10 questions you SHOULD ask when you adopt a dog

10 questions you SHOULD ask when you adopt a dog

beforeyouadopt
There are plenty of people who do ask the most ridiculous of questions (usually by email!) when a dog catches their eye. Sometimes that’s just because they don’t realise that our dogs are in the shelter, for the most part, not in a home. We have occasional dogs in foster, but by and large, the majority of our dogs are at the refuge itself.

So for that reason, no, I can’t tell you if they are house-trained. In fact, any house-trained dog can have an accident or two in a new home, or even forget altogether that going to the toilet in the house isn’t something they do. Fripouille the poodle I had here had a few accidents. He came from a home where he never had any. He went to a home where he had one or two. If you’d asked before he came here, the answer would have been “Yes!” and it still would have been when he left. That he was too stressed to pee until he was absolutely bursting and didn’t know where to pee is not a lack of house-training.

And whilst we have cats at the refuge, we do not have chickens, ducks, geese, cows or horses. Do you mean that you want to know if the dog has a high prey drive? Their reaction to cats might tell us that, but I simply can’t test your new favourite potential dog to adopt with a guinea pig. In fact, the majority of people who ask for dogs to be tested with a variety of barnyard or circus animals never adopt the dog. I speak from experience. Anyone who wants to know if Féfelle my foster beauceron is okay with cows, chickens and geese… yes he is. It took me a morning to test him with them and without adoption. In fact, Tilly was my serial chicken chaser when she arrived. She did it for five days and then we trained it out of her. Does she have a high prey drive? Yes, where birds are concerned. She’s a spaniel. It’s hard-wired. Often, when people want to know about farmyard animals, it means their property is not adequately secure and that a dog could easily get to them. Let me tell you something. My dog Heston made up a game with his friend César that was called “tug-of-chicken-war” when I left him on his own, despite the fact he had never, ever chased a chicken. Unsupervised dogs who can get to your feathery ones may well make their own fun, so please bear that in mind.

So what should you ask?

  1. How do they react around people? Are there any people they’re scared of? The shelter is full of people. Some dogs are scared of tall people. Some are scared of men. Some appreciate men more than they do women. Some are shouty with all people they don’t know. Some are shy. Some stand back until they know you. If a dog has been at the centre for more than a couple of days, we’ll be able to tell you how they are with people. Hagrid? Fine with people. A bit full frontal and I wouldn’t trust him with small beings of the human variety, but neither scared nor aggressive. Jasper? Terrified of the small beings. Will hide in a bush. Needs to go to a home where there is minimal contact with small humans. Lexie? Won’t approach you until she knows you and even then, she’s never going to be sitting on your lap within twenty-four hours.
  2. How do they react around other dogs? Are they okay with males, females, both? Are they playful? Most dogs will have been subject to at least one pairing within ten days of arrival. The staff will be able to tell you if they are easy to introduce or if they are a bit Tarzany. We’ll also be able to tell you if they really shouldn’t be with any other dogs at all.
  3. How do they react around food? Food guarding or aggression around food is not a great habit, but it’s a habit that is very easy to cure. Still, it’s something you want to know. All dogs who’ve had more than one meal here will have already shown how they are around food. You should definitely ask about food behaviours.
  4. How do they react around cats? We have a lot of cats at liberty in the refuge, and it’s a situation we come across often. It can tell you instantly about prey drive. I had a small pointer here over Christmas. He saw my non-wiggly, sleepy two-week-old kittens and he went into full point. He was absolutely fixated, even from fifty metres. Whilst food aggression is easy to deal with even in its most severe states, a very high prey drive is not. If you have a dog who is hard-wired to chase small furries, know that your time off lead will be influenced by that, as well as their recall under stress. A secure garden is a must for a dog with a very high prey drive.
  5. How did they come to the shelter? A dog who has been surrendered may have some historical background. It may or may not be accurate. It shouldn’t surprise you that people will lie in order to surrender a dog who they no longer want. It’s easier to say that the dog has bitten a child than it is to say you don’t want a dog any more. It’s also easier to say that the dog has a gazillion problems when in reality you never walked him and you bought him from some backyard breeder who didn’t care that the parents were crazy. A dog who has come in through the pound also tells you that they may or may not be an escape artist. Sometimes, people will let their dogs out on purpose so they’ll run away. Sometimes, people drive a long way to drop them off and abandon them. Sometimes, people have dogs on properties with no fences and the dogs are strangely often found in the road or neighbours’ gardens. For the most part though, dogs in the pound have escaped or been let out accidentally. I have no doubt at all that Tobby got out somehow. That dog is a seasoned Houdini. I’m pretty sure Amigo ran off after a creature on a hunt and then got lost. A dog who comes in through the pound may tell you a great deal about what kind of fence you need. Add breed to a pound arrival and you’ve got a magic formula for an escapee.
  6. Have they been treated for anything while they were here? At the Refuge de l’Angoumois, our vet nurse keeps detailed records of who’s had what medicine, if they’ve got food allergies, if they’ve been scratchy, if they’ve been wormed. That’s stuff you need to know. Often, a note will be in their file, but we sometimes forget to check, so ask us about the dog’s medical history.
  7. How were they with the vet? A vet visit is always going to be a part of a dog’s life. All our dogs are vaccinated and chipped, so they will have been to see the vet at least once. If they’ve had their booster vaccinations and other health checks, that’s probably two or three times, if not more. The staff know who goes in with a skip and a hop, and who needs a sedative before you can wheel them in on a truck. It tells you a great deal that will help you. Nothing worse than having a battle with your dog in the vet car park, or ending up with a dog who bites the vet. We might not always remember, but if there’s something that stood out, we should be able to tell you.
  8. Do they have any behaviours that you need to know about? We can tell you who destroys bedding, who is barky with strangers, who is scared, who is playful when you get them out, who’d rather take you for a walk, who’s nose to the ground, who’s playful, who gets over-excited, who hates sudden noises. Just ask. We might not tell you if we forget. We might think it’s not relevant or it’s a behaviour that might evaporate out of the stress of the refuge. But if your dog likes to walk around with a ball or a rope toy, we can let you know.
  9. Do the shelter think this dog is a good match for you? What people want and what’s a good match aren’t always the same. Often, people want a dog that is too high in energy for their situation, or is too young. Don’t think that our business is selling dogs. It isn’t. Our business is finding the right home for the right dog. Shelter staff will be able to tell you if what you want in a dog is a feasible thing and whether or not the dog you are thinking of adopting would suit you.
  10. What is the best way to integrate this dog when you get home? We can tell you lots about that! How to introduce your dog to another dog… how to introduce them to a cat… how to house-train them if they have forgotten… how to overcome fear… I know a lot of people think that shelter workers are charity first, animal second, but it is not true. They are animal first. They work with animals and have bags of experience.

Once the adoption papers are signed does not mean the relationship is over. If you have problems with your dog and you’re at a loss as to what to do, just ask! You might think the problem you’re having with your new dog is the most bizarre and irrational one ever, but the chances are, it’s perfectly normal doggie behaviour and we can help you find a strategy to channel that behaviour in more positive ways. Once you adopt a dog, that relationship is a lifelong one. We always love to see photos and hear stories. It makes what we do incredibly rewarding. You should also ask questions of yourself too, to make sure that you’re ready for your new family member.

Food guarding and how to deal with it

Food guarding and how to deal with it

foodguarding

I watched a video this morning that got my blood boiling of a man supposedly assessing a foster dog’s reaction to people around its food. Not sure why he videod it except that he thought it would make a spectacle…

Whilst I commend the process of assessing a foster dog’s food behaviour so that you can better deal with any issues, the manner in which he went about it made me mad. It also makes me cross that the food guarding test is often the one test used in some shelters to assess whether a dog presents a risk or not and a perfectly great dog can have some persistent food issues.

About the video… First, from what I can tell, it’s a new foster dog. It’s afraid, it’s nervous. It comes with the baggage of abandonment and maybe behaviours that led to the abandonment. It’s living in a concrete run with no stimulation – the guy admits he even removes the dog’s bed! Food is perhaps the only variation in the day. Dogs in kennels can quickly become obsessed with food, like my beloved Hagrid at the refuge. The situation in itself isn’t comfortable for a dog when they’re in a new place eating and it sure isn’t easy to eat when things change. I often notice new dogs don’t eat for 24 hours or so and then are really hungry the next time food comes up. The guy in the video also brought in a huge bite sleeve. That in itself is another stressor. To a dog, a bite sleeve is just a big piece of crazy doodah if they’ve not seen one before. And why would you bring crazy doodah in when I’m eating my tea? Let me tell you something, my lovely readers… come and put some food for me and stand hovering around with crazy doodahs and then try and take my food off me and I’ll blacken your eye. And if you’ve seen a bite sleeve before and you know what it’s for, why, you may well have a thing about that too.

Plus, what also made me mad about this video is that the guy then “dominated” the dog (apparently a rescue in a facility he runs somewhere) until it gave up its food. The dog stood around looking uncertain and then went in the corner. Sure, it went for the guy (well, the bite sleeve) when he tried to remove the bowl, but after this, the dog just looked confused. Lots of nervous lip-licking and appeasement gestures. No aggression. The guy then called the dog a psychopath whilst the dog is kind of hanging about looking nervous and unsure. A psychopath!

Let me tell you about my psychopath. I got vet notes for her from the US that said she had seen a behaviourist for food guarding. Whether or not that was cured in the four years she had in her first home, I have no idea. She certainly guards food here. Try to remove a mouldy bread roll from the Tilly Trotter and you’ll get a ferocious and very nasty bite. Let’s try level 3 on Dunbar’s bite scale. That’s worse than Cesar Millan’s worst publicised dog aggressive food-based attack. Just so you know what you’re dealing with. She will fight with other dogs and has once (though not at mealtimes) fought with Amigo over food. She goes from lip curl to teeth showing to whale eye in microseconds.

Psycho number 2 is Amigo my sweetness. He had been on the lam for a while when he came to the refuge and refuge dogs can develop food issues as a result of their past. Whether they’ve been starved, whether they’ve been on the run, whether they find the stress a factor… it’s a reason he eats his food fast. Safer inside. But although he has good manners with me and mostly with other dogs, he will fight over food. He and Tilly have come to blows over accidental food finds.

So how did it ever get so that six of them can squash into a 3m x 3m kitchen to eat?!

Here’s some guidance that helps you overcome food issues with a newly introduced dog. Be mindful that the introduction of a new dog may also bring out the worst in your existing dogs.

  1. Pick up all food bowls and all food items and keep them out of reach. Food should always be supervised, if only from afar, if you are in any doubt over food-related issues. Be as safe with human food as you are with dog food. A dropped crust can easily cause a battle – more so than dog biscuits which just aren’t quite as thrilling. Accidents cause fights. A morsel of ham falling to the floor outside may not be something you’d think dogs would fight over, but it can be. Keep all human food and dog food secure when the dogs are not supervised or if they are home alone. Practise good food safety.
  2. Feed new dogs separately even if they are not food guarders. You should be able to tell from their posture as you approach if they are feeling hostile with your presence. A dog stopping eating and freezing in your presence is a dog who needs you to back off. Look for whites of eyes, stiffening of posture, stopping eating, tails tucked under, eyeballing you, scrunching the nose and any groans, using their body to cover the food bowl, growls or teeth baring. Severe food guarders will exhibit these signs from some distance if they are cautious about your approach. If you don’t have to approach your dog until they have finished eating and the bowl is empty, you may never, ever see food guarding. The more comfortable a dog feels when eating, the less likely they are to need to guard what they’ve got. Notice speed of eating as well. Dogs who gobble food can be possessive over food. A slow, relaxed pace and no signs of distress, stopping or stiffening should mean you can approach the dog gradually. For this, I’ll generally place the dog’s food in the same spot each day and each day, I’ll get a little closer when they are eating. I don’t care if it takes me a week or two to test if I can stand beside them whilst they are eating. I’d rather go slow and help a dog feel comfortable with me around their bowl than move in as soon as a dog is just starting to eat and try and remove food in order to provoke a reaction.
  3. To ensure dogs feel comfortable with humans around their food bowl, it’s best to do this where your new dog feels safest – and that might be just for that one dog if they are showing issues with you and their food bowl. All you do is drop more high-value food in or near their bowl! It’s that simple. If they know that your hand coming towards their bowl is a positive thing, they won’t be stressed about your approach. You can see it here in this video with a dog who has very mild food issues.

    You can phase it out over time. I don’t do it for 95% of the time, but I do take a day every three weeks or so to do it so that I can gauge reactions and make sure there are no emerging issues. Every person who lives in the house should do this too so that the dog is used to all humans approaching, along with their different gaits.

  4. If you notice a lot of issues around food and you are worried about the approach, then build in some food manners. In this video, you’ll see Emily from Kikopup training a young dog to stop mugging people. I did the same with Hagrid, a food-obsessed Malinois with low bite inhibition, so don’t think it’s impossible just because you have a big, bitey dog. He’s learning ‘wait’ and to take food without grabbing. It’s not good video because he’s been learning it for six weeks. But I don’t get bruised hands these days, not nearly as frequently.
  5. Start apart and gradually bring dog food bowls closer if you intend to feed your dogs together. For all of my fosters or new arrivals, no matter how gentle, I feed them separately first. My dogs are happy to wait until the others have been fed in a separate room as I have done lots of things to make them okay with food and meal-times. You want to give your new dog time to feel safe around your own dogs. Introducing them on the first day may lead to drama, and even the first week is too soon. Mealtimes are among the most stressful times for dogs in multi-dog households. I generally take about a month to introduce dogs to the same room, longer if necessary and quicker (but not much) if they accept it.
  6. If you have children, they should be taught that they never, ever approach a dog’s bowl or a dog when they are eating, a dog with a chew, a dog with a toy. A child has a rational thinking brain, science would have you believe. A dog does not. Train your children, not your dog and you’ll notice that issues clear up. Children should not be encouraged to walk around with food or to leave food in reach of dogs. Dogs should be away from children when the children are eating – it is NOT cute for a dog to sit beneath a high chair waiting for accidents – and children should be away from dogs when the dogs are eating. If you want to get your dog used to taking treats from children, by all means seek the advice of a professional dog trainer, so that the dog understands that children may feed it in reward for behaviours. Dogs should be taught a reliable “leave it” and how to exercise restraint around youngsters who have food in their hand, but never expect that to be reliable. Food, dogs and wandering children are a poor combination.
  7. Be mindful of who has to wait to eat and who gets served immediately. Although it is good for dogs to have variety, they also need routine. Having the same spot for eating, asking your dogs for a sit/stay before food (which I do with two of my boys) and feeding in the same rotation is helpful. Feed the most difficult dogs first until you can do a bit of work with them, and make sure they have plenty to stop them going raiding others’ bowls. My dogs have different medications and different foods, which makes it doubly important they only eat their own.
  8. Teach your dogs to leave the kitchen space as soon as they have finished. Mine usually do but the additional dogs make it a little too congested to leave easily. Pick up bowls as soon as they are finished. Don’t leave food down if the dogs haven’t finished it all. Dogs in multi-dog households will very rarely only eat their fill if food is left down for them and if dogs are sterilised or castrated, it’s also important to watch their weight. You can’t do this if they’re eating freely all day.
  9. No matter what rubbish you’ve heard on television or you’ve seen on the internet, you don’t need to eat before your dogs. If your dogs are never fed human food from the table, any begging behaviour will soon become extinct. One dog did have mild guarding issues on arrival here, having been fed from the table, but rewarding her for calm behaviour moments worked very quickly, as well as ignoring any guarding worked well. I also isolated her at my meal times and gave her a stuffed Kong in the kitchen. Of course, it’s much easier if they never learn to eat human food at your mealtimes! You eating before your dogs is meaningless to your dogs. If you want to eat before them, then fine. You might want to feed them first and then eat, simply because they’re likely to settle down and digest whilst you’re eating and it’s less likely to result in begging behaviour if they are full.
  10. If you find, like my little minx, that your dog is full but doesn’t want to leave some scraps in the bowl unprotected, distract and refocus. You can see that in the Paws video – the dog leaves the food to trot after the owner who is certain to have much better food! Get a sit and reward, sprinkle some tiny treats on the floor, then safely retrieve the remnants. Distract and refocus is a great technique for any dog who hovers over a bowl and guards the remains. I have a habit of putting her food bowl out of the way but in a place she can see it. I regularly feed her any leftovers during the day so that she isn’t hungry or fixated on what was left.

