains think is vaguely connected with that moment. It puts those airbags on a hair trigger and they keep popping out inappropriately and far, far too often. When something happens again in the same or related circumstances, our mum-minds go into overdrive.

This generalisation is why I don’t want to use products or procedures that build on fear in a dog. Most of the dogs I’m working with are already afraid of one thing or another. Why would I want to put that emotion into a dog when all my work is about taking it out?

You simply can’t predict what dogs will generalise or connect to the situation.

Likewise, you can’t know if they will actually generalise at all. With a reactive dog, I’m very cautious around places in which we’ve run up to unexpected things, but both the dog and I are blithely indifferent in other situations and I don’t exercise the degree of caution that I should. So aversives can cause generalisation and they can cause a lack of generalisation. This is the bugbear of all trainers: what we teach in one place doesn’t always equate learning in another. Why stuff works in a class and seems to have been forgotten in the home.

And worse still, we don’t get to pick whether a dog gets really general about what caused the emotion, or whether they fail to generalise at all. I’d like Heston very much to generalise that all people are nothing to be afraid of, and I seem to spend most of my life teaching him that this one is fine, that one is fine… they’re all fine. But he doesn’t generalise the good stuff. He isn’t actually very specific about the bad stuff either. I wish it was ONE set of circumstances that set him off, but I’m buggered if I know which people he’ll like and which he won’t. Like Lidy my shelter project dog at the weekend. Aggressive responses with raised hackles to one woman. Non-aggressive responses and submissive behaviours to another. I could say “it’s a hat thing”, but they were both wearing hats. I could say it’s a height thing, but both were the same height as me. I am absolutely buggered if I can see a pattern in who she’ll have raised hackles with and who she won’t. So when you use fear (P+) as a method of teaching, you don’t get to choose if the dog will a) start generalising wildly about non-connected things that were present at the time, or b) never generalise and only ever ‘obey’ in a very particular set of circumstances. That’s too unreliable an approach for me.

Another side-effect we don’t often talk about and isn’t always part of the ‘canon’ on what constitutes fallout from aversive methods is that of transfer behaviour. Say your dog is seeking attention, so it paws you. You punish it for pawing you. That basic desire hasn’t gone away, even if the behaviour has, and so it may be expressed in other ways. You might then find the dog jumping up. So you punish jumping up. Now the dog can’t get your attention through pawing you or jumping. One day it humps a cushion. You stop what you are doing and give it what it wants. Even if that is a good shouting at, your dog’s basic desire for your attention has been satisfied and your dog has learned a good way to get you behaving in a particular way. Emotions and functions will out. Whatever your dog feels like it needs to do, why the behaviour started in the first place, has not been addressed, and that emotion or need will find a way, somehow. Thus you end up like ‘whack-a-mole’ trying to nip a range of behaviours in the bud one after another.

These are all side-effects, consequences and fall out that trainers should be aware of when using punishment, aversives or coercion. Certainly, they are every single reason I have for not using aversives in my work. Not least that the dogs I work with have already had aversive behavioural modification which has been ineffective and has left the owner with a dog who has one or more of the behaviours outlined above. It hasn’t got rid of the problem and in fact, behaviour has deteriorated with one or more of the undesirable consequences outlined above. Generally speaking, this is the majority of my caseload. Behaviour was significantly unwanted to warrant an intervention. The intervention has caused problems of its own and the original behaviour has increased in intensity, duration or frequency.

Thus, the negative fallout of aversive, punitive or coercive methods is well established – certainly ‘force-free’ groups and forums are liberal in sharing the fallout of non R+ training methods. I believe that these side-effects should be shared with all owners who choose to go down the route of applying pressure, applying an aversive stimulus or using escape/avoidance training with their dog. You’ve got to know what the side-effects might be.

But then, I also believe that it shouldn’t take science to make it patently obvious why something is ethically and morally heinous. Animals are emotional beings. Punish an animal for fear or for hyperarousal and you will see that not only is it ethically unacceptable given many less aversive approaches available for every single situation, but it is also a pointless exercise. Punishing an emotion won’t stop the emotion. It will only increase it or suppress it. Not consequences I want.

But is positive reinforcement the panacea it is claimed to be, and is it entirely without fallout? Many trainers would have you believe that you can’t go wrong with positive reinforcement  – it’s safe in the hands of non-experts – and yet if you ask me, it is as alarming to consider R+ to be without drawbacks as it is to consider P+ or R- to be without drawbacks.

And if we don’t consider those drawbacks, all we are doing is sending our clients with their dogs right to the doorstep of “balanced” trainers, saying “well, I tried that positive reinforcement thing… and that didn’t work!”

If it’s frustrating for P+/R- trainers to use their methods without explaining the fallout, it’s no good entering into R+ training without being mindful of the fallout of that too. If we aren’t as clued up on the side effects of our methods as we should be, it will not only cost us clients who will then walk right over to ‘the dark side’ but it could also have a negative impact on their dogs and their behaviour.

In the next post, I’ll explore the potential fallout or side-effects of positive reinforcement, along with some ways to address those possible issues.

 

Assessing aggression: why it’s not so cut and dry

Assessing aggression: why it’s not so cut and dry

Apologies for an insanely long absence. Sadly, dissertations don’t write themselves and they take over your life if you let them.

I’ve spent the best part of the last six months focused on assessment. Be it human or canine, diagnosis and evaluation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The last week has helped me focus very much on labels, and how they can be useful as well as how they can be completely unhelpful. A phonecall yesterday helped really make that very clear.

I suspect, too, that it is a big part of why my main focus – aggression – is so often labelled ‘dominance aggression’ and a rank reduction programme is put in place. It’s such a neat term. It practically covers everything and the treatment is always the same. It’s a snake-oil treatment – one with as many consequences. It avoids the messy practicality of trying to identify causes and effects.

Yesterday’s phonecall made it really clear why quick labels often don’t work.

In the back of my head, I always hear the voice of one particular dog ‘expert’, and I heard it very strongly yesterday when I was listening to what was being described. I could imagine this ‘expert’ saying ‘dominance aggression’ after ten minutes and deciding that the pack needed sorting out and one of the dogs, if not both, needed putting in their place.

Yet as you’ll see, it’s so much more complicated than that.

The situation involves two people, three dogs and a cat. There’s an elderly sterilised female, an elderly cat, an uncastrated seven-year-old collie cross (Pip) and an uncastrated four-year-old dachshund x terrier (Harry). Recently, when the human couple are together and the cat has come in, Pip and Harry have ended up having a scrap. As so often happens, the owners separated them and got hurt for their peace-keeping efforts. Hearing about them made it very clear that there aren’t always simple explanations and how a number of factors can sometimes combine to create a “perfect storm”.

In shelters, we need quick assessment methods to help us understand the situation. As part of my dissertation, I drew up this simplistic flow-chart to help make decisions about what is influencing aggression and what we can do to help work it out. Identify the triggers and you are half-way to working out a behaviour modification programme. The flowchart was designed to help quick identification of common triggers and suggest tried-and-tested modification programmes to help.

This is necessary to some degree in shelters where dogs are adopted quickly. This flowchart helps identify and rule out some common situations in which aggression may present itself, and therefore suggest some tried-and-tested modifications. What it does not do is extend to familiar dogs or familiar humans in familiar situations. Still, it works in roughly the same way. Rule out medical/physiological/biological. Rule out species-specific behaviour. Rule out individual aspects.

You can see why flowcharts like this alongside simple assessments can fail when I tell you a little about the situation. described yesterday where are perhaps twenty triggers or more that could all be weighing in and creating a breeding ground for hostility.

First, life stage. The elderly female has had pyrometra and is now on hormone tablets. That may or may not be affecting things. Even sterilised females are ‘smelly’. If they weren’t, my dog Heston wouldn’t lick Tilly’s wee and do the Hannibal Lecter thing. And Effel, my castrated foster beauceron, wouldn’t feel like humping her. For Pip and Harry who are both intact, you’ve got male-male testosterone issues to consider, as well as the hormone status of the older girl.

Add to that Harry’s recent adulthood and he may well feel like he can challenge Pip as an equal. Without coming back to pack rank issues, which complicate things no end especially in dogs who do not exhibit an easy-to-identify or fixed pack rank, it may be that the age and declining health of the older female may be having an influence as well as the increased hormones, other than adding a degree of competition to the air over social order. She could also be grumpier which could also be affecting household tensions.

Add to that the health of the owners… which is another complicating factor that may be having an influence… Dogs can certainly detect human health and hormones, but there is no real research into how that affects the dog’s behaviour. On a practical level, when we ourselves don’t feel on top form, our wards can take advantage of that. At a simple level, structures are less secure, routines less reliable, and the order of things is thrown into chaos. So that’s a possible factor too.

I think it is very likely that the health of the elderly female dog is having an influence on the situation, since the situation has worsened with her health. But it could also be as a result of the adulthood of the younger dog that has coincided with this, and also the health of the owners. I’m going to keep saying “a perfect storm”, because I think that’s often what situations are: a unique situation that is one in which several interlinked factors have a bearing. However, no matter what I think, it is an opinion only. I’d want to compare the house without these factors to the house with these factors, and that is just not possible.

Gender can be an influence, as can neuter status. By the way, I read almost 100 different studies of the effect of castration on behaviour for my dissertation. That was fun. But boy hormones could be playing a part. That’s not to say castration is a solution, especially since Pip is very fearful. Castration can make fearful dogs worse, and so to castrate him could worsen his behaviour. Castrate one without castrating the other and you’ve got potential fallout without any guarantee of success in ‘curing’ the fights. At best, castration may resolve about two-thirds of sexual behaviour such as wandering, territorial marking and humping, but it is far from being a given, and that is only a result if hormones were indeed a factor in the behaviour. Castration is not a cure-all. So the situation could be influenced by male hormones (and those rogue female ones from the older girl).

Breed and biology could be factors. Though the younger dog is smaller, he is a dachshund x terrier mix… two breeds with a long and intact instinctive sequence of behaviours. A pack of terriers is a different dynamic than a pack of beagles. Terriers can be ‘dog-hot’ if their breed tendencies are excessive, and they are hard-wired to get off on the struggles of other animals. Excessive breed tendencies can mean that some terriers get a biological buzz from certain behaviours. So that could also be a factor. Harry is also a resource-guarder, which can relate to breed, but can also relate to other things. He is territorial over beds and space, collects toys and doesn’t let Pip play with them…. factors which suggest other individual characteristics as well.

The environment is a huge factor influencing the fights between the two dogs. These fights are occurring in familiar terrain, in the same places, and only when both owners are present. The arrival of the cat is also a factor. She is also elderly and having terrain wars, so she is coming in more, which could in turn be having an influence on the boys. Pip, being a collie, is attracted to the cat’s movement, and Harry, being resource-guardy, could consider the cat to be his rightful possession or is trying to eliminate competition from Pip over who has access to the cat. Not only that, both dogs are ‘owned’ by a different member of the couple and there are some indications that Harry is guarding the lady owner. Since the fights don’t happen when only one of the human couple are present, that too is interesting. It suggests to me that there’s a changing dynamic in the room when both adults are present. Everyone is more tense. Dogs are great distinguishers. They are good at knowing ‘I get biscuits from you, but not from you’ or ‘that post-lady in the yellow van always goes away when I bark, and that one in the white van brings us a parcel full of treats, food and toys’. They know there are different rules for different people. If they know that with the man, they do things one way and with the lady, things are a little different, that too can give rise to confusion when those two worlds collide.

I’m not even half-way through yet and there are already a half-dozen factors that could be influencing the dog fights!

Is Harry suddenly launching a bid to be ‘top dog’? Who knows? Unlikely, given all the other factors.

But then you also have individual personalities. Harry is a dog who (like dachshunds and terriers can be!) finds ways to get his own way. He is confident, but his resource guarding suggests that this is all a bluff. A truly confident dog doesn’t feel insecure that another dog will nick his toys. Pip is naturally nervous and fearful. For a dog that is more fearful or passive by nature, it is easy for a confident dog (or a dog filled with false confidence, or one who has decided he really, really wants access to a given resource) to take advantage of that. My dog Tilly is a great example. She may be 12kg, but she will happily go over to another dog’s bowl and snaffle food if they take their eye off the game. That bowl is then her bowl and heaven help you if you want it back.

And you’ve got relationships. The dogs don’t like each other and there are times when their general dislike spills over, particularly in moments of tension and excitement.

How many potential causes is that?!

When you can’t pin down a cause, you have to go with what you can see.

What can be seen? When both adults are present and the cat comes in, Pip and Harry have a fight.

The fight in itself gives us information and a caution. It is noisy and never results in damage (although the humans have intervened) which suggests it’s ritualised – a way of sorting out differences without harming each other. It suggests a fair prognosis. That said, Harry is 5kg and Pip is 20. Harry could easily get hurt, though he hasn’t been already.

Regardless of cause, a behaviour management programme will still work. There are options here.

One option is to manage the situation. This is what I have suggested. There are too many factors that could be making this perfect storm of conditions right now that are likely to change: the changing health of the elderly female, the health of the cat, the current health of the owners. Harry is the instigator of the attacks and his movement can be managed. He is already crate-trained and keeping him on a lead for a couple of weeks in the house will allow the couple to keep him from escalating behaviours with Pip. My dog Heston doesn’t get on well with my foster dog Effel, but I’m not doing anything other than managing it, because Effel is not a permanent fixture. That said, I intervene when Effel is being a doggie dick. It is not good for him to run past Heston and block him, to bodycheck him at food times, to stare at him when Heston is resting or to try and bully Heston out of his bed. If he is being a knob with Heston, it is up to me to manage that unless I want 75kg of dog fight. That said, Heston does a good job of restraining himself on the whole, but there are times when Effel’s doggie knobhead tendencies go too far. Leads and obedience are the best things here, as well as being aware of canine manners. Stares, blocking access and hard postures are very rude canine behaviours so that is something I watch for. Training new and better responses is the end-goal, but not easy if you are in circumstances that will no doubt change further.

I would also make sure that if Harry was not directly and actively supervised, he is on a lead or in a crate because the consequence to him of going too far would be fatal. Pip needs time away from Harry, and vice versa. You know how it is when you are in each other’s space all day long: cabin fever affects dogs too, I’m sure. Tensions rise and tempers flare.

Were the dogs likely to have to live in similar conditions for a long time, either a lifetime management plan or some serious emotional changes would need to take place. That is a work and a half. That’d take a book in itself to outline the programme, the rationale and the protocols.

