Training Corner #3: Drop, Give or Out

Training Corner #3: Drop, Give or Out

Why do you start preparing ‘Drop!’ before you’ve maybe even taught ‘take it!’ or ‘get it!’ ??

Seems strange, right?

To be honest, I’ve massively changed how I teach this cue in the last year. I used to use more active sessions, when dogs actually had something in their mouth that I wanted. So I’d teach it by predicting when the dog was likely to drop, and then saying ‘drop!’ …

That was pretty hard. You have to know when the dog is likely to spit the thing out. Sometimes you accidentally end up playing ‘tug’ or forcing a drop by physically removing the thing.

Then I saw Chirag Patel’s video from Domesticated Manners demonstrating a method I’d never seen before.

I watched the first five minutes or so thinking ‘What are you up to, fella?’ That dog has nothing to drop!’ and then, when I saw the dog spit a hot dog out I had such a penny-dropping moment that I’m surprised I didn’t injure myself.

This is now the ONLY way I teach drop. I might swap to a toy eventually, but I always start with this method. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never teach drop in more traditional ways at all.

You can call it ‘Give!’ or ‘Out!’, or whatever floats your boat. I realised that it sounded a bit like ‘stop!’ so I was getting some accidental behaviours instead of drop. I changed my ‘stop!’ cue to ‘stand’, which is very different. Worth bearing in mind!

It’s worth watching the video a few times for the explanations, which are incredibly valuable.

Why I love this so much is it’s more of a ‘get back to me now and you need an empty mouth!’ than a taught ‘drop!’

You can also change the cue later to differentiate between times when the dog has something in its mouth (Drop, or Out) and times you just want them to know there’s a food party at your feet (I use ‘Surprise!’ for that) but you may need a bit of time for the dog to learn the difference between ‘Drop!’ and ‘Surprise!’ if you want to have a different word for each situation.

You can see Nando Brown using it here, and also using a toy

Imagine how much easier this is when you’ve done the groundwork that Chirag Patel demonstrates?! There’s no need for mouthing or holding on. There’s none of the breath-holding moments when the dog holds on or decides that the trade isn’t good enough. I taught drop using traditional tug games, like Nando demonstrates, and that I’d seen other trainers use, but I’ve had much more reliable results from the Domesticated Manners version. You can make the toy boring, you can use a treat in front of the nose, but I promise you, it’s just not as great as the speed with which a dog will absolutely spit out a treasured toy when they’ve learned that Drop means they need an empty mouth.

Plus, the Domesticated Manners version has other benefits.

It really, really helps with recall. ‘Drop!’ is one of the only cues I rarely take off 100% reinforcement. That said, I won’t use it as often. I do it ten times a day in various situations until it’s flawless. Then I do it in harder and harder situations. On lead. Then off lead. And then I maybe only use it a handful of times, until I get to the point where I am only using it where I need it.

Keeping it with 100% reinforcement has drawbacks and benefits. The benefit is that there is ALWAYS something in it for the dog. It’s how I keep it as a ‘Boom! I’m back here! Here’s me!’ from the dog. It’s how I get my dogs to have an immediate and wonderful reflexive recall to feet. It’s a wonderful way to distract your dog too in an emergency, and you can use it with ‘What’s That?’ or emergency scatter feeding (where you toss a bunch of treats on the floor to avoid accidents). So ‘drop!’ is coincidentally ’empty your mouth’, but for all intents and purposes, for the dog, it’s a ‘get back to my feet because there is amazing stuff there’. That’s when there’s a difference between ‘Surprise!’ and ‘Drop!’

For instance, with Harry, a dog-reactive pointer at the shelter, an emergency ‘Drop!’ is a great way to avoid the stress of another dog coming in the opposite direction. Now you know me – I’m about teaching, not management – but there are times when you know your dog is going to go nuts if it sees what you see, and it gets that nose right down on the ground.

I also like this method of ‘Drop’ because it mimics a displacement activity – sniffing the ground. It’s non-aggressive and non-threatening. Now, it only seems as if your bonkers barker is a lover not a fighter, but it truly works. I’ve managed to avoid full-on confrontations between two dog-aggressive or reactive dogs simply by having one of them at my feet hunting for food. When you’ve got an amazing ‘Drop!’, you can use it to stop your dog charging ahead or you can use it along with ‘Leave it!’. It’s amazing to have a reflexive response (which you want this to be) when you have a problem situation. For instance, once I was handling a really dog-aggressive dog and another one was coming the opposite direction. A quick game made it look like my dog was avoiding conflict and the other dog-aggressive dog passed with a ‘watch’ from his handler…. but he wasn’t fussed because it seemed like the other dog was minding his own business. When you’re faced with a face-off over a 200m stare-down, a solid behaviour is vital. Drop is as good as any for that.

It’s also a brilliant thing to teach to dogs who have potential resource-guarding habits, who guard their food or toys. For this, having your hand near the food really helps. Not something to do with a hardened resource guarder unless you have done a bit of work behind the scenes, but it’s still a vital skill. It’s the very first thing I teach a dog who’s grumbling about giving things up.

You can see this with John McGuigan:


Very useful for dogs who enjoy running off with your stuff and evading you. A must for terrier owners!

So Lidy in the picture had a ‘Drop!’ and then a ‘Wait!’ and then a ‘Get it!’ with that pig’s ear. Sometimes we have a ‘Drop!’ and then a ‘Leave it!’

How great is it when your dog will spit out their toys so quickly and race back to you in expectation of unexpected gifts from above?

If they’re struggling, start with something really, really high value. Stinky cheese or salmon usually brings them right back. I’m a fan of stinky stuff – it’s so much more appetising than chicken or turkey, which doesn’t have the same smell. That’s not to say they’re not as fantastic for your dog, but I know smell in food is one way to get a dog interested in it if they aren’t usually. You can also use toys, but it’s less practical because at the beginning, you want to use a large number of small treats. All I want is the habit to come back and use their mouth to pick up food from your feet.

To make it more challenging, change location and practise in a number of places.

Then change the distance and say ‘Drop!’ from further and further distances.

Add distractions! Can you get your dog to drop a hot dog or a pig’s ear and come back to you? Start small and work up.

From time to time, I add a real jackpot reinforcer. Nothing like something disgusting but amazing like sliced liver to make that behaviour really, really quick. And as I said, I switch to ‘Surprise!’ for ‘Party at my feet!’ with 100% reinforcement, but rarely used. I keep ‘Drop!’ for ‘give me that thing in your mouth!’

Those methods make ‘Drop!’ or ‘Out!’ a really bomb-proof skill for dogs who are really amped up. With ‘Wait!’ or ‘Leave it!’, you’ve got a combination of cues that mean you are really maximising your dog’s impulse control.

Now get out and get busy with your Drop!

Socialisation & Habituation: how you need to take breed into consideration

Socialisation & Habituation: how you need to take breed into consideration

Last week, I posted about socialisation, habituation and the difference between them. This is in response to a particularly ‘contagious’ post doing the rounds about why you don’t need to socialise your dog. I think she meant why you shouldn’t flood your young puppy and overwhelm it with stimuli – which I agree with – but I’m very much in the ‘yes you do need to both socialise and habituate your dog’ camp – because I work with problem dogs who haven’t had the basics they needed, and because I know what has gone awry.

When you hang around animals, you can see those who aren’t used to other dogs, those who haven’t been socialised with other dogs, those who are not used to humans and those who have been accidentally sensitised rather than getting used to it.

Breed is a factor in that. It’s the basic ingredients that your dog comes with. What you do with those ingredients depends on what you get as a ‘finished product’. That’s the socialisation, habituation and training bit. They’re the recipe and the cooking.

I also wrote about my own dog, Heston, who I raised as a gundog and who turned out to be a shepherd mix with a little bit of gundog, rather than a retriever/collie mix with no shepherd. When I got his DNA test back, it explained some of his worst habits, things that ‘shepherds gone wrong’ are likely to show, as well as ‘shepherds gone right’.  I wrote about how training had turned him into a pretty great gundog. What I didn’t write about was how his lack of appropriate socialisation and habituation had turned him into a pretty bad shepherd.

What does that mean?

I mean, I’ve worked with my fair share of shepherds gone wrong.

What you find are what I’d call excessive breed tendencies.

What that means are all the behaviours that prize-winning shepherds have a little bit, that you can refine and shape, and that haven’t been shaped in others who end up on my books, or on my couch.

If you look at dog competitions like mondioring, French ring, Schutzhund, IPO etc, you see shepherds with these breed tendencies on cue. I’m not talking about the tracking, trailing or jumps. Those are things that other dogs do too. I’m talking about the things that make these competitions almost exclusively dominated by one breed or one group of breeds. I’m talking about behaviours which are more instinctive to your average shepherd than they are to your average spaniel. That’s to say they are doing what they usually do, just it’s under control. Those excessive breed tendencies show up, under control, in chasing a fleeing stranger, facing down an aggressive stranger, defending the handler, taking down someone who is running away and guarding an object. That’s to say more likely than a foxhound, for instance, to be territorial, to confront strangers, to be wary of new stuff, to be unfriendly around other predators (including dogs and humans) and to be capable of protecting something they consider as ‘theirs’. You’ll see these show up on reviews of James Serpell’s CBARQ assessment, which compares breed tendencies. I’m always a little cautious because surveys such as CBARQ do play into the owner biases, but I think there is enough work to show that those biases have a basis in the behaviour we see. Just as an example: the problems we get with the hounds in the shelter are different than the problems we get with terriers or shepherds. So be super cautious of breed stereotypes, but know that there’s something to bear in mind… it’s why dogs do different jobs and why they excel in different competitions. Who wins field trials? I’ll give you a clue. It’s never been a Jack Russell.

Those shepherd breed tendencies seen in ring competitions also show up, not under control, in dogs who chase or ‘intercept’ joggers or cyclists, dogs who will charge up to a stranger, circling them and barking, biting if they make any movement, dogs who won’t tolerate a stranger coming into the perimeter of the owner or home, dogs who bite you as you’re moving away and dogs who are excessively territorial or have excessive resource guarding habits.

The difference between those who have the behaviours under control and those who don’t depends on a lot of things.

It depends on the emotion. Heston running up to and cornering a guy who’d come onto my property ‘to look for scrap metal’ had the emotional intensity that some top competitions look for. He didn’t look like an R+ trained dog playing a find-the-intruder game. Dogs on cue probably won’t do it with the same emotion. He did everything that competition dogs do – just without me asking unfortunately. He ran up, he held the guy in position, he barked fiercely and angrily. When the guy tried to move, he circled him. When the guy yelled at him, Heston barked more intensely. There was no contact. He did everything a mondioring dog does – without training. Now, I’m not proud of this and it’s not a “whoo, look at my untrained dog’s skills”. I am just saying that in competitions, you see the same behaviours, just without the self-employment bit. A trained dog does it as a simulation. An untrained dog does it for real.

What’s the difference between this:

And Heston finding a stranger in the garden?

Control. Training. Teaching. Cues. Handling. Management of emotion. Impulse control.

I am in no way condoning these behaviours. He could well have done them with a person who had every right to be on the property. I had to go over and physically restrain my own dog. I don’t think it is in any way an acceptable behaviour, and once I’d seen it, I manage the situation much more carefully and we’ve done a lot of training around strangers – though less than I’d like about ones who come on to the property, just because of the nature of my lifestyle. One self-employed moment was more than enough. I had no way of knowing he would do this with a stranger on my property. I hated that moment. I looked back on how it had come about and how I could prevent it. Just because I have no doubt that the man was scoping my property for whatever he could take doesn’t make it acceptable. It is the worst side of my dog – the one that brings me the most heartache. But he is just doing the same behaviours as a great, well-trained shepherd – just in an entirely real scenario – luckily without the biting and sadly without the impulse control.

The difference between good and bad is whether the behaviour is under stimulus control or not. By which I mean you have to give permission for it to start and you have to tell the dog to stop and they do. A ‘good’ shepherd will win competitions. A ‘bad’ shepherd will end up with a euthanasia order for biting a passing jogger who got in range.

A lot goes into ‘good’ dogs vs ‘bad’ dogs. There are so many factors that influenced that moment with Heston that is impossible to extrapolate a single cause.

Is it the ingredients?

Is it because he came from a line of ‘off the book’ Groenendael Belgian shepherds whose owners probably didn’t care much about pedigree, history and temperament?

Is it parental?

Since I don’t know his history, I don’t know for sure. I do know there aren’t any groenendael breeders in the area he was found. There aren’t even any registered single dogs. That means ‘off the books’. I have the same small feeling of anxiety with every malinois, every GSD who comes in without ID. No ID means no traceable pedigree. No traceable pedigree means no predictable behaviour from family lines.

Since I don’t know his lines and I don’t know his parents, I can’t say. They could be practically feral and foaming at the mouth. They could be really sweet. I don’t know and will never know.

Is it the early mixing of those ingredients?

Is it his birth order or pre-natal experiences? Dogs’ positions in utero can affect testosterone levels. In utero stress can also lead to fearfulness. Is that aggression rooted in fear?

Is it because he is male? Testosterone and aggression have links that science is only just beginning to get in to.

Is it because he is entire? But being castrated can also increase aggression rooted in fear.

Is it in the recipe that’s made him into the dog he is?

Was it being hand-raised with only one of his siblings?

Was it the time at 9 weeks when one of my neighbours walked in when he was eating? He barked and barked at her and it was definitely his first ‘stranger danger’ moment. Before that, he had been great with strangers.

Was it the fence-running GSD of my neighbour who I had to get past to take him on a walk, and who barked every time any time anyone moved in my garden?

Was it the time I took him to a festival and it overwhelmed him?

Was it the time he was subject to a very threatening welcome by a number of other dogs at a barbecue?

Is it the fact I live alone and he just doesn’t experience other humans than me often enough?

Is it the fact that he really only met about ten dogs in his first six months?

Did he pick it up off Tilly, my other dog, who is reactive and fearful of strangers, who barks when people come on the property and who is also nervous with other dogs?

Is he just doing a self-employed version of the beautiful Dubion Ebony?

The fact is there are so many factors that could have contributed to that moment of excessive breed tendencies. As with all behavioural issues, a post-mortem of their cause is not particularly useful. We can pontificate all day on the whys. What matters is the what we do with what we actually have in front of us.

No good shutting the door after the Groenendael has pinned a stranger, so to speak.

That said, if you can reduce the whys, you’re going to find you can moderate what you end up with.

You can counteract excessive breed tendencies. And you should.

When you know that you have a dog of a particular breed, then it is your job when you raise it to make sure the socialisation and habituation meets the needs of the dog and prepares the puppy for situations in which you are likely to see those excessive breed tendencies. This is as true for my American cocker spaniel Tilly as it is for Heston. She came to me aged five with a handful of wholly predictable behaviours that could have been counteracted through living in the appropriate home and with the appropriate socialisation and habituation as a youngster.