If you have a dog with severe food issues around you or around other dogs, seek the help of a qualified canine behaviouralist. It is not common but there are dogs who would kill another over a spilt biscuit and who will need to be fed separately for a very long period of time. Separate is safe. Most dogs however do not have this level of aggression around food, and although they not feel safe eating around others or around you, they will feel much more comfortable given time.

Attached is a short video of my four dogs eating their dinner alongside two guests who have been here for three weeks. They all have different food because there’s some old pensioners in here, so it’s really important they eat and take their medication without swapping bowls or feeling too stressed to eat. I feed them twice a day. Tobby and Mimire are fed first. I feed Mimire first because he is blind and he inadvertently bumps other dogs who are excited. Also because he takes so long. I feed Tilly next since she is most likely to stick her head in another dog’s bowl. Then Heston and Amigo, who are used to sit-stay and have patience that I’ve trained them to have. Finally Fefelle because he is not so interested in food and he has good manners. He hasn’t got a sit, but he’s happy not to stick his snout in another dog’s bowl.

As a final word, don’t believe that you have to bully your dog into submission before you can let them eat. We can’t digest food if we are stressed, and dogs are the same. Either they will go without because they are afraid, or the food may sit in their stomach, risking gastric bloat. Mealtimes should be peaceful and non-arousing. Dogs who are over-aroused around food need help, not bullying. If you’ve ever felt the beady eye of a waiter on you in a restaurant waiting to close, you’ll know full well how uncomfortable someone hovering can be. Don’t be a source of stress to your dogs. Eating is a basic physical need and a dog deserves to feel secure. That security doesn’t come when an idiot in a bite sleeve is hanging around to make a video for his Facebook feed to show what a big man he is. Even dogs who have horrendous issues around food or become fixated on food can learn good food manners, I promise!

So you want to be a photographer in an animal shelter?

So you want to be a photographer in an animal shelter?

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A lot of people think they’ve got what it takes to be a shelter photographer.

From time to time, I get an “Emma, somebody would like to help you photograph the dogs.” I spend a good few hours a year explaining what it entails, and to date, nobody’s ever come back. I wish every amateur or professional photographer who gets the idea of working at an animal shelter would consider what it is they’re offering, and, more importantly, what it is the shelter needs.

Without wishing to overstate what it is shelter photographers do, there’s more to being one than most people think. I said recently that I’d prefer a keen amateur with a great volunteering record over an A+ professional any day. You don’t need thousands of dollars of equipment and a car-full of kit; your strobe light will terrify and your super-zoom may immortalise hummingbirds, but will be useless in a 5m animal pen with unsupervised animals. I like to look at this Peerspace site to look for the most suitable kits. Neither should you be a complete photographic novice. If you don’t know your f2.8 from your f11, if you can’t remove dog slobber and occasional male over-excitements in Photoshop, then you’re not quite enough to capture animals in their best light. Sorry, but that’s how it is. Your iphone shots may look great on your iphone, but they’ll look terrible as an A4 poster for the shelter.

But if you are still interested, there’s a few things you should consider before you start.

First you need the right kit. Not 10000€ camera bodies and 12000€ lenses, but not a point-and-shoot either. Just because you have kit worth as much as my house doesn’t equip you to photograph dogs. You don’t need huge photographic files, because with 1000 dogs through in a year, that’ll eat up your computer storage space. Plus, with most shared on social media and viewed on phones, all your megapixels will be unwieldy and unnecessary. That’s great for sellable artwork maybe, or for fine art projects, but for the day-to-day bread-and-butter of shelter life, we need four photos: a body shot, a sit shot if they can and a couple of good portraits. Most of the shots that people fall for are the close-up portraits with a dog looking appealingly at the camera. Sure, sometimes people say “I was expecting a smaller dog”, but then that’s more to do with them not understanding how big a labrador x is. Even if you photograph them against a ruler or against people’s legs, it still leaves room for doubt. That head shot is the winner. What people want is to connect with the dog via their smartphone. And that means the eyes have it. If you’re using a 200mm zoom over a distance, your chance of getting this will be almost zero. This is why my cheap-as-chips nifty fifty is my workhorse lens. It’s cheap. It doesn’t matter if it gets broken. It has fewer moving parts so will last longer. And it takes amazing shots. A nifty fifty is good. A 24-70mm is also good too. 16-35mm lenses take good photos if that’s your thing, but not everyone likes a photo at the fine end, since it distorts the dog’s proportions sometimes. If you’re Kaylee Greer from Dog Breath photography, it makes for great and distinctive shots, but if you’re just taking photos for the shelter website, you need quick and dirty.

As for flash and studio stuff? Yeah. Not always. You don’t have ten minutes to get a dog used to the flash. If they do. I mean, these are fresh-from-the-streets shelter dogs who may be nervous, fearful, aggressive or exuberant. The last thing you need is an inexperienced volunteer, a bouncy setter, your expensive off-camera flash gear and an enclosed space. Until you’ve had a dog headbutt your camera onto your face, you haven’t really learned why cheap and cheerful is the standard.

Photoshop is also vital. Lightroom too. Being able to work at speed is essential. My workflow goes like this: crop 1:1, resize, adjust exposure and tone, save ready for the web. Repeat for 4 photos for 20 dogs and you’ve some idea of the evening I spend. This is why I can only afford to spend around 2 minutes on each shot. I do a little more with the portrait shots. Usually, add a layer, add some colour in the eyes, dodge the shiny bit, burn in the darky bit with layer masks and painting, sharpen a little, save. The portraits take about five minutes a piece and I generally do twenty a night.

Being a shelter photographer takes time, understanding and dedication.

Time is really important. It’s all very well swanning in every month or so, expecting everyone to bow to your photographic whimsy, but you’ll get a lot further if you are there week in, week out for a couple of hours. It doesn’t just take the time that you are there, either. It takes time to process and upload all the photos you take; there’s a lot of after-hours stuff going on. If you want to do this for a shelter, a mini-project is one thing if they have the time to spend with you, but please understand that most shelters don’t. There are lots of reasons why mini-projects don’t work, which I’ll explain further later on.

You also have to understand the turnover rate for the animals you’re photographing. Who moves quickly? Who doesn’t move to all? We currently have 26 dogs who’ve been at the refuge more than a year, down from 86 who’d been at the refuge over a year in 2014. To think that my photos help is to completely overlook the fact that most people who arrive at the refuge don’t arrive with a specific dog in mind, and it’s also to ignore the incredibly successful interventions of other projects that haven’t relied on photographs, such as our supermarket programmes and our talented team of volunteers who advertise dogs in Germany, where they have fewer issues than we do.

Most people don’t arrive with a specific dog in mind. The dog they choose depends on the skill of the volunteer who shows them round to talk the dog up and to help them see that, for all the over-excited dogs, this one is for them. Many times, the people who do see a video or a photograph complain that the dog is bigger than expected or they haven’t gelled with the dog. This is why I do a full and detailed write-up for each dog. Yesterday, for example, a lady came in wanting a labrador. Great. We have loads of those. I showed her around and the one she really fell for is one who needs a home with other dogs and who is a bit of an escape artist. Given she wants a single dog rather than a pair, she ended up leaving without a dog. The one dog I showed her who met her circumstances wasn’t one she liked. Another lady came who’d seen a copied-and-pasted photograph without my write-up said, rightly, that the dog she’d come to see was a nervous nelly, and she needs a robust, sociable and resilient dog.

It’s not the photo that ‘sells’ a dog but the write-up. A dog may look lovely and you may really crack for a photograph, but if you need them to be sociable with other dogs, okay with cats and fine home alone, then those are things a photo won’t tell you. So you have to understand that you may be the best pet photographer in the world, but your photos in themselves don’t “sell” a dog: they do that themselves. And you have to understand that sometimes, your efforts will be completely wasted. I don’t photograph little dogs on the whole because usually they are gone within 72 hours, unless they are terriers or they have a personality that makes them more difficult to place. There is 0% point me taking a photo of a Cairn terrier or a Yorkie unless they’re elderly males. The professional who came in and photographed three Yorkie crosses in one afternoon and spent a week primping the photos was really cross we were letting the dogs be adopted before her photos had hit the media. And it’s all very well of professionals to say, “well, I like to photograph this type of dog, and it’s all good publicity” doesn’t understand the frustration of dealing with ten calls asking for a dog like one they’ve seen in a photograph. Sure, you think we can take names and details and contact them when the next one comes in, but that could be months. In the meantime, we’re managing an epic contact list and most of them find a dog from somewhere else. Nobody can come in and say, “I like to photograph poodles” and expect the shelter to cater to them. In reality, the dogs who need social media campaigns are the muttleys, the big boys, the black dogs, the hounds… and they are not easy to photograph.

That’s why you’ve got to be tenacious and determined. You have to have tricks up your sleeves to get the most over-exuberant dog to calm down. You have to have experience at quick counter-conditioning and lures to get a fearful dog to look at a camera.

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If you can’t go from fear to relaxation in ten minutes, you’re going to end up with a very big queue. That depends on you and the handler and how well you can read animals, or help them to relax.

It’s not just a matter of having the time to do it, or an understanding of the shelter and its circumstances, or the patience to wait with a fearful dog until it feels secure enough to let you stick a camera in its face (or go back to your bag to dig out your 70-200mm lens because you’ll just have to put some distance between you for once). You also have to understand the shelter, its staff and its volunteers.

You have to understand the demands of the shelter. Our lady as what ‘diffuses’ our photos, Corinne, wants one shot. A body shot. It mustn’t have hands, feet, body parts or people in it. I like a sit shot, because sit is not a natural dog thing and it shows a beginning of an education. Plus, they’re still and they’re calm. I like the head shots, because despite what Corinne says, I don’t think a body shot is anything that attracts the eye. Our 40000-year relationship with dogs is based on our connection with them, and that’s where eye contact can move you from a dog in a shelter to an adoption. Corinne manages the photos on Facebook. I manage them on the website. We can have four photos on the website, and that is it. They work best as squares, so I do squares. That works on Facebook too. You’ve got to go with what is asked of you. Our shelter dogs must stay within a couple of km radius of the shelter, and I must work with what God’s given me in terms of lighting and backgrounds (though I do have some backdrops I use from time to time) No sneaking in for Golden Hour shots and big skies. The shelter is shut and to ask a member of staff and a handful of volunteers to stay behind so I can get Fido in a more flattering light is pointless.

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That brings me to the secret of photographic success. A lot of your success – if not all – depends on volunteer co-operation.

One photographer recently came and thought that he could work without volunteers. Not possible, my friend. We can’t put you in a studio and hope for the best. Not with the kind of dogs who need photographs. You need a willing assistant. That in itself can be hard if volunteers are thin on the ground. It’s also hard because not all volunteers have the strength or skill to handle every dog. Given the fact that most dogs new in are scared, more likely to bite, can be aggressive, are overwhelmed by the smells, sights and sounds, not used to people, have been cooped up for 24 hours without a walk… it’s not everyone that can handle every dog. We have many lovely volunteers who are retired or have had surgery and I simply can’t ask them to take out any old dog. Some volunteers come to walk certain dogs. That’s their thing. To ask them to get out other dogs is annoying to them. For instance, not many volunteers turn up on vet day because it means a lot of waiting around with new dogs who you may not feel able to handle. It’s frustrating to queue with them and it’s annoying if you’ve come to exercise dogs. The same things apply to a demanding photographer, and I could very quickly lose all my volunteers if I hinder their missions. And don’t think you can justify it by saying the dogs will find a home more quickly. Vaccines and health checks mean the dogs stay alive – nothing is more important than that – and yet we still scrape around for volunteers on vet days.

You also have to know which volunteers are calm with the animals and present you a well-walked, calmer version of the dog they took out. Some volunteers definitely agitate the dog. They have no skill in calming the dog down. Not only that, they don’t let you do your job. A volunteer has to know how and where to stand, how to hold the lead, how not to get in your photo and how to leave all distractions to you so that you can get the dog looking at the camera. It’s not easy. I can’t count the number of volunteers who tell a dog, “Look at Emma!” and all the time the dog is looking at them because they’re the one speaking and interrupting the dog. Besides, as far as I know, dogs don’t understand “Look at Emma!” in any language. In any case, no dog ever told to look at me actually ever does so. Being able to pick out four great volunteers who can handle any dog, who present you a calm dog, who don’t get in the way of the photograph, who don’t agitate the dog… all vital. And you only know these things through practice. I have volunteers who don’t believe in treats and lures, who tell me the dog is bored, who are cross because they want to get back and walk the next dog… all part of the process. Your success depends on them. That’s why a volunteer who’ll happily take out any dog, who will stand innocuously to one side, who’ll let you do your stuff… that volunteer is worth their weight in gold and a successful photograph depends on them. For that, they are way more important to your success than you are. You’ve got to know who you’re working with. That takes time to grow human relationships as well as animal ones.

As for mini-projects… some professional photographers who don’t do shelter work over-estimate the importance of these. Mini-projects are what they suggest when they can’t do a regular slot. Sometimes they just don’t have the time – perfectly acceptable. Mostly, though, and I smell these people a mile off, they want to do something to boost their own image and business. They figure that if they can convert just one of our clients with a photograph, then they’ve got a return on their investment. Not only that, it gets a lot of Facebook kudos to say, “Look at me, I’m at the shelter this afternoon. Aren’t I wonderful?” Their existing clients may be touched by their magnanimity. There are about twenty pet photographers who I’d be delighted to get to the shelter, who carry with them their own following and who can truly say that their fanbase make a difference (which is the important thing). Not a one of them live in France. Their facebook pages have around 50,000 fans and they regularly get picked up and shared via Buzzfeed or Mashable. That’s great, except all those people live all over the world and does it mean they’ll adopt a dog from us? No.

Contrast that with our very tiny local paper. They have 150,000 Facebook fans and a readership of 25,000 for the hard copy of the evening paper. You can see why it’s important we’re in the local press, not why we’d get Elke Vogelsang to come and photograph our hounds, or Sophie Gamand our American Staffordshires. I’m sorry but, given a choice between your 1000 facebook fans and a story in the Charente Libre, I’m going with the local news. Plus, the local news are happy to report our stories and don’t arrive like an army of artistic primadonnas asking for studios and for us to parade a few of our chihuahuas in return for that elusive payment of “great marketing”. Sure, they write what they want and we’re currently trying to deal with a couple of things misrepresented in the papers, but by and large, it hits a lot of our target market.

Ultimately, you want to be a shelter photographer because you love two things: animal welfare and photography. You have time and you have commitment to the cause. You’re not phased by documenting animals in terrible conditions for their legal dossier. You can deal with the emotional load of volunteering and you can cope with compassion fatigue. You can be objective and inobtrusive. You understand that you can’t use your stands and backdrops with your paying clients as you could be transporting disease. You know that your 1Dx isn’t the best tool for the job. You understand what photos find animals homes through experience and you know how to get the best out of the animals you specialise in. You can be a part of a team and work with the shelter regularly as part of their social media or communications team. Most importantly, you turn up. You keep turning up when emotion gets the better of you, when life gets in the way, when shelter politics or arguments erupt, as they may well do.

If you like pet photography, a shelter is not necessarily the best place for you to build up your portfolio. I mean, you really have to know and love those animals, and be adept as a bit of a trainer as well. You don’t just have to love dogs, you have to want to volunteer. You may think it’s a fair trade-off to take photographs for our website and build up your own portfolio, but believe me, you’re getting more out of it than the shelter will.

Just as a final note, be aware that shelters get regular contact from any number of amateur and professional photographers. Someone will already be photographing those animals. Don’t piss off the person doing it already! You may think you are more talented than they are, and that may well be the case, but you aren’t doing it in the same circumstances they are and you aren’t facing the same constraints they do. Be respectful above everything and listen way more than you talk. About three months of regular listening should probably help you slot right in.

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After that, happy photographing!