There are certainly other things that the owners can do to reduce stress in the home, too, and I think that would take up another book alongside one on active behaviour modification.

As you can see, though, assessing the causes of aggression can be complicated if not entirely impossible. It’s rarely one single factor that is causing a problem, though it’s nice when it is. There are times when it is easy to identify the exact trigger of a behaviour, but there are also times when it is a “perfect storm” of possible environmental triggers. There are no simple ways to assess cases like this easily and because it’s not easy to pinpoint one single cause, it’s not easy to identify one single solution. Labels in this circumstance would be unhelpful and since several of the factors are going to change, making some small changes to ensure the dogs don’t hurt each other is a valid approach in itself.

 

How to work with your dog to overcome triggers

How to work with your dog to overcome triggers

One of the reasons many people come to Woof Like To Meet is to read about my disasterous experience with an adoption that inadvertently brought me, three years later, to a point where I not only – finally – understand it, but can work with dogs to help them overcome their emotions and deal with their triggers.

Dogs, much like toddlers and teenagers, have emotional brains. Their emotions are often sudden and intense, primitive and uncontrolled. Where we might be able to swallow our bile when we see a politician we don’t like on television, a dog is less likely to be able to control its urge to get up close and personal with an offensive act of aggression. Where we might be able to control our happiness upon seeing our friends, and where we are bound by social convention that makes it unacceptable to hump our friends if we feel anxious or jump all over them if we’re glad to see them, dogs don’t always have that level of control. That’s even though it can be just as socially unacceptable among dogs to hump or jump.  A trip to the dentist may be a real fear for us, but a trip to the vet can be the Sum of All Fears to a dog. Without an intensely reflective neo-cortex override to remind them of things like manners, necessity and restraint, it can be harder for them to manage their emotions than it is for us.

Don’t get me wrong. Dogs do great at sorting it out one way or another. Few dogs end up biting and dogs who live in homes with rules know that humping, bouncing and jumping are not appropriate ways to greet people or other dogs. Sadly, more dogs bite groomers and vet staff, or find these experiences to be ones filled with horror and trauma for mildly uncomfortable procedures, although more and more vets are aiming to make the experience a fear-free one for pets, For most dogs, they handle these things with an amazing self-control.

But for some dogs, they have a tougher time overriding their impulses. That can end in a burst of behaviours that can be alarming, upsetting or dangerous. Where a degree of reactivity is normal dog behaviour, when a reaction is disproportionate to the environmental threat, our dogs may need a bit of help getting past this.

Lidy, the dog in the photo above, handles stress very badly indeed. This post will largely explain the things we do with her to ensure that she is safe and the people and animals she comes into contact with are safe too. She is currently in our shelter, having been surrendered last year. Her behaviour in and around a number of things leaves a lot to be desired. She is a dog who has little impulse control: the firstlings of her heart are the firstlings of her mouth, to misquote Macbeth. In other words, she goes quickly from stimulus to reaction in a fraction of a second with no orange warning light in between. She is the Ferrari of reactions. In this post, I’ll look mostly at over-arousal, impulse control and aggressive behaviours rather than fearfulness, and pick up the thread in the next post for fearful trigger responses.

For dogs who are trigger-reactive (be that a fear response, an aggressive response or a defensive-aggressive response), they can exist in a happy state of equilibrium most of the time. For Lidy, in a stimulus-free world, she is a happy soul. For my reactive dog Heston on his walk this morning, he had no cause to react because there were zero things to set him off. These stimuli – whatever they may be – are also known as triggers. For dogs in a trigger-free world, they are in a happy place. No stimulus, no need for reaction. The purpose of their reaction in face of a stimulus is mostly to make the stimulus go away. In fearful dogs, they will seek to flee in order to make the stimulus go away. On the flip side of that, some dogs will make an awful lot of noise to make a stimulus disappear. And yes, they will attack if necessary. Or they’ll just make a lot of noise. Introducing two dogs to each other a couple of weeks ago, one of the dogs barked for twenty minutes every time the other dog came near.

When we deal with reactive dogs, it’s important to remember one thing…

No dog is aggressive all of the time. And no dog is completely aggression-free all of the time. All dogs exist on a spectrum.

Aggression, excitement or fearfulness are just responses, reactions. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Knowing that your dog is reacting to in the environment is vital.

A dog who is reactive has just not yet learnt appropriate ways to deal with the world around them. It’s our job to help them learn. It’s our job too to understand their triggers and what stimuli affects them as best we can, whilst understanding there is a world of smell, hormones and sounds that we cannot hope to identify.

For Lidy, she has a number of triggers: exciting or emotional events, environmental energy levels, other dogs behind barriers at the shelter, cats behind barriers, free-roaming cats, pushchairs, wheelbarrows, wheelchairs, children, strange humans, people who walk too close to her and other dogs. Like many dogs, she finds other dogs’ behaviour to be both stimulating and contagious. But in a world where those stimuli don’t interfere with her existence, she’s not fussed by them. Being in a shelter is overstimulating for her and often means that excitement and lack of impulse control tip over into overt aggression. There are times when this is more overt and there are times it is more manageable.

For most people, they have scant knowledge that their dog is going to react. For them, it seems to come out of the blue. You’re walking along, someone’s walking towards you, and boom! That is Lidy all over. Forget all the ostensible warning signs you might expect – a freeze, a growl, a bark, a snarl, an airsnap. She goes from 0 to lunges, circling and snapping often in one fell swoop.

So has a dog like this got any hope at all?

In fact, she has made lots of progress. Actually, that’s only partly true. It’s me who’s made the progress in understanding her triggers. I manage to keep her in the learning zone for 80% of our time. Sadly, the rest is not easily under my control in a shelter environment. There is literally no way at all to avoid unexpected stimuli when you are surrounded by dogs, cats, moving things and people.

Keeping dogs’ in the learning zone is vital to help them overcome their behaviours. By the time most of us realise that our dog has tipped over, they are already reacting to the stimulus and they are no longer listening or learning. To help them learn a new response, the handler or owner must keep them below what is known as ‘the threshold’ – ie keep the dog in a state of relative relaxation where they haven’t been hijacked by their emotions.

Lili Chin & Grisha Stewart 

Although Grisha Stewart picks up some of the more obvious clues that a dog is getting aroused, there are others you can explore too. Lidy, by the way, goes from 0 or 1 on this scale to 7 or 8 without very much time lapse if she is surprised by a stimulus. The more something startles her, the quicker her reaction. Knowing her triggers means I can keep her at 0 or 1 and help her begin to manage her reactions.

So how does an over-aroused or defensive-aggressive dog look when it encounters a trigger?

At first, they may stare or even avert their gaze. Their bodies will either stiffen and lean forward, or move away and turn away. Many reactive dogs will slow down to gain more information about the stimulus. You may see their nose squash up and wrinkle, their whisker bed get all lumpy. Mouths close. Their eyes open wider and fix hard. Some dogs stand their ground whilst they make a decision, staring dead on at the target. I noticed Fiesta, one of our other dogs doing this to Lidy when approaching us on a walk. Lidy was more interested by a mouse in the bushes, but I could tell trouble was ahead because of Fiesta’s confrontational posture. Hard, diagonally side-on, blocking the way, eyes hard, not moving, ears forward, mouth closed, tail high, leaning slightly into the lead. She had simply stopped dead.

All of this behaviour is communication. The desired recipient was not me, it was Lidy. It was a message that clearly communicated something. Now whether it said, “I know you, you ratbag. Behave yourself around me!” or whether it said, “My pathway!” or whether it said, “You steer clear of my handler!”, we’ll never know. But what it did say quite clearly was, “my intentions are hostile – don’t come any nearer”. Even I could see that.

Would I have been able to walk Lidy towards her when Lidy does exactly the same thing? Not on your Nelly. Not without the pair of them lunging at each other on the lead. Not a chance this was going to end peacefully unless the monkeys holding the leash took control. With a bit of negotiation from a distance, we went our separate ways with Lidy blithely unaware that she was about to cross a very hostile dog.

But what would have happened if I’d moved forward? For Lidy, she lunges until she is at the end of the leash, and then she jerks in a 45° arc trying to get away from the leash towards the target. When she can’t get to the target and the target hasn’t gone away, she generally keeps jerking at the leash, front legs off the floor, back legs low, springing in, staring. She doesn’t growl, snarl, bark or snap. If Lidy snaps, it’s because she is in range of something to bite. Her intention is very clear.

And what happens if they move in?

I have to have her on a shorter and shorter leash. She will then circle back to me and turn and jump up on me in frustration.

This happens too when there is no direct target in front of us, by the way. It can happen after all the stimuli are behind us. When all those triggers have stacked up, she can make it through to the home stretch before turning it back on me. Knowing her triggers is absolutely fundamental in avoiding an accident, but also in helping her overcome them and learn a better response.

Sadly, Lidy has a lot of triggers. Some are more important than others. Not lunging or charging other dogs is pretty important. It is absolutely vital when we walk that she is not practising this behaviour and that I am engaged in eradicating any situation in which she might feel the need to do so. Whilst I can’t avoid every trigger in the shelter, I know that the more she practises a behaviour, the more she will think that it is her behaviour keeping the stimulus away from her.

So… where do you start?

First, you start by knowing what your dog does at each of these points on the threshold. What does your dog look like in the milliseconds or seconds before they bark, growl, snap or lunge? This is where a friend with a video camera can really help you. Video your dog in a safe situation with the approach of a known stimulus. What does the dog do as it approaches? You need to video those moments from ‘innocuous, minding my own doggie business’ moments to ‘hey, there’s something over there!’ and a little beyond. Probably, you won’t need to get your dog to a point where they are shouting to the other dog: you’ll have seen that bit often enough.

What we are interested in are the behaviours before.

What do they do?

Generally, it’s pretty standard. They’ll notice the stimulus and turn towards it. They’ll stand still and stare. Their body may become stiff and rigid. Tails may go up. Ears may go forward or prick up. They may begin to lean into the pose. I often look at the mouth, as their mouths often close. Your dog will have personal clues – for Heston, it’s his tail and mouth. For Lidy, it’s her mouth alone. Heston’s doesn’t flag, like the illustration below, until he is much later into his reaction. A high tail means I have no chance of getting his attention back on me by calling him, but a low tail and a closed mouth mean I can usually get his attention.

If I get to wrinkling around the nose, whining or growling, it’s too far for Lidy. She rarely vocalises anyway. Heston does, but if he is at the whining and growling point, he is too far gone for me to get him back. In the photo below, he’s still deciding. Interested, but deciding.

If Heston’s tail is my cue for his over-arousal, Lidy’s ‘sit’ is. She will quite happily park her backside. It’s not a calming signal. It’s a rather clear, ‘I’m just waiting here until that thing gets close enough’. If I see her sit, I know it is absolutely time to move her away.

At this point, I’ve got a few choices of things I can do. I also need to have a few well-taught rock solid behaviours in advance.

The first is ‘Sit!’

My dog’s ‘Sit!’ has to be pretty rock solid. I should be able to ask for a sit and get it if the dog is under threshold. If the dog is too aroused or overstimulated, it’s a good gauge that I need both more teaching of a sit and less arousal. If your dog does not have a rock-solid sit, start at home or in the garden, in the park, on lead… everywhere. Many of the exercises are going to depend on a sit or a down, so it’s vital that your dog has mastered it. Sit is a great behaviour because it means your dog is not pulling towards or making lunges at other dogs.

I also like to encourage my dog to learn ‘Look at Me’, building up the length of time they can focus on me. Although this can be difficult for some dogs, you can make a lot of progress. Lidy doesn’t much do eye-contact, so I just want her to orient towards my face and focus on me. We’re working on eye-contact, but it’s tougher to get past two or three seconds at the moment, most especially when she is surrounded by things that make her react.

You can also teach other obedience behaviours alongside this. Down, High Five & Hold (where the dog gives both paws and sustains it) and sit-at-side can also be really helpful behaviours for a reactive dog. They break the behaviour and ask the dog to do something that is incompatible with looking at or orienting towards the other dog. Sitting and lying down are also calming signals for dogs, so for any dog who is approaching, it gives the impression that your reactive dog is calm. This can be a really important factor as to whether your dog chooses to react or not. I’ve seen Lidy literally going ape at a barking out-of-control dog as well as size up to a shih tzu who turned away and stopped Lidy in her tracks. For Hagrid, a shepherd I walk regularly who is very aggressive towards other dogs, he walked past a dog getting a tummy tickle (because lying on their backs is a diffusing submissive posture) when he had been pulling at the end of the leash and airsnapping at the same dog who’d sized up to him. Don’t overlook the body language of the target dog or person.

I have also thrown a handful of treats on the ground if other dogs approach by surprise. It doesn’t always work with Lidy, but it mostly works with Hagrid (and never works with Heston who is not food-orientated on the whole) This makes your dog sniff the ground, another diffusing behaviour. I work on this alongside ‘Drop!’ and as soon as the dogs hear the word, they are expecting treats on the floor, so they start sniffing the ground, an excellent diffuser of tension.

Another way that you can also avoid your dog giving off hostile vibes to an approaching dog is to use a squeaky toy to attract your dog’s attention. Where treats on the floor don’t work with Heston, he goes all playful and floppy when he hears that sound. For Lidy when she is lost in tracking a moving cat, a squeak is a great disrupter. Not only in Heston’s case does it disrupt their focus, but it also means you can keep it on you as you hold the toy. When your dog appears playful and relaxed, approaching dogs will be relaxed too. Whilst Hagrid may be happy to let dogs past if they are polite and non-vocal, letting any number of big, over-excited dogs go past, his focus is broken by barking dogs coming his way, as you’d probably expect. But sitting, lying down or getting playful are good signs for your dog to give to other dogs.

Teaching your dog to touch your hand is also a useful skill. A dog who can touch the owner’s hand when asked can be directed away from looking at the stimulus. It’s not so easy to look at an approaching child in a pushchair if you have a hand in front of your face directing you away.

The next is loose-leash walking and a “Let’s go!”. Being able to make a U-turn with your reactive dog is the best way to be able to put some space between you and the thing that’s setting them off.

There are lots of other things you can also do to help your dog build up a better listening relationship with you on a walk or out in public.

Emily Larlham’s Attention Games are really good for this.

Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games are perfect for this. A smooth U-turn/sit can also help. Leslie’s ‘Up/Down’ game and the ‘Engage/Disengage’ game can also help alongside the ‘Look at that!’ game. I’ve been playing this with Lidy to get her to look at and not react to dogs in the distance. She can manage about 10m for a 2 minute presence around non-reactive dogs. Once we’re past dogs, we’ll be on to people and pushchairs, wheelchairs and buggies, before trying it finally with cats.

All of these things are things I practise at first in a safe space where I get really good focus from her. The more I do it, the more she trusts me and the more habituated she is to the fact that when I ask her something, more times than not, there’s something in it for her. Two months in, and I don’t reward every sit – sometimes I give her a jackpot for a sit, or I’ll reward the most difficult ones she does.

How do these things help you when you’re faced with a reactive dog?

The first thing to do is assess whether the stimuli is something you can control, or is moving in slowly enough that you can practise the other things.

Sometimes, it’s just too difficult and you know that your dog is going to fail.

In this case, escape and evade are my best tactics. If the person/dog/cat in the distance is moving in, I need to put more distance between us first before I can ask for the other stuff. At this point, I need to have taught the “let’s go!” cue when my dog is good and relaxed. People, dogs and cats are unpredictable things. Even if I have shouted a warning for people to stay outside Lidy’s 10m radius (for their own safety!) people still come too close. They sometimes tell me she is a sweet dog before seeing her jump ‘out of the blue’ (which never is, to me) and sometimes make contact with them. What makes me most angry with some people is that they know she does this and yet they still insist on moving in, even if I am yelling at them to stop so I can get away. Unless they are people I have deliberately asked to be involved in her training, I tend to treat others approaching as a situation she can’t yet handle. I’d rather back up than let her practise poor behaviours.

It’s really simple. I don’t pull or get tense. I react way before she sees the target. I say, “let’s go” or “Allez!” and turn in the other direction at a fairly brisk pace. Though you may find from time to time that your dog looks back, keeping them moving away helps them get what they want: space.

If I’m totally not in control of the situation about to present itself, I will do nothing other than walk away. With a reactive dog, you have to pick your battles.

If I can put sufficient space between us so that both go back to “mouth open, loose body, checking out the environment” and she is no longer fixed on the thing approaching us, and I know I have a bit of time to work, I’ll use it as a learning opportunity.

This is where I’m going to pick up on my pre-teaching. I’ll sometimes ask for a sit and then play “Look at that!” ten or so times as the stimulus approaches. This works doubly well if high-quality treats only come out when the triggers are about. If Lidy realises that other dogs = treat time, it’s helping counter-condition her response as well as teaching her a new one. I’m also going to put into practice other pattern games we’ve been playing so that Lidy gets used to the fact that every time there are other dogs about, we have our routines. This is exactly what I did with Hagrid to the point of he is always ready to focus on me and to work with me.

From here, it’s easy to slip into Behaviour Adjustment Training, where you use stooge people, stooge dogs, stooge pushchairs, stooge cars and even stooge cats. Grisha Stewart’s excellent programme works with your dog under threshold to help them learn better behaviours around their triggers. In the past, a dog’s behaviours have caused them to think magically – to make a connection between what they did, like barking – and an outcome, like a person moving away. Behaviour adjustment training is about working with your dog and understanding your dog as well as teaching them new behaviours around a trigger. This is why it’s my absolute go-to favourite for reactive dogs. It is so simple, so easy to follow and so effective. Sure, it takes time. There are no miracle cures with dogs if you want the learning to come from within. Sure, you can ‘impose’ learning through managing the environment or even punishing a dog for their reaction until it stops, but it is ineffective in terms of helping a dog make sense of the world by itself and make good decisions. Here, they learn gradually that the cause of their reactivity is nothing to be over-aroused over, fearful of, or aggressive towards, by keeping them always in a learning zone and controlling the environment so that the dog realises their previous behaviour is ineffective.

There are other methods you can also use, such as Constructional Aggression Treatment, which involves a dog learning that when they are calm, they get what they want. Here, through controlled environments, the dog learns that their stimulus or trigger goes away when they are calm. Why I prefer BAT when you’re working with dog-reactive dogs is that it is kinder on the dogs who are being used as a stooge dog. To expect a stooge dog to remain calm in the face of aggressive displays is too much for me. Often, dogs actually worsen their displays as another dog turns and walks off (and the same for a human too) so this technique involves the stooge dog having to stand and wait until the reactive dog realises its behaviour is not causing the other dog to leave. Whereas Grisha’s methods can easily be accomplished by an interested person who understands a bit about dog body language (like me), Constructional Aggression Treatment should only be done with a trained professional.

So with air-snappy dog-reactive Hagrid who would lunge and snap at any dog who passed, he can now offer a sit, a down, a look at me. We’re working up to walking past calm dogs who are displaying peaceful behaviours. The reality is for Hagrid that he may never cope with a young male dog lunging and yapping less than two metres away from him, but he finds it much less traumatic to walk on our high-traffic walking routes around the shelter.

With leapy Lidy and her over-zealous mali mouth, who is physically easier to restrain than Hagrid, weighing in at half his size, she is still learning. People are more likely to take risks around her even though she is more explosive, just because she is smaller. Because of this, she gets more frustrated. We’ve not yet mastered human beings walking past yet. Dogs and cats are a bit of a way off. But today she successfully navigated a cat walking across the courtyard, one asleep under a bush, one peering at her from under a trailer, one running into the cattery. Two weeks ago, she would no doubt have turned and jumped on me. She could still yet. But we’re making progress every day. So she lunged at Gilda and let Kayser pass without reaction at around 15 metres distance. The best bit is that there is much less redirected energy and over-arousal. She may never be able to master the multiple triggers the shelter throws her way, but where she is not surrounded by things that overwhelm her, she is a most marvellous dog. She will never be able to walk through a crowd of people at a market. She will never be able to sit and watch a cat saunter past. But as long as her future owners understand that she will probably always be an on-leash kind of girl, there’s no reason she wouldn’t make a loving house guest. There will always be considerations in situations she finds overwhelming: greetings, crowds, moving people, excitement, energy, dogs and small furries, but were she to live in a home like mine as an only dog, I think she would make amazing progress.

And for my handsome, shouty Heston? He whined a little in the vets. Once or twice he pulled towards a playful bichon on heat. He even smelt a lady’s hand. He coped with a dalmatian who arrived and bundled in through the doorway less than a metre away, and he deals with my ever-changing houseguests with much less stress. His final challenge are visitors: this place is very much HIS. I don’t get enough visitors to work with him on it, but to tell the truth, it’s always handy to have a dog who is suspicious of strangers and who makes a fair bit of noise. His bodyguarding isn’t always merited, and he is quicker to turn off the offensive barking, especially when asked. His dog-dog reactive days are restricted to dogs behind fences or dogs alarm barking in the distance, perhaps the occasional sneak-up dog who takes him by surprise when we’re out on a walk. His human-reactive days are restricted to guests in the home and a rather persistent power walker who likes to wear a full ski suit in June. I kid you not. I’ve told Heston I find that pretty freaky, and he agrees 100%.

Whilst reactivity in dogs can leave us all feeling embarrassed and apologetic over our dogs’ emotional behaviour, it is one of the easiest behaviours to address with a gradual programme. It might take some time and commitment, but it is easier to overcome than out-and-out fearfulness, separation anxiety or compulsive behaviours. For the best programme to help your reactive dog, find a BAT-qualified dog trainer, a force-free trainer or an experienced behaviourist to guide you through a personalised programme and help set up your learning events for the dog so that they are not too challenging yet help your dog make good progress. For further information, you can also read here why reactivity can be challenging to overcome with fearful dogs, and how a long exposure to a weak trigger can ensure you see the most progress.

In the next post, how to deal with fear-reactive dogs in ways that help them understand the universe is not such a bad place.

 

Crate and kennel guarding: teaching a new response

Crate and kennel guarding: teaching a new response

What do dogs have in common with trolls? Sometimes, they take offence at goats trip-trapping over their bridge. Okay. Not sometimes. Quite often. And by goats I mean humans and other animals, and by bridge, I mean by their window, by their door, by their gate, by their kennel and by their crate. This week, dealing with a couple of territorial dogs and a crate guarder, it necessitated a bit of a detour from the article I was planning on writing about overcoming arousal around a trigger. That said, this article in itself is about overcoming negative arousal around a trigger, so you can see patterns in play here that you’ll see elsewhere too. 

So why do dogs guard spaces? 

Dogs are predators – even the littl’uns – and predators, by their very nature, often have a ‘home ground’ or range. Even free-roaming dogs, street dogs and community dogs will have a patch that is largely defined by how many other dogs there are in other patches, and what resources there are. And just like the gangs in The Wire, they expand to fill the gap and to take advantage of available resources. Dogs are generally affiliative in these circumstances and seek to avoid confrontation, often in overlapping territories. But they’ll engage in ritualised aggression to see off intruders and defend their area if under threat: they don’t give up without a fight. Funny that. Sounds like a lot of people too. 

This behaviour is fairly pointless for many domestic pet dogs, but humans have specifically selected in many breeds their ability to stay in a territory and guard a resource in that territory. Dogs aren’t just used for finding drugs stashes, but are used more and more to guard them, as well as guarding houses, yards and herds of animals. So guarding a space and protecting it from intruders is a behaviour that comes naturally to a dog.

It’s a throwback behaviour that is often no longer useful in the home but we often profit from. Dogs do make us feel safer, even if it’s a tiny little pomeranian alert barking at the postman. That’s one reason dogs can be territorial over space: it’s been a useful behaviour through history. Plus, though they are not cats, they do love a nap. And nothing is worse when you’re having your nap than someone coming up to you and interrupting your napping by coveting your bedspace. Thou shalt not covet your neighbour’s bedspace.

Encroachment during resting is one worth a show of aggression or actual aggression. 

Pet dogs have another factor to consider, however. They are bound by fences, walls, gates, windows, even leashes and cars at times – things that don’t bind a free-ranging dog. 

Normally, free-ranging dogs don’t also have to deal with the psychology of the barrier. Fences, leads, gates, windows, doors… they’re all laden with frustration and fear. You’ll certainly find videos of dogs on Youtube going mental at other dogs behind a fence and then wagging their tail when they get to the open gateway. My dog Heston does this with our shelter guard dog Belle when I get to the shelter: he barks, she barks, the gates open and they’re ‘Oh hi! It’s you!’. It’s a subject that divides the dog world in terms of how to introduce dogs – some say throw them right in and avoid leash frustration, and some say take your time and be safe. I’m on the ‘take your time and be safe’ team. I know of far too many dogs who have been turned on by a big pack who live in free-ranging shelters, or dogs who have been killed through a bite in the park. These issues can be mitigated in some circumstances by sterilisation, but they can be worsened too. It’s very complicated. Socialisation and breed also play a part in how well dogs handle off-leash meetings and free-ranging living. It’s never black and white. But that said, I appreciate how difficult it can be for some dogs on a leash to greet other dogs when they are frustrated and they would rather be free to make their own greetings. A crate, gate, fence or kennel run can cause just as much frustration for a dog. It is unquestionable that a leash causes frustration and can increase aggression, just as fences do. 

Fences are a little different than lead aggression. That boundary line is not just drawn in the sand, a notional, temporary boundary. It’s a physical, actual line. It defines ‘intruders’ and ‘family’ very clearly. Inside, you belong. Outside, you’re an intruder. For dogs who guard, fences, walls and even windows are very clear, well-defined markers of where ‘friends’ are and where ‘foes’ are. Their ‘Halt. Who Goes There?’ is just a bit noisier and canine than ours is. 

So we have to be mindful of the fact that an animal appearing aggressive behind a barrier or on a leash may not be aggressive ‘in real life’. On the whole, though, it’s fairly easy to see which dogs at the shelter are receptive to visitors and other creatures, and those who are not receptive to visitors and other creatures, and there is a correlation between barrier behaviour and general behaviour otherwise. A confident dog has no need to bark at an intruder on the other side of a fence or see off a stranger. 

So, we can see that many times, that fence, gate or leash is there for a reason. For instance, if my dog was good at recall and friendly to all dogs, I wouldn’t be tempted to use a leash in greetings. However, if he is an arse, I’m going to put him on the leash so that I can intervene a bit. Generally, the leash and fence are there to stop my dog biting the postman in the first place, and the leash or fence may cause additional frustration in a dog who already has some defensiveness or aggression. Effel and Amigo do not bark behind gates because they aren’t fussed about intruders. Heston and Tilly do bark like crazy behind gates and on the leash because everyone is a rapist mugger in their eyes, sometimes even me. So is the leash causing aggression? I think the dog is probably suspicious in the first place and the leash or barrier is just making it a bit more frustrating. The dogs who are lions in a kennel and lambs out of it are few and far between. 

So often, those barriers are there for a reason. 

And that’s often to protect ourselves from erratic or unpredictable canine behaviour.

It’s also to keep dogs safe. So in an entirely well-meaning way, we can use leashes and fences to protect our dogs, which in turn give them something to protect. Complicated.

There are shelters, for instance, where the dogs free-roam within a pen or a park or a farm. Ours, the dogs are in double enclosures, with about a quarter in single occupancy kennels, and the remainder as a pair. Whilst that keeps our dogs safe from one another, it also stops them interacting with each other, which can be frustrating to a dog. It’s a dilemma that doesn’t have an easy solution. Personally speaking, I think that a number of our dogs have excessive breed tendencies and have had poor socialisation experiences that it’d be a real leap of faith to allow some of our more defensive dogs to interact freely with a range of other dogs. 

We have to accept that barriers will always exist, and there will be dogs who are snarling, snapping, barking and growling behind them simply because they are on high alert for intruders. It doesn’t matter if that barrier is a crate, a fence or a leash. And it’s a behaviour that can be applied equally to familiar guests and dogs or unfamiliar guests and dogs. As well as the occasional feline intruder of course. 

There are lots of reasons why a dog might behave aggressively or fearfully on approach. Those reasons are sometimes hard-wired. It’s one reason proposed as to why we kept dogs around us all those thousands of years ago. A sentinel dog with their enhanced hearing and nose was a useful way to protect ourselves from other predators. But they’re sometimes responsive to the environment. They guard because they learn it keeps strangers out.

It’s not just about the barrier either. Sometimes it’s about what’s inside.

For that reason, many dogs start to feel on edge long before they see a person approaching their crate, bed, house, garden or kennel. Heston will bark at things in the garden that are a good 50 metres away if he can see or hear them approaching. 