It wasn’t a surprise that Tilly would urinate submissively on greetings. My grandparents had had an American cocker spaniel almost thirty years before who had done the same. It also wasn’t a surprise that she would steal food. Sunny had done the same. If you have a breed of dog who can be excessively fearful around strangers, then that’s something  a good programme of socialisation can help the dog with. If you have a dog who is nervous with strangers, that is something they can learn not to be. If you have a dog from a breed known for resource-guarding, then teaching ‘trade’ and ‘give’ is fundamental. Sadly, Tilly’s early vet notes show she had already developed these habits by the time she was 6 months old and had seen a specialist already about them. It wasn’t a surprise to see them re-emerge under stress when she moved house and family.

When you get those early experiences right, instead of having those heart-stopping moments where your dog does something horrible, you end up with dogs who buck the trend. Flika, my current Malinois foster, and Tobby, my old Mali guy who died in 2016 are a case in point. They are both super-social, really friendly and would never, ever exhibit the kind of behaviours that I have seen in Heston. They are how shepherds should be. Heston doesn’t like people. He moves away from strangers and comes back to me when he is feeling nervous. He is super-friendly with his ‘inner circle’ – people who he’s known for more than 24 hours on home territory – but he is visibly uncomfortable and stressed where Tobby wasn’t and Flika never is. All shepherds. All with the same basic ingredients and the same behaviours.

They pop out in ways that you don’t expect. Like Effel with his lawnmower chasing, and his Heston chasing…

Or Tobby with his obsession over a hound

And Flika when she saw a car moving in the distance and belted off to go and investigate.

How do you get away from these inbuilt behaviours? You habituate your shepherd to unfamiliar moving things. You take your young beauceron and you teach him impulse control around moving stuff. You take your Belgian shepherd and you get him used to seeing all kinds of running dogs. A clear, sensible programme of gradual and systematic habituation nips problems in the bud better than just saying, “Naughty dog!” after they’ve done nothing more than the behaviours they were born with.

It’s not just about chasing moving objects or whether or not they are social towards unfamiliar humans. And it’s not just about herding breeds or livestock guardians.

It’s not just about the predatory motor sequence either. Flika and Tobby aren’t just super social. Tobby formed an easy attachment to me, just as the beauceron Effel did, and just as Flika has. That’s another thing about shepherds. Loyal. They are your shadow. Our shelter boss always says it’s the beauceron shepherds who find it hardest at the shelter. She says they cry for days when abandoned. Until they find a new owner, sure. I think it took Effel a couple of days to shift to his new owner. Flika, well, within a week she was watching for me out of the window. Excessive breed tendencies aren’t always about aggression. They can also be other known behaviours which can be problematic: restless Brittany spaniels, excessively vocal terriers, predation in hunting breeds, hyperactivity in springers, aloofness in Akitas, guarding in some terriers or spaniels.

Sadly, once that socialisation and habituation window closes around three months of age, you are left with a dog who will always be ‘remedial’, who will always be playing catch up. Not impossible, but not so easy. Those early patterns become ‘myelinised’ and the brain starts laying down strong pathways for some behavioural patterns, whilst ‘pruning’ others. It’s not just about the more a behaviour is practised or not: it’s about the brain setting some of those patterns in cement. Yes, cement can be broken. You can dismantle a reinforced concrete wall with a lot of effort. But it’s much nicer if it’s a plywood partition wall. It’s even better if there’s no wall there in the first place and you can build behaviours how you want.

This was patently clear last night when I watched a video on Facebook that a trainer had posted. It was her lovely cockers doing their cocker thing and minding their own business. They were then ambushed by a West Highland Terrier who charged up and bit one of them as he left. The westie had been on lead and I’m not sure what had happened to cause the dog to get away, but that right there – biting the rear end of a retreating creature – is one excessive breed tendency that could have caused a lot of heartache. If you have a terrier and you know they can be difficult around other dogs, that they need plenty of positive habituation to dogs passing, dogs moving and dogs doing their doggy business, then it is your absolute duty to teach them that when it is young enough to become instinct. Otherwise, you are left managing your dog’s behaviour and never truly overcoming their worst, most anti-social habits. You end up with a dog permanently on lead, muzzled, who doesn’t enjoy walks in the park.

So how would my ideal S&H programme have differed for Tilly, Heston and Flika?

For Heston, my ‘stranger danger’ shepherd… He would have had lots more dog experience – all planned, careful and under threshold. I would have had a happy and steady stream of planned visitors to my property every single day being careful never to overwhelm him. I would have conditioned him not to be afraid of the GSD in the garden next door. He would have met many more dogs and I would have taught him how to respond to seeing strangers or strange dogs by coming back to me. I would have been all about impulse control and looking to me for leadership. I managed the bite inhibition fairly well (well, you do a lot of retrieves when you think you have a retriever!) and he had at least some positive experiences with strangers and other dogs, but not enough. I do wonder to myself if he doesn’t bite – and he never has, not even when faced by curious would-be thieves – because Groenendaels are not so good at the biting bit (and why Malis and Dutch shepherds rule at ring sports) and whether even the fact he doesn’t bite under attack is just the luck of the draw.

For Tilly, my guardy, grumbly cocker… she needed a proper programme to habituate her to handling, to husbandry, to ear checks and grooming. She needed to be taught ‘trade’ over and over. She needed to have a very gradual, gentle programme by which she learned not to be afraid of strangers. She needed confidence and to be taught how to make space if she is feeling nervous. She needed a secure base. Sadly, rehoming and bootcamps are not conducive to secure bases, and grabby children taking your toys are not conducive to feeling safe with your stuff.

For Flika, my separation-anxiety Mali… she needed (as now) to be habituated to time without her owner. She needed to be taught some independence and strategies for being on her own. She needed to be taught that absence is nothing to be worried about and that escape to find your owner is not necessary. Sadly, for dogs who can’t cope without their owner, they often end up being rehomed – which gives them a real event to add to their anxiety. Flika is on her sixth home that we know of. Do you think that, at 13 years old, those rehomings have made her feel any less anxious about being left by her family group?

We fail our dogs every day by not understanding their innate behaviours, their strengths and their weaknesses. It is never an excuse that a terrier bites the rump of a retreating cocker, that a spaniel guards a mouldy bread roll, that a shepherd corners a stranger and barks at them. We know very well that these behaviours exist in our dogs and which traits are more likely or less likely. Good breeders are taking these things seriously, and you won’t find nervous or highly-strung American cockers being bred by one of my friends, or guardy, grumbly English cockers being bred by another. When we get a puppy, it’s our absolute duty to use those early weeks to balance out what Mother Nature has given us, rather than saying “Oops, Sorry!” when it is far too late to effectively address that behaviour.

I did so well by Heston in so many respects. He is independent without being destructive. He handles absence. He is easy for me to handle. He loves being groomed and handled. He has appropriate ways to expend his energies that don’t involve chewing, digging or escaping. But in others, I let him down. It’s all very well to look back and understand why I let him down – and now it’s very much a management of behaviours rather than anything else – but we can’t keep making mistakes by not socialising or habituating our dogs properly.

I’ll finish by referring to John Rogerson. He is not a trainer I refer to often. But I believe one thing he said is true… that we should be running breed-specific puppy classes by experts in those breeds. Or at least, group-specific classes. One size does not fit all where socialisation and habituation is concerned. Honestly, I’d go a bit further and say it should be personalised to the home and the environment too – since adult dogs are as much a product of those factors as they are of their breed. I don’t believe breed is everything. I don’t believe that once you get a GSP that you are setting yourself up for hyperactivity or separation anxiety, or if you get a Westie, you are setting yourself up for life on the lead in case they grab a retreating animal. I know plenty of dogs who buck the trend.

Why is it that they buck the trend?

That is due to great breeding programmes and careful socialisation/habituation in their early weeks.

The ingredients that you get don’t come with one single recipe that you have to make.

All the same, if we want to eradicate those excessive breed tendencies, we need a careful stewardship of breeding AND a carefully-constructed programme that teaches our puppies how to behave when interacting with familiar and unfamiliar humans, as well as familiar and unfamiliar dogs. Not only that, we also need to habituate them to the life they will lead and make sure they don’t accidentally end up chasing the first bike they see, aged six, or biting the lawnmower aged seven.

When we address genetic history, individual history and early learning together, we have a powerful way to get dogs who won’t find living in the human world to be quite so difficult.

That’s our responsibility in our stewardship of dogs. It’s our responsibility as a breeder. It’s our responsibility as an owner. We owe it to our dogs to understand them and to help them adjust to the world in which we ask them to live.

If we did these things, we’d have far fewer moments where dogs struggle to meet our expectations.

A lot to ask for, I know.

Training Corner #2: Wait and Leave it

Training Corner #2: Wait and Leave it

Last time, I looked at how a hand touch can be a really good foundation skill, but there are two other skills that can also really help you with dog manners: ‘Wait!’ and ‘Leave it!’

Just to clarify, I treat both of these slightly differently. ‘Wait!’ means you can have what you’re trying to get but you need to hold on a little, and ‘Leave it!’ means you aren’t going to have what you want – I don’t want you to touch it at all.

I teach dogs both behaviours, but I use them differently. ‘Wait!’ means ‘Don’t mug me, don’t get in my pockets, don’t pester me for a treat or a game… chill your beans a minute!’ and I use it to mean that you may get the game, treat, door open, bed, food bowl or whatever and is more about manners. Sometimes I’ll pair it with a ‘stand’ or a ‘sit’ or even a ‘down’. I’ll usually reward ‘Wait!’ with what the dog wants – whether that’s food, movement or a door open. It’s different from ‘stay’ or ‘stand’, but it implies a bit of being still. ‘Stay’ means I’m going away and I’ll come back, but I want you not to move. I think it’s important for a dog to know the distinction. ‘Wait!’ is more of a ‘I’m right here, but I need you to give me a second.’ It’s a canine pause button.

It also teaches them that if they stop, good things come to them!

For ‘Leave it!’, I don’t reward with the thing. It means you don’t touch that thing, you don’t approach that thing and you don’t get the thing.

Why do I teach them?

Because they are really good basics for impulse control and manners. A great ‘Leave it!’ means you can drop something on the floor and know that your dog won’t eat it. If you drop a pill on the floor and you have a cocker spaniel, you’re going to want a bit of impulse control. If you have a dog who eats other animals’ turds, a ‘Leave it!’ is a must as well. ‘Leave it!’ is great with food objects, but also with toys or even with other animals. I’m not sure it’s strong enough to override the starey-eyed predation behaviours of an animal who is fixated on a smaller one, but if you’ve taught it long enough and hard enough, coupled with very low level chase behaviours, you’re going to find ‘Leave it!’ may work for that as well. If you’ve got a relentless sniffer, it works there too. It’s an interruptor, like ‘touch’ that means you can ask your dog to disengage from play or from approaching people who don’t want to be approached.

Knowing ‘Wait!’ can help you build up duration on a chin touch or sit, as well as other behaviours that require a dog to hold a position. It’s also good to prevent bolting out of doors, getting in cars, patience around food bowls and so on. Knowing ‘Sit’ or ‘Down’ cues can also help, because many of the moves require a dog to move forwards, which is hard when you’re in one position.

You can also follow it with a release cue, like ‘free’, or ‘go’ or ‘take it’. I use ‘Go!’ or ‘Take it!’ depending on whether it’s an action/movement, like going through a door, or if it’s something the dog will have in its mouth.

‘Leave it!’ is obviously harder because it involves the dog understanding that I’m never, ever going to get that thing that I wanted to have. It’s not a pause, it’s a stop. ‘Leave it!’ is also different from ‘Drop’ or ‘Out’, since the dog will already have something in its mouth for that.

I teach both because if I only teach ‘Wait!’ it means my dog will be expecting the thing I am asking them not to engage with, and that can be frustrating if they are expecting to receive it which devalues the ‘wait!’ cue; if I only teach ‘Leave it!’, really I’m expecting them to disengage completely – which gives them free licence to go off and do other stuff. Why would you stay interested in something you know you aren’t going to get? I want to use that interest and focus for ‘Wait!’

Step 1 is to teach ‘no mugging’.

And you can see Emily from Kikopup doing this in the video above.

You can do this with a grabby adult dog – leather gloves and big, low value treats are ideal. Some dogs are just not used to being hand-fed. Teaching this also helps dogs get used to hand-feeding, which can be useful for a variety of behaviour modification plans.

You can also see Chirag Patel demonstrate Food Manners with a puppy. Part of this includes the notion of ‘wait’ as well as focusing on the handler or partnering it with a hand touch.

You can also see how he uses it to help dogs understand that attention-getting behaviours like barking, scratching, mugging or biting don’t work. It’s all about patience! This is important. I do hate seeing trainers accept these behaviours or just ignoring them. A dog should very quickly learn that they don’t need to engage in these behaviours to get you to work with them.

In this video, Nando Brown explains how to teach ‘Leave it!’ and why you should get the behaviour first, before you add the cue word, ‘Leave it’

And although he points out that you don’t have to shout, many of us do (oops!) when it’s something that it’s really important our dogs leave alone, so it’s worth pairing your ‘Leave it!’ with lots of different levels of tone and volume. You can desensitise your dog to your changing vocal pitch.

If your dog is finding it really hard to learn ‘Wait!’ and they continue mugging you, start when they are full (if you are using food) or when they are played out (if using toys) and use something really low value. If my dog mugs me for a squeaky ball, I’m going to dial it back a notch and use a rope which he doesn’t find as stimulating.

This is Hagrid. He came to the shelter with a big impulse control problem, a big mugging problem, a massive chip on his shoulder about other dogs, a hard mouth and a misunderstanding about hands being chewtoys.

He learned ‘Wait!’ with a pair of leather gloves, some huge, huge low-value treats and a very flat hand . It also helped him with dog aggression because we would play ‘Wait!’ with ‘Look at Me!’ when other dogs passed until it got to be a habit. Other dogs passing and him playing ‘Wait!’ meant he anticipated the approach of the other dogs. It also taught him some impulse control, some manners and some motor control over that clacky-bitey snap-snap mouth of his.

And this is Marty. He’s a teenage springer x brittany mix (there’s something you don’t want to do by accident!) and as you might imagine, he is a livewire. Impulse control is a must. Plus, he doesn’t have a particularly gentle mouth. His thing is toys. So we are learning ‘Wait!’ with toys. We started at the end of a thirty-minute play session and we started with a millisecond before stretching it up. He can wait now for about two seconds. For a springer x brittany, that’s like five hours, I promise. He also has four feet on the floor. That’s also a very big achievement.

Make it easier by: choosing a moment when your dog is less aroused, starting with lower value objects and shorter durations. If your dog is finding it really, really hard, you may also want to teach ‘four feet’ first.