Dog Commandments #3: Thou shalt help thy dog face its fears

Dog Commandments #3: Thou shalt help thy dog face its fears

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Heston, like Mariah Carey, doesn’t do stairs. Stairs are not for him. At no point in my puppy training did I think to myself, “Hey, I live in a house without stairs… I must habituate Heston to stairs.”

It’s just not in the basic puppy training manual.

Imagine my surprise then, when spending a weekend dog sitting, finding Heston at two years old really, really reluctant to go upstairs. At first I thought it was because he was afraid of what was up there. It was in a house he’s really familiar with and he’d never been upstairs there. In the end, I carried him up. 65lb of dog and I carried him upstairs like Shaggy and Scooby Doo when Scooby gets all scared. He was so scared he peed all over me and I had to go back downstairs and mop up. He followed me down and luckily, he’d emptied his bladder for the return journey.

I thought nothing of it, but he did the same the second night. I never even made the connection with “upstairs” and “stairs.”

At a friend’s house last year, Heston made it upstairs in another friend’s house on his own, albeit with a little coaxing. Ah, how silly that was. I couldn’t get him down again. He absolutely would not set one foot on the stairs. No way. Not for love nor money. Yes, I carried my 65lb dog down the stairs. He peed on me again. That was fun.

As far as I know, Mariah Carey doesn’t pee on the stairs.

Heston is okay with steps. He’s okay with ditches. He’s okay with outside terrain that changes gradient. He’s okay with hopping up on to the bed, my couch, the car. I suspect it may be the narrowness of the stairs, the confines, the fact that French staircases are often marble tiled and spiral… I don’t know. He isn’t a very finely balanced dog. For instance, he is great at agility and jumps through hoops, over ditches, over jumps, but he doesn’t like jumping up and the old poodle dance thing is not for Heston either. Two legs bad.

The point is that it doesn’t really matter why, only what. Knowing this, I can do something about it, should I need to or want to. It’s not a matter of urgency, so it’s not up there on my priority list for habituation. You’ve got two questions to ask yourself:

How urgent is it that I address this fear?

How important is it that I address this fear?

For instance, it is neither urgent nor important. It’s more of a summer project for us than it is a vital, life-saving fear to face. By the way, on “things Heston is afraid of”, stairs are number 1. He has quite literally never “let go” quite so liberally with the old urine response in any other circumstance.

Yesterday, at the vets, it was clear that socialising him around other dogs and reducing his Tarzan-y ways has made a big difference. We got there to four dogs and two cats in reception and several humans. We stood away from the other dogs as there was an uncastrated Chow Chow who was “on guard” at the door. Significantly, Heston neither lunged for him nor gave off any aggression. That role was left to the Chow Chow. A huge St Bernard walked past and Heston and he had a friendly greeting without any aggression or over-excitement. I had to pull him back from a Dachshund and a poodle, both of whom were sitting on their owner’s knees… not something I’m a fan of for dogs since I’ve seen too many growl or aggress in this circumstance. Not sure if it’s the vantage point, the lack of security of a lap or protection detail, but it doesn’t happen when those little dogs are on the floor. But I was glad to see Heston choosing to take it easy with them and ignoring them for the main part.

I don’t know about Heston’s fears, but I fear going to the vets. The close confines, the number of dogs and unpredictable factors, the pain associations, the infrequency of the visits coupled with the importance of them. In the waiting room, they seemed to be much mitigated and Heston would sit, give a paw, give eye contact and behaved like any dog should. No barking, no growling, no over-exuberant attempts to play with every dog that doesn’t growl or bark. All that classical conditioning to make the vets a pleasant experience has definitely worked. I go to the vets at least once a week for various reasons, and I always take Heston with me, even if it’s just to pick up a bag of dog food. He always gets a treat and gets fussed by the staff. He likes seeing other dogs. He likes cats. Yes, classical conditioning has done its job.

Except for one thing.

When it came our turn to go into the exam room, Heston backed up and tried to get away. No way he wanted to go in there. What we say about generalising is so true. Just because he feels okay outside the vets and in the waiting room doesn’t mean that he feels okay in the exam room. Both he and Amigo are scared of the scales and they’re scared of the table. Let’s face it: it’s easy picking up a 25lb American cocker who is happy to be on the table and used to it (so she should be after the number of times we’re at the vet!) It is not easy picking up a scaredy 40lb griffon or a 65lb muttley. But my vet insists on table treatment for most exams (except Ralf – no way she wanted a 100lb dog up on her table with his badger-related injuries) and so I have to lift both up. Watching him, it’s clear he’s a bit nervous of the vet. But not overly. It wasn’t the vet who made him feel like this. Neither is it the injections. He didn’t even flinch for them. It could be any number of things: doors blowing open in the surgery, the chemicals, the smell… but his behaviour was definitely much more fearful around the scales and the table.

Heston isn’t a fan of being lifted. Lifting is what I do when we need to do a thing he’s scared of, like stairs. He’s also not a fan of that table.

Now I think about it, I can build in some specialist training on platforms and balance boards. I can also get him used to being picked up.

Urgent? Not so much, thankfully. Important? Very. I don’t want the first time I lift him onto a table to be the time the vet needs to examine his teeth or x-ray him. I don’t want lifting to be a cue for fear. Putting platforms and wobble boards into his training is only good sense, as is making the small movements to help him feel less uncomfortable being picked up.

Starting to do this from now on is crucial, so that I can factor in changes of environment, different types of table and different kinds of platform, as well as take time to help him with lifting. By this time next year, I hope that the table won’t freak Heston out.

For some dogs, a one-off event can be a real trigger point, and you can read a great insight into this from Dr Jen at Dr Jen’s Dog Blog

Once you’ve identified a fear that it is absolutely vital that your dog overcome, counter-conditioning and desensitisation are what you’re looking for. Basically, dogs learn in two ways: association and consequence. If I sit, then I get a biscuit. Consequence. If I jump on the lady, then she goes away. Consequence. If, then. What tiny bit of reasoning brain our dogs possess can learn that there are positive or negative consequences to things they do. Consequence is great for when your dog is in a calm, reflective state of mind.

Not so with association. One event can make a lifetime association. One thing can cause a lifetime of negative associations. Yet teaching by association can be painstaking and progress can be almost imperceptible.

Here’s something that caused a bit of consternation at my house.

Sometimes I close the gate from my courtyard into the main garden if I have puppies or dogs with no recall here on foster. I’m not chasing them down the garden or trying to get their attention over 100 metres. No thanks. If I want to leave Wobbly Bob the Mali out in the courtyard, I have to shut the gate too because he’s an expert hedge-hole finder and he likes to visit the neighbours. Usually, I open the gate when it goes dark because my dogs are up at the crack of dawn and they go out for a pee and I don’t. They like to go off down the garden for a morning stretch of the legs and I’m not a fan. 99 days out of 100, that gate is open. Thus, Amigo, Heston and Tobby barrel out of the house in the morning to a gallop or a canter. Last time I had a young dog here with zero recall, I shut the gate overnight. In the morning, despite the fact I’d left the light on so they could see, I heard a “gallop gallop woof woof smack hoooooooooow” from Heston and a little moment behind him, the same from Wobbly Bob. Four years of open gates and running out of the house at dawn evaporated.

He had a small wound – no vet required.

heston's wound
Heston wouldn’t go out of the door. It took two months for him to build up the confidence to go outside again in the dark in the morning. His physical wounds healed much more quickly than his psychological ones. In his mind, dark gardens in the morning = pain. Dark gardens at night before bed = safe. Gardens in daylight = safe. That association formed in one millisecond and took eight weeks to fade. He would quite literally not go out of the front door until we went for a walk at 9am, not even if his bladder was super-full, not even if he smelt an intruder or heard a bark (good thing we’ve got a home camera system and you can’t hear any outside barking from inside our house). Heston is fairly smart and fairly secure. He learned once again that it was pretty good fun to run out of the garden into the darkness beyond. One experience and a small wound and it takes weeks for a reactive dog to overcome that experience. With fearful dogs, that can take a lot longer. Wobbly Tobby, by the way, who had a similar wound, is obviously not such a giant baby and didn’t make that association between dark gardens and pain.

For fearful dogs though, one association can make a lifetime of fear. Couple that with the fact that when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in under “fight-or-flight” mode.

To a dog this means one thing: you’re on high alert. Their heart rate is faster. They’re producing adrenaline. Your dog’s pupils dilate so that their sight is heightened. Their ears may prick up. Their breathing is faster, shallower and jagged. Hackles may rise as their skin cells constrict. They may lose control of their bladder. Their saliva secretions change. Instead of watery saliva to aid digestion and the swallowing of food, saliva is thick and viscous to aid respiration. Blood moves from the digestive system to the muscles and lungs to prepare them to fight or to run away.

If you want your dog to “reason”, to think “action and consequence”, when they are afraid is precisely the time when they physically cannot listen to you. You could be waving a leg of lamb at them and it wouldn’t make the blindest bit of notice. This is why toys, food and affection can fail with fearful dogs. If they are on edge, they are not interested in food; they are not interested in playing. Their body thinks they are under threat and that is the only thing that matters to them. The brain is telling them that they are NOT eating (which is why many stressed animals won’t eat) and is producing the thick dribbly saliva to help them breathe effectively. Fido definitely doesn’t want a treat when he’s in fight-or-flight mode.

For many people who say their dog is not food-motivated, they may not have understood this stress response, or any of the other reasons food might not be working other than your dog is already full or isn’t used to working for food.

  1. The food is too low-value or the dog doesn’t like that food. It’s simply not worth working for.
  2. The environment is too stimulating: either it is too interesting or too arousing.
  3. The environment is scary and the dog is in fight-or-flight mode.
  4. The dog is over-excited (with a very similar chemical pathway for arousal as for fear)
  5. The dog is sick or in pain.
  6. The dog doesn’t understand what is being asked because too much is being asked at that point in time.

So how can you use positive methods to build in associations to counteract those that exist when we know stress changes appetites? How can you take a dog who won’t go out into the dark because they are scared and teach them that the dark is nothing to be afraid of, and neither is the gate?

The first step is to take them back to a safe space. A place and point where they feel relaxed. It should be a place that is neither stimulating or fear-provoking. A place where their reasoning brain will let the idea of consequence kick in again, and you can get a sit, a paw, eye contact. Their pupils are normal, their saliva is normal, their heart-rate is normal. Once the dog is in their safe zone, your aim is to gradually move them beyond. Since in their safe zone, they’ll accept treats, play or affection, you can use this as a reward for moving beyond. It is not a lure.

This great blog from Dogz and their Peoplez has a great video with a fearful beagle. You’ll see that the food is not a lure but a reward. The dog offers a behaviour and the trainer rewards it. She takes her dog back below the fear threshold and takes very, very gradual steps to make new connections so that where fear recedes, pleasure increases. This method is the same method used with people with phobias and is called desensitisation. It helps dogs become habituated to things that they feel afraid of. This is exactly what is happening in the video on Tracy’s blog. You’ll see also that she makes the journey in small stages, gradually expanding that safety zone and never asking too much.

When a dog feels comfortable, if it is hungry, it will eat. If the treats are high-value to the dog, you’ve got even more chance of success. If your dog is an over-stimulated monster, using those safe zones to teach calming and focus will mean that it is easier to foster these skills beyond the safe zone. A healthy dog who feels safe in his environment, who values the food you are offering and who is asked only to make small steps of progress in increments he can achieve is a dog who can be helped to overcome their fears with food.

By helping your dog face their fears or make positive associations with previously fearful experiences, you will have a dog who is more robust and resilient. Instead of letting fears reach epic proportions, careful re-education can allow your dog to switch his big brain on instead of wondering where to run away or whether he should put on a shouty bark festival. Whether it’s dark gardens, stairs or vets’ exam tables, fear is not something that your dog has to live with. It’s your duty as an owner to make sure your dog has the skills to cope and that you deal with those urgent or important fears in a positive and reinforcing way.

 

Dog Commandments #2: thou shalt learn to speak dog

Dog Commandments #2: thou shalt learn to speak dog

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After all, it’s only fair, since we spend most of our time trying to teach our dogs to speak Human (in fact, the Georgia Institute of Technology are in the process of helping dogs do exactly that)

We’re pretty good at recognising fear and aggression. Well, you’d think. The number of preventable dog bites every year are a good indicator that we’re not as good at recognising as we think we are when our dogs are shouting at us about how uncomfortable they feel. Personally, I am a big fan of letting dogs say as loud as they like that they aren’t comfortable, that they are afraid. It’s our way of knowing to back off. Barking and growling are their way of expressing themselves. I’m not so big a fan of people teaching their dogs not to express their fear or aggression, not to growl, not to show their teeth. These are precisely the dogs that go from calm to bite and make it really hard for us to know they are going to do so.

Take Tilly my American cocker. I know when she feels afraid. It’s when I’m going to take a prized possession off her. I get a growl, whites of eyes, bulging eyes, louder growls, teeth displays. This is great for other dogs, too. Nobody is unsure that Tilly doesn’t want you in her personal space, thank you very much. Everybody knows that Tilly doesn’t want you in her personal space, including all of my neighbours.

And then Tobby, my rescue Malinois. No visible difference in how he displays fear or excitement, never growls, occasionally barks at people, air snaps at dogs, but went from sitting to biting me in two seconds flat. I have never once heard him growl when I have puppies here. Tobby hates puppies. He hates them leaping and he hates them trying to play with him. He only ever tries to escape the garden when there are puppies here. But he never, ever growls at them. Tilly will growl and then she’ll really tell them off. Amigo will growl and they’ll pay him no mind, because nobody pays him any mind. Heston doesn’t care less. He’ll play with anybody, all day long. But Tobby hates the puppies, and they don’t know it. I only know it because he runs away. Dollars to donuts, somebody back in Tobby’s life taught him not to growl. That has big consequences because I would never trust him around children or in scary situations. I just can’t see the signs in him that he is afraid or not comfortable.

So if we’re fairly good at recognising the fear/aggression pathway – and we even might be tempted to stop our dogs showing those signs, why aren’t we quite as good at recognising how dogs calm each other down? Are there techniques we can use here ourselves to help them feel calm in our presence?

One of the best books about canine calming signals is Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas’ book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. The only fault of the book is that it is too short. There are few books I say that about. At first, I’m all “bah, people can’t calm dogs down using body language!” and it sounds, quite frankly, like weird scandinavian hippy stuff. But then I look at the dogs I know, the dogs I work with, the people who interact with those dogs, and I’m forced to admit… there’s something. Actually, to give Cesar Millan his due, I see him using these sometimes too. And they work. Ironically, they’re the one thing he never talks about doing – he just does. He does the opposite of them too – which makes me cross, since if you can calm dogs down, you can certainly stir them up.

Take Heston at the vets the other week. From time to time – rarer and rarer – he will bark at someone in the street when we are out. We went in the vets. It’s a smelly, stressy, excited, fearful animal environment. Who knows how it smells to a dog?! Like a dog disco? Like a dog abattoir? Either way, walking into a room full of animals is not fun. This time, there were no animals. Just two ladies waiting. I know one of the ladies, though she pretends she doesn’t know me. We used to be on a council together, and she was voted off from being chair. To say she’s slightly hostile is a bit of an understatement. The other lady is a lady in her seventies. She is small, sitting down. Heston is pretty focused on me, on the vet nurses, and I see him gingerly approach the older lady. I ask if it’s okay. She says yes. She doesn’t look at him, she doesn’t touch him, look at him or speak to him, just lets him smell her hand. He licks her hand and comes back to me. No bark, no growl, no fear. The first lady stands up, her back against the window. She’s tall and she blocks out the light. I can’t see her face well because it’s dark in the room. But she’s eyeballing Heston. Heston looks at her, and he barks. Maybe he does it because she’s glowering at him, or he can’t see her expression so well. She tuts. He backs off and barks. I bring him back to me and ask him to sit down. He does, but he’s eyeing her all the time.

A man comes in, sits in the chair next to us. He doesn’t look at Heston, but we start chatting too. He says his dog is too excited to bring in. Heston approaches him and he goes in for a smell. The man does nothing, just lets him. He’s sitting, his face is relaxed, he’s not eyeballing him. Heston sits down right in front of him and lets him stroke him.