Part of that is sometimes the sound of approach without being able to see the ‘threat’: dogs often hear a threat before they can see it, like the sound of a post van approaching. This is then intensified by seeing the ‘intruder’ approaching. It can also be worse with ‘sneak’ approaches which must seem like nothing short of an ambush to a dog from some stealthy ninja, rather than just the approach of a cat.

Part of approach reactivity is also the tension of the body posture of the person who then continues to approach: we are on edge of course when we approach a dog behind a barrier, be it a window, a grille or even a door. We speed up to get it over with. We take a direct route and we may keep our eyes on the ‘target’ entry point in case the dog comes bursting through it. These behaviours are very confrontational for a dog and if they can see us, they no doubt confirm the bad intentions they think we have.

Part of it is also learned behaviour. Many ‘watchdogs’ are on guard most of the day, and in their heads they are very effective. They spend the whole day practising when we are not there. Every time a car pulls up, they bark and in their rationale, they are responsible for preventing an intruder when it drives off. Every time a passer-by goes past the window, they approach… the dog aggresses… the people walk off. To a dog, these events are connected, despite the fact that there is no connection between their barking, snarling and aggressive posturing. That behaviour is practised over and over and over again. 

Whilst it may seem irrational to guard a derelict yard, a concrete kennel run or an empty metal crate, to a dog, this is its space. I often think they see it almost as armour. Space is a valuable commodity to a dog, and a fence, wall or barrier means the boundaries are very clearly defined. They also seem to have no concept that an intruder cannot get in and they are safe in an enclosed space: otherwise, why bark at people or cats at the window?

So when they feel under attack from an intruder, be it a jogger, car, cat or burglar, even someone coming to walk them at the shelter, dogs growl, snap, snarl, fling themselves at windows, hammer on fences, throw themselves against doors… or they go low, protecting what’s inside, preparing for attack. For fearful dogs, they will seek to escape to evade. And if they can’t escape, they will hide, seeking out kennels to hide in or couches to hide beneath. You’ll find them at the back of their space, as far away from entry points, small as they can be, trying to show that they are no threat. 

The approach outlined is aimed at changing a dog’s emotional response to a regular ‘intruder’, be it a staff member in a kennels, a volunteer dog walker or a person who finds a canine ogre guarding its crate. It works for fearful dogs as well as it does for dogs reacting in other ways.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD FEAR, PUNISHMENT OR CHASTISEMENT BE USED.

These will undoubtedly turn a negative experience into something worse. A dog who is reactive to people approaching is not going to be made to feel better by yelling, shouting, reprimands, shock collars or spraying it in the face. Nor is it going to be made to feel better by confining it, removing it or punishing it physically. If you are afraid of burglars, someone coming into your house and yelling at you will not make you feel more calm or relaxed.

It makes me hugely sad to realise on Youtube that many people find this approach reactivity to be a battle for ‘dominance’ and seek to frighten an already frightened dog into submission. Even my bête noir trainer who uses a range of physical punishments actually realised the dog was frightened and calmed it rather than punishing it. When I see still, frozen dogs, it makes me so sad. It is most sad that so many ‘dominance’ trainers fail to see how fearful the dog is. I don’t see a dog who has ‘learned’ to overcome their fear of things approaching a kennel or crate, I see shut down dogs who are terrified to move. I wish I had a penny for every time a so-called balanced trainer or ‘dominance’ trainer said the dog was ‘totally calm’ or ‘he doesn’t really move around much because he’s calm’. Those dogs are completely shut down through fear. The videos of static, unmoving, terrified dogs makes me literally sick to my stomach. Prong collars, choke collars, shock collars, spray collars, punishment or eyeballing the dog… these are no way to treat a dog who feels insecure. 

I guess that goes without saying.

The changing behaviour model I use warns reactive dogs of an approach, desensitises them to the approach and allows them to choose an emotional reaction when they are still calm enough to do so. It uses classical conditioning to pair up an approach with a positive event, so like Pavlov’s salivating dogs, they anticipate approach with a positive situation. Then it allows you to teach them a new response so that they have another behaviour instead. 

First, you  need to ‘charge the cue’, or make sure that the target dog knows that your approach word signals the arrival of something good. Choose a moment when the dog is in neutral or even relaxed behaviour inside the kennel. Do not do this if the dog is stiff, glaring, growling or hostile. You may be able to do this by just backing up a little, or turning to your side. Body language is your friend here. The dog is safe and you are safe, so you can take your time. Move slowly, curve in, don’t use direct eye contact, be fairly still but relaxed. Using soft eyes will also help. 

If the dog is growling or aggressing, do not ‘reward’ a dog for this by using food at this point because they may learn that their poor behaviour is being reinforced. For a dog who is very aggressive behind a very secure barrier, you may choose to wait until the dog has calmed down and throw in a really high-value treat a couple of seconds after they relax. You can reward all calm behaviour or reductions in aggression. For M, a large and unpredictably approach aggressive dog, every time he was slightly more calm, I threw in a treat. Progressively, his behaviour was less and less aggressive and I shaped a quiet and calm response from this, from which I could then continue with the rest of the protocol.

Far better, however, to announce your presence from a distance in a cheerful, friendly and upbeat manner, or use an unusual noise to announce your presence, and then approach. Use a curving, non-confrontational approach, do not use direct eye contact, keep eyes soft, hands loose and your body relaxed and soft. Having a shake-down before you do it really works!

You can use a verbal cue, like “hi doggie!” or use their name. If it’s a dog you know, you can use a loaded phrase like “treat” if it always gives a positive reaction. You can also use a silly, non-meaningful word like “bananas!”

You may also choose to use a non-verbal cue, like a whistle or a non-meaningful noise. Be mindful of choosing something that is not loud, sharp or surprising. A very loud kissy noise can work, as can a “twit-twoo” like you’re whistling at someone good looking. Use small, high-value treats like cheese or sausage and make sure you adjust the dog’s food ration accordingly. You will need 15 pieces of food each time, so keep them small. The size of a fingernail is more than enough. You can quite easily get through a dog’s entire food allowance using this method.

The full protocol is available to download here

You can also tie this in with other calming activities on the other side of the barrier if it is your own dog. 

It’s very important to help your dog generalise and understand that everyone who approaches has great intentions. For this, you’ll definitely need to use this protocol with a number of other people once the dog is happy about your approach. Dogs, especially reactive ones, are very in tune to small details. Even a limp or a box being carried, a hat or sunglasses can throw them off and make them unable to recognise you. Lidy, my current cutie hot mess Mali at the shelter, always knows it’s me – she sees me coming from metres away. She runs and sits by the gate to her enclosure. But the time I turned up in wellies and a jumper instead of my usual coat and boots, she stood staring at me like ‘who the hell are you?’.

Be mindful of the fact that sometimes we smell different, we walk differently, we carry things that dogs may not realise are part of us. The rules of sevens can help a dog quickly generalise using the same approach protocol once you have helped a dog get over its fear or aggression on approach.

  1. Seven approaches carrying or wearing different items e.g. a large bag, a box, a coat, glasses, tinted glasses, a hat, an umbrella
  2. Seven approaches by similar people to you e.g. similar age and height females or males
  3. Seven approaches by people of the same gender but older, younger, shorter or taller
  4. Seven approaches by people of the opposite gender
  5. Seven approaches by very different people including old people, those with canes or handicaps, and older teenagers
  6. Seven approaches by older children
  7. Seven approaches by younger children

You can build up to a number of people arriving at the same time or crowds etc. The idea is that everything is staged and progressive.

Dogs should face their fears and learn that they have nothing to be afraid of. But to do so in a manner that overwhelms them or floods them is not only irresponsible and dangerous, but it won’t work. You may end up with a shut-down dog, and that’s fine if that’s what your goal is (well, it’s not fine to me, but hey, I don’t expect anyone except a hardened animal hater to say they want a shut-down dog as their goal). The approach uses gradual and progressive desensitisation where a dog becomes accustomed to approaches in a staged and controlled manner. ‘Flooding’ is the term psychologists use to describe a situation in which dogs (and people) are dropped in at the deep end, hoping that they will cope. Personally, I have never seen this work and the consequences can be long-lasting and hugely damaging. Sadly, the difference between desensitisation and flooding is only one your dog can choose. If at any point the approaches are overwhelming or cause a dog to bark or growl, you are back to square one. Slowly, Slowly, Catchee Monkey.

Still, the results are really worthwhile: a dog who learns to anticipate with excitement the approach of strangers and realises that people are not mean old bald apes after all. For dogs who are suspicious of unfamiliar people or who are uncomfortable with people approaching their crate, their fence, their enclosure or their yard, this protocol is the difference between being met by 40kg of barking, jumping, lunging, growling, snarling, snapping shiny white teeth and 40kg of wags and sits.

Intermittent growl alert: accessory dogs, macho men and why ten inches is sometimes too much

I’ve not got a problem behaviour to add this week, just a bit of a growly grumble. It has kind of a point by the end, or a theme, perhaps I should say.

The first grumble is over ‘accessory’ dogs. Most people are going to assume I mean chihuahuas in handbags aren’t they? Nope. I’m not talking about ladies and their lapdogs (come and spend 5 minutes with Putchy, the world’s littlest guard dog if you think a chihuahua is an accessory dog, by the way…) but macho men with their own accessory dog.

If Barbie women might be fans of dogs in tutus and diamanté collars, then there’s definitely a GI Joe (and GI Jane) type out there who like their own accessory dogs. Be they malis, rotties or dobies, there’s a certain type of guy who is endlessly attracted to dogs who have either a scary ‘hard man’ look or who are known for their work in the police and armed forces. These guys, usually Eastern Bloc types with names like Ivan, or South Africans who look like they left on account of the end of apartheid, love the breeds favoured by the military: your GSDs, your Malis and your Dutch shepherds. Forget the ‘other’ dogs favoured by the police and military – the springers and the cockers for scentwork, or labradors and bassets – the average Ivan or Hendrik wants a dog that looks like it’s a lot more temperamental than it is. If sporty, make-up-free ladies with ponytails want a collie for agility, then guys called Dirk want a dog that looks like it just got back from sorting out riffraff in a war zone.

If you don’t believe me, go and look at the happy, shiny ladies (almost exclusively) of dog agility teams with their collies and shelties. Then go and look at the schutzhund GI-wannabes (almost exclusively) with their sticks and body suits, camo pants and “K9”. See? By the way, then go and look at the fieldwork trials teams who also like to walk around in camo gear and guns with their hairy dogs and hounds.

But here’s the thing… protection work is one part of schutzhund. It also involves trailing and obedience. But that doesn’t look like your dog is some kind of GI K9, does it?

I think that my point is that for some people, to own a Malinois or Dutch shepherd is just as much an accessory dog (with an accessory sport) as owning a chihuahua you keep in your handbag. They come with their own uniform and reputation.

But unlike the sparkly Legally Blonde ladies with a pooch in a pouch, the over-muscled men who spend too much time in the gym and then buy a malinois because they’re very much compensating for something – try to convince us that their dog is special. That it has a job. Because they need a ‘killer’ dog. Maybe it’s because they live in one of those pesky places where you can’t carry weapons and a dog is as good a weapon as any. Maybe it’s because they failed basic training to get into the army and they fancy themselves as super-tough, ready to fight off insurgents in Walmart.

And what sparked all of this ‘hmmmmm’ over Schutzhund? A few things really. First, a man (called Ivan) who says that clicker training and positive training (which is what I do) are okay for little handbag dogs but don’t work with what he meant as “real” dogs (in his humble opinion). First, I disagreed because you have no need to punish any dog. As my dad said today, punishment won’t turn a bad dog into a good dog, will it? Second I disagreed because dogs who are often more impulsive (and some breeds of shepherds have higher-than-average impulsivity on studies) seem to thrive on the energy of punishment. You’d have to really, really, really hurt them.

And, good people of the internet, that is what happens in many French schutzhund clubs. Picking up by the ears, flinging over the shoulder, smashing them to the floor, pulling them by their legs, helicoptering them (suspending them by their collar or lead from the floor) and ear pinches are par for the course.

Now Comrade Ivan says he doesn’t do this “traditional” stuff. He’s a ‘complete’ trainer. Apparently. Thus, by implication, I am ‘incomplete’. Or, by implication, he missed out a word after ‘complete’, like ‘tosspot’. And needless to say, he is dead wrong. In fact, my positive training and clicker training often picks up with dogs he’d refuse to work with as unpredictable, aggressive and impulsive. The things that have worked best with the dogs that he thinks of as “real” dogs, are…. reward training and clicker training. In fact, Lidy (my current “real” dog project at the shelter) has made such excellent progress with the clicker and sausages that I thought she might like to do a bit of the nice schutzhund stuff with the GI Joes and their perfect obedience machines (competitive obedience and trailing) but… and here’s the catch… it’s not possible because she’s not a pedigree.

How frustrating. You get a dog who’s born to do competitive obedience, who has the best nose in the shelter outside of the hounds, who would thrive off being taught to channel her natural courage, tenacity, enthusiasm and energy… and she isn’t allowed to play with the GI Joe-alikes and their interbred dogs.

Then I was posted a link. A link to a video with some K9 name as part of its title. It seemed to be promo material for a company (?) in the US who train “real” police dogs. It starts with some police guy saying how his dog let him down. It shows some Dieter from South Africa explaining how you have to “train dogs up here” (ie subject them to insanely abusive training) so they are prepared to deal with real life events “down here”.

Well, I’m sorry. I completely disagree. We don’t train soldiers like that, even with their cognitive brains and their ability to process. Who would ever say, “you have to be prepared for Mosul, so we are going to subject you to something way more horrific than Mosul?”

Ridiculous argument.

Girls, you might get sexually abused in your life, so we’re going to subject you to a rape scenario just so we know you’ll cope with it.

Utterly ridiculous.

You can never be trained when the person is wearing a body suit and is predictable. Ask any martial arts person how hard it is to fight a drunk. It’s impossible. Real life is unpredictable and even if you are as prepared as Sarah Connor in Terminator II, you are not prepared. And to ask a dog to be prepared is ludicrous. Anyone knows that dogs do not generalise well. You can’t train a dog with a schutzhund sleeve or a body suit and expect them to generalise – even if you train them to – and expect it to be 100% reliable. Even men with their giant neo-cortexes are not 100% reliable.