Once your dog has mastered the basics, make it harder by:

  • Increasing duration: asking for longer and longer waits. Obviously, that doesn’t work with ‘Leave it!’
  • Increasing difficulty: asking for wait or leave it with a more highly valued treat or reward, or in more difficult situations. I didn’t start out asking Hagrid to ‘Wait’ when another big, posturing snappy male was going past! Likewise with ‘Leave it!’ I didn’t start with Tilly’s most prized wild boar full-body roll, I started with a very, very low value treat. To be fair, if it’s vital that she leaves it, I usually say ‘Does Tilly want a treat?’ which has been known to bring her back in an alley of rollable, treasured fecal matter. It’s hard to say ‘Does Tilly want a treat?’ with the same accidental growl as ‘Leave it!’ might.

If you are going to do agility, obedience, gundog training or other types of dog competition stuff, a good ‘Wait!’ is vital too.

So get out and get training!

Nature via Nurture: Why Socialisation and Habituation Absolutely Matter

Nature via Nurture: Why Socialisation and Habituation Absolutely Matter

A few weeks ago, I did a post about the importance of understanding bias and purpose for social media posts. Mostly, that was focused on the ways we take physical care of our dogs and being careful about where we seek veterinary information. I planned to write a similar post about getting to the bottom of bias and purpose in dog training, but since my gripe was really about two particular posts from one specific trainer, I thought I’d be more precise, rather than just bemoaning the state the internet.

One of the posts was a particularly click-baity one about why some trainer ‘doesn’t socialise’ her dogs. I’m not linking to it for obvious reasons. Gripes about her ethics, her marketing and her training methods aside, posts like that make my blood boil. It makes me cross that people who won’t bother getting beyond the headline will then think they too don’t need to socialise their puppies. They weren’t my main gripes though. My main gripe was with the premise of her article: that dogs don’t need early developmental experiences.

But let’s just clarify the mixed-up terms she used. Socialisation and habituation are very different things, as are gradual desensitisation and accidental sensitisation. I appreciate they are all lumped under the banner of ‘socialisation’ where puppies are concerned. But there is a difference.

Some people said that this didn’t matter.

I beg to differ.

If you don’t have a grasp of what you are talking about, how can you profess to be an expert?

That’s like me saying I don’t believe in using eggs in soufflé and then going on to talk quite clearly about something that is plainly scrambled eggs.

Am I an expert in cooking if I mix up my soufflé and my scrambled eggs?

Not really.

So, my first gripe was with the mixed-up terms she was using.

First, she mixed up socialisation and habituation, desensitisation, sensitisation and flooding. Now that’s not a crime. I’ve got a degree in psychology and I don’t expect everyone to know their Harlow’s Monkeys from their Skinner’s Rats. But for me, if your post is doing the rounds on social media, it’s kind of important to be a bit right.

I don’t take my advice on psychology from people who don’t understand the basics.

I don’t listen to people about social media who don’t understand what the difference is between Twitter and Instagram.

And I won’t be taking my advice about puppy training from someone who doesn’t understand the difference between socialisation and sensitisation.

So… with that in mind, let’s sort out that psychology nonsense.

Socialisation is the process by which we become social. It is about our interactions. That can be with your own species or with others, but the crucial thing is that it involves interaction. It is how you learn how to become a functioning member of society. For dogs, this is how they interact with us, with other dogs and with other species with which they have interactions, like cats. We don’t interact with egg boxes (or rather they don’t interact back) and so how we behave around egg boxes, metal surfaces, icecubes or sports stadium bleachers is not socialisation. Even if that’s what many people call it.

Habituation is the process by which we get used to the world around us. It is about how our reactions to the stimuli in the world around us diminish through repetition. It is about reducing the startle reflex. If you imagine hearing a loud exhaust bang outside your house, that would startle you. If you heard it all the time and you got used to it, you would become habituated. Habituation is a fairly normal process and can happen naturally. It’s how we move from conscious awareness of new stuff around us to it becoming subconscious. Like the smell at the shelter. I don’t imagine it’s any less foul than it was when I first started, but I don’t smell it any more. If you want to habituate your dog to the world around it, then your dog would be out in the world getting used to stuff. You can also habituate them to people, dogs, cats, sheep etc when your aim is not that your puppy will socialise or interact with it. I don’t want my dog to socialise with sheep. I want him to become used to the movement and presence of sheep to such an extent that they are no more interesting than a bush or a tree. But I don’t want him to interact with them. That’s habituation, not socialisation. I like French for this – ‘getting used to something’ is s’habituer. It’s easier for me to remember what it means. In French, socialiser or even sociabiliser means to make sociable, to socialise. They don’t get mixed up so easily. It’s definitely an English language thing to mix up those two very different experiences.

However, if you didn’t get used to the world around you, you might become sensitised to it. In other words, you’d never get used to it and your startle response would remain constant or even get worse. You may become anxious or fearful, living on your nerves. You might notice it and be unable ‘not’ to notice it. This usually happens with fear, but it can happen with other negative emotions too. For instance, I may mean to habituate my dog to the car but accidentally sensitise him to it. He might start panicking or vomiting. This is closely tied with flooding where we are exposed – either accidentally or purposely – and we become hyper-sensitive to something in particular. Flooding often leads to a panic state, and to panicked aggression, but it can also lead to being completely shut down.

You may then start a process of desensitisation which is a deliberate process by which you try to make something less powerful. Usually, this is done in a careful and gradual way through repeated exposure at limits that are not horrible and terrifying. Sometimes, we call this systematic desensitisation to make it clear that it’s gradual and planned.

So, now that’s cleared up, it was obvious in the post that what the trainer was actually advising was not to accidentally sensitise your dog to the world around them. So she wasn’t actually saying she didn’t help her dog learn how to interact with humans and other dogs, but that she didn’t make her dog panic about things like steps and being overwhelmed by strangers. Now I agree with her on that.

But the rest of her article was equally dubious, not least the lack of understanding of basic canine development.

She went on to say that genetics are the “major” factor in what our dogs become and that socialisation destroys the relationship you have with your dog (because hey, that world is INTERESTING and according to her, you don’t want your dog to realise that!). Now whilst I agree that it has to be a balance in that relationship between owner-environment-dog and I accept that, I want to get into a bit of discussion about genetics and the dog we have in front of us. Because it’s not as clear cut as ‘it’s either in the genes or it’s not’.

Let me give you an example.

I will show you the results of a lack of socialisation. I would share a photo but we don’t share information on social media about the dogs at our shelter who live ‘in sanctuary’.

This is a true story, though, about a real dog. He’s not that different from many of our other ‘hard to home’ dogs.

He’s a breed well-known for being suspicious of strangers and other animals. He came from a long line in that breed who had been purposely bred to be more suspicious than others. If you think these behaviours can’t be inherited, they absolutely can: aggression, neuroticism and fear of new things have a genetic quality to them. So you take a dog who already has the ‘right’ genetic building blocks. Let’s add being male to that mix as well. Then you remove him from his mother and his litter-mates at two weeks. Whether you do this on purpose to imprint him more on his owner or through some accident of rearing, the consequence is the same. You fail to socialise him with his litter-mates or his mother, and only socialise him with his owner. He is never socialised with other humans or with other dogs. What you get is a dog who cannot be around other dogs, who is selective about humans he likes or doesn’t and who will no doubt live out his days in a very limited fashion.

Don’t believe me about the genes being only the building blocks, and socialisation being the process by which they are assembled?

The breeder came to see if he could pick the dog up. He brought with him another dog from the same litter. Same breed. Same mother. Same father. Male. And that dog was the soppiest, friendliest dog ever. The breeder said he’d have liked to have taken our dog back, but there was no way he could keep him in the safety and security that he needed as an absolute guarantee.

Now you tell me what the difference is?

Life experience. Aka. Socialisation and habituation.

Socialisation matters hugely. And habituation. But socialisation is an integral part of the adult dog that you get.

For that, I’m going to be referring a lot to Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Nature via Nurture’, and to the works of Robert Sapolsky, among others. And, of course, the enormous and epic works about socialisation from Bar Harbor in the 1950s and 1960s, which focused on dogs, among other species.

Sure, breed is important.

Of course it is.

If breed wasn’t important, you’d have beagles as police attack dogs and Jack Russells as sniffer dogs. If breed wasn’t important, people would be using bichon frise to flush out pheasant, not cockers.

Let’s step back a bit. Let’s just talk ‘Dog’.

Dogs have what is called an ‘ethogram’… a list of behaviours that they are physically capable of performing, along with their function. These behaviours are typical for that species. Different species have different ethograms. For instance, ‘climbing’ is part of the spectacled bear ethogram, by which they mean ‘locomotion on structures/trees, not at ground level’. Now dogs can climb. But do they climb trees like bears do? Do they use their tail to hook around the branch like a spider monkey? Do they grasp a branch with their paw and swing from tree to tree?

Not possible.

The canine ethogram is shared across the canine species. There are things that are very similar across all canids, and things that are different. There are things dogs do that wolves don’t – dogs are much more vocal than wolves in general – and behaviour, like a physical trait, is also subject to evolution. So all dogs have a basic repertoire of behaviours and functions. For some, those are elongated – like terriers, who have virtually every behaviour in the canine repertoire – and for some that is truncated. We focus much on the predatory patterns and how dogs have elongated or truncated patterns of predation, but this forgets that dogs do a lot of other stuff as well, and a lot of that is the same as every other breed of dog. Predatory motor patterns are not the be-all and end-all of a dog.

But yes, in terms of certain traits, it’s a law of averages thing. You’d expect to find fewer Basenjis who vocalise. Fewer salukis with a kill-bite-dissect. More terriers who’ll go from orienting on a target to the final dissection. More cockers who are interested in going into bushes and sending up birds. Fewer beagles interested in disinterring your moles. More poodles who find it easier to walk on two legs than Leonbergers.

It’s not just the predatory motor behaviours or physical behaviours that dog breeds may differ in.

It can be emotional and behavioural too.

I firmly believe – and James Serpell’s work on CBARQ will no doubt be the basis of further work on this – that breeds are more likely or less likely to exhibit other behaviours outside the predatory motor patterns of orient-stalk-chase-grab/bite-kill/bite-dissect. That might include the ‘Big Five’ of aggression, neuroticism, openness to novelty etc for instance. As an example, if you compare your average Anglo-Français hound, they certainly seem to be less aggressive, less neurotic, less afraid of novelty than your average German Shepherd. There are other things too that behaviourists and trainers will become more in tune with, anecdotally, that no doubt Serpell’s work will clarify through time.

That’s really evident in my work.

Not a surprise if someone rings me up and says they have a resource guarder. My money is on spaniel or daxie. Dog who runs off with their stuff and tears it apart? My money is on terrier. Dog who has compulsive behaviours and/or anorexic? Dollars to donuts it’s a setter. Dog compulsively licking feet?  Pointer or Dally. Dog failing to connect with you? Ancient or Asiatic breed for sure.  Dog chasing tail – could be terrier  – but if self-injuring and stressed, it’ll be a shepherd for sure. We’re beginning to unpick those genetically-based abnormal behaviours – how bull terriers will ‘trance’ and move back and forwards under branches, how Doberman might flank suck, how labradors may eat compulsively – but they tell us such a lot. Breed is important, and we know that.

Although Serpell’s C-BARQ questionnaire is based on people saying what their dog is like – and people tend to agree with breed stereotypes, like their Akita being aloof when really it may be no less friendly than a cocker spaniel – it is interesting to see behaviour patterns across breeds. The work does confirm what we’d say anecdotally about breed behaviours. That could just be evidence that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but if you live and work around dogs, you know it’s not just our biases. Your herding breeds ARE more trainable in general, your gundogs ARE less aggressive to unfamiliar dogs in general, and your toy breeds ARE often aggressive towards familiar humans – in general.

You may be forgiven for thinking Serpell’s work tells us nothing we don’t already know.

But it does.

First, they tell us that genetics is absolutely important.

Secondly it tells us that the average across all breeds is more similar than the average within a breed. That’s to say you’ll get dogs within a breed who will massively buck the trend.

You’ll get shepherds who are soppy love buckets with strangers, as Flika my Foster Mali is. You’ll get collies who defy training and seem to have ADHD. You’ll get stranger-aggressive hounds (although I have yet to meet one!)

But just because there is a trend and there are ‘outliers’, does that mean we just accept it?

IF YOU KNOW that your herding breeds are more afraid of the world around them than mastiffs, do we just accept this quirk of genetics?

Heston would say both yes and no.

Just to give you his back story, he was found in a box with his siblings at the age of 1 day, and bottle-reared. Not the ideal, I know. But not to have a lecture about the needs for mothering and puppy socialisation – they may not be perfect, but they turned out not too bad at all. The point of this is not about his early social experiences but is in fact about innate breed tendencies. So, back to the breed.

Anyway, litter of 7. Several short-haired with white toes and chest patches, several fluffs. All of them were black with occasional patches of white on chests or toes.

The vet – as best as any vet can do with tiny pups – said collie x labrador, which made sense given the size, weight, colour and hair. As they grew up, several people who’d had flat-coated retrievers thought the long-haired ones were more like that, but a labrador is not far removed from a golden or a flat-coated retriever, and instead of thinking differences, I thought in terms of the group… retriever! Once or twice, groenendael shepherds were mentioned, mostly because Heston’s brother Charlton was pointier in the nose, but given the ears, the shape, the size, the weight, the popularity of labradors and their crosses, I raised him as a retriever. He didn’t look like a shepherd and given the rarity of Groenendaels and the high frequency of retrievers, it seemed more likely.

Plus, some of his behaviours fitted.

I mean, he loved retrieving.

He learned early on about game and loved to go off and flush out game. His fun ended when the chase ended. He was clearly not a ‘run off and dissect’ terrier of some type, or a ‘kill bite’ kind of dog either. We did collie-style heelwork and stuff, but what floated his boat was gundog stuff. It was his preferences as much as his looks that shouted retriever.

He is an immense dog for scent and chase, loves retrieving… finds me dogs all the time.

His brother looks a lot like him, just more pointy. One of his sisters also did. And a couple looked like fairly standard black labrador hybrids of one form or another. He didn’t have any collie behaviours that I could see. No stalking, herding, eyeing… but lots of retriever stuff. So much so we did lots of gundog stuff. He lives for blind retrieves and quartering, tracking and airscenting.

You know where this is going.

One DNA test later and 50% of those Heston Genes are shepherd. Much of him is groenendael Belgian shepherd. Suddenly, that ‘stranger danger’ barking, that distrust of anyone ‘not Emma’, that ‘love my flock, everything else worries me’ behaviour all made sense. It doesn’t make sense to have a retriever that doesn’t like people. Sure, they exist. But in general, the retriever breeds I meet are all ‘Hail Fellow Well Met’ types, not the ‘Get off My Land!’ types.

Huh, I said as I read the report.

Well, it all made sense!

And yes, there’s a bit of labrador in there, and a bit of cocker spaniel too if you believe it. Enough gundog stuff to make sense. Zero collie.