Heston’s mostly barky at the gate. Interrupted during a meal at aged 13 weeks by a person who just walked in to the house, he barked for five minutes and wouldn’t be calmed. He always barks now at anyone who comes in. Talk about a formative experience. And I don’t get enough houseguests to retrain him. Thus, he barks at people who come on to the property. This is partially okay with me. Barking at people on their property is what dogs do. Teaching them to differentiate between friends and strangers is hard. Teaching them to differentiate between good strangers and bad strangers is nigh-on impossible. A couple of weeks ago, he barked at a guy who came to drop something off. It’s the only time in his entire life that I ever thought he might bite the person, so I shut him in. The guy was small build, but the light was behind him and he just kept moving in, despite Heston barking. Heston was practically up against the front door which was closed behind him – he was cornered. The guy didn’t even seem to care. He’s someone who’s been here before and it’s clear that whilst he has dogs of his own, he doesn’t actually like dogs. I know his own dogs jump up at him, but he kneed Amigo in the chest when he got too close. The guy certainly makes me feel that my dogs (in my house, on my property) are out of control and aggressive, so I have no idea how that might impact on my dogs and what they think. Could Heston having been picking up on my feelings? Perhaps. Who knows. One thing is for sure, the guy had no idea how to calm a dog, and no desire to do so.

Another houseguest I had a while back knew exactly. He crouched sideways, almost kneeling, not looking at Heston, his back to him. Heston shut up almost immediately.

Reading Calming Signals and you start to understand what is going on here. Barbara Handelman’s amazing Canine Behavior is also great. Over 1000 images analysing dog body language and worth every penny.

As Turid Rugaas says, “Canine language in general consists of a large variety of signals using body, face, ears, tail, sounds, movement and expression.” She says that through understanding – and even replicating – these signals, we can improve our communication with our dogs. Calming Signals is about the signals that help manage conflict and calm situations. I’ve seen dogs do these, and I’ve seen people do them too. Knowing how dogs diffuse hostility or emotionally-charged situations, and knowing how some of the most intuitive and instinctive trainers work with dogs definitely can help you manage your dog’s behaviour better, as well as understanding what’s going on with your own family of dogs. She says these signals “make the others involved feel safer and understand the goodwill the signals indicate.”

So how do dogs calm each other? There are a good few in this video of Hoppy meeting some of my dogs. Hoppy is a two year old castrated bichon and he’s meeting Heston and Tobby for the first time. Hoppy is excited and a little nervous. Heston doesn’t dive straight into playing with him yet, even though Hoppy looks ready to play. There are lots of calming signals here from Heston (and never mind Wobbly Bob in the background completely avoiding the situation)

These are my top ten doggy calming signals, and many you will see in this short clip.

  1. Head turning. They avoid looking directly at the other dog, will look away. It’s the opposite of the full-frontal eyeball-stare. They look away. You can see Heston, my black dog, doing it with Hoppy at this meeting here. He could easily flatten Hoppy, but he turns away, still looking, but not head-on. Every time Hoppy gets in his face, Heston turns his head. It’s kind of play, but Heston finds it a bit too much, so he calms Hoppy. You see Hoppy does the same too, turning his head by the end of the short clip. My unrefined Heston is making Ralf feel a little uncomfortable in this photo, but you can see Ralf averting his gaze. I just don’t see you, fella!ralf10
  2. Shortening the eye. I call this “happy eyes”, where they aren’t giving the full-on stare, but they are giving soft, happy eyes. Here you can see Jackpot with his “hard eyes” and his “happy eyes” – everything about Jackpot’s second photo shows that he looks more relaxed. You know that a 1000 yard stare is very different than “hello, how do you do?” eyes. Everything in the second shot is relaxed and calmer.
    soft eyes
  3. Turning away. You can see Heston doing this with Hoppy in the video. He stands side on to calm the yapping (well, I might want to calm the yapping as well!) Hoppy is just excited, not aggressive, but even though this is Heston’s territory, you can see him calming Hoppy down. He’s a bit mixed signals – some eyeball to eyeball, and big tails – but he is telling Hoppy that he isn’t a threat.
  4. Turning your back completely. This is a great one for humans to do as well. It is single-handedly the easiest way to stop a dog jumping. It also avoids that eyeball staring and the tension of face-to-face conflict.
  5. Tongue flicks. Dogs use tongues in lots of ways. You can see Tobby do it really quickly as he comes up behind Heston in the first second of the video. Sure, a tongue can say “lovely cheese” but it can also shows that a dog is a little uncomfortable. I get a lot when I photograph dogs. It can be “hey, lovely cheese lady” but it can also be “strange lady” and “strange noisy black eye thing”. For Tobby it’s all “woah! Small shouty dog alert!”TOT12
  6. Exaggerated slowness or freezing. A dog who moves more slowly than usual can be trying to make themselves look innocuous and inoffensive. They don’t seem to want to do anything sudden or surprising that might make the other dog feel worried or fearful.IMG_3233
    This is the first meeting between Ralf and Heston. Ralf stood very still, side on, and let Heston smell him. It totally diffused Heston and all that meet-and-greet energy. His tail is high and he’s wagging quickly, but he lets Heston have a smell and it calms both of them down.
  7. Play bow. I love play bow. A slow play bow is a real tension diffuser and shows that a dog has friendly intentions. Here, you can see Hista doing it with Galaxy, who is a little wary of her.IMG_6794
    You can see Galaxy is stiff and alarmed, her ears pinned and her eyes big with some concern.

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    So Hista turns sideways, averts her eyes, becomes very still and lets Galaxy have a smell, which convinces Galaxy that Hista is a great new playmate. Two minutes later and they’re playing happily.

  8. Shake off. One of the most common signals we see at the refuge is the “shake off”. This happens most often when we’ve just done the ‘walk of shame’ past all the other dogs to get out for a walk. At the gate, where there are fewer people and dogs, many dogs give a good shake off.
  9. Walking in an arc. I once heard of a local trainer who meets dogs and makes them walk face-to-face on the lead towards one another. I can’t think of a worse thing to do with dogs, or a situation that deliberately puts them in conflict with one another. To calm an approaching dog, other dogs will often walk in an arc away from them. You can see Tobby doing it here behind Heston. He never even looks at Hoppy. He walks in such an arc that he almost walks into the chair (not unusual for my spatially-challenged ‘Crash Bang’) but you can see him looking to me for reassurance as he completes his arc. At the very beginning of the video, both Heston and Tobby are coming directly to me. When Hoppy comes face on to them, both of them change direction. Heston’s hanging around. He wants contact with Hoppy, and he enjoys playing. He’s certainly big enough to handle a small yappy dog. He’s just throwing out a few things to diffuse Hoppy, which happens in a mere nine seconds!
  10. Yawning. I used to have a dog that I could make yawn on cue. I only had to yawn at her and she would yawn back. It worked for sighs as well. First, I thought that was just a cool thing that she did. Now I know that it is a way dogs calm themselves and each other. I don’t have any sympathetic yawners any more, but Tobby and Heston both do great big sighs when we’re chilling out.

When you study how dogs calm themselves and others, you can see the multitude of signals they give to avert conflict. Far from being shouty maniacs, most dogs will give lots of these signals to diffuse a situation and make it less tense. These signs can show nervousness and self-soothing, and they can also be things dogs do in our presence. I certainly get a bit of this when I’m there with my camera.

Now I am not suggesting that all of these are things you can or should replicate yourself, but I certainly find it to be true that in initial meetings, dogs are less reactive to humans who give off calming signals. Ironically, by the way, or perhaps very much in line with this, is the fact that a lot of these things are gestures you are asked to make around sumo wrestlers so you don’t offend them. When I spent some time in a judo ring in Kyoto, we watched some sumo. Do you know you aren’t supposed to look directly at a sumo wrestler? You must be quiet around them, never look directly at them, never point your feet at them, keep a lot of space, never point your fingers at them, or use big gestures or hand movements. I could go on but you would think it very weird indeed.

I think these things are very true of dogs too.

Approach a dog like you would approach a respected Japanese sumo wrestler and you can’t go far wrong. I’m a big fan of averted eyes, small movements, going side on or putting my back to a dog. When I’ve got 1000€ of equipment and two bouncy off-lead labradors, the last thing I want is a smashed lens, so I often go in backwards to the outdoor spaces and just stand until the dogs lose interest in me. In a world where people bring a) food b) walks or c) play, it’s understandable that a dog who has perhaps had 20 minutes of people time in that day might be excited. It’s understandable for many dogs who have perhaps never had contact with humans if they were pack dogs for hunting, or for dogs who have suffered at the hands of humans, or whose only experience is being brought relatively traumatically to the refuge, that they may be stressed around people. Replicating some of these is the greatest way to calm an animal.

 

 

Dog Commandments #1: thou shalt walk thy dog

Dog Commandments #1: thou shalt walk thy dog

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Unless…

There are a few good reasons that you might not walk your dog every day. You might just not have enough time, which is fine, that’s why there are dog walkers out there who are more then willing to help you out (if this is something that interests you then you can click here for more information). There are also lots of bad reasons that you might not be walking your dog. I’m going to share with you today an approach that turned my dog walks from an hour of shouty misery into a happy and pleasant experience, if one of the reasons you’re not walking your dog daily is because it’s virtually impossible for you to do so if they’re a crazy walk maniac. Some people even go on a walking holiday with their dog and campervan! This is a good way to burn calories and see scenes that you wouldn’t normally see walking in your local area! Just remember, if you are travelling around the country in a camper, be sure to check out One Sure Insurance so that you know all the information and benefits of ensuring a camper!

I do have a dog I don’t walk every day. Tobby. He’s got severe arthritis and is prone to falls. Don’t get me wrong: we do other stuff. We go for car rides. We go for picnics. He has toys. I take him out on social occasions. Tobby loves to meet other dogs, although he is often rather over-stimulated to say the least. He’s fourteen and I expected him to live for two weeks. That was fourteen months ago. As those months have passed, I’ve adapted my walking habits quite substantially to suit him, as he also has severe separation anxiety and needs to be left with another animal if I expect him not to tear the sofa apart with his (remaining) teeth. My reason for not walking him is that it risks more physically in putting him through the walks with my other dogs, and I can’t walk them less because of him. I also can’t walk him a shorter walk on his own, since I already doubled the walks I was doing daily so that I could leave him in the house with another dog. Two hours of dog walks, on top of an hour of exercise and training every day, on top of a full time job and volunteering… I’d have to give up sleeping.

This has consequences, of course. He does need exercise, so we have a lot more time in the garden than I used to. I’ll talk about that later. A physical problem is a reason some people may not walk their dog.

Another reason might be psychological. I’m not a proponent of “all dogs must go for a walk three times a day” as you might think. Not in the slightest. If your dog has psychological stress, a walk is the equivalent of being frog-marched through Beirut every day. As you know yourself, if you are of a nervous disposition, walking down your local high street can be a huge challenge. When you perceive every single thing around you to be a threat, a walk through it is the same as a firewalk through hell. What use is a test of courage, adaptability and resilience if you are nervous, uncomfortable and fragile? Although daily walks may eventually habituate your nervous or frightened dog to the outside world if you are lucky, it can also flood them, causing them to shut off completely. In this instance, a walk would be your long term goal, and working with an animal behaviourist with counter-conditioning and systematic desentitisation is your way of achieving this. But in the meantime, you may be finding other ways to exercise your dog in ways that aren’t as psychologically costly.

The two main reasons that people have for not walking their dog, other than the reasons above, are lack of time and/or thinking that a large garden compensates for a lack of exercise.

I confess, lack of time is a big issue for me too. Sometimes, when I’m walking my dogs in the near-dark, cursing through rain before breakfast, the stench of burning martyr is very strong on me. The only reason, and it is the only reason, that I’m out there is that one of my dogs Heston is almost unbearable unless I’ve taken him out. Luckily, seeing my dogs when they’re on a walk is a great antidote to the grumbles. Tilly’s wiggly bum and Amigo’s waggy tail and expression of pure joy are enough to get me into my walking boots. I would say to those people who do not have the time to exercise their dog that they have a couple of options. One is to outsource it to someone else such as a dog walker or a dog crèche. The other is to make time. I’m afraid I’ve given up on the books and the television. I think there might be a dog crèche some 100km away.

I do have a garden though. If you have a big garden, whether you have the time or not, there’s a tendency to think that it is sufficient for exercise.

It’s not. It can be. But on its own, it’s not. Even if you have 50 fenced acres of land.

Think of it this way.

Imagine a football stadium. A big, empty football stadium. You are in the football stadium and completely alone. It has toilets, and you mostly use the stadium for that. Sometimes, out of boredom, you might do a perimeter run. Once or twice you kicked a couple of footballs but that got pretty tiresome. Sometimes, you pop into the stadium shop and have a look, or into the museum, but you’ve been in there hundreds of times and it’s not very interesting any more. Mostly you go for a pee, you do a circuit or two and you sit down and look at that huge expanse of empty grass. From time to time you go for a roll on it, or you sunbathe, but all that grass isn’t particularly interesting. Once or twice, you tried to dig your way out, but a shouty man came and stopped you, and then he disappeared again. The second time you tried, he zapped you with a taser, so you thought twice about digging (because you’re a rational human being with a thinking, reflective, processing mind, not a dog, and you realised he might scale it up next time) Once you tried to break out through the big stadium doors, and a couple of times you managed it, but someone picked you up and put an electric collar on you that zaps you every time you try. So now you roam about and mostly lie on the grass and sleep.

Then they bring another person in. He doesn’t really speak your language and when you’ve tried to communicate with him, he bites you, so you don’t bother any more. He lies on the grass and you lie in the stands.

Finally, they bring another person in. They’re really sociable and they’re really friendly. You chat a bit and make up ways to pass the time, but you’re both still bored. You do a bit of wrestling and singing, but every time you do, the shouty guy comes out and hits you, so you kind of lie there quietly.

To most dogs, that’s what a garden is. A huge big empty stadium where they’re not allowed to engage in any natural doggy activities and is essentially a big space surrounding a toilet. It might be interesting at first, but after a while, it’s the same old, same old. Just because there are other dogs in it doesn’t mean they’ll get on, and if they do, don’t be surprised if, unsupervised, they resort to destructive behaviours like digging, dog wrestling, barking or pretending to be a Jack-in-a-Box when people walk by.

Walking your dog is therefore essential for the majority of us. Not a daily essential, but an essential none-the-less. Dogs are social creatures who are, by and large, deprived of most of their daily doggy behaviours. We don’t want them to bark, chew (forbidden) things, bite, fend off predators, chase stuff or roll in bad smells. Our homogenised little worlds are as interesting to a dog as a prison cell is to us, albeit a comfy prison cell with a stadium attached to it as a prison yard. Where we stimulate our senses and our brains through games, reading, movies, travel, food and music, allowing us to make our world an experiential one, one of the main ways that dogs experience the world is through smell. Walks are as diverting for a dog as passing an hour on Netflix is for us. Where I bury myself in a book or pass the time primping my photos on Photoshop, a dog smells stuff. Most dogs are not just social creatures, they are also curious creatures. They like to explore, to delve, to probe, to dissect. A walk gives them divertion and stimulation. For my dogs, they have an opportunity to smell things, to roll in stuff, to run, to chase off crows, to run figures of eight in a field chasing swallows that they’ll never catch, to follow their noses.

This in itself is a pain in the arse. I would very much like my dogs to walk to heel and to be finished with the walk in forty minutes. But that’s not a dog-friendly walk and if I did this, I would be restricting that curiosity, that engagement of the world through smell and that independence even more than I do in my home. In my home, I create artificial opportunities to engage those skills, but walks are my dog’s real-world life experience.

You can understand then, why I value walks. Also why I hate walks. But I remember that my dogs have only 2 hours of natural “Dog Time” every day. Everything else is man-made and artificial. No chewing on rabbit bones they’ve chased and caught. No. Thirty minutes of Fetch and Tug followed by an hour of supervised time with a marrow bone or an antler (and who even these days has an acceptable thing for dogs to chew?! My vet recommended rawhide. “What about the salt and the chemicals and the processing?!” I wanted to scream.) No chasing grouse or flushing out pheasant. No patrolling sheep. This is why I value walks. It is their only real time to be a dog.