So, Mr Afrika with your “I’d rather my dog got shot than a human being” and “we need to prepare them ‘up here’ if we want them to perform ‘down here’…” – frankly, I think that’s a big bag of nonsense. If you want a reliable weapon that can take down a suspect, get a gun. And if that’s not reliable enough, blame the man behind it. News for you buddy, few armed response teams on the continent use dogs. They use highly-trained men with assault rifles. And what do they use their dogs for? Bomb, weapons and drug detection, tracking and trailing. So your macho K9 bullshit is not part of most major European police forces, as most are drugs detection dogs. Whilst some help in the execution of warrants and dealing with affray, most of the armed response units in Europe don’t have loads of dogs running around like lethal and generally unpredictable bitey targeting missiles. RAID, the department of the Police Nationale in France, has a dozen dogs who are part of the unit, a small number of which are introduced into scenes to check they are clear and most of which are used in firearms detection. The army is a bit different. By and large, though, the jobs done by “K9s” are search, scentwork, tracking. Some protection is part of that, of course.

And why do they use so many shepherds? Because they are biddable dogs who love to work and are highly focused. Some come with teeth – but all dogs do. If you wanted a dog who could give you a bit of a nip, I’d recommend something small, bouncy and scrappy. Anyone who saw the burglar escaping with half of his calf muscles and the remains of his jeans will know that a pack of Jack Russells is a formidable protection detail.

So underneath all your macho faux-army bluster, you’re working with a biddable, trainable dog who lives to work. Not super robodog. A dog that has off days, just as you do. A dog that has an emotional brain that they are way less in control of than you are in control of yours. So you can keep your GI Joe fashion accessory and know that, when you’ve abused dogs and thrown them about in the name of “testing” them or making them “ring ready”, or even if you’ve sorted yourself out with a ‘trainer’ who is helping you build a “protection” dog to attack intruders, when you fail to instill the ‘off’ switch, positive training is what makes a difference when you simply can’t force submission and your dog is out of control. And a big fat raspberry to any GI-wannabe who thinks that “real” dogs need punishment to learn, needs to face “real-life” excessive handling so they know how to “cope with it” and that we reward trainers are great for teaching parlour dogs to give a paw but we obviously can’t work with “real dogs”. News for you, buddy. You aren’t in Afghanistan facing down insurgents. You are in a ring. You’re doing nothing differently than the ponytail ladies with their collies running up A frames and going through tunnels.

On that note, a by-the-way about the Miss I’m working with currently, the Miss who has the brains, confidence and energy to be a star, but none of the paperwork. She’s what happens when people don’t train these dogs properly. Putchy is what happens when you don’t instill good behaviour in a chihuahua. I’ll stick to Miss Mali because little dogs scare the bejesus out of me. All dogs need rules and guidance. Not counter-surfing requires as much behavioural inhibition as not biting. Not jumping requires as much behavioural inhibition as not attacking passers-by. For my dogs, not chasing the first smell they come across requires as much behavioural inhibition as any schutzhund trial. This is why the first thing you need to teach is a super-reliable off-switch, whether you are working with a counter-surfing labrador, a cuckoo scent-mad springer or a motion detector greyhound. Frustration tolerance and inhibition are the first thing everybody needs to teach.

That works for children too.

And how do you do that if you’re working with a dog who has high impulsivity?

Tiny, tiny steps.

Miss Mali did NOT have a good day on Friday. Neither did my hoodie. Turns out that the difference between four feet on the floor on leaving the enclosure, and saying hi at face level is 10 inches of ‘too far’ past impulse control.

I’m re-reading (again, and again) Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen PryorThis book should be every dog trainer’s Bible, no matter what your discipline. What it reminded me of was that I had asked too much. Sure, we’ve done ins and outs without jumping and grabbing. She has that just perfect. But we hadn’t done ins and outs with me thinking I’d end the session there if she couldn’t keep four feet down.

Saturday… that’s exactly what we did. I went back to my clicker. No more excited “Yes!” or praise. Impartial. Cold, even. But precise.

Took me two minutes extra and we enjoyed a no-grab walk.

How to add the ‘off’ switch is out there for us. It’s easy in theory and tough in practice. But it works.

I firmly believe all dogs are real dogs, whether they are primped and preened neutered dogs from show lines with no ounce of aggressivity or whether they are rough-and-ready untrained Heinz 57s. They aren’t lifestyle accessories. No ring sport is more challenging than any other (except if you are trying to do them with a beagle or a terrier) and they are SPORTS. You don’t have to be a big dude with a Russian name to train dogs for competitions, and it behooves us all to remember that dogs not biting us is their restraint, not their fear.

I end this piece wanting two things. Firstly, anyone who trains shepherds needs to switch to spaniels. Or beagles. Just once in a while. Secondly, anyone who wants an accessory dog should immediately be given the exact opposite. Perhaps we’d have fewer little dogs with constraint and touch issues if their owners had been used to rotties, and perhaps we’d have fewer mouthy shepherds if they weren’t trained by people who would be better off playing Paintball and pretending to be a law enforcement officer.

 

 

Woof Like To Meet Dog Fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s another thing too…

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

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

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

 

 

My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

When I started volunteering here in November 2013, there were two types of dogs here: long stay and short stay. There were almost 100 dogs who had been here more than three years in 2014, almost half of our residents. With growing links in the wider community, a network of amazing people means that we have one dog – one dog! – who has been here since 2014. That’s Kayser We have twenty-seven dogs who arrived in 2015. I think that is seriously cool. I mean – just wow. Think about it. Not one single dog who was at the shelter when I first arrived is still there.

Most of our long, long-term residents left in 2014 and 2015. Smoke, with 11 years of shelter life under his belt. Ufo, with 7. Dalton with 6. Nichman with 5. Paulo with 5. One by one, those dogs found homes. When we started 2016, Douggy was our longest-termer, with five years to his name. Elios was not far behind, with four years. It’s not going to surprise you that their names are on the list.

The dogs on the list are some of our longer residents, dogs who waited a long time for their home. They’re also some of the most difficult adoptions, with complex behavioural difficulties. Some of the dogs are just those who touch your heart because they’re such sad cases. They’re the adoptions that have really made me pinch myself because I couldn’t quite believe it was true. I confess that I wait, holding my breath, those first forty-eight hours and cross my fingers that there aren’t any problems.

This is a list of the adoptions this year that have really made me smile. They’re the adoptions that give you faith in people and give you that fuzzy, warm feeling that is so vital when you’re involved in rescue. They’re also the adoptions that represent the work that we do and the dogs who come to us, be they old or young, in good health or poor. They represent the destinations of a lot of our dogs too, be they adopted in France or elswhere. I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick out only ten!

#10 Brook

Brook was found wandering the street. This gentle, sweet old lady was clearly so attached to people and to find her on the streets in such neglect was really sad. Despite some early offers of adoption, someone in a neighbouring area thought Brook was her dog that she’d lost over three years ago. Problems with transport meant that Brook had a wait for the lady to come and identify her, but it was not to be. Happily, one of the couples who’d originally contacted me for Brook came a couple of hours to come and get her. Although there are other oldies on the list, what touched me most was that the couple had not long since lost an old dog themselves. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye when people, despite their grief, choose to pick up another oldie whose life expectancy is perhaps not so good.

#9 Jet

Arriving at the refuge as a puppy in summer 2014, Jet was unceremoniously returned here as a two-year-old. What chance was there for this poor dog who had been given little by way of training and had suffered as a result of a change in circumstance in the house. Luckily, his good looks won over his adoptant, and although he has still a lot to learn about walking on a lead, he’s doing superbly well. I know I must drive people crazy with my naggings when they adopt a puppy – but there’s nothing worse than getting a puppy back when they’ve had their best chance at life stolen from them.

#8 Dawson

This is one of my favourite adoptions, because Dawson was such a lovely guy – so overlooked because of his age. For our dogs between 7-10, they are neither fish nor fowl: not young enough for those people who want a juvenile, and not old enough for those who want an oldie. As a result, our diamond dogs wait an eternity. I can’t tell you how hard it was watching Dawson ageing at the refuge, even though he was only here 14 months, those months took their toll on this sweet, sweet dog. Dawson went to a partner shelter in Germany where he was adopted within hours. Happy New Year, Dawson!

#7 Carlos

Carlos was another diamond dog like Dawson who suffered for his middle-age manners. Another of our boys to go to Germany, he was quickly adopted and we get regular photos of this wonderful dog enjoying life to the maximum. His son Tyron was adopted locally and we get lots of lovely updates from his family too. Good to know these boys are treasured as they should be. Carlos was one of my twelve advent calendar dogs in 2015. The advent calendar seems to bring lots of luck, although I never heard of anyone adopting one because of it! I like to hope it gives them all a little Christmas magic.

#6 Guapo

Arriving with his sister who was quickly adopted, Guapo suffered the fate of many of our young, big, energetic dogs: an endless wait. Loved by all the volunteers, he was quick to come for a cuddle, glad for any affection and a dog that seemed destined to stay for a long time. Happily, 2016 brought him a forever family. Seeing him bouncing on the trampoline or sitting in front of the Christmas tree no doubt brought a tear to every volunteer’s eye. He even has a husky neighbour who’s virtually identical!

#5 Ushang

One day in summer, a landlady brought in a transport crate with an animal inside it that had been left by one of her former tenants. At that point, we couldn’t even tell if it was a cat or a dog, and it took some attempts to get the dog out. Ushang was chipped, having been registered in Réunion, but his owner had died some years before, leaving her apartment and dog to her son. He’d run up debts and done a runner, leaving the dog behind. Ushang clearly hadn’t had any care for years. He was blind and deaf. This poor little guy found the refuge enormously stressful and we knew we needed to get him out of there urgently as he wasn’t eating. But who would adopt a blind, deaf dog? Luckily, a very kind family stepped in and Ushang went to his new home. After a couple of big operations to clean up his mouth and teeth, Ushang, now renamed Truffles, is living out his retirement in the most marvellous style with his Weimeraner girlfriend.

#4 Loulou

Poor Loulou was another one, like Jet, adopted as a puppy, brought back at 8 months, adopted again, brought back. In the end, he had three failed adoptions behind him, and all because – guess what – he’s a dog! His penultimate adoption was vetted carefully. She had experience with terriers, liked Loulou, heard all about what he needed. However, she failed to heed that advice, let him off lead within 5 days of having him and then was upset when he chased a deer. Loulou is another of our dogs who went to a smaller shelter in Germany, where he was subsequently adopted – hopefully by people who either use a lead or don’t mind the odd Dear Hunter moment.

#3 Teddy, Zakari, Zouzou and Zoe

In 2015, the refuge was called to take seven dogs who’d been kept in unsanitary conditions, suffering from neglect and very poor socialisation. The seven included six spaniels. Suzette and one of her daughters were quickly adopted, but Zakari, Teddy, Zouzou and Zoe went on to rack up some hard adoptions and returns. In the end, despite the fact it would make them difficult to adopt, the refuge decided they could only go as pairs. To cut them off so completely from the world they knew was divorcing them completely from any sense of safety. Zoe and Zouzou were adopted first, in April 2016, and their progress was slow but steady. Zakari and Teddy were adopted by one of our regular volunteers who really understood exactly what they needed. It takes a very special soul to adopt such damaged dogs, and although you count progress in minuscule steps, these four can finally begin to live for the first time.

#2 Elios

Despite his lovely nature, Elios had chalked up over four years of refuge life. Despite being okay with males and females, he was lost in among all our other black labradors. This boy saw over 2000 other dogs adopted before him, countless changes of companion. Finally, a family came for him and it was his turn. I can’t tell you how hard it is to return a dog to an enclosure when their companion is adopted: to do it as many times as we did with Elios was just heartbreaking. I don’t have to tell you that the video of him playing Fetch was the best thing I saw all year. I could watch that video a hundred times. An amazing, amazing dog who was just so long overlooked. I’m sure life must be strange now without any companions at all!

#1 Cleo

Along with Elios and Carlos, Cleo was another of my twelve advent dogs for 2015. He was also the oldest of the three. He was quickly reserved to go to Germany, but a skin infection turned out to be more complicated and we couldn’t let him travel without a clean certificate of health. So Cleo waited. As the year dragged on, spending his time with a shy dog meant Cleo too took on a little of that reticence. He withdrew into himself and his smiley, happy face, even for a treat, was rarely seen. Trip after trip went off to Northern Europe. Cleo was never on it. Finally, just before Christmas 2016, Cleo’s truck rolled up. He was adopted directly and seeing his photos now, I can see his happy face has returned.

Some of these dogs have been adopted in France, some by English-speaking residents and some in Northern Europe. It goes to show that we depend so very much on an international group to help us home our dogs. It takes a lot to go from so many long-term residents and it has involved a huge amount of international marketing, promotion and advertising. Our staff and volunteers work constantly to find homes for our dogs – gone are the days when dogs spent years waiting for a home. It’s not just marketing. The staff and volunteers at the Refuge de l’Angoumois also work hard to ensure that our dogs are promoted to the people who arrive at the shelter looking to adopt. So many people form the beating heart of the Refuge de l’Angoumois that it is impossible to single any one out individually: we work because there are so many of us who are tireless in our efforts for the dogs (and cats!)

I think that is truly worth celebrating.

I’ve not included any post-adoption photos – if you want to see how our dogs are getting on, come and join us in our Facebook group Refuge de l’Angoumois, Charente 16 where you can see videos of Guapo on a trampoline, Cleo on a couch, or Elios playing fetch.

I think as we move forward into 2017, it’s important to remember how far we have come, that we are far from the days of Smoke and Ufo, of the big scary boys at the top of the block, of Nichman, Dalton, Wolf, Darius, Salma, Alaska, Fairbanks… names that all our ‘old’ volunteers know by heart. I love it that our new volunteers fall in love one week and I have the happy job of telling them that the dog has been adopted next time they come to walk our dogs. I feel very proud of our shelter and what we do here. 2017 may bring sad dogs and traumatised dogs, thousands of kittens and hundreds of stray cats. It may bring disappointing legal victories and new prosecutions filed.

I hope that 2017 brings adoptions for our remaining long-stay dogs: Kayser, Hagrid, Estas, Amon, Aster, Junior, Pilou, Dede, Diabolo, Kody, Doggy, Sam, Gaston, Jafar and Fifi. Although with twenty new dogs on the books to photograph this afternoon, I’m always sad to see places filled as soon as they are emptied. Thanks very much for your support in 2016 – our dogs depend on it. These ten adoptions are by no means the only ones that make my heart swell with joy. The adoption of every single animal, whether they are here for a day or a year, helps fight the tide of neglect, abandonment and abuse. On behalf of all our adopted animals, thank you.