But what difference do those genes make?

According to Serpell’s research, a stranger-wary dog who is spooked by novel things in the world around him. Fearful of strangers and unfamiliar dogs, highly trainable, higher-than-average levels of energy, lower-than-average aggression to household members.

Which kind of describes Heston.

But a lot of that describes Tilly, who is an American cocker spaniel. And a little of it describes Tobby and Flika, my malinois-mutt pensioners – also both Belgian Shepherds. But they aren’t aggressive to strangers. They are highly social, highly trainable, not aggressive…. and yes, malis – highly energetic even with very genetic crippling degenerative conditions and in their twilight years.

So part of me feels like reading breed characteristics is like reading a horoscope. It hits a big target market if you hedge your bets. I’m happy to write off the heart-breaking behavioural similarities between Tobby and Flika as coincidence. Yes, they both had or have separation anxiety, but he shadowed me and she doesn’t. His was isolation distress rather than anxiety related to me, despite the shadowing. Yes, he was an escape artist and so is she – and so, for that matter, is Belle, the mali x GSD at the refuge. But then so is Shelssie, and she is an American Staffordshire.

So… the deck you are dealt genetically is of course modified by breed and by being a dog, but your dog has more in common with other dogs than they have differences.

How would knowing Heston’s shepherd background have influenced my socialisation, habituation and training?

Well for one thing, I truly believe life can make up for genetic inadequacies, or it can worsen them. If you have behavioural qualities that are less than desirable, I believe a proper programme of socialisation and planned habituation can help overcome those. I think that’s absolutely vital with herding dogs, terriers and toy breeds. If you know your dog is ‘aloof’, then it is your one goal in their development to make sure that you teach them how not to be. Within reason. I’m not saying you turn your Shiba Inu into a setter. But they sure as hell could do with being a little less aloof to get them through life.

Now that’s a fine line, I know, and I know it’s a delicate balance between habituation/socialisation and accidental sensitisation. That’s for another post altogether. How you teach a dog not to be, how you keep those genes from switching on… that is the stuff of books, not internet articles.

But you need to be aware of those breed tendencies, and you need to be aware of the flaws that don’t fit in with our modern society. That’s where habituation can smooth off the rough edges, It’d be nice if more breeders were breeding for temperament, but that’s by the by.

Looking back on two critical moments where I ended up flooding Heston rather than habituating him, I would have been more conscious of that if I thought I was raising a shepherd. There’s no way I would have let him be ambushed by a pack of six unfamiliar dogs and no way I’d have taken him to some of the very busy events I did. One of them, around the 16 week mark, was the first time he was reactive. He got over it – he does. But I took him to a very big event and it was too much. I should have been more careful and I didn’t think I’d have to be.

I’d never have done that to him, knowing what I know now about socialisation, about shepherds, about dogs. I doubt I’d do it to any dog other than a super chilled hound or bombproof gundog.

But I could never say ‘it’s in the genes’, like I would say ‘it’s in the stars’ as if it is pre-ordained, a matter of fate. Neither would I say ‘no point trying’ with any dog who has less than perfect parents. Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Nature via Nurture’ revisits a lot of ideas I studied as part of Developmental Psychology…

Genes are designed to take their cues from Nurture

In other words, they change and are influenced by what our dogs experience. Not only that, there are cut-off dates for that where pretty much everything you do after is remedial. Our innate behaviours are switched on, or not, by the world we encounter.

Niko Tinbergen, the great ethologist who won a Nobel Prize for his work showed that innate behaviours must be triggered by an external stimulus.

If nurture doesn’t matter, all puppies from one litter would grow up identical in behaviour and appearance. If worldly experiences are so unimportant, our dogs’ behaviour would not only be much more predictable than it is, but it would so be much more fixed than it is. They would be more like their siblings than they are.

The debate is not about Genes Vs Socialisation/Habituation.

It is about how socialisation and habituation affect the genes. It is impossible to say which is the cause and which is the effect. They are so tightly woven into one another that we can’t just dismiss socialisation out of hand. But to say ‘it’s all in the genes’ is a bit of a flat-earth view to be honest. And likewise to say ‘it’s all in the life experiences’. It’s not an argument about to what extent it’s one or the other. It’s both. We know this. It’s about that interplay between both of those things, about how genetic, innate factors are influenced or suppressed by experience.

So, back to the dog I started this piece with. Can he learn to be friendly to people? Sure. He has many more friends than he had when he arrived. And friendly to other dogs? Not so much. Mainly that’s because it’s really, really hard to get those other dog to modify their behaviour in the same way we can.

Would it have been easier when he was 6 weeks old? Sure. By the time myelinisation starts to happen, turning synapses into super-highways or pruning them back, setting habits in cement, we can already have done a lot of work. The extensive work of psychologists in the 50s and 60s on human and animal development shows when those windows open and when they are fairly closed. If you want to know about dogs, read the works of Scott and Fuller, and the lab in Bar Harbor, Maine, where they worked. If you want to know how canine development happens and when it stops, their work is instrumental. What they showed is that breed is part of it: how dogs play, when they bark, when they open their eyes, how they behave with humans and with other dogs. But what they also showed is how vital those early weeks are for teaching puppies how to interact appropriately with other dogs.

But it doesn’t end with puppies.

It’s not a closed door at 12 weeks, although much of what has happened between 4 and 12 weeks will influence the rest of the dog’s life.

Research is showing now that you can take the most genetically impoverished creature – and it doesn’t matter the age – but an enriched environment helps them grow new neurons. Robert Sapolsky refers here to a rat that had been purposely tampered with to have the crappiest biology for learning. Scientists had pinpointed the exact bit of the brain that is responsible for remembering, and they’d switched it off. They’d previously made a Super Learner, and now they did the opposite. And what they showed was that, in an enriched environment, it almost made up for that crappy biological deal. We know this is true for young animals, but enrichment is also a factor in keeping the brain ticking in old age as well.

So what do we know?

It’s ALL important: breed, line, heritage, prenatal experience, early socialisation, habituation, enrichment. It’s a Gordian Knot of infinite complexity. Each experience switches on genes – or not. It lays down patterns – or not. There is a degree of instinct in learning – in why Heston finds it easy to retrieve but also to bark at strangers – but there is a degree of learning in instinct, too. Fear and aggression, in particular, are such a mix of genes and learning that you cannot separate the two. It is easy to get a dog to fear another dog. It is not so easy to get a dog to fear the sound of a fridge opening. Some of those fears will be encoded in their genes: why they find the smell of onions aversive, why electric shock does not need to be taught as painful, but many of those fears are switched on, or not, by learning. A dog has to learn to be afraid of a knock at the door; the approach of strangers, the fear of being alone – they are fears dogs find it easy to learn. Learning is about strengthening connections already in use. Socialisation is about making sure those connections are solid in the first place. Habituation is part of that process.

There is nothing inevitable about innate or instinctive behaviours.

If I believed that, I wouldn’t have the world’s first Gundog Groenendael X.

Life and experience – including socialisation and habituation – flick the switches on behaviours. Some of those switches flick easily: you don’t have to work hard with a spaniel to get it to use its nose. And some of those switches are ones you’d prefer not to flick, like Heston’s fear of strangers.

So there’s no point saying ‘Don’t socialise your dogs’. It is a fallacious argument. Unless your dog grows up in a bubble, it will be socialised to the individuals around it. It will habituate – or not – to the world around it. But if you have a dog with inbuilt switches for certain undesirable behaviours, you want to do your utmost to use socialisation to make sure they are not scared of strangers or unfamiliar dogs, that they are habituated to stimuli in the world around them. Learning can smooth the rough edges of genetics. And habituation means that you don’t end up carrying your 30kg 4-year-old dog down the stairs because it didn’t cross your tiny mind that a dog might not get what stairs are, less when they’re marble and spiral and slippy and steep.

You can see now why I find it dangerous to post articles with headings like “Why I don’t socialise my puppies.”

Firstly, yes you do socialise them. Unless they live in a box, they are learning how to interact with you. Secondly, what you mean is that you don’t accidentally flick on the switches for fears. Thirdly, if everybody believed that early developmental experiences were so unnecessary, we’d have a much larger number of dogs seeking sanctuary. Thank goodness most people value the importance of early experience. I needn’t really add that the writer of the article has shepherds herself. I wonder why she thinks some of our shelter shepherds are such an unholy behavioural mess if it’s all in the genes? Maybe she would like to try and do some remedial desensitisation and socialisation with a 9-year-old mali who never had the benefit of an enriched puppyhood.

From a shelter point of view, a message that suggests you deprive your dog of early social experiences and that “it’s all in the genes”, is a very damaging one for us. Most of our hard-to-rehome dogs are missing in vital experiences: positive experiences with unfamiliar humans, positive experiences with unfamiliar dogs, experience of novelty and how to cope with it. Not exposing dogs to these things is dangerous and costs them lives. I am not saying this for effect. If your dog is so afraid or aggressive towards unfamiliar humans, many shelters will refuse to take that dog on and that leaves owners with only one choice: euthanasia.

We all need to be aware of the factors that influence canine behaviour. To advise people not to do the one thing that can smooth over the cracks is dangerous. To suggest that it is all in the genes is fatalistic. I believe whole-heartedly that the early experiences of dogs help shape who they become as adult animals. It is our job as their care-takers to make sure we get the balance right between socialisation/habituation and accidental flooding or sensitisation. This is especially true when we know the breed characteristics of the dogs we love. It is our job not to blindly accept those glitches as if we can do nothing about them, but to plan a careful and safe environment in which our young puppies can form a secure base.

It is also our job as dog behaviourists and trainers not to put out information as clickbait just to get people to visit our site. I’m sure the trainer in question has profited enormously from the publicity of her post. Good marketing, perhaps, but certainly not good science and definitely not good advice.

Training corner #1: Hand touch

Training corner #1: Hand touch

Most people never want or need to get past ‘sit/down/stay’, but if you’ve got a smart dog, a teenage dog or a dog who you just want to stretch a little further, I’ve been posting some behaviours you might want to teach on Facebook. Time to do the sensible thing and post them somewhere more permanent!

This week, it’s the hand touch.

Why is hand touch the thing I teach straight after ‘sit’ and ‘down’?

In fact, why might you even use it to teach sit or down?

What are the drawbacks and what other things might it interfere with?

When a dog can come and touch your hand with their nose, you’ve got an instant way to get a recall. It’s also really great because then you can use it to shape other moves, like twist, spin, through the legs, weaves, stand in between your legs, jumps, walking to heel … you name it, if you can move the dog’s nose, the rest of the body will follow. If you have a hand touch, you can even shape a down or a sit more easily.

So it’s great for trick training, agility and obedience.

But it’s also great for husbandry as well. It can start off your dog on a great pathway to standing still for nail clipping, grooming, injections, thermometers – although be mindful with these because if you’ve got a dog with a history, your hand in front of them might be the best thing to bite for redirection or for pain. This is why I prefer a chin touch for those, or a hand touch in a muzzle.

It also gets a dog conscious about touching you with various bits of their body. Dogs don’t generalise well, but once they’ve mastered this, you’ll find it easier to get them moving onto chin touches, foot touches, hip touches and chest touches. If you have a dog who will happily touch your legs with their hind quarters, will press into a hand against their chest and place their chin on another hand, you’ve got a dog who is more secure for vet care or grooming without being restrained. I saw a video of a tiger doing this on Facebook for a voluntary blood draw from its tail. It kind of puts us to shame when a tiger will let you shave its tail and take blood. Yes, there were bars between, but the tiger could have moved away easily. And there we are in the vets restraining our animals or wrestling with them like they’re alligators! A hand touch is a gateway ‘trick’.

Touch is also a great one for dogs who are reactive, for dogs who are chasers, for dogs who are overstimulated. If you have a dog who can touch your hand in all kinds of circumstances, they’re looking at your hand, not at whatever it is that is freaking them out. It is one of the first things I teach dogs who aren’t coping in the world. It can be great to build up to for ‘stranger danger’ dogs, for dogs who have a fear of hands, for dogs who don’t like to approach people. It’s a versatile behaviour for so many, many things in a dog’s life. If you have a dog who is jumping, who needs distracting from chewing, or who is doing something else undesirable, it’s a great interruptor that means you can control where the dog’s head (and therefore the rest of its body) is.

It’s also good for wriggly dogs to get them harnessed up, or to train them to wear a muzzle.

Words of caution:

  1. Put it on cue. You don’t want your dog bopping your hand all the time with its nose. You are not a treat machine that is operated by your dog’s nose. Make sure your dog is clear about the word ‘touch’ (or whatever word you are using!) When you hear the macho Alpha trainers whining about ‘touch’ as a behaviour, it’s because they think that behaviour is just spilling out of a dog all the time. It won’t if the dog understands there is a sequence. Present hand – say touch – dog touches  – mark the behaviour – give reward. Always in that sequence.
  2. Be mindful that a dog who already knows ‘paw’ can find this hard and will keep giving you their paw. You can work around this by teaching this first or also by putting your hand up higher.
  3. Make sure you have a distinctive and unusual hand ‘shape’ like a gun or presenting two fingers, or asking for a flat palm. This will also help your dog distinguish between other cues later on which also use a hand.

Some videos for you…

Emily from Kikopup.

If you’re having trouble getting the first movement towards the hand, put something smelly like fish paste on your hand – just enough to smell, not to lick.

Make sure you’ve got contact and that you mark the behaviour at that precise moment. To mark, you can have a clicker, but you can also have a word like ‘yes’.

Make sure also that you practise this in the home, in the street, in the car, on a walk, in the vet’s… everywhere you go with your dog!

In the next video, you can see Nando Brown doing the same. I like his tip about starting with the side of the face, and using ‘Yes’ – only because I’m more of a verbal girl than a clicker girl – simply because most of where I teach is In Real Life, and often that’s out on the street. If you have a lead in your hand, you don’t always have a clicker.

He also starts talking you up to taking pressure. I do love a good firm nose bop.

When you have a good hard nose touch, you can build up the duration of the hand touch as well.

Then you can put in distractions. You can see Nando using it for getting dogs onto scales or handling in the vets.

You can also use then a target stick or a spoon, which can be useful for all kinds of trick training and also for things like dogs who are afraid of strangers.

Donna Hill has some great tips in her video:

I love how she starts with a still dog and then gets the dog to move to her. I also like her explanation of how not to turn it into a ‘grab’ exercise!

Last video from Dog Charming:

If you’ve got an ‘Advanced’ dog, teach them a sustained hand target whilst you try and distract them with ham or a hot dog in your other hand.

Now you know the how tos and the pitfalls… get training your dog!

Poisoning your Rewards and Devaluing your Punishments

Poisoning your Rewards and Devaluing your Punishments

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at why order is so important in Dog Good Stuff and Dog Bad Stuff.

Seeing a few posts on Facebook reminded me why I needed to do the follow-up post about common training mistakes.