It’s also why Heston goes nuts for walks. Any walk is preceded by thirty seconds of intense barking followed by crazy circling, sometimes barking like a lunatic at the same time. We’ve managed to get a sit-calm-silent bit at the gate and at the car and we’re working back, but I’m pretty sure that walks are Heston’s favourite bit of his entire day.

His recall isn’t 100%. We’re getting there, but it’s not 100%. So we have to have leads on for most walks.

Walks are also massively over-stimulating to him. I walked once through what was obviously a wild boar disco site and it was like trying to get Charlie Sheen through a Columbian cocaine plant. It would be easy to give up. Another example: every Tuesday for about three months, on my way back from classes, I would see a guy walking his German shepherd. It barked and lunged every time at any cars that passed. Now either that guy has chosen a different route, he is walking it when there are no cars about, or he’s given up. I suspect the latter. And if it’s the former, not really helping his dog deal with the fact that cars and dogs sometimes have to co-exist.

It was that fact that made me think differently about walks.

First, I had a bit of work to get Heston calmer before walks. We’d play ten minutes of Fetch or Tug and then, surprise surprise, he’d be much calmer! Weird right?

Then I stopped thinking of walks as exercise at all.

We upped the physical and mental stuff in the garden. Instead of being an empty stadium, we do agility work, frisbee, we play, we do scent work and tracking. It’s a bit like why stadiums are much more exciting if there are occasional athletics clubs that meet there. Taking the need to exercise out of the walk put less pressure on me to complete the walk and to do it in a certain amount of time, and it also took the pressure off Heston to “behave”, to walk to heel and to control his excitement.

I started to see my dog walks as two things.

The first of those things is habituation. This is the walk I do first thing in the morning. It’s mostly the same route. It’s a safe route with wide open fields, very little traffic (and slow-moving at that) and from most points, I can see for miles. It’s a great place for off-lead experiences where Heston can investigate, explore and access a world that has other living creatures in it, where things move, where rabbits run about and hares hide in fields, where grouse hide in ditches and swallows weave about. It’s new and it’s varied even if it’s the same. It’s a playground for dogs, albeit one I have carefully chosen not to be too dangerous. The scarecrows this morning were enough of an element of surprise not to push Heston over into frantic barking, and I treat this as an outdoor lesson to practise recall, stops, pointing, tracking. It’s where I field-test some of the stuff we do in the garden, like running between my legs into a sit and look up (peekaboo!) to add distance, distraction and variation to what we’ve learned to proof it. Mainly, this walk is about learning about good walk behaviours. Loose leads, eye contact, recall, meeting low-level distractions and dealing with them without barking at them or lunging. We met a jogger and his off-lead dog last week – so it’s not a fool-proof route, but in terms of building up Heston’s tolerance for stuff and building in better responses, it’s perfect. It is a 35 minute circle but sometimes it takes us an hour or more and that’s okay.

The second of those things is socialisation. This is the walk we do later in the day. Sometimes that’s after I get back from work, or sometimes it’s before afternoon classes. Hence why I’ve given up on television! This is where we do more challenging walks where we purposely encounter other animals or people – sometimes that might only be through smell if Heston is very excited about something. I don’t have a set plan and I don’t care if it takes me an hour to do 100 metres. This is where we hang around in car parks waiting for old people with walking sticks. It’s where we sit in the vet car park or in the vet surgery when we don’t need anything. It’s where we go and hang about near the river. It’s where I work on trying to navigate the smells of a wild boar disco without having a crazy 65lb dog lunging and zigzagging from left to right like a frenzied maniac. Actually, I only put these walks in because of not being able to walk Tobby. Whether it’s Amigo or Tilly who didn’t come out in the morning, they come with us in the afternoon. Both are happy to kind of hang about if Heston and I can only make it 100m in an hour. After all, it’s not the exercise they seek, but the experience.

Seeing my dog walks as not-a-walk made all the difference. It is Heston’s outdoor lesson. It’s not his exercise. Instead of keeping my barky, reactive dog behind the gates and telling myself that the garden is big enough and varied enough an experience for him, those two different types of walk make all the difference. Instead of keeping him on the lead permanently because I didn’t do a good enough job with recall when he was a puppy, I can do a bit of work on that too.

Here you can see a short clip of some recall-proofing in a more distracting environment. Instead of trying to make it past the hedgerow with Heston on a lead, lunging at smells, me getting crosser and crosser about him “not listening” and having poor recall, this allows me to let him explore the scents and also allows me to test his recall in more challenging environments. This is our ‘habituation’ walk. Usually, he’s on lead on the socialisation walks, just because those are experiences that he is not used to. This video shows how I’m now using our walk as a way to increase challenge in recall.

By seeing walks as a way to educate Heston and using other methods to exercise him, he’s made enormous progress socially and developmentally. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a far cry from the frustration I used to feel. The garden has gone from being an empty stadium for toilet purposes and is now a playground instead. The result is a highly-charged, super-smart dog who is not destructive in the house and manages effortlessly (most of the time) to navigate the complexity of “When I can Be Dog” and “When I can’t Be Dog” (i.e. when I can bark, chew, growl, dig, circle, pull, shred, dismantle, sniff, pee on things and hump stuff, and when I can’t)

And just by the way, thank goodness none of my other dogs absorb this much effort!

Changing how you see your dog walk can make all the difference to your relationship with your dogs, as well as their development. It makes it much easier to follow that Dog Commandment and not use the excuse that I have a big garden as a way to avoid taking him out every day. As the owner of a highly-strung, energetic youngster, I know how easy it is to avoid walks altogether. Seeing our walk a little differently changed things dramatically for Heston.

Socialising your adult rescue dog

Socialising your adult rescue dog

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Communication is a skill. Like all skills it requires practice to perfect it. It we want excellent performance when it comes to communication, it requires that we have some kind of guidance and help. When I was learning photography, for instance, I went to classes, went out in the field, appraised my work and that of others. We can do that with communication too. We learn about positive ways to communicate and we practise. As rational, thinking beings, we still get it wrong. That’s why we have anger management classes, and why public speaking is our number one fear. How many times does communication go wrong between humans? And we are capable of reasoning, processing and learning through imitation!

Communication also is a transaction, an interaction. We need others to do it with. We can’t practise communication in isolation, neither can we practise it without going beyond our family.

These two aspects of communication are vital for our own progress as well as that of animals. What we learn about animals raised in isolation is that they present many behavioural issues and that if these isolated animals reproduce, their offspring are likely to also suffer from their impoverished situation.

I’m going to explore very specifically about one particular aspect of socialisation: dog relationships. In its broadest sense, socialisation means introducing the dog to the world. Here, I’m going to focus on the interations between dogs. Thankfully, most people recognise the importance of socialising their dogs as young puppies. Well, educated owners do. We understand that when you pick up a dog as a puppy, one of the most important things they need to learn is doggie body language. Socialising young dogs is one of the things we’re getting much better at understanding. Preventing your young Tarzan from being so rambunctious around other dogs, or your Garbo from being more withdrawn only comes from a series of high-quality, positive doggie encounters with a wide range of well-socialised dogs. I don’t think there are many who would quibble with the fact that early socialisation with a large number of skilled older dogs is absolutely crucial to turning your dog into a well-mannered dog. Here, quantity and quality count.

But there are many difficulties in socialising puppies. We now know that the peak window for socialisation is from 7 – 11 weeks. After that, it becomes very difficult indeed. The first problem with this is that it doesn’t fit with the vaccination schedule and many puppy owners are not happy to socialise their dog without at least their first vaccinations, if not their second. In France, those vaccinations happen at two months of age. The second vaccines happen four weeks after. The vaccine is considered ‘true’ two weeks after this. This means that for many puppies, they are not completely vaccinated until they are 14 weeks of age – and the socialisation window is all but closed.

Puppy schools are finding ways around this issue and you can now socialise your puppy with a number of other dogs who are up to date with their vaccines and who present a much lower risk than the general public. But you can understand why many people only socialise their puppies with a very small number of dogs, when the recommendations are that they are socialised with hundreds! Even if you live in a very doggie world as I do, it can be hard to find a number of well-socialised dogs to introduce your own dog to.

For this reason, many conscientious owners end up with dogs with poor social skills, simply because they didn’t introduce them to as many other well-socialised dogs as their puppy needed to meet.

Then there are the owners who are not quite so conscientious, or who are busy. After all, many dogs grow up in busy families, or with people who work. Puppy leave isn’t something your boss will pay you to take. There are owners like me, who work full time and whose dogs often meet shouting dogs running fence lines as we pass on walks. Is it any wonder my dog Heston ended up thinking that meeting another dog is a hostile and tense event when most of the dogs he met from seven weeks onwards, other than puppies, had serious barking issues or lack of tolerance towards other dogs?

Then finally, there are the owners who do not take this guidance seriously, who think that it doesn’t matter, who do not have the skill to raise a puppy and do not seek out expert help. Although the shelter is not by any means filled with dogs like these, many adult dogs available at our refuge have come from homes where owners didn’t understand the commitment needed to raise a dog, didn’t understand a dog’s needs, didn’t understand why they needed to socialise their dogs or didn’t understand why it is so important to have a secure space if you want your dogs to be outside unsupervised. I’m guessing this is a true picture for many shelters. These are dogs who sometimes arrive with behavioural issues concerning other dogs. No wonder we sometimes have a hard time with them at home. I often receive calls after adoption, including one dog who I’m going to see this weekend, and another dog who I saw a couple of weeks ago. This weekend, the dog is barking on approach to other dogs. Two weeks ago, it was a dog who wouldn’t accept a friend’s dog coming on to the property. Both dogs are adults who need to be socialised, and whose 7-11 week window is very, very far behind them.

Jean Donaldson’s excellent book Fight! introduces you to six different types of dogs who present aggressivity issues towards others. Five of the six types are dogs who have often impoverished socialisation as part of their history and are dogs who often end up at the shelter:

  1. Tarzan: a dog that “comes on too strong” and is “hyper-motivated” with “coarse social skills”. If they also have an impoverished play history, they are most likely a Tarzan. Tarzans like other dogs (although they may also have other issues) but they may bark, lunge towards them, hump them and engage in generally inappropriate doggie greetings, like standing at a right angle to the new dog and trying to get their head over the other dog’s back etc. Heston is a Tarzan. He loves other dogs really, but he’s just not got beginner stuff perfect yet. Other dogs excite him very much indeed, but he is very playful and actually very good at play (no impoverished play history for him!) My dad’s dog Robin is also a Tarzan. He too is hyper-social but a humper. He tried to hump Ralf. When you’re a 45kg lab/shepherd cross of 13 and elderly cocker spaniel tries to hump you at the gate, you’re going to take it badly. We have lots of Tarzans at the refuge. There are a good number of introductions that go badly because a dog moves in too quickly to smell, sniff, eyeball, hump or play with other dogs in a rambunctious manner. The prognosis is pretty good for Tarzans, though.
  2. Proximity-sensitive dogs (I call them Garbos after Greta Garbo) who don’t like other dogs in their space. They can be fearful or they can be snappy around other dogs. They’re hyper-vigilant around other dogs, with hard bodies and aggressive displays to get the other dog to back off. They may also ‘seem’ to be okay but when you look more closely, you’ll see pinned ears, slight grimaces, hard bodies. These dogs are dogs who are very still. Honestly, I think other dogs find them a bit hard to read. There was a fight at the refuge the other day – these are often the ones who end up in bites because there’s no displaying so you have no idea that the dog is about to react. With Jack, for instance, a setter x beauceron, you know damn well he hates dogs in his space. It’s all BARK BARK “I CANNOT ACCEPT THAT COURSE OF ACTION! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!” bark bark until the other dog is out of Jack’s safety zone. But the dogs who present no warning, or very little, allow other dogs – even well-socialised ones – to get too close before deciding that it is too close. We have a good few of these at the refuge. They’re always the ones I end up yelling at people over, since some people have no concept that the dog may not give all these warning signals before attacking. I think there are two types of proximity-sensitive dogs: Jack types who warn the other dogs off with successful aggressive displays, and Fiesta types who let other dogs cross the safety line and then attack with little warning.
  3.  Dogs who harass or ‘haze’ others. Tobby my Malinois is one of these. He’ll single out a dog and chase it, follow it, lick it, try to hump it arthritically. It’s obviously very rewarding for him to do this. He has a type: passive young males. Not interested in girls if they’re sterilised (he has nuts – I thought he was only going to live two weeks when I got him a year ago, and at 14, putting him under the knife for his nuts off is a bit extreme) Tobby is also not interested in Tarzans or playful dogs, castrated males or sterilised females, puppies or older dogs. He’ll run away if harassed himself or if he can’t get any rest. But give him a passive, non-confrontational young intact male and he stalks the dog without rest.
  4. Dogs who start playing and end in a fight.
  5. Dogs who have a “strong genetic predisposition to compulsively fight”

I would say at the refuge, without any exact figures, that the majority of dogs who have impoverished socialisation and who are in need of better socialisation fall into the first two categories. Tarzans and Garbos. Luckily, both can be socialised effectively as adults. Unluckily, this takes a massive amount of time and energy, as well as dedication from the owner. It is not impossible for a well-prepared owner to do themselves, but having a behaviouralist to help out would make a big difference.

Going back to what I said about communication, it is clear that both these types of dog need better communication. That is only going to come through socialisation. I would argue here that socialisation is both quality and quantity, starting with quality interactions first. But unlike humans who can go on a course for anger management or for assertiveness, dogs can’t take away this kind of input in order to improve their behaviour. Think of it this way: you’re not going to get over your anger issues simply by getting in more and more situations that make you angry. In fact, it’ll probably just make it worse. For a dog, putting them around other dogs will probably just trigger a stress response. They might learn a new behaviour such as barking, teeth displays, posturing, hard bodies, staring eyes, but you will have no control at all over what they learn. Quantity is not your starting point when it comes to socialising an adult dog. And since you can’t show them a short informative video, teach them neurolinguistic programming or self-soothing, YOU have got to take responsibility for the environment, the interaction and changing the way your dog feels about the situation.

That means you are responsible for setting up the situation where your dog meets other dogs. You are responsible for the dogs they meet. You can also prime them and help them make new associations.

Here are ten tips rooted in Jean Donaldson’s work on socialising adult dogs with aggressivity issues that will help a dedicated dog owner rehabilitate their hypersocial Tarzan or their antisocial Garbo. You’ll also find tips from Karen Pryor, Donna Hill and Emily Larkham.

  1. Before you start, make sure your dog is in a positive, receptive kind of mood. By this, I mean they are at their calmest and they will listen to commands and respond. If your dog cannot do a basic sit and a range of other simple commands, start with those first and don’t go any further until you can get a rock-solid ‘sit’ in a range of environments. Practise this every day around a variety of distractions. On the day that you are ready to move up to distractions of the canine variety, make sure your dog is well-exercised before you start. No point setting them up to fail just because they’re not really in the right frame of mind. As this article by the Karen Pryor Academy explains, “learning happens in a mind that is engaged.”
  2. Watch this great video from Donna Hill explaining about counter-conditioning and systematic desensitisation.

    Counter-conditioning takes your dog’s negative experiences about dogs and helps them associate the presence of other dogs with pleasurable experiences. This is great for proximity-sensitive dogs. Systematic desensitization can work with dogs who are Garbos, afraid of other dogs getting in their space, and dogs who are Tarzans, over-excited by the presence of other dogs, moving them towards a neutral point.