Why I won’t judge you for buying a dog from a breeder

Why I won’t judge you for buying a dog from a breeder


Having looked at what a puppy needs in its first few weeks of life, and why a puppy might not be the most suitable choice for your home, you’ll probably be surprised to hear a staunch rescuer say that one of the phrases I never say is “Adopt, don’t shop!” Kind of ironic, I know. I’ve never shopped. I never will. But why do I wish people would be less glib about peppering posts with this phrase when people are looking to acquire a new pet? And why is the “B” word such a dirty word?

One of the most popular (and controversial) articles on a popular dog website is a commentary from an adopter about why she judges people for buying puppies from a breeder. It’s always a topic that causes polemics. Good traffic for websites, if not very understanding, sensible or kind.

I have a confession to share as well. Once, a woman contacted me to make a statement about how she was ‘unliking’ my Facebook page because “our ethics were not aligned”. Why? I had posted a link to my friend’s dog training page. She’s an excellent trainer, by the way. Like frighteningly good. She’s a positive trainer – so why were my ethics not aligned to the woman who contacted me? Here’s why. My friend has five dogs, and has had two litters of working cockers in the last two years. When I received this snooty message, I was being judged for endorsing the business of someone who breeds one carefully planned litter of working dogs once a year. Somehow the eight puppies that my friend has caused to be brought into the world in the last two years makes her responsible for our shelter having eight hundred dogs through our gates? I don’t get it.

If you are a die-hard “Adopt, don’t shop!” comment-maker, please try to make it through to the end of the post before you tell me that our ethics are not aligned and cut me off though.

Quite honestly, there are a couple of reasons that I’m tired of hearing “Adopt, don’t shop.” The zeal and fervour of the self-righteous Rescue Radicals also makes it impossible to have an honest dialogue about some very important issues to do with what makes a good dog and why a rescue is not for everyone. If you work in rescue, you’re probably afraid to even mention the B word. Even my favourite trainer of all, Nando Brown, justifies his own choice of a “bought” Malinois by countering that he has done his fair share of rescues; indeed, he has two rescue dogs himself. So why does he feel like he must justify his decision to own Fizz and remind us of the great work he has done? Why are we at the point where our top animal professionals feel the need to remind us that they do rescue too? Is it that they feel the burning eyes of Rescue Radical Judgey-ness upon them?

Two people at the shelter have recently had quiet conversations with me about how they would love to breed dogs but are afraid of the reactions they would get. Despite the fact that they love particular breeds, and breeds that are popular for good reasons, breeds in good health with few known genetic issues, breeds not represented in French shelters, these animal lovers are afraid to promote the dogs they love. Instead, they do a bit of work for breed-specific rescues and try to keep quiet about how they wish they didn’t just have to deal with damaged versions of the dogs they love. Do these people know how many dogs there are in refuges? Of course they do. These people WORK in animal rescue. They’re the ones picking up dogs and cleaning up the mess that people make. Of course they know how many dogs are in rescue. Does it mean they don’t love Shelties or Salukis? No. They own muttleys. Or they own damaged versions of the breeds they love. I guarantee you that they own more muttleys than you do and that they’ve taken on dogs with so many complex issues that you wouldn’t think it possible. But they are afraid to breed, to promote a breed, to even mention a breed. It’s a dirty secret that is more difficult to talk about than many other topics. The Judgey Brigade has made it impossible for us to even talk about the B word. Somehow it’s okay to rescue a Beauceron or a Malinois, but not okay to want to have one any other way.

It’s clear to see why. Here’s a nice, sanctimonious, time-wasting example. Some lovely person with too much time on their hands (and a dog they themselves bought from a breeder) contacted me to ask me if I knew that one of our volunteers actually had puppies for sale? Shouldn’t we be adopting and not selling?! That volunteer is a member of a Neapolitan mastiff rescue group. She personally rehomes more mastiffs than anyone else in France. When a mastiff comes in, if she can’t place it, she pays for its stay, she walks it, she trains it, she tries her damnedest to make it adoptable. She does pre-visits and post-visits. She lives and breathes mastiffs. She is the most invested person – a breed ambassador. And the do-gooder who thought our volunteers shouldn’t be involved in breeding needs to consider one thing: the volunteer doesn’t actually have puppies “for sale”. She has over twenty homes lined up before the actual mating. Her puppies are never “for sale”. They are homed before they are even conceived. I wish every dog born had a breed ambassador like this.

Let me make this clear. Breeders are not contributing to shelter problems. Our shelters in France are not filled with pedigree dogs. We don’t have Shelties, Salukis, Springers and Samoyeds for adoption. Not ones with papers. That’s not to say we don’t have ones without papers, but they usually don’t come from anyone I would class as a responsible breeder. This is a really important distinction. Breeding dogs covers the people who pay thousands for the parents’ DNA, who have health screening, pages of heritage and don’t really care about Crufts, as well as those who churn out over seven hundred dogs a year or those whose labrador gets out when she’s in season and runs amok with the village ne’er-do-wells.

Backyard puppy farms are definitely responsible for our problems. Accidental breeders are really, really responsible for the dogs in shelters, but responsible breeders aren’t. People who think their girl should have a litter before she’s spayed with some mate they found on Facebook are also partly responsible for our problems. Anyone who thinks the world needs more brick-headed labradors is not a responsible breeder. Anyone who has three or four breeds up for sale at any point is not a responsible breeder. Effel, the pedigree beauceron with me in foster care didn’t have a responsible breeder. If you sell an energetic beauceron puppy to an elderly disabled lady, and you don’t answer her calls when she goes to a retirement home, you aren’t a responsible breeder.

Responsible breeders are not the problem. By and large, when we get a pedigree-registered traceable dog in through our doors as an abandonment, many of the breeders will come and pick it up that same day. When one of our American Staffordshires was at risk of being put to sleep because he couldn’t cope with refuge life and he’d bitten someone in excitement, the breeder did a ten-hour return journey and placed the dog in a really good rehab programme because he didn’t have space himself to take him back.

Good breeders hate the idea that one of their dogs is at the shelter. You wouldn’t believe how few pedigree dogs come to the pound in the first place, and how very, very few of those are unclaimed. Responsible breeders’ pups leave with birth certificates, chips, addresses for emergencies. They are traceable and trackable. Dogs from responsible breeders don’t often even make it through the shelter doors. Look on Seconde Chance if you don’t believe me. It aggregates dogs for adoption across all the shelters in France, and is searchable breed-by-breed. When you look at the seven Dutch Shepherds available, five are mislabelled. One is clearly a mali cross. Three are seniors (which is an issue in itself) but only two even look like Dutch Shepherds. None of them are LOF-registered, meaning they came in without microchips, tattoos or birth certificates. You’ll find this with breed after breed. Airedales on the site: 4. Proper ones who look like Airedales? 0. Akitas on the site: 4. Number who are proper Akitas: 2. What about a really popular breed, the French Bulldog? 22. Proper Frenchies: about 15. Responsible breeders did not cause this issue. You can bet your bottom dollar that not a one of those Frenchies came from a breeder that only bred Frenchies.

Do we get dogs that have come from puppy farms, unchipped and unvaccinated since birth? All the time. They arrive unchipped, unregistered, unvaccinated and without paperwork. Huskies, Czech wolf dogs, Malinois, hunt breeds, labradors … we get a lot of popular types of dogs who arrive without a chip or tattoo. No responsible breeder would let you leave their home without the pedigree of the dog (if they’re pedigree, which I’ll come back to later), the dog’s birth certificate, copies of the health tests of the parents, (for pedigree dogs) and a microchipped animal that has had its first vaccinations if not its second. Those first vaccinations and a microchip can cost up to 120€ so you can imagine why some breeders wouldn’t give them. It wipes out a big chunk of “profit”. Dogs that are microchipped don’t cause the same problems for us.

So how many of our dogs conform to a pedigree standard? A lot. They’re what we call ‘type’. They look like a breed without us really knowing if they are. Because they’re not chipped, there’s no way of knowing if either parent were pedigree or not. We get a lot of ‘type’ hunt dogs who don’t have paperwork, but they’re working dogs and they’re not “field trial” kind of dogs who need both hunting abilities and Kennel Club papers. We get Anglo types and Ariègeois types, beagle types and terrier types. A good number are not hunt dogs but are popular breeds that people don’t want to pay a lot of money for, like Yorkies or Labradors.

The vast majority of our dogs are not French Kennel Club dogs that have come from a proper breeder in the first place. Their dogs are what we call ‘race’ or ‘breed’. They conform to a breed standard and have Kennel Club paperwork. One or two of our dogs have these papers, and by and large, these are not dogs found as strays but dogs handed over by an owner. A number of those dogs are Category 1 or 2 dogs whose adoption depends on that paperwork. Pure pedigree dogs who’ve been chipped and vaccinated are usually surrendered because of changes in the owner’s circumstances. Most breeders on the documentation refuse to take the dogs back because – guess what – it’s actually fairly easy to predict who will surrender a two-year-old dog, and if you don’t care about that, you aren’t going to care if the dogs end up in the shelter. Luckily, most pedigree dogs (except for Amstaffs and rottweilers, which are subject to breed-specific regulation) leave the shelter quickly, even if their breeder thinks so little of them to care what happens.

And we’re a rural shelter, so we accept a good number of working dogs. That’s not to say all hunters are evil barstewards who kick out their dogs though. Many have dogs who are BOTH tattooed and microchipped. Most of them also have an orange collar with a mobile number on it. I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of hunting with dogs, but hunters who are out every day don’t have muttley hounds without paperwork. Sure, a dog is a financial commodity. That’s the reason why they have pedigrees and field trials. No. We’re talking about some random country “agriculteur” who sells “breton spaniels” on Le Bon Coin for 250€, not a premium setter going for 500€ just for breeding rights. Those random country guys who sell hunt dogs cheaply are sadly far too frequent. Their dogs are not so good at hunting and not worth finding if lost, so they pass over to us. We get A LOT of these dogs. Wire-haired fox terriers, wire-haired dachshunds, griffons, pointers, setters, spaniels. That makes up an enormous number of our entry numbers. So do you think these come from people like my friend, whose next litter are already homed even though the mating hasn’t happened yet?

On the whole, we aren’t getting in dogs from registered, licensed breeders. Nor can we say we get a lot from proper hunters. One ‘breeder’ brought one of her breeding bitches in herself and handed her over, saying she was dominant. I suspect that, at four, the female was hard work. The woman currently has four different breeds of dog on sale, so let’s not call her a responsible breeder. The dog had all the paperwork and I’m no GSD judge, but there was no way she was anywhere close to a breed standard. And if you want to see my neighbour’s 400€ allegedly pedigree “Labrador”, you’ll be surprised to see something more akin to a pointer. But hey.

So where do our dogs come from?

Accidental matings. Yes, even those dogs sold as a ‘cocker’ from a LOF mum, where the father is perhaps the collie from up the road. This is why matings are declared with the Société Centrale Canine, a birth certificate is issued, and then the offspring must be seen by a judge as the dog matures.

Dogs sold on the internet without papers. “Type” doesn’t mean “Race”.

Farmers or “agriculteurs” breeding indiscriminately and trying to make a quick buck before drowning the rest. I’ve been to three farms in the last month to investigate this joyful practice.

Purposeful back-yard breeders who want to make 200€ without incurring costs.

Hunt dogs without papers. Most are muttleys or sans papiers.

Back-yard breeders or rural ‘agriculteurs’ used to be responsible for a lot of the adverts we saw. Not so much anymore since advertising dogs has become much stricter in 2016. But it’s easy to see the ten local “breeders” offering popular breeds at cut prices or to find groups on Facebook where French bulldogs sell for 300€. When you look further, you see their adverts for shih tzus, spaniels, GSDs and French bulldogs… If they can’t provide details of DNA health tests for the parent dogs, or they have more than two breeds on site, you’re probably talking about a back-yard breeder. And yes, they can show you mum. But it doesn’t mean they’re a responsible breeder.

In reality, we aren’t getting so many of the 80,000 Kennel-Club-registered dogs born in France each year. One or two. But not thousands. There is NO causation, then, between responsible breeding and shelter numbers.

There IS a high causation between irresponsible breeders whose dogs leave unchipped and unvaccinated and the number of dogs in shelters.

This is why the law in France has changed. The laws changed as a result of input from vets, shelters, charities and breeders.

Not any of these groups want irresponsible or accidental breeding, or puppies on sale for 200€. If the bodies who write our laws are saying there is a correlation between backyard breeders and numbers in shelters, why are so many people still on the “Adopt, don’t shop” bandwagon treating responsible breeders as if they are the cause of the large number of dogs abandoned in France each year?

When you look at the books of shelters in France, it’s clear to see what the problem is and where the problems lie.

Do I agree with pedigree breeding? That’s a whole different question. With a Mali who had crippling arthritis and an American cocker with chronic ear infections, food allergies and eye problems, you may see what my viewpoint is based on. I wish people would care more about the personality of their dogs, and people bred for personality rather than looks. There’d be fewer crazy-energetic brick-headed labradors about.

But there IS a certain something to knowing the breed type and their behaviours. Tilly, bred in the US, is up and down the same dog as my Nana’s American cocker, bred in the UK, in the 80s. Seeing her on the table that first night was like seeing the ghost of Sunny. They look alike, sure, but they have a lot of similar behavioural quirks. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called Hagrid, a mali cross at the refuge, Tobby. They even do the same door nudge “double tap”. For all of those who say that breeds don’t have particular qualities, I’d like them to come and meet a few Anglos, a few fox terriers. But by and large, the behaviours that dogs have in common go wide across the species, and the quirks and foibles are only noticeable because they are unusual. We fall in love with breeds and I hate that we do. We generalise about breeds and I hate that we do that too. We see humans as individuals and animals as ‘species’ and we have prioritised looks over personality in our dogs. I wish we loved mutts as much as we love pedigrees. I know my heart melts for the gentle Amigo souls with their dubious heritage and their deliciously gentle natures. My own personal jury is still out on “type” or “muttley”. One gives you a bit of an idea what you’re getting. The other, well, it’s pot luck really, unless you know both parents. I’d much rather someone took two nice muttley dogs and said, “Do you know what? These dogs would make lovely kids between them.” Throw in a few health-checks and that’s how I wish dogs were ‘made’.