The first was a video of a ‘balanced’ dog trainer showing his dog walking with a muzzle on and finishing with a game of tug. I was laughing because this guy likes to sell himself as tough, the Alpha of his dogs, and there he is using positive reinforcement and a conditioned pairing. Also, using flooding, since the dog was clearly uncomfortable in the muzzle, but hey. Nothing the trainer would have found quite so offensive as being thought of as a positive trainer! Clear case of Dog Bad Stuff followed by Dog Good Stuff meaning the power of the Bad Stuff is not quite so BAD!

The second was a post about a bin-dipping GWP. The owner had been using something called ‘training discs’ (which sounds like another word for dog frisbees but sadly is just a bunch of some horrible noisy little cymbal-type things) and was disappointed because they weren’t working. Clear case of Dog Bad Stuff (noisy metal things supposed to discourage behaviours) followed by Dog Good Stuff (ill-gotten trash). Once again, the Bad Stuff was not quite so BAD (and the dog was photographed in amidst its ill-gotten gains) because it was followed by some major good stuff. The post unravels with various suggestions of other Dog Bad Stuff which are equally doomed to failure, including using mouse-traps, duct tape and pans. There are lots of people saying ‘put your bin away’ too, which gave me some hope for humanity. One person said they should rent their puppy out to potential owners. Now there’s a pairing! Human Good Stuff (cute puppies!) followed by Human Bad Stuff (constant vigilance and cleaning up) which I thought was funny. There’s nothing like a bin-obsessed puppy to take the edge off the ‘Awwww, puppies!’ feeling.

The third post was one sharing the despair of a good trainer that her client had sought out the ‘superior knowledge’ of Facebook for a Magic Bullet for a behavioural complaint and had a long list of painful ways to stop a behaviour that would be doomed to failure too.

And the fourth was a ‘cute’ video of a weeks-old Mali puppy who was not deterred in the slightest from biting her owner, who was telling her off and yelling ‘no!’, trying to shake her off and yelping. Mixed up Dog Good Stuff and Dog Bad Stuff = devalued, meaningless punishers.

As I explained in the previous post, I’m substituting the term Good Stuff for ‘reinforcers’ because it’s just less jargony. Good stuff includes all manner of sensory and behavioural rewards that we might consider icky or annoying, as well as those we’d traditionally think of as good. Dog Good Stuff runs the gamut from rolling in festering wild boar diarrhea (which will pull my cocker from a heel to go and find it, wherever it is) to beef treats. It includes games such as tug, chase, hide-and-seek and fetch, tapping into their natural canine behaviours like searching, chasing, biting and dissecting. It includes behaviours such as moving forwards on a walk, seeking, licking, jumping or barking. Whilst we might give our dogs a lot of Good Stuff, some of that comes from within. Heston, for instance, my Groenendael X, loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice. Like his owner, no doubt. He has such joy in a fanfare of barks, a volley of vibrant shouting. In fact, when one of my friends died recently, and we had a very windy day, I walked Heston to the top of a nearby hill and did a bit of yelling into the wind. Heston looked at me with a look that can only have said, “Now, see how good THAT feels!”

Bad Stuff is things dogs don’t like or may have to be taught to like. That depends on your dog. For my pocket cocker, that is Baths, Haircuts, Nail Clipping, Eye cleaning, Ear cleaning… any kind of husbandry is offensive to her very spirit. What dogs don’t like depends on their experiences but many of those things don’t have to be taught. You don’t have to teach a dog to avoid pain, for instance. You don’t have to teach them to avoid shocks. If I drop an onion on the floor, even the greedy pocket cocker isn’t interested (though it’s different if cooked). Naturally aversive things are equally sensory – smells, tastes, sensations, noises and sights. Sight is a little bit different. I, for instance, think the thought of Naked Donald Trump to be very aversive. If you papered my bedroom with that image, I’d avoid it completely. I don’t think that works in the same way for dogs. That said, the sight of that blessed shouty terrier down the road is aversive to two of my dogs who try to avoid him. Likewise for me, the sight of a police car in my rear view mirror is enough to make me squirmish and evasive.

If you need to recap learning, have a look at this post.

Just to make it clear – I don’t choose to use Bad Stuff in my work. But I get many clients who come having devalued their Bad Stuff and want to know why:

a) spraying a dog in the face isn’t stopping it humping

b) using a citronella collar isn’t stopping them barking

c) why their dog hasn’t learned to walk to heel with a choke collar

d) why they’ve had to turn the bark collar up to full

e) why their very expensive ‘invisible’ electric fence isn’t working

f) why saying ‘no!’ and yanking on a dog’s collar isn’t making them less reactive

And so on.

I don’t think punishers work. I think it’s easier to hype up the value of a reward than it is to maintain the value of a punisher. I think the potential fallout of punishers is too much of a risk. And finally, there are no circumstances in which management or positive reinforcement hasn’t worked for me yet. But that’s not to say I’m advising you on how to keep a range of brutal, deeply unpleasant punishers valuable. In theory, the best way to keep them valuable is to barely use them at all. (I’d say never!) That way, you can keep something mildly aversive (what Ian Dunbar calls ‘ugly face’ or a ‘no!’) and keep the power of it because you use it so infrequently. Then you never need to use the ‘heavy artillery’ of shock, chokes or prongs. The worst thing about punishers is the more you use them, the more you need to use them.

Just so you are clear.

I’m all about turning the bad stuff in dogs’ lives into neutral stuff, or even good stuff.

So last time I was writing about how one of the worst things we can do is accidentally remove the power of the Good Stuff and the Bad Stuff that we can offer our dogs. And also how we can accidentally turn something neutral into something wonderful or something horrible. It’s all about pairings.

Dogs are good at working out the meaning of things when things happen in patterns. And they work out whether that’s a good pattern for them, or a bad one.

Keys >>>>> walk

Boots >>>>> walk

Keys >>>>> you going out and leaving me

Boots >>>>> you going out and leaving me

They are SO smart like that. Can you see how you can take something that is absolutely meaningless to a dog, like a key, and turn into an object that predicts Most Excellent Dog Stuff or Most Bogus Dog Stuff? We do this every day.

We also know that we can remove the power of something that is Most Bogus Dog Stuff… I don’t yell (much!) in the home. So when I stubbed my toe at 4am the other morning when I stumbled, sleep-deprived, out of bed to let out my dog with dementia for a pee… let’s just say all four dogs shot back to bed, including the dementia dog who half the time doesn’t seem to know where he really is. But when you pair yelling with Dog Good Stuff, as I’m doing at the moment to help prepare a young dog for his trials with customs officers, every time someone yells, that dog thinks it is a bonus predictor of a game of ball. Pairings are powerful ways to take the sting out of the bad stuff.

So we know that stuff works backwards.

If Good Stuff comes last, it makes the stuff before it into Good Stuff too. Things that had been meaningless like boots, cars and harnesses now become things that Spark Dog Joy.

If Bad Stuff comes last, it makes the stuff that comes before into Bad Stuff too. Things that had been meaningless like a vet’s room, a travel crate or a car now become things that Crush Dog Spirits.

So if we follow a prong pop (Bad) with continued walk (Good) the prong pop can become a signal that good stuff will happen.

If we follow a ‘Come on! Good Boy!’ for coming back (Good) with being put on the lead (Bad) then ‘Come on!’ can become a signal that bad stuff will happen.

And we use this all the time in counter-conditioning to teach dogs that a horrible, icky thing that they’ve had a bad experience with is not so bad after all…

It’s not so tough.

When neutral stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same good stuff, it becomes good stuff too.

When bad stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same good stuff, it becomes less bad and eventually might become good.

When good stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same bad stuff, it steals the joy from the good stuff.

When neutral stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same bad stuff, it turns the neutral stuff into a sign that bad stuff will happen.

But you want to know how that works in real life.

Today I’ve got ten unexpected pairings that probably won’t work as they mix up rewards and punishments. The first includes my cat, Basil, who taught me a very important message.

Problem #1: aversion to food

Tuna (Good) followed by Pill (Bad) = turning my cat off Cat Good Stuff.

Before I knew about this powerful crazy Pavlovian magic, I only ever broke out the tuna when I wanted to give my cat a pill. At first that worked. Tricked into eating the pill. Then it didn’t. He’d eat round the pill. Then I tried to force the pill down. You know how that went. Scratches, blood, angry cat. It takes a lot to ‘poison’ a primary reinforcer (things you don’t need to teach an animal to like) yet I managed it. Not only that, I managed to take the sound of the tin opener and turn it into a cue for Basil to hide somewhere unreachable. How to turn Cat Good Stuff into a great predictor of something that is Cat Bad Stuff in one fell swoop.

Solution: teach cats about lots of foods as a kitten (since palettes are hard to expand for cats), give tuna lots more so that it is no longer a 100% predictor of ‘The Horrible Pill Experience’, use lots of different foods so that no single food is a 100% predictor of a pill.

Problem #2: pulling despite physical pain

Leash corrections (Bad) followed by continued walk (Good) = making leash corrections pointless.

I see this all the time. People who walk the dog with a Pop-Pop-Pop on the collar. It is their primary reason for spewing that “Prongs/Chokes don’t hurt” crap. “It’s not working, therefore it can’t be painful.” No, they still hurt. You’ve just made it so that you have gradually desensitised your dog to the experience by pairing it always with a reward. In fact, I was smug about the Master Balanced trainer and his muzzle training because he had to pop his GSD five times in 30 seconds when the dog was ‘heeling’. In fact, I shouldn’t have been smug at all. But can you see how that goes? The more you pop, the more you’ll need to, if you pair it with continued Good Stuff. And the more intensity you’ll need. If your leash corrections aren’t working, why use them?

Solution: teach loose-leash walking. Don’t use Dog Bad Stuff on a walk because it will inevitably be followed by Good Stuff (the walk) so there’s no point.

Problem #3: Bin dipping despite noisy Training Discs placed on top

Crashing training discs (Bad) followed by Bin Treasure (Good) = making training discs a necessary nuisance before revelling in discarded trash

So why did those training discs work once or twice and then stop? Because once the noise is predictable – and it’s always predictable on your third or fourth try – if it’s not more aversive than the treasure is rewarding, it’ll stop working. That crash is a predictor that you have completed the challenge of getting to the trash and you can take home your delightful garbage reward to enjoy at your leisure.

Solution: put the bin away. Put safety locks on your cupboards. Be tidy and don’t be cross at a dog for scavenging. They are being very good at Dog Stuff as far as they are concerned, whereas you are being very bad at predicting Dog Stuff. The mess punishes YOU, so YOU need to learn from it – not the dog.

Problem #4: Counter surfing despite sticky tape or tin foil on surface

Sticky tape/tin foil (Bad) followed by Counter-foraged Chicken carcass/Birthday Cake (Good) = making unpleasant experiences a sign that there is something really good up there.

If your dog can get to Counter Swag, your aversive is just a predictable hurdle. If they manage to get the chicken carcass, it’s a hurdle worth overcoming. Don’t forget: jackpot learning, where there is a 1 in a 100 chance of Very Excellent Counter Swag, can be more powerful than 1 to 1 rewards. Tilly my cocker knows this. Last night, she swagged two diet crackers from the table. Do you think despite their disgusting inedible qualities that she will stop hopping onto the table in my absence? Hell no. I have lived with her 7 years and whilst she only gets swag once in a while, it’s more than enough to reinforce the habit.

Solution: Tidy up and restrict access to counters. If there is never anything good on the counter, there is no reason to think it might contain Dog Good Stuff and for your dog to be seeking out some kind of treasure. A dog who never does this behaviour never learns to. Ironic that my only dog who needs a chair to assist her is the only one who does it. Thank God my bigger dogs didn’t. When I had the handsome 45kg shelf-surfing Ralf and he used to get onto the kitchen shelves, I put stuff in sealed boxes.

Problem #5: Getting on the couch despite obstacle course

Obstacle course/falling chairs (Bad) placed on couch followed by 3 hours of lazy afternoon napping on DFS’s finest corduroy couch (Good)

Another one that isn’t technically a devalued punisher (like the one before) since it depends on the fact that you need your aversive to be more powerful than your reward. But if the reward is 3 hours of comfortable napping (or even fairly uncomfortable between the obstacles) then it takes the sting out of the punisher and devalues it. A clatter of falling chairs might be enough to scare the dog a handful of times, but if the incentive is big enough and the punisher is predictable enough, it’ll soon stop being a reason not to get on the couch. Then you’re left with another situation in which you need to up the level of punishment. Mouse-traps, anyone?

Solution: make sure your dog is never allowed on the couch and that they have a very comfy bed/couch of their own. Teach them to get on or off when asked. Or crate train them. Make sure they never learn that couches are for dogs. Take my dining room chairs, for example, my dogs don’t sit on those because they have never been invited to. Or, do as I have done today and foster a very stinky, menacing Yorkshire terrier and put him on the couch in question. Strangely, the couch that he is on is empty (except for him) and the dog beds are all full. Kidding, of course. If your dogs have learned that couches are comfortable, and you have aided and abetted that, be prepared to teach them on/off when asked and allow a bit of couch time, restrict their access to the couch and make their own bed so good that a couch seems redundant.

Problem #6: thinking Ape Good Stuff is Dog Good Stuff

A dog comes to you for contact (Good) and then patting it on the head (Bad)

It wasn’t until I went in for a ‘coochy-coo’ squishy cuddle with Tilly that I realised the lip-licking, the head-turning were evasive movements. She did not like that coochy-cooing. You can use this effectively for a dog who attention-seeks. Amigo, my senile old griffon dude likes to rest his head on my knee. The problem is that he does it ALL the time and he often comes in for it when I’m sitting with my other dogs who then think he isn’t respecting their boundaries which causes grumbles. I do two gentle pats to the head and he goes away. It’s amazing to think that something we think a dog should like – being touched – can be unpleasant enough to send a serial cuddle monster into a dog who goes away. And I’m talking the kind of ‘pat-pat’ that is so gentle most of us would think it a perfectly acceptable greeting for a dog. The trouble is that if your pet arrives for contact and you touch it – completely innocuously! – in what would be the most mild aversive, you may find your dog doesn’t approach you at all for petting.

Solution: teach your dog that petting is followed by good stuff, so that your ape-like neutral/negative handling becomes a positive by association. With Lidy, she likes licking my face, so I let her do that when she has had some Chimp Hugs from me. Those chimp hugs get the backwards buzz of the pleasure of licking as they are a 100% predictor that I will pucker up for a good snog with a toothy mali.

Problem #7: turning neutral stuff into nasty stuff.

Problems getting your dog into the bathroom (neutral) because you always give them a bath (Bad) or problems getting your dog to have its nails clipped (neutral) because you pinched them once (Bad) or turning your dog’s name (neutral/positive) into something bad by always telling them off when you use it. Whether it’s turning car journeys into a nightmare, baths into chaotic maulings, turning dog coats into a wrestling match, you can easily turn neutral stuff into nasty stuff.