  3. Your aim is to ensure your dog finds other dogs a positive experience, and to break the cycle of negative feelings. Counter-conditioning is really useful here. That can be really simple. Find some dogs, find your dog’s safe space and reward for non-reactions. For example, one of my dogs is very reactive around houses and gardens where there are fence runners and barkers. I walk up to the houses with my dog, asking him to sit or do some simple commands as we go. I will get to a point when I am too close to the houses and Heston is hyper-vigilant. I’ll usually back off fifty metres or so. We sit and I’ll reward him every time I see him looking towards the houses, or if he hears the dogs and doesn’t bark, lunge or pull. If he reacts, we’re too close, so I get some space in there. Amazing how a dog who is reactive at 10 metres from a fence isn’t reactive 100 metres from one. Move in a little and continue marking any acknowledgement of the houses, dogs etc with a marker (like a clicker, or “yes!”, however you normally let your dog know that they’ve succeeded) and a treat. If they look towards the house but don’t react in any other way, mark and treat. If the other dog barks and you have no reaction, even better! Remember that food or toys are for rewarding, not bribing.
  4. Don’t take on too much. If it takes your dog three weeks to understand that if they look at some houses with dogs in without any reaction, they’ll get a treat, soon, those houses and those barking dogs will mean that something nice happens. Move in as gradually as you need to and don’t be afraid to back up if necessary. If your dog’s not in a learning frame of mind, don’t stress out – just leave it for another day. Set your dog up to succeed by choosing less stimulating environments first. For instance, I noticed that Heston was less stressed by some houses with dogs mid-way through our walk. We worked there and built our way up. We had empty carparks on Sundays, then carparks at closing time with fewer people about, then carparks at peak time when I was sure he was ready for it. The same is true for doggie meetings. Work up in very gradual increments when you are sure your dog will succeed at the next point.
  5. Make sure you have super-high value treats. I’ve found that most dogs – even very nervous, stressed-out ones, or hyper-reactive dogs – respond well to very smelly cheese. But use whatever your dog likes the most. This is not the time for cheap, low-budget treats. I’ve seen so many times people say that the dog isn’t treat-orientated, or they’re not able to focus for a treat, and it’s just not the right treat. The dog below is Jamaïque. She spent the first ten minutes lunging up the path, barking at every single dog and every single person in a very agitated state. Though her walker was sitting calmly with her, Jamaïque didn’t care. She barked constantly for five minutes, didn’t settle, wrapped herself around her walker’s legs, lunged at other dogs and humans. She was one of the most agitated dogs I’ve ever had to photograph. Not only did I get to photograph her, but she also did a sit and looks, for all intents and purposes, like the calmest dog on the block. In two years, I never had a dog so stressy – and never a female – sometimes the smells drive the uncastrated boys mad. So what worked? A huge block of aged Edam.jamaique3
    I’m not sure you’ll believe just how agitated she was, but she did stop barking and give me a sit for a piece of that cheese. Scaredy hounds, over-excited Tarzans, pups, blind dogs… they all give it up for the cheese. But use whatever works for your dog. A tug-toy or squeaker might work too. The thing is, it has to be high-value. A “good boy” isn’t enough here. What I want to do when I’m socialising my dog is reward my dog for noticing the other dogs and not reacting. A look or an ear prick is what I’m rewarding. The behaviour has to come first, then the marker to help your dog know exactly what it is they are doing right, and then the treat.
  6. Watch this great video from Emily at Kikopup and make sure you understand how to use treats effectively. Getting Jamaïque to focus on cheese when I want her to stop shouting for a photo is one thing. Conditioning her to accept other dogs is different altogether. There, the behaviour needs to come first, not the treat. With Jamaïque, the treat was definitely the focus.
    Emily explains really well how to mark and feed, as well as some of the common pitfalls of counterconditioning.
  7. Get your dog used to seeing dogs and not reacting from a distance. You want them to think, “here’s a dog. I get a reward.” so that they think of other dogs as a positive thing. You will want to do this with a good number of dogs. Sitting opposite a park, outside your dog’s proximity boundary, and watching dogs going in and out is a good way to get your adult dog used to seeing other dogs and not reacting like a hellhound.
  8. If you have a Tarzan, set up a series of dog meet-and-greets. For this, you will need three or four bombproof dogs who are not going to be fussed by your dog’s unrefined sniffing or posturing. You want all the dogs off the lead and in a secure area, not too big that you can’t intervene if a fight should break out. Normal dog socialisation classes for puppies end with the puppies wanting more, rather than having reached the end of their interest. But with your adult dog, you want them to get bored of the other dog and return to you. It might take an hour! If they end up playing, so much the better, but don’t give up the supervision. This is why I bring home bombproof dogs to foster – because it’s a good experience for Heston to meet dogs who are not shouty arseholes behind a fence. One-on-one meetings can be super-intense. When I had Hista and Galaxy here at the same time, he ran out and didn’t know who to go to first. Three or four dogs take the sting out of the meeting. For these meet-and-greets, take account of age and sex. Introducing a male Tarzan to a group of similarly aged females is less likely to cause an issue than trying to do it with an all-boy group or a mixed group. Remember too that older dogs can lose their tolerance for Tarzans and find it all a bit much. But a well-socialised dog will take the sting out of those meet-and-greets. The proof is in the pudding. Shouty Tarzan of the Hestons last met Florette, a statuesque shepherd x griffon of ten. He raced up, slammed on the brakes before he got to her, and took it easy for the first time ever. Within ten minutes, ALL of the dogs had met each other and were relaxed, lying down in the living room. That includes two Garbos, one old bully and one young Tarzan. Good job, Florette!
  9. Keep mixing up the groups of dogs that your Tarzan meets, but keep them meeting them. Gradually, you can introduce same-sex dogs or dogs who are less than bombproof. You want to hit triple figures with your dog, knowing that they have successfully met a range of dogs and will have seen a whole load of different things about body language.
  10. Above all, don’t put your dog in danger or move too quickly. You simply cannot move carefully enough where socialisation is concerned. One poor experience can turn a dog from a bouncy over-excited dog to one who is afraid of others. It can also put your dog in danger. This is why you are best to engage the help of a behaviouralist to help you socialise your dogs with others, counter-condition them in ways that reward the right behaviour and set your dogs up to succeed, and desensitise them to the presence of other dogs.

With these ten strategies, you have much of what you need to help your adult dog practise, refine and develop their socialisation skills. When they make progress, you’ll be absolutely delighted by that. There is nothing like seeing an adult dog who reacts aggressively or inappropriately aroud other dogs becoming a dog who is great at dog communication, knowing when to play, when to back off, when to move in and how to handle all manner of doggie situations. The more dogs they meet, the better.

With this in mind, just be sure you are meeting dogs who also know how to speak dog. Watching a puppy dancing around a rather antisocial Gaza this afternoon could have ended very badly for the puppy and been the experience that defined his understanding of other dogs. Luckily, no harm was done. And speaking of the rather antisocial Gaza, who a vet recommended only be rehomed as a guard dog, a shy and timid female called Jolie snuck into his enclosure a couple of weeks ago. She went through the gutters to get there. We don’t know if she intended to stop where she did, whether she just found an opening she could get out of, if she was just trying to escape, and I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when her head popped up in Gaza’s enclosure, but watching her play with him, a dog entirely written off as one who could never be rehomed with another dog, and you’ll understand why I was quite so delighted.

We never know what dogs are thinking about other dogs. I’ve always been of the mindset that dogs operate with each other in ways we haven’t yet understood, and there is so much we have yet to know about why some dogs get on and others don’t. Quite why Heston played so long and so hard with Galaxy and not with the equally game and friendly Hista is anyone’s guess. One day we will understand better why we choose some friends over others, and why dogs do the same. Until then, we must understand that dogs are highly social creatures, but in limiting their exposure to one another, we are limiting their ability to speak dog. Overcoming that lack of exposure is hard but it’s not impossible. There is hope, after all, for our Tarzans and our Garbos.

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Dog Training Basics: shock collars or cookie comas?

Dog Training Basics: shock collars or cookie comas?

Dogtrainingbasics

In France, we call all pets ‘animaux de companie’ or companion animals. They’re right in there with guinea pigs, gerbils, cats and hamsters. That said, dogs are a bit different aren’t they? We don’t expect pet snakes to live in a house or know not to sleep on the bed when we’re out. Nor do we expect our guinea pigs to sit in the car when we go in the supermarket, and we don’t expect our cats to know how to ride in the car without being scared. Dogs are the only species that we invite to share our lives in this way, sharing our experiences, so we have higher expectations of what they can cope with and what they can do. But dogs are just visitors in the human world, especially in our houses and towns, and we have just expected them to adapt and cope with these changes within a few generations. Our pointers, setters and spaniels now lie on couches instead of working fields. Our German shepherds, Malinois, collies and Australian cattle dogs are no longer helping  us out with our herds. And we’re not sending our Yorkies out ratting every day. In order to help our dogs cope with the human world, it’s only fair we give them the education to deal with everything we expect them to experience throughout their lives, especially when we are asking them to leave genetically coded behaviours at the door. Dog ownership is not for the faint-hearted or the under-prepared.

With that in mind, we come to another debate having explored the widely-held misconceptions about dog-human relationships and dog-dog relationships. Education. Whether you are a carrot or a stick kind of a person doesn’t always come back to whether you are a ‘dogs are dogs’ kind of person or whether you think ‘dogs are wolves’, but there’s a noticeable correlation between the two arguments. Many of the people who assume we need to be the ‘Alpha’ to our dogs also choose methods of training that are corrective, coercive or based on punishment rather than based on capturing and rewarding good behaviours. That is not to say however that everyone who believes dogs need us to be a pack leader in order to stop their global bid to rule couches also believes that we should correct our dogs’ behaviour. You could, I guess, think dogs are out to dominate us all and still believe that positive methods are effective. But largely, those who believe in dogs’ dominant tendencies also believe in correction as a method of learning rather than in affirmation. Simply put, if you think dogs might be dominant over humans, then seeing yourself as a human reward machine probably doesn’t fit with your philosophy about the pack hierarchy relationship you want with your dogs.

Personally, doggie education and how we go about it is something I feel strongly about. With a teaching background, you’d expect me to know a little about learning. Of course humans are different: we are infinitely more complex, capable of forethought, of reasoning and of controling our impulses. That’s not to say that dogs don’t share some things in common with us and how we – as fellow mammals – learn.

A study published this week is the first to capture information from MRI scans of dogs and is bound to be incredibly useful for future studies. We’ve already learnt from MRI studies of dogs that they can show emotion when seeing their owner. We literally make their brains light up. What you want to take from that is up to you. Do dogs love us? Some would say they have the capacity to do so. Is it affection? Love? Pleasure? Excitement? Who knows. But those MRI studies show us what we’ve known from the beginning: a dog’s waggy tail when they see you is a doggie emotion of some kind. Joy, affection, love, happiness, pleasure… it’s impossible to say which. But dogs feel something pleasant when they see us.

We can also see from MRI studies that dogs “do not have large frontal lobes” – the bit of the brain linked to reasoning. Studies are beginning to show the extent to which dogs can reason and the extent of their impulse control.

These different studies are massively interesting in themselves. They teach us a lot about dogs, but they also have implications for training. One of those implications is that dogs have positive feelings about their owners. Another implication is that dogs have poor impulse control, but there are ways we can build on their abilities. This has implications for training too.

And although I almost dare not suggest that dogs are similar to humans, we form habits in the same way. Creatures do, even microbes. We all have repeated behaviours. Behaviour is just those habits we have built up, and habits are just things that, once-upon-a-time, we found reinforcing or rewarding, or contrary to that, we found unpleasant and unrewarding. Ask a Catholic and you’ll get the other side of those habits too: fear of punishment. So before anyone accuses me of turning dogs into people, we should accept that creatures learn in remarkably similar ways.

Normally, it works like this: I do something; it feels good or it brings me reward; I do it again. Alternatively, I do something; it doesn’t feel good; I avoid doing it. I think it’s important to accept that even the most evolved species on this planet follows the same notions of habit-forming behaviours. I eat a biscuit. It tastes good. It gives me a sugar rush. I eat another biscuit. I have an alcoholic drink. It tastes good. The alcohol relaxes me and gives me a sugar rush. I have another drink. On the other hand, the smell of Thunderbird & vomit aged 15 put me off ever drinking Thunderbird again. And despite our infinite wisdom and understanding of habits and how they are formed, we are still a species with impulse control disorders: smokers, drug-takers, sex addicts, morbidly obese nations, gamblers and exercise-addicted thrill-seekers.

When you apply that to dogs, it’s not much different. I bark at the post van. The post van goes away. I bark at the post van. The post van goes away. I bark at a cyclist. The cyclist goes away. I break into the food cupboard. I stuff my face. I feel great. I’m bored. I chew the sofa. It is interesting to chew and has great textures. I chew it more. I rip it because that’s really fun. All of these behaviours are clearly reinforcing for a dog. If on the other hand, they leave a puddle and get their face pushed in it, they may learn not to toilet inside or that to do so will elicit a punishment. We call this operant conditioning.

If we accept then that we can learn by both positive association and negative association, we should ask ourselves both “which is more effective?” and “which is ethical?”

There is no doubt that negative association works. Prong collars, electric shock collars, fly swatters, spraying water in dogs’ faces, shaking coin bottles at them, alpha rolling them, pinning them, shouting at your dog, “checking” your dog with your foot, using your body in any way to “handle” your dog into position are all methods which have a high enough success rate that trainers have continued using them. Aversive methods such as these can work very quickly too. This is why people choose them. On the other hand, science shows that sometimes these methods can have disasterous consequences and provoke aggressive reactions from dogs. More and more organisations from animal behaviourists to national veterinarian associations are saying that they approve of “force free” methods and that punishment or force is not only ineffective but also incredibly damaging. We also run the risk of needing to up the punishment level and having to do more to get the desired effect. Thus, dogs with bark collars may quickly become accustomed to the shock – or the pleasure/release they get from barking is more reinforcing than the collar is aversive. So what do you do then? This is where punishment methods can go badly wrong, because you are faced with a “give up” or “increase” situation, where you need to increase the pain to overcome the pleasure your dog gets from the unwanted behaviour you are trying to eliminate which is clearly very reinforcing.

Positive association is not glamorous or quick in many cases. Building up connections between something your dog does right and a reward can be time-consuming and difficult. You can accidentally reinforce the wrong behaviours and there can be many set-backs. Positive trainers don’t have the same number of television programmes because it’s not interesting or exciting to watch.  When you’ve got big bad behaviours, giving a dog a bit of chicken to rehabituate them is not a simple solution. This is why stores sell chokes, prongs, shock collars and the likes. France is so far down the line of these colliers de dressage that you can buy them for about 10€. Doesn’t that sound easier than a year’s worth of retraining with praise, toys or treats? When you factor in the view that the dog is doing something “wrong”, then why would you “reward” it?! Aversion trainers joke about “cookie comas” and see positive or force-free training as something akin to passivity and permissiveness – seeing anyone who doesn’t use negatives as “permitting” poor behaviours (because positive trainers will ‘ignore’ behaviours which aversive trainers would tackle) That’s not true, of course. Karen Pryor, who popularised clicker training, literally had animals jumping through hoops. But it’s wise to understand both ends of the spectrum – and all that lies between – before making choices about “bad behaviour” and how to correct it.

The way I see it, dogs are doing what is reinforcing and natural. They chase stuff because they are dogs. They chew stuff because they experience the world via their mouths just as we do with our hands. They bark because it makes stuff go away. I don’t see these behaviours as “wrong”, just behaviours I don’t want them to do – or that I want them to be more selective about doing. Instead of these behaviours, I’d prefer the dog does something else, like they stay calm when they see a post van or a cyclist, a car or a jogger, that they walk calmly on the lead, that they don’t tear up my sofa. That’s tough when I want them to shout at anyone who comes on my property without permission or when I give them Kongs to chew. Teaching them as a puppy is easy and we can quickly provide alternatives that are reinforcing, such as “don’t chew my sofa, chew this great stuffed Kong” or “let’s never learn that chasing rabbits is fun. In fact, when you see a rabbit, if you stay at my side, I’ll give you a bit of ham… when you see running rabbits, I want you to think ‘ham!’ not ‘chase!'” Teaching them as an adult dog is hard, but not impossible: the biggest factor in successful learning in dogs is whether they have learned to do something before (and they have ‘the learning habit’) rather than how old they are. The more they learn, the more they can learn. With this in mind, if their behaviour is just natural dog behaviour, why would I punish them for being a dog?