So do I think all dog breeders are causing the problems in shelters? No. Only the ones who do it for money. Do I think pedigree dogs are okay? Hmmm. That is a very complicated question indeed. Just because I may not agree with pedigree or closed books at kennel clubs doesn’t mean I think breeders cause problems in shelters.

Do I think that you should ALWAYS adopt and not shop? No. No I don’t think that at all. Will I judge you for buying a pedigree dog from a reputable breeder? No. Will I judge you for buying a cut-price unvaccinated unchipped dog from some woman on the internet? Damn straight.

But it’s not just a question of heritage and kennel club papers.

Why shouldn’t you adopt a pedigree? Should we give up our breed fancying?

In all honesty, if you want a breed, you may find one in a shelter somewhere. Like Westies? Get in touch with a rescue Westie association. People do give up their pedigree dogs all the time. Births, marriages, divorces and deaths mean there are often adult pedigree dogs available. If you want a breed-standard rescue puppy, you might have to wait, but you might find one of those too. You don’t have to give up on pedigree to rescue a dog. That said, finding a Weimaraner in a French shelter will be tough, and that goes for any number of “types”… unless you like labradors or griffons, beagles or anglo-français, and you don’t care about kennel club papers.

Nor do you have to give up on adopting a puppy.

That comes with a massive, massive caution.

You’ve seen or read Marley and Me, I’m sure. In that, the owners realise what a mistake they’ve made when they see Marley’s dad, who is something of a nutcase. Well, with rescue puppies, you can’t see that. You have no idea if the parent dogs have great personalities or not. Not only that but in-vitro stress, inherited fear levels, removal from mum before they’re weaned, poverty of experience between 5 and 7 weeks… all proven factors in the development of a “stressed puppy”. And yes, that means that our puppies MAY be a harder adoption than you might think because we’ve no idea what they are bringing with them.

By the way, this is also why I wouldn’t buy a puppy from a back-yard breeder since the same pre-natal, neo-natal and post-natal conditions exist for those puppies too. That’s the one time I would say “Adopt, don’t shop.” After all, if you’re running the Russian Roulette of cheap puppies, you might as well support your local shelter. They’ll probably be less traumatised than one from a puppy mill.

The facts are simple. If we want well-adjusted dogs, we need two well-adjusted parent dogs living in calm, well-adjusted homes, going through pregnancy untraumatised and raising puppies in optimal environments. You can’t guarantee that with a rescue puppy or a backyard breeder puppy. Now I don’t know who my dog Heston’s parents were, but he was abandoned at a day old and hand-reared. He’s a very good dog. Not a great dog, but a very good dog. He’s still reactive, but he’s not the only one of his litter to be so. He’s smart and he’s healthy, but one of his sisters died because her blood didn’t clot after a wound. Heston has not been an easy pup to raise. He has made me have to be the best I can be, and I’ve made huge lifestyle changes for him. Raising him is probably why I will never raise another puppy again. Give me the old giffers who walk in and crash out within ten minutes. I love Heston, but he is precisely the kind of dog who end up in refuges at two years old, because they are highly energetic, smart, big, muttley and male. How many other people saw a dog like this up for sale or adoption and felt like they had their work cut out for them? How many give up a dog that had such an unknown heritage? The answer is easy to see in the dogs handed over to shelters, the dogs found on the street. Unplanned parenthood for dogs isn’t just about the NUMBER of dogs that result from that mating, but the QUALITY and PERSONALITY. Accidents would be okay if the dogs that had bred had well-balanced personalities. But they’re not the kind of dogs that get out and go a-wandering when it’s season time are they? Dogs with high energy, nervous dogs, fearful dogs, reactive dogs – those poor-quality accidental matings – are what seems to be behind a large number of dogs handed over to our shelter at the very least, to say nothing of the unsuitability of homes that puppies are given to. Let’s be honest: if your dog has got pregnant by accident, do you really care that much about who has these puppies with their crazy personalities? I’d had four dogs by the time I got Heston. I’d owned animals all my life. I grew up surrounded by dogs. I have a big garden, and I am at home for large parts of the day. But I was unsuitable. I kind of muddled through but there were a lot of times it was really, really hard work. He made me get good. He still barks at people who come on the property. I managed 1km without a lead lunge today and that is as good as it gets. He knows several heelwork routines, can find the scent of gun oil or oregano over 200m of dense, distracting territory and he is handsome as dogs can be. But I had a lot to learn with him and I’m lucky I had the space and time to do it.

My shelter adoptions and fosters of adult dogs have been relatively easy, behaviourally speaking. But then I had to choose carefully because I’ve little support if it doesn’t go well. Sadly, I couldn’t take on the dogs who need a lot of support – a true rescue. Amigo wasn’t really a ‘rescue’, and neither Tilly or Ralf. They were adoptions. Those dogs settled in days. Tobby, he was a ‘rescue’ with his mouthy ways and separation anxiety. The truth is that many people pick up a rescue dog (or puppy) and are not prepared for it. These are adult dogs with poor experiences and a past they may never come to terms with. I don’t want people to be so guilted out by “Adopt, don’t shop” messages that they take on a dog that they simply can’t cope with simply because they’d love a dog but they feel too guilty to choose one from anywhere else but a rescue.

The truth is, we like dogs. We want dogs in our lives. If we rely on puppies from back-yard breeders, raised in terrible conditions, or accidental muttleys, all that’s happening is that we’re creating more and more and more dogs who have problems. And if we put pressure on people to adopt, the people who will take a great, well-adjusted dog are reduced. If we turn dog breeding into something that ethical, honest dog lovers turn away from, we leave it wide open to idiots who’ll mate brothers and sisters in the name of pedigree. We look at the GSDs at Crufts this year with an attitude of disgust. The breed pool and closed books of kennel clubs have become so narrow that the dogs are clearly in very poor physical health. Talk to a Dobie owner if you don’t believe me. And we’re not talking about years and years of breed narrowing. We’re talking about a couple of decades, and the “slopey” GSD is what you get for a pedigree GSD. We have been very effective in the last 50 years or so at making pedigree dogs into dogs with genetic health risks, and we’re only just taking steps to try to weed out those problems. But some of the best people I know who SHOULD be rearing GSDs aren’t doing so because they also work in rescue and they’re worried about the way they’ll be viewed.

The truth is that few people other than great breeders think about the mental health or personality of dogs. Few people think “this dog is a well-balanced, healthy individual” and thinks to breed puppies who will also be well-balanced and healthy. A responsible breeder considers personality as much as looks, but we are discouraging breeders like this and leaving the “market” wide open to unscrupulous people who couldn’t give a monkeys about personality, health or DNA tests.

We are effectively encouraging the proliferation of dogs with behavioural problems if we discourage responsible breeders or if we discourage breeders who are breeding great dogs who don’t even have paperwork or breed.

And where does that end? If every single person who bought a dog in the next year went to the shelter instead and no puppies were born at all, I guarantee you the shelters would not be empty. Not in the least.

Some shelter adoptions are HARD. I mean, really hard. They take persistence and determination, years of work and expensive rehab. Take my lovely Hagrid. We’ve been working with him on the mouthiness, but that dog is not a dog for every home. I can’t bring him here because he doesn’t do male dogs. He needs people with great experience of handling shepherds, who have plenty of time and secure land for him, who will continue to teach him and train him with his mouthiness, who aren’t afraid of him, who will spend a big proportion of their day on him and will make the same kind of time-expensive changes to their life that I have made with Heston. A one-dog or two-dog household with no children, no grand-children, experienced owners who’ve had wily shepherds before. I’d possibly take him if I had no other dogs, and only now I’ve learned more about wily, bitey shepherds from Tobby. Then again, I’m not sure I have enough time and resources for a Hagrid in my life. But we have many other dogs like Hagrid, Julio, Gaza, Gilda, Loyd, Larry, Sam, Jack, Daluk,  … these are not dogs for first-time dog owners, people who work, people with children, people without dog experience, people without ten-foot fences. Of those dogs, ONE has paperwork, by the way. Of our twenty-six dogs who have been at the refuge over a year, how many even look a little “type”?

Want to play “Guess the Breed?”

Does this look like a problem caused by breeders or even by backyard breeders? Or does it look like a problem caused by people whose dogs had accidents? It sure as hell looks like our poor sixteen long-stay dogs are more accident than design. Do you think the average person wanting to adopt a dog could cope with some of these dogs? By the way, there’s not a one I wouldn’t adopt. But there are twelve of the sixteen I can’t adopt because they don’t do males. With the best will in the world, if these sixteen represented all rescue dogs, I’d have my work cut out finding one that suited my home life and skill level. Do you think any breeding at all went into the ‘making’ of these dogs?

It’s not just our unruly or hard to home dogs that have issues, either.

Take Zouzou and Zoe, adopted some months ago from the refuge, so traumatised that they have developed a range of bizarre guarding behaviours, resistant to touch, to comfort, always a flight risk… Take our nervous hounds who tremble at the slightest touch and run away the moment anything spooks them… Take our destructive dogs who can’t be left with blankets… Take our old dogs who need palliative medical care… our boisterous dogs who’ve never had a lick of training… our unsocialised dogs who hate others… our dogs who kill cats and other small furries… our dogs who are scared of children… our high-energy dogs… our category dogs who need owners with licences and training….

Our dogs left at the refuge for months on end are sometimes here because the number of owners who would be a good home for them are really, really few and far between. That’s not always true – we have a number of dogs passed over because of age, colour, size and gender, but it is generally true. Often, our highly adoptable, well-trained, well-adjusted dogs walk out of the door within days.

When people who think that it is more “noble” to adopt rather than shop take on a dog, they often do it for the wrong reasons. You have to know that you are at a good point in your life for a RESCUE dog. Because that’s what these dogs are. They aren’t cheap dogs. They aren’t the “ethical” choice. They aren’t the Fair Trade equivalent of animals. They are RESCUE dogs. Some of them are very damaged. A number come with a risk of separation anxiety, with aggression issues, with a past. A lot escape that, which is great. But if you think that if my friend stopped breeding and I started putting “Adopt, don’t shop!” on posts that are nothing to do with me — if you think that this will find homes for the sixteen dogs above — have at it and tell me why.

Sadly, misguided ethical adopters are on the rise. I think this is because of a number of reasons. If you choose a dog because you have convinced yourself that it is the ethical choice, the moral choice, then you are soon going to find the stench of burning martyr strong upon you as you are faced with complex behavioural issues or requirements.

Hagrid, Gaza, Zakari, Teddy and Daluk don’t need owners making an ethical choice, they need owners who are not blinded by their own moral goodness. They need owners going into adoption with their eyes fully open, completely prepared for any eventuality, otherwise that adoption will fail. I’ve seen these dogs returned from well-meaning owners (and occasional idiots) and “the ethical choice” is the very last reason you should adopt. If you feel smug about having a RESCUE, then you have gone about it the wrong way. Feel happy to have a dog that’s right for you and you’re right for it. If that is a dog you bought, so be it. If that is a rescue, so be it.

In the meantime, I’d like to see fewer articles by smug people whose only connection to the rescue world is that they have adopted a few dogs.

Don’t adopt a dog because it is the ethical choice. Adopt a dog because you fell in love and you know you can provide a home that is right for that dog.

And stop blaming the breeders.

Blame your neighbours who don’t sterilise their dogs. Blame the back-yard breeders who’ll sell a “knock-off” pedigree. Blame the people who keep them in business and buy from pet stores rather than homes, who prefer to buy a Yorkie for 200€ off some dodgy website rather than pay 1000€ for a Yorkie whose parents aren’t related to each other and who’ve had a suite of genetic tests. Blame the cult of pedigree dogs. Blame people who walk into Dogs 4 Us and think that they can buy a dog here.

Tell people to “Shop Better” rather than “Adopt, don’t shop”. But don’t think that a rescue dog is for everyone, or that a person who buys a dog is immoral. If people “shopped better” and bought puppies from great homes (regardless of paperwork, pedigree or price) rather than “buying easily and cheaply” then there would be fewer dogs in shelters.

And if people who couldn’t ensure their muttleys wouldn’t reproduce got them sterilised, then there would be fewer dogs in shelters too. In fact, if people stopped letting their dogs have accidental litters, our shelter could probably close. If people stopped thinking that you can buy a great dog for 300€ from Facebook and if breeders cared enough to register and track the dogs they cause to be brought into the world, we’d definitely close.

So I will never judge you for buying a puppy from a responsible breeder. I will never blame you for wanting your puppy to have the absolute best start in life, great genes, a great early experience. How could I blame you for that?

But… I will also say that despite their questionable heritage and their poor experiences, a rescue dog can prove that much of this doesn’t matter. We have great dogs walk through our gates every single day. There are times when I feel like I should say “Adopt, don’t shop.” But instead, I’d say “Before you buy, check out your local shelter… and your not so local ones. Maybe you’ll find a dog that fits right in. But if you don’t, good luck and please make sure you shop responsibly.” Many, many of those misshapes, mistakes and misfits make great family pets. I know. Ralf was just about the easiest adoption ever. Amigo is a dream of a dog and I wish I could have fifty with his sweet, sweet nature.

Stopping saying “Adopt, don’t shop!” will not only stop alienating people, it has other benefits too.

That way, we keep the conversation open between responsible breeders and shelter workers, and we keep our eyes open about what makes a good dog after all. And then, maybe then, we’d have an honest conversation about whether Kennel Clubs are a good idea at all and why pedigree dogs are perhaps causing so much heartbreak with inherited diseases, quirky behavioural throw-backs and genetic dead-ends. There are battles to fight, people, but guilting people into rescue isn’t one of them.

Hopefully you won’t be unliking my page and thinking that our ethics aren’t aligned now you understand a little about where I’m coming from. A little understanding and acceptance would go a long, long way.

A tale of Tiggers and Eeyores, or why puppies aren’t always for every home

A tale of Tiggers and Eeyores, or why puppies aren’t always for every home

We’re often told that puppies will fit right in to our household, but is that really true? Is a puppy always the right choice to make when it comes to a multi-dog household? An emergency vet visit and an afternoon of puppy cuddles got me thinking about how adding a puppy into the mix isn’t always the best decision. Reading a blog post from the Dog Lady, Theo Stewart, got me thinking about how hard it can be for an older, established canine resident to accept a cute bundle of loveliness into their life.