Take their name for example.

Now under normal circumstances, if you give your dog the occasional name call to distract them, like I just did with Heston who decided to alarm bark at a lorry for no apparent reason, it’s not a big deal, unless it’s nearing a 1:1 ratio. Now mostly when I say “Heston!” it’s for good stuff. Probably not as frequently as I would think, but if the only time I ever said his name was to tell him off, then expecting it to get his attention and aid a recall is madness. One of my neighbours has a spaniel called Filou. He quite often yells at Filou to stop barking. It’s 100% likely that when he says ‘Filou!’ that it’s supposed to punish him for barking. Doesn’t work, because barking is its own reward and shouting a dog’s name is not enough to distract or punish, but also it’s a 100% prediction of worse stuff to come because Filou has a shock collar and my joyless neighbour gives him a zap with it. When he was trying to shout Filou back to the house an hour ago, do you think it worked?

Some people will tell you that you need to teach a new cue if you’ve poisoned an old one by turning it into Dog Bad Stuff, but that’s not necessary really. All you’ve got to do is break the association. If your dog thinks cheese means a pill, make cheese mean nothing by using it all the time. If you want Come! to regain its value, make it 100% followed by Amazing Dog Stuff once more. I think sometimes we forget the importance of ‘refreshing’ the association between a name and a consequence, or between ‘come!’ and a reward. A bit of a jackpot from time to time will make sure that habit doesn’t fall out of fashion.

The only time I’d advise changing a dog’s name, for instance, is in situations like poor Filou’s. That would take a lot of work to change it back to a positive thing again.

Solution: make sure that it’s not a 1:1 relationship between the neutral stuff and bad consequences. If you need to get your dog in the car for the vet, then you need to know that there is no way your dog can predict that cars = vets. If cars mean five other things, then that association is less likely to form. Better still is to get your dog into pairing the neutral stuff like bathrooms and cars with ‘good stuff’. Do you think you’d have a problem getting your dog into the shower if you fed them in the shower? I groom Tilly in the kitchen. I feed her in the kitchen. We do other things in the kitchen too (otherwise every time I went to the kitchen, she’d think I was going to feed her) but there is no way she could know that if she goes into the kitchen with me, she’s going to get groomed. She does know when the Cupboard of Doom opens, so I put her clippers in the Kong cupboard. Do you think it’s still the Cupboard of Doom? If you want to remove the association between an event and the thing that precedes it, do the thing that precedes it hundreds of times in hundreds of ways until it is absolutely and utterly meaningless. If the event produces a fear reaction, you may need to be careful how you do this, so that it is absolutely nothing horrible and you don’t accidentally flood your dog with horrible emotions, but if it’s just unpleasant, breaking the 1:1 relationship between the two is crucial

It’s not just about following good with bad or bad with good. It can also about how you can take a fairly unpleasant thing and intensify it with Bad Stuff or how you can take a good thing and intensify it with Good Stuff.

Problem #8: Aggression on lead

Seeing another dog (bad if you’re a dog-aggressive dog) and being told ‘No!’ or being popped/jerked/cranked or shocked (Bad +)

This just amps up the bad of the first bit, since it now predicts more bad stuff. If I don’t like Donald Trump, you pinching my ear every time I see him isn’t going to help. Remember too that it’s about that 1:1 relationship. If every time I see Donald Trump it becomes a predictor of an ear pinch, I’m going to end up dreading seeing him more than I already do. If every time my dog-aggressive dog jerks and lunges towards another dog and I pop her choke collar, it is a 100% predictor of some major Bad Stuff happening.

Problem #9: not being able to solve a jumping-up problem

Jumping up (Good) and getting attention by being told off (person thinks it is Bad Dog Stuff, dog thinks it is Good Dog Stuff)

What you are essentially doing here is reinforcing a behaviour that the dog likes doing already. If you join in and shout at them when they bark, then you’re reinforcing the barking. If you have a dog who is doing something perfectly doggie (humping, mouthing, chewing) attention for doing it, you’re reinforcing the behaviour. If you laugh at a humper, you’re more likely to see that behaviour again. If you give attention to a dog who is barking to get your attention, if you pet a dog who nudges you to get attention, you’re heaping good on already good behaviours and you’ll find them hard to break.

Solution: give zero reinforcement for jumping up, teach an alternative behaviour that you can’t do at the same times as jumping up (like a sit or a down-stay) and only reward that.

Problem #10 Accidentally turning a neutral thing like a thunder shirt into a predictor of Bad Stuff.

Amigo doesn’t have very peaceful nights anymore. That’s especially true if there’s a storm or high winds. I put a thunder shirt on him and give him herbal remedies when a storm is forecast. The thunder shirt and the pills become a very good predictor of a storm and make him more anxious not less.

Solution: use thunder shirts and give herbal remedies plenty of other times as well so that it is no longer a reliable predictor of storms.

The same is true of all anti-anxiety things you do with your dog. If you only do them when you can predict your dog will be in an anxious situation, as soon as you reach for the thunder shirt or you stick on the calming music, you are giving your dog a 100% 1:1 predictor that a storm is coming. Or, do it long enough before the storm so that there is no connection between the two events in the dog’s mind. That doesn’t have to be massively long.

So, there you have it… ways that Pavlov can massively interfere with your animal’s life and training, and some quick ideas of how to avoid some common pitfalls.


Fostering animals: what you need to know

Fostering animals: what you need to know

Fostering animals for your local shelter is one of the nicest things you can do, but it can also be one of the most challenging. I say that having had about four hours sleep with a howling cat, a whimpering lost soul of a York and one of my own who has dementia and is up and down all night.

Not that it’s all like this. Some fosters are absolute dreams and fit in immediately. Some are so easy that it’s untrue. Some will become permanent members of your household.

I don’t like to think of myself as a fosterer. If you asked me what I do, I wouldn’t place it high on my list of ways I support our shelter. That said, I’ve had almost fifty dogs and puppies through my doors in the last three years, and almost twice as many kittens. But I know there are people who are much more involved in fostering for other rescues, and I’m sure they’d have plenty of support to offer too.

You aren’t reading this because you have easy fosters. You’re reading this to be prepared if you’re thinking about it and to find some resources if you’re a regular fosterer. In the vast majority of cases, the advice that follows is for the worst-case scenario for dogs who arrive with every single problem on the planet. In reality, very few dogs are like this or need all the precautions, but it’s vital to understand how to prepare for all eventualities.

If you’re thinking of fostering, make sure that you are prepared both practically and emotionally.

The guidance below isn’t an absolute, but you may want to notify the shelter about your own situation and they can do their best to find a dog who suits your own practical situation.

It helps if you’re a couple or you have good friends who live very near. If you’re a single fosterer like me, it can be really hard if you have a dog who has separation anxiety or who needs a permanent presence. It’s no fun having to enlist dogsitters and neighbours to help out, I promise. It’s also really hard if you have to work. If you have a sleepless night for one reason or another, getting up to work is seriously no fun. If you work from home, that is much more practical, since you can be present. If your hours are flexible, that’s also a bonus, as you can catnap if you need to. Believe me, this morning I’m feeling the need for a lie-in! If you have a partner, if you don’t work full-time or you work from home, fostering is much more likely to work for you with a wider range of dogs than if you are single and if you work.

You also find you need the right sort of house. A secure garden is a must. You just don’t know if your new foster is an escape artist or not. When dogs arrive, they can be really disorientated and may try to find shelter. Although you mean well, your new foster may see you as a huge threat. If your garden is not secure, you’ll run into problems. Whilst it may seem achieveable to put them on a lead, it really isn’t a practical or perfect solution. If you don’t have access to a garden or secure space, you are going to find that the number of dogs you may be able to take to be very limited indeed. Younger dogs need the space to let off steam and older dogs’ bladders don’t function as well as they once did. Believe me, it’s little fun to get up three or four times in the night – and less so if you have to get dressed to take the dog out on the lead.

Having sympathetic neighbours is a bonus for barking issues.

If you are very houseproud or garden-proud, being a fosterer may not work for you. Dogs dig, and you may find yourself frustrated if your new foster digs up your newly-planted roses.

Wipe-clean floors and walls will make a difference too, since not all dogs will arrive housetrained. They may well have been house-trained once, but just because they know not to pee in one house doesn’t mean they feel the same about all houses, especially if you have other dogs. You’d be amazed by how high up a dog can aim, believe me. Low-hanging curtains are itching to be marked. Leather couches and metal chair legs are much better to clean than fabric sofas and wood. The more your house has dogs through, the more likely accidents are to happen, I’m afraid. If this bothers you, then you may find there are a smaller number of fosters available coming in from surrenders and are ‘guaranteed’ house-trained. However, with any change in environment, there can be upsets.

If you have a house with stairs or you live in an apartment that is up a flight of stairs, this may also pose problems for dogs. Not all dogs know about stairs, and stairs can be very scary. If you foster youngsters of large breeds or oldies, stairs may not be possible at all. Steps can pose a similar problem. You may find that dogs don’t cope well when they are in one part of the building and they can hear you in another. Although this is something that dogs can learn to cope with, it is not so easy to teach them when they are with you for an indefinite period.

Having indoor doors is also helpful, especially if you have dogs yourself. A makeshift X-pen or puppy pen may help, but not if you foster St Bernards. Remember too that doors pose no obstacle for some dogs, like Flika who is here with me now. Luckily, she is not an escape artist, but having bolts and hooks can also help. Secure, lockable gates can help as well. There will be times you will need to separate your animals or when you will need to have a safe space if your foster dog is upset by arrivals and departures.

Think too about the handles on your doors if you have an escape artist or a jumper. Some handles can be sadly too easy for collars to get hooked on and I’ve known a number of dogs strangled this way. A breakaway collar with your number on it is vital, as is a microchip. Newly found dogs are more likely to be disorientated and wander off, so it’s helpful that people know how to get hold of you. All my fosters get a breakaway collar (which will release if snagged) and have my number on their collar (hoping they don’t lose it!) because if they do get out, your neighbours might not necessarily realise that the dog is staying with you.

If you have a dog who escapes, you may also need good kit to walk them (and maybe to leave on for 48 hours or so). I like the Ruffwear Webmaster harnesses for this, but they are expensive and you can’t always get one quickly. The six buckles and long bodice make it practically inescapable. Greyhound and whippet harnesses may also work. Put a lead on the collar and a lead on the harness and secure both with a carabiner if they pull. Nothing can be worse than a scared foster doing a runner. Do away with walks for a week if you are worried about this. You may also need a special, secure harness if you are fostering a dog-aggressive or person-aggressive dog, as well as a muzzle and the skill  on how to train them to wear it. It goes without saying that my foster dogs don’t go off the lead – ever. Not even if I think they won’t toddle off. It doesn’t matter if they are well-balanced and follow you everywhere.

In the home, make sure you have a safe place to contain your dogs away from each other when they are unsupervised. This week brings yet another sad tale of a bigger dog killing a smaller one. 10kg is a big enough difference that a fight can end tragically, and whether it’s a case of predatory drift, where a larger dog attacks a smaller dog, or something completely different, it’s vital you can keep your biggies and your littlies apart. That is especially true in the garden.

Two of my fosters. Effel the Beauceron had some predatory drift, chased small things and nipped. No way I was letting him out in the garden at the same time as Dougie the Minpin. Sadly, Dougie had very severe separation anxiety and since a crate couldn’t contain him, it was not possible for him to stay longer than the few days he did. Sometimes, being a fosterer means admitting that there are problems you aren’t equipped to deal with. Don’t ever take your own dogs’ behaviour as an absolute. My old mali dude Tobby was the most dog-friendly non-aggressive dog there could be, and he still got a case of the chases with a young hound I had here to stay. Not so big a problem when the young hound could easily outrun an ancient old rickety arthritic malinois, but the last thing I wanted was a full-force, full-health 50kg beauceron catching a 4kg minpin.

Flika also has separation anxiety like Dougie did, but she is bigger, it’s less of a problem to leave her unsupervised with my other dogs. But know that it’s not the best of ideas to take a foster if you can’t guarantee they can be supervised a lot of the time. Being inside and dry is not the only reason to take them out of a shelter if they’ve got to spend 10 hours alone whilst you’re at work.

You also have to think about food times and sleep. It’s best to have a range of beds and not to take a dog if your own dogs have resource guarding issues that you can’t manage. Whilst your own dogs may steer clear of your grumpy cocker, your foster dogs have no idea that they’ll unleash seven circles of Hell if they so much as look at your dog. I usually feed fosters separately, and I put their food down first, because my dogs are well-trained and know how to wait. Don’t feed your foster last in some misguided ‘pack rank’ sequence as if they haven’t been trained to have manners around other dogs eating, you may unleash a very nasty fight. When I feel like my fosters are ready to join the ranks, I give them more (sometimes packed out with cooked vegetables) so that I know they aren’t going to finish first and go touring about the other dogs checking out their bowls as they finish. You’ll forget this from time to time – but with a semi-blind foster, a deaf dog, a grumpy cocker of my own who eats slowly and guards her food, a tiny York and a dog of my own who outweighs him ten times, I really don’t want the mother of all scraps in the kitchen.

Get more beds than you can possibly think you need and make sure you’re prepared for a little upheaval at night. The older the dog, the more likely they’ll have quite intractable sleeping patterns that you might need to live with for a while. You might not always know those sleeping patterns, but if they seem agitated at night, you can be sure you’ve not got it quite right. The way Dougie dived on the bed and wriggled down underneath the covers told me everything I needed to know about where he’d been sleeping – or, at least – where he preferred to sleep. I have to be honest, it’s one reason I like the oldies and the biggies – they usually are happy with a basket. Few people have giant dogs sleeping in their bed, and in general, you can go off breed in some way to help you decide. Don’t be surprised if your beagle foster is not used to being indoors, if your husky is hankering for the garden and if your minpin foster sneaks under the covers. I’d say to keep with the rules you intend to follow up on (no couches, no bedroom) or those that will make the dog adoptable (being crate-trained, sleeping quietly alone in the kitchen) but in reality, those first nights for a dog can be so unsettling that now is not the time to get into teaching plans about how you want the dog to be able to sleep. You are a vital stepping stone but there’s no point starting a crate-training programme if you don’t know you don’t have weeks to work it through.

For behavioural problems, you’re managing a triage station. That’s to say you’re there to assess and to manage rather than to treat. Whilst there will be many things that you might be able to teach, you have no idea if the dog will be with you for three days, three weeks or three months, so starting on a programme that may not suit their permanent owner is pointless. My aims are to keep distress to a minimum, not to teach the dog how to fit into my household.

You ask yourself three things: Can I manage the environment to prevent the behaviour? Can I quickly and effectively teach a different behaviour? Is this too big a problem for me to deal with and the dog needs to go to another foster home?