To paraphrase trainer Nando Brown (a positive trainer who’ll be airing a new television show soon) when faced with an aversive technique used to stop a dog begging, “I don’t want my dog to think I’m a bit of a knob because I’m constantly telling him off”. We have a special relationship with dogs, one that we don’t have with other companion animals, but since we have such high expectations of what behaviours we want from them, it’s our duty to choose techniques that neither harm them nor our relationship with them. I don’t ever want my dogs to be afraid of my arrival (as Amigo sometimes is if one of the dogs has been bin-dipping or had an accident… his reactions to fly swatters tells me everything about how my rescue dog came to have such great manners) and I don’t ever want to jeopardise that joyfulness we share. As a teacher, I never believed in punishment. Detentions, lines, exclusions… if deterrents and punishments don’t stop repeated bad behaviour in class with the most reasonable and rational species of all (okay… that’s urban teenagers, so I might be overestimating the reason and rationality there!) why would deterrents and punishments work with dogs? Although I’m not a fan of thinking of dogs in human ways, I think this analogy is very helpful when understanding the effects of positive reinforcement training versus aversive training.

As for my approach? I’m not trying to teach Shakespeare to my dogs, but there are commonalities between training dogs and teaching teenagers. Ever tried teaching when it’s snowing? Impossible. Might as well give up. Environmental factors and stress are the biggest hindrances to learning and retention in humans. That’s true of dogs too. This is why I don’t set my kids or my dogs up to fail. I don’t teach by modelling as I do with children, since dogs don’t have the same ability to look at, internalise and mimic. But I do use small steps, achievable targets and rewards with both dogs and humans. You probably won’t believe me if I told you I used gold stars with some of Manchester’s finest 16 year olds. You’re never too old for a gold star, if you ask me. I never used a clicker though. I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of play in learning, and work with natural ability, instinct and interests. My wisest mentor taught me to make learning irresistible. I think that is true for dogs as much as it is true of children. We can create learning conditions for dogs where they are keen to do more and where learning is exciting. I’m glad that when I pick up my clicker, a frisbee or my treat box, my dogs are absolutely ready to learn. That’s what I want.

all four

My back row boys might not be paying as much attention as I’d like and my teacher’s pet at the front isn’t following the group “stay” like she should be… but my dogs never stop learning, even if one is 14 and French and another is 11 and dumb as a bag of spanners. And I never stop learning about learning either. It’s not a perfect doggie household by far, but I’m very glad that my little Meegie doesn’t have a fly swatter as the consequence of not getting it quite right, and that my big old arthritic Malinois Tobby doesn’t have to be forced to join in. I love teaching my dogs new stuff. They love learning new stuff. I’m not sure how we’d all feel about it if I had to punish them to get what I want.

Until we as a species know everything there is to know about how dogs learn, I’m going to keep to the positive consequences and the positive associations. Then if there’s ever MRI scans of my four, their brains won’t light up like Christmas trees if someone asks them if they think I’m a bit of a knob.

 

Canine behaviour problems: why it’s important we describe them accurately

Canine behaviour problems: why it’s important we describe them accurately

doggiedespot

Imagine the scene: your sister has been having some mental health issues. She’s ended up in hospital and she’s incoherent, delirious even. The doctors are relying on you to give a description of her behaviours in order to make an effective diagnosis. They’re not sure if she’s suicidal or psychotic and what you say is going to be the only evidence they have in order to decide what’s wrong and treat her.

“So, Emma, can you tell me what’s wrong with your sister?”

“She’s crazy! She’s just absolutely crazy!”

“And what does that look like?”

“Well, she does crazy things, you know. She says crazy stuff!”

And every time the doctor asks you to be more specific, you just tell them that your sister is crazy. They can only deduce that she is psychotic and they keep her on a high level of haloperidol until they can talk to her themselves.

When they ask you to describe “crazy”, you might tell the doctors that she counts cars compulsively, that she has to check she has locked the house up fifteen times. Or you tell them that she is counting calories and that she is obsessed with fat grams, that she has dropped 50kg and her knees are fatter than her thighs. Maybe you tell them that she’s been spending money like no tomorrow, that she quit her job, that she seems to be taking lots of risks. Or you tell the doctor that she never comes out any more, that she talks constantly of death, that she has stopped taking care of herself.

Under that umbrella of “crazy” are lots of more helpful ways to describe human behaviours that would help a psychiatrist make a better decision about treatment and would lead to better results.

It is no different with our animals. They are in a powerless position where their treatment for problems relies on our effective description of their behaviour. Telling a behaviouralist or trainer that your dog is dominant or “has to be the Alpha” is as effective as telling the psych team that your sister is crazy. Precision and accuracy are vital in order to find safe strategies to eliminate, reduce or diminish the power of unwanted behaviours. Describing your dog’s personality (rather than their behaviour) and saying “they’re dominant” means that is impossible to identify exactly what is causing the behaviour and how to eradicate it.

Perhaps you find a trainer and you describe your dog’s behaviours to them. If your trainer tells YOU that your dog is dominant or needs punishment-based training, well, think of it a bit like those quacks who used to drill holes in people’s heads to let the crazy spirits out, to stop migraines or to cure them of seizures. Yes, people believed it. Yes, people let them. Who knows – it might have even been efficient had those things been caused by a subungual hematoma. But just because we assume the mantle of the expert doesn’t mean that our expertise dates from this century, or even that it’s based on actual sciencey stuff. Imagine if you gave a detailed and objective description of your sister’s behaviour and the quacks said “She’s clearly quite crazy. We’re going to try a lobotomy.”

So when you tell me your dog is dominant, what would be a more useful description?

With humans

Does your dog not follow commands when you ask? Does your dog do things you don’t want them to do when they are not supervised? Are they “pushy” when seeking attention? Do you have problems because they want to play when you are tired or when it’s not appropriate play time? Do they sit or lie in places you don’t want them to sit or lie? Do they dash out through the door the moment it is opened? Perhaps they don’t have good manners and push past you to go first? Are they growling, barking or snarling if they are with you and someone else approches? Do they protest at bedtime? Do you have a hard time clipping nails, taking them to the vet or grooming them? Does your dog jump up to greet you or when they are excited but you don’t want them to? Are they difficult to walk on a lead? Do they nip people in play or when they are over-stimulated? Do they nip at your ankles? Are they troublesome when people leave or arrive? Do they turn into a snarling menace when anyone goes near their food bowl? Do you find it hard to get a toy from them or get them to “leave” or “drop” something?

Are they unfriendly with strangers? If someone comes onto the property, do they bark, snap and snarl? Is your dog a fence-line runner, chasing off passers-by? Do they shout at the post van? Are they a car chaser? Are they over-excited with guests, smothering them with love and jumping all over them? Are they afraid of strangers, running and hiding from them?

Is your dog having problems if you grab his collar or if you touch a particular part of his body? Are you worried he might take the vet’s hand off at their next dental check-up? Are they mouthy like puppies, putting your hand in their mouths, or your forearms? Do they take a treat like food’s going out of fashion? Are they jumpy if you touch them? Is your dog having issues around children?

With other dogs

Is it dogs in your household or unfamiliar dogs?

Do you mean they are over-stimulated when they meet another dog? Is this just when they are on a lead or when they are off it as well? Do they bark at other dogs they see on a walk? Do you find it hard to get past dogs who are running along fences barking? Do they ‘go in too hard’ to doggie meet-and-greets, sniffing and smelling, perhaps humping or trying to mount the other dog? Are they male and aggressive towards other uncastrated males? Are they over-excited to see another dog, yipping and bouncing, trying to get to them? Are they staring at other dogs or have ‘hard’, stiff bodies when other dogs are about? Do you have a hard time trying to get their attention if they can see another dog?

Do they not like it when other dogs get in their space or when other dogs have unrefined greeting skills? Do they show their teeth to new dogs if the other dog gets too close? Perhaps they seem afraid of other dogs or avoid greeting them? Do they seem really antisocial and not want to play with other dogs? Are they fussy about which dogs they are friends with? Do they bark, growl or lunge until the other dog is far enough away?

Perhaps your dog singles out another dog and makes a beeline for them? Do they harass or are they rough with particular other dogs who are clearly not enjoying it?

Maybe your dog has problems with play, always ending in a fight? Do they start nice and end nasty? Do they get frustrated with other dogs who don’t want to play or who stop play? Do they find it hard to know when play is over and end up getting snapped at by other dogs?

Are they resource-guarders around other dogs? Do they show their teeth or snap at any dog who gets too close when they have a toy? Do they have problems if other dogs approach their food bowl whilst they are eating? Do you feel you have to feed your dogs separately because a fight might easily break out? Does your dog get “jealous” if another animal is getting your attention and they are not?

Is your dog a compulsive fighter, never giving ground or letting up? Are they scrappy and unable to back off? Despite great socialisation with 50+ dogs, are they still compulsive fighters?

Have your dogs become increasingly bad tempered as they’ve got older? Are they snappy when they’ve been woken up or disturbed? Has your previously bomb-proof dog suddenly got issue with another dog in the household?

These are a good hundred ways to better describe your dog’s behaviour. All of these behaviours are ones that good behavioralists and trainers will be able to help you address or overcome with positive training methods. You’ll no doubt find that your dog doesn’t have just one simple unwanted behaviour – how great would that be?!

In describing behaviours more neutrally and clearly rather than describing your dog as “dominant” or “an alpha”, you’ll find common approaches to help you address the issues at hand. A good dog trainer will help you prioritise the behaviours you want to address and will give you strategies to help you overcome them, other than “being a pack leader” or “having a calm assertiveness”. Modern dog trainers see that both owner and dog must do things differently, and overcoming a dog’s behavioural issues is something you do with the dog, not to the dog.

Going back to your sister waiting for assessment… imagine that you describe these behaviours to a psychiatrist in minute detail on your sister’s behalf, and they decide that the treatment is a frontal lobotomy or electro-shock treatment, or even drilling a hole in her head. Though you know that the people in white coats are supposed to be experts, you still worry about the efficiency of such treatments. “Aren’t they a little old fashioned and barbaric?” you ask. “Well, they are things we’ve been doing for a very long time and although they may seem cruel, it’s for the best. There are thousands of years of practice behind this method. People have been doing it since we lived in caves! It must be effective, otherwise we wouldn’t keep doing it.”

Do you still go along with what the doctors say, despite your nagging doubts?

This is why, when you describe your dog’s behaviours effectively to your dog trainer, know that you should not be afraid to check whether your dog trainer or behaviouralist has a modern, scientific approach that is based on effective and humane treatments. Just because they’ve chosen to call themselves an expert doesn’t make them so. And a modern dog behaviouralist, even one who believes in dominance theory, will still ask you to explain what you mean more exactly.

We should strive to describe our dog’s unwanted behaviours more carefully. To do so means that we can avoid situations in which our dogs are likely to fail and we can find solutions that actually work. When we see problems with our dogs as behaviours rather than personality, we give them hope for improvement. Behaviour is transitory, reactive and circumstantial. A personality is set in stone. To me, describing a dog as “dominant” is as helpful as calling them an arsehole or a tin-pot dictator.

Instead of ‘diagnosing’ them with an ugly personality, isn’t it more helpful to think of them having some behaviours we don’t like and we can change? After all, dogs are not power-hungry despots and there are better explanations about why we see the behaviours that we do, as you’ll know if you’ve these posts about why dogs aren’t trying to rule your life and why dogs aren’t trying to get one over on every other dog they meet.

In my head these days, when I hear people say “my dog is dominant”, I’ve just replaced “dominant” with “arsehole”. And anyone who calls their dog an arsehole, well… I’m pretty sure both that dog and I know who the real arsehole is.

Pack hierarchy: why dogs aren’t interested in being the boss

doggie relationships

You’d have thought after my wordiness about ‘dominance’ last week that people might be a little afraid to use that word in my presence this week. No. Someone contacted me for a dog earlier in the week and told me their dog was dominant.

“What do you mean exactly?” I asked. I didn’t say “What horseshit!” like I thought I might say.

Turns out that the dog doesn’t particularly like unruly, socially over-the-top dogs who haven’t been well socialised. That description is much more helpful to me than ‘dominance’. That I can work with. Good introductions and chances are, things will be fine. Thankfully, we didn’t have to have a discussion about why dogs don’t want to take over the world and the solution is a lot easier than “putting the dog in its place” or “letting them fight it out” in order to decide some kind of hierarchy within the family of dogs.

What we know about pack hierarchy in dogs is, guess what, based on what we know about pack hierarchy in constructed packs of captive wolves.  As senior scientist and wolf expert L. David Mech says, trying to use those studies to learn about dogs is as useful as studying humans in refugee camps as a basis for learning about families. Oh, yes, and we’ve also constructed that pack hierarchy theory based on some bright spark saying that chickens have a pecking order. Bit of a leap to dogs having a fixed-rank hierarchy, but hey. That’s not to say that our own constructed packs of captive dogs (which is essentially what our ‘families’ of dogs are) behave the same or different than captive wolves or domesticated chickens. So why are we grasping at what little we know about other animals? Sadly, there are very few studies at all of dog-dog relationships. With all the bluff and chat about dominant dogs, the absolute conviction with which some trainers and TV personalities preach about dominance and pack hierarchy, you’d think it was based on years of accumulated scientific evidence. And actually, it’s based on the same misguided interpretations of captive wolves as all the other ‘findings’ about dominance.

But that doesn’t stop the ‘dominance’ experts talking about dog-dog dominance as if they have years of science and evidence behind them. No. You can even buy books on what dominant behaviour looks like. That’s like the people who make money out of books about alien probes.

So what do the ‘experts’ in dominance mythology suggest are dominant behaviours? Mounting other dogs, stealing other dogs’ stuff, resource guarding, pushing their way to the front when with other dogs (like going through doorways first) OR the opposite: making other dogs wait for them (I’m not clear on what that means… is that like when Ralf started investigating a hole on a walk and made us all wait for him to catch up because he was too big and old to run?) Licking dogs’ mouths can be seen as submissive, so they never lick other dogs’ mouths. And the dominant dog will apparently always win at tug-of-war, staring at other dogs, standing at 90° to other dogs with their heads over the other dog’s back.

On the flipside, ‘submissive dogs’ will roll on their back, lick other dogs mouths and let other dogs access resources.

But what DOES the little evidence we have suggest about doggie relationships?

Those few studies of dog relationships, based on free-roaming packs of village dogs, suggest a fluid or flexible hierarchy that is based around resources and territory: sleeping spaces, food, water and sex. Often, it boils down very simply to decisions dogs make about how much they want something and how much they are prepared to fight for it. There is also evidence to suggest that dogs make the decision to fight or give in based on how much the other dog appears to want the resource.

This is very evident in my own pack. With two intact males, one of four years old and one of fourteen, one castrated male and one sterilised female, typical wisdom would put the four year old ‘breeding Alpha’ as the pack leader. That would be Heston. And it’s true – when he has been tackled in fights by the other two males, he has certainly come out on top. You’d expect that. He is young, strong, fit and 5kg heavier than his nearest rival. His ‘submission’ to Tilly would no doubt be written down to history: he arrived when she was 7 and he was six weeks old. That said, he will happily let my fourteen-year-old male wander around with all of his toys and never challenge him for them.

This fits with the evidence that suggests that dogs generally don’t find fighting productive. Even very small dogs can fatally injure a larger dog and despite the fact that many dogs live in very close proximity, there are very few fights to the death. Surprisingly few, if dogs are really driven by the need to best each other. I never really see it in my own dogs, which is one reason why I find dominance theory so hard to stomach: it just doesn’t support what I see in my own dogs and those I work with every day.

When we talk about doggie relationships, dog trainer and mentor Jean Donaldson’s books, Mine! and Fight! are very helpful in identifying doggie behaviours that are often called ‘dominance’. My own ‘constructed’ pack of dogs, along with my fosters and the shelter dogs at Mornac, are often the subject of my study simply because of a lack of really good animal studies on either side of the argument. Nothing like in-situ impromptu ethology to fill in the blanks! But I shall use them here to discuss Donaldson’s theories in the real world and provide explanations for their behaviour that I think fit them better than a fixed hierarchy of dogs struggling for superiority and rank. Her theories also give me approaches to overcome the behaviours I don’t like, theories that have been much more useful and helpful than simply telling my dog to get off the couch, or eating before my dogs eat.