A couple of weeks ago, the story of a tearful visit to the vet with a five-month old puppy who’d been attacked in a moment of excitement by an adult dog brought it home to me that puppies are not for every home. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an adult dog wounding a younger one. Sometimes, those wounds have been fatal. The story of a nine-month old mauled to death by an older dog is an unfortunate result of a situation that is not always the joyful experience it should be.

And to my right, the seven little wriggly dachshund x terrier pups remind me just how much at least one of my woofers would have hated these little fosterees. Tobby, my ancient Malinois, literally took to the streets when I had puppies here. Puppies were not for him. Randy Wobbly Tobby, so delighted when I turned up with hounds or arthritic old lady labradors, delighted to see poodles or bichons, happy as Larry when I brought home stinky old ladies, would have found it very tough to accept seven velvety beans. Not only did I have to manage all the puppy play and land-sharking, mopping up and random acts of chewing, I had to keep an eye on Tobby, who would slip off during a quiet moment, slide out through a badger hole in the fence and trot off up the road in search of a home where there were no puppies, thank you very much.

Whether it was the lack of quiet, the fact that puppies need constant reminders of what’s to play with and what’s not (including Wobbly Bob’s tail and arthritic legs), or the fact he got less attention, we can only speculate. The fact was that he was not a fan of puppies, not one bit.

And Amigo’s not arsed either. I mean he doesn’t mind telling puppies off, but they never take any notice of him, even when he’s snarling in their face. It’s like being told off by Richard Briers, to be fair, but even so, my gentle old guy and I sit with our feet up out of reach on the couch and try not to get cross about the ankle biters. Effel growled at the boxer puppies here last week. Even Heston had a grump. My four-year-old collie cross is usually so very happy to have a roll about with some bitey babies, but those puppies were not his cup of tea. What a change from 18 months ago when I had to manage the growls of Tobby and Amigo, and Heston’s joyful baby-sitting. Would I trust him with a puppy? Absolutely. Does he still enjoy puppies? Not like he did.

Tilly, so happy to play with puppy Heston (and the only time she ever played with another dog), spends all her time putting puppies in their place and grumbling if they disturb her peace. Heaven help any puppy that got near her food bowl. Separate meals for any puppy who spends a dinner time here. It’s not often I have to do that with the adults.

I mean, part of it is that puppies don’t learn easily, do they? Irascible, tenacious little beggars. I spent forty-eight hours watching Margot the nine-week-old boxer cross biting her brother Olly so hard that he was squealing and squealing. She played tug of war with his tail, chewed his ear, rode his back. So much for puppies learning from other dogs that their bite is hard or they are playing too rough. Little Ayan, here with me now, engages in some quite heavy-duty hazing of her brothers. Mama, the young labrador who had seven puppies at the shelter in the summer spent the last three weeks of their time here looking to escape from her babies having had more than enough of her offspring’s insistent attempts to play and mug her for milk. Little Nellie is at the same point with her six-week-old offspring. She literally couldn’t be any further away from them. Her job is done. Time to move on.

So, small puppies with their lack of social boundaries can be hard work for adult dogs, even if they are your offspring. And so many people choose a puppy because they have difficult dogs who won’t easily accept other adult dogs. We adopt a puppy because we think that our older antisocial dogs will adapt to them. One lady was telling me that she wanted one of the puppies I have here now because her elderly fox terrier won’t accept other dogs — she thinks the dog will ‘mother’ a puppy. We have many misconceptions about how puppies are accepted into family groups, but if the reason you want one is that your existing family pet is intolerant of adult dogs, is it really sensible to think that they’ll like a small puppy who might learn how to behave in ways that don’t annoy the older dog? And what if they don’t? Even if they do, they’re subjecting a dog to a life with an antisocial misery — is that going to make any creature in that house happy apart from the owners?

So why might a puppy not work with your own very social dog group? My dog group might not look like the most social of all families, but they put up with some shit. I’ve had over thirty dogs and pups stay the night here in the last year — some for longer than that. Tilly might grudgingly accept them through the door with a bit of a bark. Amigo might hide behind me. Heston might show us just how fluffy his tail looks and Tobby might have licked them to death, but the adult dogs were more easily accepted than the pups.

Part of it is just the energy levels. I mean, those puppies can be like crazed land sharks on speed.

Having a new crazy land shark about reminds me very much of the incident in The House at Pooh Corner, where Eeyore falls into the river.

“How did you fall in, Eeyore?” asked Rabbit, as he dried him with Piglet’s handkerchief.
“I didn’t,” said Eeyore.
“But how–”
“I was BOUNCED,” said Eeyore.
“Oo,” said Roo excitedly, “did somebody push you?”
“Somebody BOUNCED me. I was just thinking by the side of the river–thinking, if any of you know what that means–when I received a loud BOUNCE.”
“Oh, Eeyore!” said everybody.
“Are you sure you didn’t slip?” asked Rabbit wisely.
“Of course I slipped. If you’re standing on the slippery bank of a river, and somebody BOUNCES you loudly from behind, you slip. What did you think I did?”

Sadly, outside of children’s books, animals can’t talk or reason, and no post-BOUNCE analysis takes place when a younger animal BOUNCES a bigger one. Being bounced is not acceptable for dogs and they can’t fall back on words to sort it out. Eeyore was absolutely right to be grumpy that a bouncy creature should come into his corner of the world, especially when he had the whole of the forest to be bouncy in. That doesn’t have to be a puppy. My foster Effel is a fairly bouncy dog as it is, despite being seven years old. Tobby didn’t much like being bounced by him either. And the fact is that dogs, like Tiggers, are prone to bouncing where there are other dogs.

So a couple of weeks ago, when a man arrived home from work, setting off the excited bounces of his new five-month old pup, the resident adult dog didn’t much care for that excitement. The outcome were some fairly serious bites, from a dog who had never bitten before. Joking and Tigger comparisons aside, rambunctious, excited behaviour which is hard to control for a young dog can be precisely the kind of behaviour that other dogs take exception to. It’s going to happen at flashpoints where there’s high energy, and unlike Eeyore who begrudgingly accepts his bouncing, your older dog just might not.

But it’s not all about flashpoints and making sure your young dog is safe around your older ones. It can’t all be sorted with crates and playpens. Much of it is also about energy levels and frustration tolerance.

That was very much evident at a local dog play day. Two young dogs were left playing long after the others had run off their energy. One was nine months, the other eighteen months. Play, although it can continue into adulthood in dogs, doesn’t always. And play, like with other species, is often more exuberant and even more necessary when you’re young. Even the six-week-olds sleeping next to me know about toys already. In fact, one has woken up and is already mouthing a chew toy whilst his siblings sleep on.

The question to ask yourself is whether your adult dogs can handle a puppy who needs to play and wants to explore the world. A puppy who might bounce from time to time. Whilst you might feel goo-ey and parental when a puppy comes along, you know how tiresome the land-sharking can be if you’re not in the mood. You can’t choose when a puppy will decide to sink its teeth into your boots, or chew your laces, or trip you up. Your adult dog can’t choose when a puppy wil sink its teeth into their ears, or chew their tail, or run through their legs. And whilst you have all the love in the world for your new addition, which you understand is just learning the rules and needs a little help, who’s to say whether that’s evident to a dog or not, especially when, like Tobby and Amigo, you have told that puppy off over and over again about bouncing you into rivers. The difference is that as a human, you can manage your emotions. You can go out. You can find some space. You can invest in a puppy pen and supervise from a safe distance. Those aren’t choices your older dog can always make if owners have just blithely thought the older dog would accept a younger one.

For that reason, your adult dogs may prefer you adopt another adult dog rather than a puppy. An adult dog’s personality is already formed. Their behaviour patterns are more established. It’s easier to find a dog who matches your own adult dog’s size and energy levels. An adult dog may be the sensible choice. They are better at managing their behaviour and also managing the behaviour of others. It’s easy to see those ones who’d accept every single dog who ever crossed paths with them.

Another reason that people adopt puppies is to replace a dog who has died. Sometimes it’s for companionship for their own dog, or to stop separation anxiety. Sometimes it’s to fill the hole the old dog left in the family. It’s for this reason that many people feel like it would be very hard for an adult dog to join their family, as the family group has already been established and they think that their existing adult dogs won’t accept another adult. Or they think that dogs are more accepting of puppies, who will learn to fit into the group more easily. Whilst this can be true, there’s no reason to think that dogs like or accept puppies any more than they would like or accept an adult dog.

Sometimes, people feel that they don’t want to adopt an older dog because losing the last was very painful. They think they will have more years with a puppy, which may or may not be true. This morning, I read in one group of an eight-month-old wire-haired pointer that just dropped dead on a walk. No dog is immortal and space between losses doesn’t make it any easier, I’m afraid, even if you think it will. Some people like to stagger the ages of their dogs, so that they won’t end up with a geriatric group, or a group who need a lot of care all at the same time. There are many reasons why people choose to adopt a puppy instead of an adult dog.

But the sheer number of young dogs abandoned at the shelter tells you how hard youngsters can be. Over 80% of our dogs are less than 4 years of age. A very short socialisation window, a long adolescent period where you may not be able to exercise the dog physically at a level that is compatible with their energy levels for fear of muscular or skeletal problems, youthful exuberance, lack of time to train and work with your adolescent dog… and you have every reason why young dogs can be boisterous and bursting with energy. Are these things you are prepared to cope with? If you don’t have time and energy yourself, a puppy may not be the right choice for you or for your existing dogs.

Take Heston. He’s four and a half. He has so far enjoyed playing Uncle Heston, and he has very much enjoyed working with young puppies up until these last guys, although to be fair, he’s not been as relaxed as usual having a big bouncy boy with us in foster and following a few other changes in doggie personnel. He’s generally a great dog to introduce to young dogs. He self-limits well, never being rough or over-exuberant. He has great body language and communicates well with puppies. But even he seems to be getting tired of puppy play. I think sometimes of getting a younger dog to be his companion, since my canine family group is very much an ageing one. But would a puppy be the right choice? Certainly, my other two dogs would find it tough. Amigo is very deaf and not tolerant of puppies. Tilly is a dog who just likes to be undisturbed. Would a puppy work with this group? At the same time, am I happy with an ageing group?

The best answer has come from my foster dogs. Heston’s most favourite was a game young lady called Galaxy, a similar age and size to him, female, playful and fun. She was two at the time, to his three and a half. Although I would love a puppy, a dog like Galaxy would have been the best option, I have no doubt. She didn’t upset the oldies, didn’t have excessive training needs and came here with an energy level that suited all of us. Her personality was already established and because I could see the adult her, I knew what I was getting.

A Galaxy wouldn’t end up bouncing my oldies, wouldn’t give me as much of a runaround, wouldn’t have an energy level that caused my other dogs to pack their bags or to spend their days on guard in case someone comes to bite their legs or steal their bed. She’d also give my ageing group a bit of vitality without being a nutcase about it.

But if you want to introduce a puppy into the mix of your older pack, there are many benefits to that too. Dogs are social learners so having an old hand around the place will help with rambunctious younger dogs. At the shelter, we really don’t like for people to adopt a puppy as an only dog: these dogs are so often returned at the adolescent stage having had no real or meaningful interaction with older dogs. I can spot you a dog who’s lived out its life as an isolated, often unsupervised puppy a mile off. They have poor bite inhibition, low frustration tolerance, exuberant behaviour and often very coarse social skills with other dogs. Julio at the refuge is one such dog, having arrived after nine months of isolation. Maki is another. When you adopt a puppy and you don’t have another dog, you have a lot of work to do to keep it socialised. Although genes have a large role to play in how social your dog will be, the difference between a well-socialised husky and a poorly-socialised husky is bigger than the difference between a terrier and a spaniel. If you are picking up a puppy known for independence and pugnaciousness, like a terrier or bull breed, or a puppy bred for seeing off intruders, like a shepherd, it is your absolute responsibility to ensure they are socialised if they live on their own. And that is not always easy to do. Puppies like these really benefit from having supervised and mindful guidance with older dogs in the home.

Ultimately, whilst you may have been hoodwinked into the myth that older dogs will more readily accept a puppy, it is not true and it can lead you into very dangerous territory where your own dogs’ sense of security is destabilised. And just because your dog will accept a non-hormoney-smelling nine-week-old, can you predict safely what will happen when your puppy comes of age? Just because they know each other certainly doesn’t mean that they won’t fall out. Indeed, some of the worst fights (usually to the death, or to very serious injury) have happened between an older dog and a dog on the cusp of manhood or womanhood. That’s why, hearing of an SBT killed by a shepherd, seeing “nine months old” told me pretty much what had happened. Early sterilisation is not without its risks, and if you are doing so to keep the peace, you still might never avoid the problem completely.

You may also be under the illusion that puppies can easily learn not to chase cats when in fact, an older dog with a modicum of training and no reaction around cats at the shelter is a much better choice. Your young puppy only has to learn ONCE how fun it is to chase a cat (and how natural it feels!) and you have a young animal with very poor impulse control around your other treasured pets. Can you really supervise your puppy until it is at least six months old around running cats? And even if you can, can you stop the little green light of “that looks like most marvellous fun!” coming on in your puppy’s eyes? As an owner, you need to be absolutely on top of your game with that.

So if you’re thinking of picking up a little bundle of fluffy loveliness, think of your existing doggie dynamic. Think of how much time and training you can offer. Think of whether you have the time and skill to mould a dog whose behaviour is exemplary. Too often we assume that a dog is rambunctious or unmanageably energetic through some fault in their background, in their breed, in the parents. Yet I can show you littermates whose behaviours are so completely opposite that you would never believe they were siblings. You have to invest time to get the dog you want. If you don’t have the time, wait until you do. I will, in all probability, never have a puppy again. Having to mark out four months or so of being at home or finding puppy sitters, getting in all the socialisation and making sure I do everything I should… it’s exhausting. Plus, I could pick up ten dogs today from the shelter who come with far fewer needs and would settle in minutes, not days.

So, if you have an older family group of dogs or cats, don’t accept at face value all the times you’ll be told that a puppy will be accepted by the group. Whilst Tiggers might be acceptable to laid-back Winnie-the-Poohs or motherly Kangas, or super-social Rabbits, they certainly don’t make life easy if they keep bouncing the introverts by mistake. Sure you miss out on all the cute puppy moments, but puppies are only puppies for a very short period of time.

In the next post, I’ll tell you why you’ll never hear me use the phrase “Adopt, don’t shop!” and why I think there are times you might be better to shop for a puppy than adopt from a shelter. I know – controversial!