Sometimes you can manage. Sometimes you can treat. Sometimes it needs more help than you can physically provide. Knowing when to manage, when to intervene and when you need to pass is vital.

I think that’s the most important message about the practicalities of fostering: you have to be adaptable, flexible and ready to react. You have to fit around the dog, rather than help the dog adapt to you. Most dogs fit into your patterns very easily, but some will not. If it’s really clear that the dog needs more than you can offer, it’s vital that you get in touch with the rescue that you’re fostering for. It doesn’t preclude the dog from being fostered elsewhere or finding a home. Just because you can’t be there 24/7 for a dog with separation anxiety doesn’t mean the rescue won’t have homes where there is always someone in, or a neighbour to visit. Neither does it mean they won’t find a home. Forewarned is forearmed.

Hygiene is also a practicality I’m going to mention, because it is important. Vaccination of your own dogs is going to be important, but know that if your dog is coming from the pound, you need to be aware of things like kennel cough, dog gastro, giardia, conjunctivitis, canine influenza, skin mites, ear mites, leptospirosis and so on. These are not usually anything that would be a problem – it’s like the risk you take if you run a guest house. But… if you have sick, old or immunosuppressed dogs, you need to make it clear that you can only take surrenders or ones that have had a very thorough health check. If you have a dog with severe flea allergies, you need to make sure your new arrival is treated before they arrive. Keep up to date with wormer treatments, as tapeworm eggs are spread by fleas. Other things that are contagious and can be problematic include mange, ringworm and ear mites. You won’t even think of these things until they matter. One dog through with ear mites, could mean one ear infection for one of your own oldies, one vestibular attack and you’re severely risking the health of your own pets. A thorough check-up is more than enough, and if your dogs are young and robust, you will probably find that things pass them by. But if you have an oldie or a dog who is sick, it may be time to have a rest for a bit. Bear in mind that the risk of these is slightly higher if they have come from ill-kept pounds or have lived in communal conditions, but for a dog who has come from a clean pound or has been in isolation, the risk is no more than it would be in any social setting. If your dogs are healthy, infection may pass them by, but please check with your vet.

The emotional impact of fostering can be hard. You need to be aware of compassion fatigue. I was certainly aware of it this morning between the screaming cat and the whining dog! Sometimes you say yes when you should say no. The longer you have been fostering, the more likely it is you’ll get tired. Turnover is exhausting, for both you and your own pets. Sometimes you need a break, and that is absolutely essential. I needed a break when Effel went – I’d had almost two years of continuous fostering, with numbers ranging from between 4 dogs to 16 dogs. Sometimes it is just too much and you need to have a way to say so. Even if the dogs are really well-behaved, you need to have times when you can say no. The sheer number of kittens I’d had through was just emotionally and physically exhausting. There are times when you feel absolute despair about the way society treats its animals. I don’t need to tell you that I feel a bit like that at the moment, with an exhausted, aged Yorkshire terrier here, and a half-blind, wobbly old ex-guard dog who arrived with cystitis and no doubt had a stroke of some kind at the shelter. Doing it all the time is exhausting, even if it’s all you do. The adoptions and post-adoption stories will remind you often of the good you are doing, but it’s not always enough when you feel like you are fighting a rising tide.

You also need to be aware of the spectrum of emotions you’ll have for your foster. There will be some you will be attached to with your whole heart, who you will wish you could keep. I loved Effel, but it wasn’t practical to keep him. He and one of my own dogs didn’t get on particularly, and neither was truly happy. But I tortured myself over it. When they are easy, you may find yourself advertising them less or being less of a participant in moving them on, but that can have long-term implications for dogs who are then uprooted to go and live in another new home. When they are ‘tough’ adoptions, you may also find yourself feeling guilty for needing them to find their home, especially if they have had a tough life or if they are bonded to you. Sometimes your dogs will fall in love with them and you won’t!

Other times the foster may be really hard and you will be really glad to see them move on. Despite your feelings, you’ve got to be honest about their behaviour. Glossing over it to find them a home will only end up as a failed adoption and the dog possibly being returned. One of my fosters was a barker. Another had springs for legs. One played horribly with my own dog and had to be kept separate most of the time. For problems like these, you may find yourself needing to be honest about whether you can manage it, whether you can treat it or whether the dog requires a different foster home. Don’t feel guilty about those times you’ve felt relief that the dog has found a home.

To be successful at fostering, having a mentor to help can really help. Having someone there to help you through with the common niggles is important… what to do when they don’t eat, when they’re a bit unwell, when they won’t settle, when they’re not house-trained, when they bark for attention…

Being in regular contact with the shelter or rescue is vital too. You can neither be a primadonna nor a pushover. There are times you’ve got to say: “this animal needs a vet, now!” and know it will be taken seriously. You’ve also got to know their protocols and systems. Having a timeline in place is helpful too – in case you need to go on holiday, if you are needed for other activities. This is also useful in case the animal just doesn’t move on or find a home. You’ve got to know how long it is that you would be prepared to foster for. And you need to know who to ask to settle a bill, to cough up for washing powder or specialist food if necessary.

You’ll have to help out with advertising, too. The best fosterers are ones who make a concerted effort to keep photos, videos and information up to date. A dog who is not advertised and regularly updated is a dog who will be with you a long time. Nobody cares if your photos are poor – what matters is that there are lots of them. It matters too that dogs are accurately described.

What will also help is a basic understanding of the animal’s needs too. If you have puppies, a knowledge of canine development is essential. What point is there in ‘housing’ puppies only to turn out dogs who haven’t had the best start in life? It’s not enough to say ‘well, it’s better than they’d get in the shelter.’

Likewise with geriatric dogs. Having a good knowledge of how to cope with declining sight, hearing and bladder control is vital, but it’s also useful to know a bit about various degenerative conditions so you can keep an eye out for them. Having an understanding beyond ‘well, I had an old dog once’ is vital to understand a geriatric dog’s needs.

There are plenty of other things you will benefit from being a bit interested in: nutrition, health, development, life cycles, behaviour. You are in the scary position of acting as a surrogate shelter. Sometimes a dogsitter is more than enough (and there have been times when that is what I have been!) but there are also times when you need to know more than the average person about canine behaviour, training and health if you want to be able to take on more challenging cases. Some dogs are going to need nothing more than a roof over their heads, a bowl of food and a walk now and again. Some will need more than that.

What follows are links to some other articles that you may find helpful. They are written for adopters but work equally well for fosters. For those tackling a behaviour, look for the ‘environmental management’ tips too.

Problem behaviours:


FAKE NEWS! the dangers of controversial clickbait for our dogs

FAKE NEWS! the dangers of controversial clickbait for our dogs

About twenty years ago, I was part of a team who worked on internet safety for our 13-year-olds in school. We pushed several messages about bias and motivation, but we had no idea at the time that the internet, thanks to social media and Google rankings, would become a massive popularity contest.

Let me clarify my position. I’ve got two businesses. Both of them do really well on social media and on Google rankings (thank you!) and I’m regularly on the first page of Google rankings despite not paying for posts. I spend a good part of my week working out how to maximise my content, about keywords, about SEO and about how to manage a social media presence. I’ve had posts shared over 200,000 times and posts seen over 8 million times. That’s pretty tremendous for someone who has never paid for content.

I sincerely believe that you can rank highly with superior content. But I also know that you can manipulate rankings either through money or through the methods known as ‘clickbait’. Politicians, opinions and popularity rise and fall on the tides of such methods.

Sadly, clickbait is a rising trend as dog trainers fight for clients, and, more worryingly, their messages are potentially damaging for many of our dogs. But it’s not just people using unethical marketing to attract business. It’s also noisy, opinionated people who believe blindly in a food regime, in a health regime, in a supplement, in a training method.

I’m aware that puts me on the Donald Trump side of ‘Fake News!’, decrying everything I don’t believe in as phony, sham or manipulative.

It’s not just about calling people out though, especially if their views don’t support your own. It’s not just dismissing people who don’t think what you do. It’s about remembering their biases, their credentials and their purpose for posting before making a decision about the validity of what they are saying.

Time we step back.

Back to those twenty-year-old questions:

  • What do we know about the person who posted this?
  • What’s their bias?
  • What’s their purpose in posting?

I try to bring this to everything I read. It’s fine to read things that are biased as long as you recognise that bias. It’s fine to read things on the internet as long as you know a little about the person posting and their credentials. It’s fine to take on their messages when you’ve considered why they are posting. I seek out alternative views and try to keep an open mind – all time aware that challenging your beliefs can actually make your views more stubborn and persistent rather than open to fresh data.

Back to the most fundamental of those questions: what is their purpose for posting?

For some people their only purpose for posting is marketing. They’re fishing for sales. They share, not because they want ‘the truth’ out there, but because they want posts that drive traffic to their websites that drive traffic to their phone that drives traffic to their door that puts money in their bank account.

There are two ways you can do that: honestly, with authenticity, or dishonestly.

Authentic people are honest about their standpoint, their views and their purpose. Dishonest people aren’t. It’s fairly cut and dry.

I would much rather ten authentic people whose views completely contradict my own. I would rather the honesty of alternatives. It’s the deceit in marketing that I can’t stand.

That’s especially important where other living beings are concerned.

What concerns me the most are people who don’t put themselves up to scrutiny, who disguise their beliefs and values in order to get business by any means necessary, and who then deliberately write blog posts that are designed to get people sharing.

One of those dangerous trends comes from ‘pet health sites’ who aren’t clear that a) they aren’t always certified vets even if they have a title to their name b) they make up their ‘statistics’ and lie or c) they have a vested business interest in what they’re promoting, usually financial.

Not only that, for every fake story they put out, every article that isn’t rooted in reality, it damages the whole field of holistic and alternative medicine. If alternative medicine wants to shake off its snake oil and woo-woo reputation, several of those big ‘pet health’ sites need to take a good look at themselves. Anyone who would willingly damage their own field makes me question their motivation. If you would willingly spread misinformation that could seriously damage the health of a pet and also the field in which you practise, I’m sorry but you don’t deserve to have any credibility at all.

Any online vet, for instance, that exclusively promotes one diet or another when it wouldn’t be appropriate for the pet, is not a vet that I can have faith in. If that site is populated by ‘cute’ stories of dogs playing with birds or video compilations alongside scaremongering, I can’t get away from the fact that some high-ranking sites have an agenda that should impact how I read their (FAKE!) news.

We always need a healthy degree of skepticism where things are promoted or discouraged that take one side or another where medicine is concerned. I trust my vets implicitly but I’m not afraid to ask questions and they know me well enough to know they can give me an answer. But when you go to vet conferences, as I have been privileged to do from time to time, there are things that most vets do, things that all vets do, and things that divide the room. Mention precocious sterilisation, for instance, and you’ll divide the room. Mention methods of anaethesia or post-surgical care, and you’ll divide the room. Those are three simple everyday topics where the arguments can last long, long into the night or where many vets keep their opinions to themselves because they know they’ll be forever damned by their peers for revealing their standpoint. And, as most vets will agree, whether you fall into one camp or another is not an ‘always’ kind of thing.

As always, ‘it depends’.

They make their decisions on a case-by-case basis, not on a one-size-fits-all.

But just because they prefer one thing over another doesn’t mean they are wrong.

But it does make me worry when popular pet health sites promote one thing to the exclusivity of others. Not least because they don’t know our pet.

We should trust OUR vets enough to have a conversation. Not online vets who have never met our animal. If you don’t trust your vet, shop around. If the only vet you find you can trust is one online that you’ve never met, then it’s time to ask some questions about why that it is. Believe me, the answer is not because all your local vets are inept and the online ones are the only ones to tell the truth, I promise you.

It’s a good idea to go into conversations asking for all the pros, all the cons and then make your mind up based on who you trust and knowing them instinctively. I know which of the vets I regularly see are worrywarts, who are the best surgeons, who are great technicians, who are solid on dentistry or osteopathy, who can be dismissive and who are overly cautious. We need to trust our vets and get to know them. It’s a reciprocal relationship. They need to know which of us are worrywarts, which of us hand our dogs sneaky sugary treats, which of us have problems exercising our animals, which of us follow advice, who needs an explanation and who doesn’t.

I particularly love my vet surgery because when I go in with my particularly catastrophic “it’s liver failure/cancer/peritonitis/tick fever”, I never leave without feeling completely sure that it isn’t.

If you don’t trust your vet to ask “Are you absolutely sure it’s not osteosarcoma as I googled these symptoms, even though I know that is dumb, and that’s what it said”, then you need to find a different vet.

By all means get a second opinion, but don’t fall into the conspiracy trap of thinking that an online expert is right and the rest of the medical world are wrong.

Let’s talk one of those things regularly posted on ‘woo woo’ sites: vaccinations.

Someone posted an article from a ‘holistic’ vet site about the dangers of vaccinations and even the pointlessness of titre testing. Basically, it was advocating doing nothing.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a dog die of parvovirus. I have. In fact, it’s more regular than you’d realise in a world where there are puppy shows, kennels and pounds. Distemper, not so much, not where I live. I’ve never seen rabies. But parvovirus, yes. Our main problem at the pound and shelter where I am a trustee is unvaccinated dogs. So much so that we vaccinate on the first day of arrival and keep dogs isolated as long as possible to minimise risks. It’s a small number of newly arrived dogs who contract parvovirus – around 1% – and a smaller number still who die from it – but it’s a number nonetheless. We have not had a dog die of parvovirus who has had the second vaccination. Those are our statistics.

So it makes me skeptical when unqualified and uneducated people discuss the efficacy of the vaccine on Facebook, and also when they discuss not vaccinating at all, guided by advice from a vet who is a) not aware of local vectors b) not a vet for your pet c) has never met your pet d) has a very good income from the adverts and products on their website.

When it comes to vaccinations, I absolutely trust my vet.

I remember the names of every single one of those dogs who have died of parvovirus.

I remember who spent 11 days on a drip.

I remember who nearly died.

But the general public, who don’t get the health and sanitation figures for animals in their region, don’t see those names, don’t see those numbers and don’t realise why it’s so infuriating to see clickbait shared time and time again that is just plain wrong. Nobody shares clickbait that says how efficient the vaccines are, and how vaccinating against disease has all but eradicated it in some parts of the world.

Now we can wring our hands after the dog has died, wailing and beating our chests about viruses and diseases that can take our dogs away, or we can have an informed discussion with our vet. We need to stop thinking that they’re all out to become millionaires on the back of our gross stupidity or that they are too ignorant to become as informed as we are – or at least we think we are, having read biased and inflamatory articles on dodgy sites that support our nagging hesitations. When I took Amigo last year to the vet for his jabs, she advised against his yearly vaccinations and he just had the (perennially controversial) leptospirosis vaccination. Having had a stroke, I wondered if she thought it would interfere with his health or if she was just telling me politely not to waste money on a dog who probably wouldn’t live out the year… so I asked her. She explained why and I agreed, so that was that.