As Donaldson says, “Not one theorist has framed his or her hypothesis [about dominance] into a falsifiable question and then proceeded to test it.”. And, she continues, it is taught “to the general public as though it [dominance theory] is the theory of gravity.” This is another reason why I’m not sold on dominance theory, and it’s why I study my dogs and my foster dogs very closely. Given there’s no evidence either way, I’m having to rely on my own experiences.

It’s not to say that ‘dominance’ doesn’t exist. Science shows that behaviours we might call dominance start to emerge early on. The notion of ‘dominance’ can even be seen in the kittens I have at the moment. It’s been noticed that puppies, like the kittens here, will favour one nipple from about two weeks of age, and will push and fight to get there. That’s the first aspect of what we often think of as dominance: resources and how much we want them. You’ll notice that in the description of a dominant dog that I gave before, resource guarding is listed as a dominant trait. It’s not. It’s a genetic trait that we have encouraged in dogs through selective breeding and even the most ‘submissive’ dogs can show resource guarding behaviours. Instead of thinking they are dominant, it’s more helpful in this situation to think of them as resource-guarders or territorially possessive, then to address those as issues.

The description of dominant dogs also implies a degree of aggressivity and a willingness to fight. But most dogs don’t often fight. Not as much as a rank hierarchy would demand and not as much as you’d expect.

Dogs often do engage in ritualised fights. By this, I don’t mean play. I have photos of my dogs playing in ways that would be quite frightening to non-doggie people. I don’t take photos of ritualised fights because they’re quite real and very frightening for the onlooker. That’d be me. Donaldson describes ritualised fights as the dog equivalent of boxing matches. They have rules and a lot of sound and fury and they are a real fight rather than play or pantomime, but it’s not often that anyone gets really, really hurt. In the four dog fights that have happened in my house in the last three years, these ritualised fights are the only things I’ve seen. Noisy, snappy fights which are definitely not play but end with a result that is by-and-large what you’d expect. There’s a lot of growling. Teeth may come in contact with fur or skin. There’s a lot of snapping. It’s impossible to separate the dogs – fur may literally fly. There may be superficial wounds or lacerations. In general, the dogs split themselves up or people manage to split them up, and then it’s business as usual. Within two minutes, the dogs are back to normal. The ritual has been effective and the dogs have resolved their issues without any bloodshed (or very much). This is certainly the case with my dogs.

What didn’t happen were any of the other behaviours you might expect. Heston was the clear winner of that fight, yet he lets Tobby pee over his scent, follow him into the garden snapping and trying to “school” him, sleep in his bed moments after he’s vacated it and never “puts him in his place”. Heston never takes Tobby’s toys. But then he doesn’t let him approach him to lick his head either.

And why is that? He could do as he pleased. He easily could ‘master’ him. But he just doesn’t.

Is it perhaps because Heston doesn’t value those toys as much as Tobby does, and even though he could take them, it is not worth a confrontation? Those resource guarding tendancies have never surfaced in him in this situation.

What I am told to expect in dominance theory is that Heston, the ranking Alpha male, would take all opportunities to remind Tobby that he is no longer an Alpha if that is what Tobby once was before he arrived here. The fixed rank I should be expecting (especially given that I don’t run my household like I should according to the dominance ‘experts’) doesn’t exist in my house between the two males who are capable of being the ‘Alpha’ breeding male, the doggie equivalent of the Silverback.

26kg intact fourteen-year-old male Tobby would appear to some people to have been a top dog at some point. He sometimes exhibits a kind of ritualised harassment of younger dogs, following them about and attempting to mount them. That said, he is terrified of Tilly and won’t go near her to lick her face unless she allows him to. He constantly air-snaps at Heston and when he races into the garden after Heston, he is fixated on Heston, not on what Heston is chasing. Tobby often wanders around with a toy in his mouth and never has any challengers, even if it is the only toy available. Perhaps he’s my top dog? He overpees Heston’s scent and Tilly’s scent. Yet on the odd occasion that he gets in Heston’s space and provokes a growl, he backs off submissively. He always “gives in” to Heston in sleeping spot choices (although he’ll go and sleep right in that spot the moment that Heston vacates it.) He also licks other dogs all the time. He definitely doesn’t fit the pack hierarchy stereotype.

And then there’s Heston. 32kg and four years old. He could fight any of my dogs and win. Sometimes he humps my foster dogs unless I intervene. He has a lot of flagging tails and stiff postures. He doesn’t permit any dog to approach his bowl, unless it’s Tilly. No other dogs challenge him for his toys, but he never takes toys from other dogs. If he is lying down and another dog approaches him, he’ll growl and the other dog backs off. But he never overmarks territory, he never pins other dogs outside of the three ritualised fights he has been in. He never has to show his teeth. He lets Tobby airsnap him.

So do I have another pack leader if it’s not my two big boys?

12kg eleven-year-old sterilised female Tilly will hold her own if there is a bone, a treat or ‘her’ bed involved. She is the only dog who will attempt to eat from others’ bowls before they have finished. She doesn’t value toys or other sleeping spots and won’t put up a fight over them. She will defer to others in door exits or exciting situations and she often roles on her back to let the other dogs smell her. She will even wee on her back if a dog sniffs her right. I couldn’t tell you honestly if she’s submissive or dominant. Sometimes she rules the pack – such as if a dog sleeps in ‘her’ spot – and other times she doesn’t – if a dog is running about excited, she won’t “school” them as Tobby does. Tilly sits on the back of the couch – which is ‘dominant’ as she can lord it over everyone else. Then she gets off and lies on the floor. That’s submissive isn’t it? Plus she never goes first through the door. Tobby licks her mouth, but she never licks any other dogs’ mouths. That’s kind of dominant isn’t it? Also she never listens to me when there’s a cowpat about. That must be dominant too. So what’s Tilly? Submissive because she rolls on her back and she pees, or dominant because she guards and she growls at anyone in her space?

So if Tilly, my tiny sterilised female doesn’t rule the roost, there’s only Meegie left…

19kg sterilised eight-year-old male Amigo would appear to be bottom of the pack. He lost fights to Heston. He lets Tobby lick his head (and isn’t licking a sign of submission?!) but he is absolutely not the boss of Tobby. I never see any ‘dominant’ posturing from Amigo. He generally takes the spot where other dogs aren’t lying and is the last to choose a spot once all the other dogs have chosen. He always exits doors after Tobby and Heston and never overmarks their scents. But if he has a Kong, none of my dogs will take it from him. He would certainly fight any dog who tried. What’s that about? That also doesn’t fit conventional pack hierarchy ‘wisdom’.

 

These behaviours seemed not to conform at all to a strict linear hierarchy. In fact, it’s very changeable. It always has been in all my various families of dogs and every time I introduce a new foster dog. I might be able to agree at a push that dominance might be a relationship issue rather than a personality issue, looking at my four odd bods, but even so, I can’t see this linear hierarchy at all and it bothers me a great deal that we talk about dog relationships based on an assumption of a fixed rank pattern. I don’t even want to say that it’s a relationship thing and the most I’ll concede is there could possibly be a very, very flexible hierarchy at points. Perhaps.

When I read Mine! and Fight! I found patterns that fitted better in so many ways. Firstly, Mine! gives us ideas about resource-guarding and how this changes depending on the dog, the moment and the resource. Thus, at some times, Tobby’s toy is his obsession and other times not. Sometimes Tilly will harass another dog to give up a bone and other times she doesn’t care less. The only dog of mine that seems to have a regular sleeping spot is Tilly, who sleeps nearest to the kitchen. So when we mention dominant resource guarding, quite often what we mean is that our dog has found something of value in that instance and is prepared, for whatever reason, to fight for it if necessary. Or it means that a 5kg dog will happily take on all comers if a piece of pizza is at stake.

Fight! gives us also a very interesting insight into behaviours that might be considered dominance. Often, when I hear people talking about dominant dogs, they mean dogs who are aggressive in particular circumstances. Donaldson outlines six types of dog and this pattern seems to fit very well with many of the dogs I encounter on a daily basis.

The first are dogs that she calls “Tarzan”. These dogs are over-excited and come on too strong in initial meetings. They have unrefined social skills and have often been inadequately socialised, so they are not good at reading other doggie body language. I have one of these. Heston is exactly this though he’s less Tarzany as time passes. He was fairly well socialised at the beginning but then when we encountered nothing but understimulated fence runners trapped in gardens protecting their territory on most of our daily walks, he quickly learned that growling and barking is what dogs do to greet each other. So I did what many people do because it was easier. We had walks where we didn’t meet other dogs. Luckily, he is adequately socialised beyond that, so get past the initial 30 seconds and he’s very good at doggie body language. He loves other dogs in fact. He is also very respectful of them. Take last night, when I brought Florette home. He ran out like ten men, all “what you doing in my garden, dog?!” and then was all, “oh, hello… I’m Heston,” if a bit stiff and posturey for about two minutes. 12 hours later and she’s just another dog to him. In fact, ten minutes later and she was just another dog to him. Luckily Heston has a good play history, great bite inhibition and just needs to meet lots more bullet-proof dogs. Donaldson’s programme to overcome Tarzan-like behaviour is working for Heston. It shouldn’t work if dominance is a real thing. Keeping him off the sofa, punishing him instead of rewarding him, and eating from his bowl would be the things a dominance theorist would expect to work, not desensitisation around other dogs and counter-conditioning. Heston is one reason I bring well-socialised rescue dogs home with me to foster – it allows me to continue his education that not all dogs are running along fence lines growling, barking and posturing. Heston fits exactly the description of “Tarzan” dogs and is responding well to Donaldson’s methods to change his behaviour.

In fact, I don’t just see this at home. Many of the times that a refuge pairing doesn’t work is because one dog comes on too strong. Call them dominant or call them clueless at reading doggie body language, the result is the same: they piss other dogs off. But calling them ‘dominant’ implies a personality defect that is hard to overcome. Calling them clueless at reading doggie body language and there is a solution in there somewhere.

The second type of aggressivity she sees in dogs, she writes about are “proximity-sensitive dogs”. These dogs may seem well-socialised, a model dog around others perhaps… until… one gets too close, is a bit too bouncy, is a bit sniffy, then BOOM! It’s all “BACK OFF, TARZAN!” This is my Amigo. Imagine trying to pair an over-zealous dog who isn’t good at reading doggie “BACK OFF” signs and a dog who seems to be okay, until they are absolutely not… Proximity-sensitive dogs are also under-socialised, but they don’t have the same display or zealousness of a Tarzan. We often call them ‘unpredictable’ and we’re all shocked when they lash out, yet they are dogs who are just a bit cool in greetings with others and because they’re not all shouty we assume they are okay. This can be a thing from lack of socialisation or it can develop over time. It’s kind of Grumpy Old Dog syndrome. They get less and less tolerant of crude social behaviours although they remain fine with dogs who are respectful of distance and don’t make inappropriate social overtures. This is why I think Amigo would be happiest in a one-dog house. He is not at all interested in other dogs. Not the bomb-proof dog I thought I was getting, but a ticking time-bomb with a firm line in the sand. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning work well here too.

Donaldson’s third type of aggressivity is in dogs who are “bullies”. At some point, bullying another dog has become highly reinforcing and enjoyable. She says these dogs show a “roughness and harassment of non-consenting dogs” and that they have “designated target dogs.” That’s to say, they have specific dogs that they target. It is pleasurable to target that dog and they do it more and more. I saw this in Tobby when he harassed a young intact male I had here. He has met over twenty dogs in my household for foster, and he had never, (and has never since) harassed another dog. But with Loupi, he stalked him, licked him constantly and tried constantly to hump him. If you have a dog in your household who makes a beeline for one particular dog and exhibits all the behaviours we think of as ‘dominant’ – standing over them, pinning them underneath them, swatting them, licking them obsessively, humping only them, it’s likely your dog is finding bullying a very pleasurable experience indeed.

The fourth kind of aggressivity we might see from time to time that may be considered ‘dominance’ is those dogs with play skills deficits: dogs who erupt from play to fight. Everything seems to be going well. They aren’t particularly Tarzany, they don’t have shy boy tendancies and they aren’t targeting one particular dog: they just end up getting in scraps. To understand this, we have to understand that dog play is a bit like capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. In this, the ‘dance’ is based on mutual understanding and body language, as well as atmospheric clues like music. Sometimes one person will be the ‘aggressor’ or ‘attacker’, launching all the kicks and elbow strikes. Sometimes the other person is the ‘defender’, dodging and feinting to escape attack. Then the roles change. If you have watched capoeira, the changes can be mesmerising and you may have the suspicion that they are choreographed. If you have played capoeira, you will know that it is instinctive and relies on mutual cooperation: after a rally, roles change without any verbal cues or a given signal. Dog play is the same: roles change and dogs switch from being the aggressor to being the defender. For dogs with play skills deficits, they seem unable to make the switch, or to understand give and take. They will make continual play bows when the other dog is tiring, they will keep bouncing, will keep raising paws and never ‘break’. If roles don’t reverse often enough, fights can easily erupt. Play always starts well and then breaks down. I saw this with a terrier I fostered, Lucky: he was unable to interpret signs that play was over and it led to a very tense atmosphere. He was just over-exuberant and hadn’t learned that you can’t always be the aggressor.

Donaldson also classes resource-guarding as part of her six types of aggressivity in dogs, which she expands upon in Mine! In this situation, a dog has a “coveted object” like food, a bed or even an owner, and this can be directed at humans as well as other dogs. Resource-guarding, contrary to Dominance myths, is an equal-opportunities kind of thing: it is as likely to affect a small or less confident dog as it is to affect a large, powerful or more confident dog. This is adaptive and circumstantial.

Her final category is the compulsive fighter. These are often breeds who have been selected for pugnaciousness, tenaciousness and general gameness for a fight. They may have a genetic disposition that makes it harder for them to read doggie body language too. She says you can see these dogs as puppies as they are scrappy and constantly fighting. Ironically, they are often only aggressive with other dogs: what use would a dog be in a dog fight if you couldn’t break them up without risking them turning on you? Sadly, I don’t have to direct you to a list of dog breeds that had been traditionally used in dog fighting… they are the victims of many a hate campaign and legal sanctions on their breeding and adoption.

I just think this model of dog-dog aggressivity and “types” better explains why dogs may sometimes fall out, and it’s more in tune with the many dogs I see on a daily basis than the theory that every single negative behaviour is in fact a bid for superiority. Plus, these models have a positive and gentle method of rehabilitation that does not call for us to treat our dogs badly in order to make them know their place. When we see dominance as a personality trait, and packs as fixed-rank hierarchies, there is no easy solution. Knowing our dog is an undersocialised Tarzan or that he doesn’t like undersocialised Tarzans can make all the difference in how they meet and how they conduct each other initially. Knowing that dogs can or can’t play (I’ve got four dogs who cannot play together without it ending in tension, because I have two who are impoverished in play – who intepret play as a fight and something to be worried about!) and that I have a few issues with resource-guarding is also something I can work on, rather than tacitly accepting “it’s their place in the pack” or that “this one is bidding for superiority” or “that one is reminding the others that he’s the pack leader”.

Ultimately, I see the role of my pack leader as I see the role of leadership among humans: to facilitate growth, security and comfort in others. Here you can see Heston doing exactly that as he teaches a one-year-old Newfie to play. Not so Tarzan here, is he? You can see how he takes Chops from tentative play to confident play (and also how I have to pull Amigo out because he doesn’t read play so well and he either interprets it as a fight or doesn’t know what to do with himself…) and just because he’s running away, or when Chops paws him, even tries to mount him from behind a little, Chops certainly is not the one leading the play. I love this video – the body language between them is fantastic. I’m sure some wise owl will tell me that one is dominating the other, but all I see in my hours of video are dogs whose supposed fixed-rank pack hierarchy is very fluid, if it exists at all. In filming hours of dog play between different dogs, it seems very difficult indeed to see how any theory about captive wolves or henpecked chickens relates to the dogs we know and love.  I love this video too because it shows great hope for Tarzan dogs who have had an impoverished socialisation, and for shy boys like Chops who have never played with another dog since their siblings in the puppy family. No dominance was involved in the making of this video.

Next week… what I’d rather you said instead of “I’ve got a dominant dog”. And no, you can’t tell me that your dog isn’t submissive, either.