For my dog Heston, he’s still a young guy. He comes with me often to the shelter. He has his yearly vaccinations and he always will until he’s an old dude – because I put him at high-risk with what I do.

That’s what makes me angry – people say ‘my dogs don’t go to kennels, I don’t travel, I don’t take them to dog shows, I don’t walk them with other dogs…’

Sadly, you don’t live in as safe a world as you think you do, where disease is concerned.

I sure as hell hope that nobody ever leaves their gate open or that their dog never, ever escapes and ends up in the pound, or never comes in contact with parvo or distemper when they do need to take their dog to the vet… because they’re precisely the kind of dog who will contract the disease.

But if you have a really low-risk lifestyle and a low-risk dog, I can see why you might want to have a conversation with your vet. I’m not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t vaccinate. That’s a conversation to have with your vet.

In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of things I like to ask my vet. My poor vet. Which chews are okay and which cause slab fractures? Have you ever seen a dog with a tongue stuck in a chew toy? Do dogs really die from eating chocolate? Is agility okay for my shepherd? What about frisbee? What exercise can I do with my dog who had a vestibular event? Can I give melatonin and valerian to my dog who has dementia? Is this food causing colitis?

I want my dogs to live long, healthy lives, and following every fad shared in kooky websites may cause more problems than they solve.

That is especially true as certain popular pet health sites are happy to run with Daily Mail style headlines about “this food is KILLING our pets”, “this pet health bombshell that everyone is ignoring that is KILLING our pets”, “This bad habit is KILLING our pets”. But because the good (eg don’t smoke around your dog – passive smoking is not good for your pets) is mixed up with the sensational (feeding X, Y or Z is killing our dogs) you end up either ignoring the good stuff because you are suspicious of everything on the site, or believing the sensational.

But pet health marketers unfortunately take advantage of our feelings, which is why we need an added layer of skepticism.

At the same time, I’m conscious that there are more things in heaven and earth than science has got round to testing yet. And I’m also conscious that we don’t know everything. If it won’t hurt and it might help, then it’s worth a look. I’m a fan of Rescue Remedy sometimes. No idea why it works – it just seems to with some dogs. Melatonin worked with Amigo, and so did valerian.

Actually, what helped more with his night-time wanderings was me taking them.

His wandering wasn’t upsetting anyone except me.

I give my dogs glucosamine and chondroitin supplements even though I know that glucosamine only had success in lab tests but not outside the lab in real life and chondrotin is practically pointless from an academic point of view. I use MSM and GLM supplements for arthritis as they seemed to give Tobby more mobility than when he didn’t have them, or when he was on anti-inflammatories alone. GLM has done well in some small tests and so has MSM.

I’m really pleased to have found a vet who is happy to discuss these things and also to recommend them if she thinks they might work.

I’m glad that when Ralf got in a fight with a badger, I walked out with arnica for his bruises, some anti-inflammatories for his fat lip and cauliflower ear, and some antibiotics against the yucky stuff a badger might have transmitted through a bloody open-wound contact fight. I wish I could have done the same for the badger. But that combination of proven medicine and great natural remedies is what I like. For me, that is truly ‘holistic’ medicine.

So it’s not to say I need everything to be governed by what I’ve seen, like the efficacy of particular vaccines. But neither do I jump on all trends. Given the recommendations on Facebook I got for my new foster who has a range of ailments, she’d be rattling with woo-woo medicines. I’ve got to sift and appraise from my friends’ experiences, but Facebook doesn’t have the knowledge that my vet does. When I read about a medicine or a treatment, I try to focus on who wrote it, their bias and their purpose. Once I’ve taken off my own blinkers, I can do better for my dogs.

After all, all of these things we do, it’s because we love our dogs and we want them to live as long as possible.

That said, we shouldn’t ever let our heart rule our heads when it comes to diet or medicine. If I see ‘products’ and ‘shop’ on an article that’s supposedly about canine health, I’ll take everything with a large pinch of very unhealthy salt. I want sponsors to be clear that they are sponsors, and if I suspect a whiff of dishonesty from ‘natural’ sites, I’m off to look for more reliable stuff. If an ‘information’ site asks me to subscribe, I’m out of there. Why on earth would they want me to subscribe unless to sell me something? I don’t want to see ‘web entrepreneur’ alongside a biography of a ‘health practitioner’ and I’m fond of visiting sites such as Skeptvet to check out the other side of the argument. And I’m aware too that it is their job to be skeptical about stuff. That is their bias.

If in doubt, look at the front page of the site.

Does it state in the headline what it’s about, or is it just ‘This THING will KILL your pet’ and you have to click to find out what?

Does it have a ‘shop’ button? This for me is the big giveaway.

Does it have a load of sponsors down the side?

Does it ask you to sign up now?

Does it have pop-up boxes to get you to subscribe?

ALL good signs that the person producing the website is making a bit of a living (or a very good living) from marketing.

Sadly, because they do not know our pets, because they do not have a whole history, because they do not know us, any online vet or health site that gives advice should be read with a healthy amount of skepticism. Any zealot who doesn’t mitigate their own advice with ‘go and see your own vet’ is lucky not to face lawsuits more frequently. And it goes without saying that if the advice is on a forum or Facebook, take it with a huge pinch of salt. Do your research if it sounds interesting. I’m in a few great groups for canine dementia, for vestibular disease and for degenerative myelopathy, and they give me ideas of things to discuss with my vet, but they certainly don’t replace my vet and they never will. Even if they were Mr Super Vet himself on Facebook giving me advice about vet care, I’d wonder why he was so happy to dole out free advice – other than the stuff that is generally accepted, like looking after your dog’s teeth, keeping their ears clean or the problems short-nosed dog breeds can face. If I follow vets on Facebook, I’m looking for photos of their pets, photos of their clients’ pets, even photos of operations, some good advice for all dogs and some posts about interesting animal facts. I’m not looking for a zealot and I’m not looking for them to diagnose and treat my pet online.

But medicine is not the only place where controversial sites publish clickbait. Sadly, this is infecting behavioural advice for dogs too. Next week, I’ll look at some of the FAKE NEWS! from the behaviour world that is potentially very damaging for our dogs.




Help! My teenage dog is crazy!

Help! My teenage dog is crazy!

After aggression issues, the most usual thing I get calls about is…. teenagers!

In fact, the two things often go hand in hand. But teenagers can pose problems in all sorts of ways, many of which owners feel unable to deal with. In many ways, that combination of puppyish play behaviours in a big dog body as your dog works its way through the full repertoire of canine behaviours can be a very testing time indeed.

It’s not a surprise so many teenagers end up in the shelter.

Would it be a surprise if I said to you that 80% of the dogs in our shelter are under three years of age?

Of those, 95% of our longer-stay dogs are male.

Of those, 95% are big.

That’s the sad reality.

If you are a big, young male, you are far more likely to find yourself staying for more than a couple of weeks, should you arrive in a shelter. You won’t behave any differently than a smaller dog, but it’s easier to accept some behaviours in smaller dogs.

And if you add lack of appropriate socialisation with humans, cats and other dogs to that equation, along with a lack of obedience training, you have yourself the profile of our young dogs. If you look a bit ordinary, a bit average, expect to find yourself lost in the system for a while.

You’d have thought they were from the same litter, wouldn’t you?

But our big, young guys are not just the stuff of shelters… I remember the days when my own dog Heston was a teenager. I remember the escapes, the chewing, the barking, the over-enthusiasm. I remember my frantic tears and the desperate attempts to just live with him. Everything he is now at five was born from my attempts to calm him, to occupy him and to actually manage him. He is a dab hand at freestyle heelwork, obedience and also at gundog stuff – but there were days when I’d spend hours working with him, wondering if it’d not be better for him to be rehomed.

That’s why I have a lot of sympathy for my clients who have dogs who are not exactly a teenage dream.

One of my clients phoned me, absolutely convinced that there was something dreadfully wrong with her flat-coated retriever, Murgatroyd. He’s a pedigree from great lines and many of his relatives work. What she was looking for really was a vet referral.

“He just bites out of the blue,” the conversation started.

Funnily, I’d had a conversation earlier that day with the owner of a Bernese Mountain Dog, Bernie.

“He just launches himself at my husband and grabs his leg! There’s something seriously wrong with him!”

I think there are many of us who think there is something wrong with our dogs when they are teenagers. It’s not unusual to have conversations about ADHD, about whether dogs have undiagnosed brain tumours, about rage… conversations with owners whose dogs have already seen the vet and ruled out any major health issues that may cause this.

In fact, when I mention over-arousal or over-excitement, often the owners are dismissive.

“No, he’s not like this all the time!”

But over-arousal isn’t an ‘all the time’ thing. Neither is over-excitement. Because the dogs have the semblance of some manners, the owners think that the dogs must be wired wrong. Often, it takes a full examination by a vet and some pretty heavy insistence from both of us to convince owners that their dog isn’t suffering from some kind of undiagnosed rage syndrome.

It’s only then, when we discuss common symptoms of over-arousal that owners often realise that yes, their dog is doing a lot of the other things too.

And then the penny starts to drop.

For Murgatroyd, he was a humper, a very friendly humper, but a humper nonetheless. And a digger. The lawn was filled with huge tank traps. He was also a barker. Barking, humping, digging and mouthing… bug-eyed lack of focus and panting all added up. On the diagram above, he was doing 8 of those 10 things.

For Bernie, he was jumping up all the time, circling and nipping when excited. He was regularly doing 5 of those 10 things.

Both boys pulled like a demon as well, despite choke chains (which were probably contributing to their arousal on walks, which I’ll explain later).

Once you start to see that the biting is part of a puzzle, and that the picture that the pieces make up is just an over-aroused dog, then it makes it a lot easier to devise a strategy to help your dog get through its teen years without  ending up in a shelter or being put to sleep because that mouthing gets more and more insistent.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t rule out every single possible biological or physiological cause with your vet. You absolutely should. It’s always the place to start when you have any behavioural abnormality. Even something simple like impacted anal glands can mean your dog is reluctant to sit down or is more restless than usual. But some disorders can become evident as dogs mature, such as problems with the thyroid or neurological issues such as focal epilepsy or intracranial pressure. There are many reasons to visit a vet, and teenage behavioural problems such as over-arousal and aggression are always good reasons.

So why might your teenage dog turn into a furry nightmare on legs?

Some of those medical issues above may well be behind it.

But there can also be other physiological reasons.

You’d think there may be “boy” issues, but every single dog I work with has been castrated prior to working with me and it hasn’t made a difference. Castration removes a lot of a dog’s ability to create testosterone, and whilst it may work on some problems such as roaming, it may not work on others, especially if that behaviour is driven by other hormones, chemicals or neurotransmitters. That’s like wondering why your fridge is still working when you’ve taken the fuse for the cooker out. If it’s not related to testosterone, castration won’t make a difference.

There is often a different cocktail of chemicals at work. Adrenaline is a big part of that. So is dopamine. Dopamine does lots of things, but it is heavily implicated in reward behaviours, learning and addictions, as well as in other pleasurable behaviours. It also has a central role in impulse control. Adrenaline is crucially implicated in arousal. Whilst we get bursts of adrenaline when we are under threat or stress, we also get adrenaline surges in response to excitement.

Just because it can be physiological doesn’t mean you can’t change it through behaviour modification. It’s something that doesn’t necessarily require a prescription to sort out.

And over-arousal may not be just the body at work.

There are, as I have mentioned, age-related issues. It’s unusual for an older dog who has previously been calm all their life to become massively over-aroused unless their life changes a lot. Usually, medical changes would be predictable there. We all know that puppies are balls of energy, but young dogs also need a lot of sleep. They also need to learn impulse control and they need to learn the rules of being an adult aren’t the same as being a puppy. For larger breeds, we all know it’s vital not to exercise them too much, with the risk of growth problems, but what do you do if you have a large breed who is over-aroused?

Again, lots of the strategies I’ll explore later will help with that.

Food can be an issue, just as it is in humans. Dogs don’t process sugar as we do, but if I say to you that my boss used to give me some full-sugar Coca-Cola and a bag of Haribo Sours before a meeting just to see me go, you’ll know why he found it so amusing. If you run marathons or do triathlons, you’ll know all about the importance of carb-loading for energy. Additives, sugars and unnecessary ingredients can all have a negative effect on canine behaviour, just as they do on human behaviours. As a rule, if you’re buying food from the supermarket, you may find that it isn’t an optimal diet for your teenage dog. Discuss this with a canine nutritionist or your vet, but know that there are very good diets out there, be they raw, cooked, home-made, dry or wet food, and it needn’t be inconvenient. Some will no doubt suggest low protein diets or seratonin-enhancing diets, but the very best thing to do if you think diet is the major contributing factor in your dog’s behaviour is to seek out a professional. It’s not something to tinker with yourself if you think that food is the primary cause behind your dog’s excited behaviour.

Lack of sufficient rest and sleep can be a problem and can also create young dogs who are permanently wired. Like you, your dog needs a low-noise, unstimulating environment in which to sleep. They also need a lot more sleep than you’d think. It should be comfortable and at the right temperature. Expecting your dog to cope with household arousal when they are surrounded 14 hours a day by family members and excitement is a recipe for a dog who’s living on the edge of its nerves. 8 hours of sleep may be enough for us, but it is not enough for our dogs.

Many are going to say that teenage behaviour is ‘dominance’ or a change in the rank of a family pack. So is your dog trying to dominate you if they’re showing any of the behaviours above? Whilst some dogs on occasion may be – perhaps – influenced by position in the canine group and their relationship with another dog in the family (and there are no good studies to support this for pet dogs), there is zero evidence that dogs consider us as part of their pack and are trying to dominate us. I’ve taken to replacing ‘dominant’ with ‘arsehole’ when people describe their dominant dog. I think it’s become a shorthand way to say the dog is unruly and doesn’t heed the owner as much as the owner requires without accepting responsibility for not having taught household manners. It blames some aspect of a canine ‘personality’ (and dominant behaviour definitely isn’t a personality trait!) rather than saying “hey, I’ve not taught my dog how to behave properly”. Somehow, if we say they are dominant, it sounds more scientific. Nobody wants to call their dog an unruly arsehole. Some cats behave like mannerless arseholes all the time but nobody describes them as trying to dominate their human. Dominance has become the great excuse for unruly behaviour, blaming the dog not the lack of family rules.

This is no place for a lecture on the whys and wherefores of dominant behaviour in dogs. That said, I think some of the better aspects of ‘treating’ so-called dominance may also be of help. Those are going to include clear boundaries in the home, regular and consistent handling from all the family members and clear rules. You don’t need to be a Sergeant Major to deal with unruly behaviour, but firmness and consistency in household rules and manners is vital.

Don’t forget: manners are taught, not caught. Your dog is not bound by the same social and cultural conventions as a human involving theft of food, for instance. A dog who takes food when he is hungry is excelling at being a dog. Even human beings have to be taught social conventions such as not raiding strangers’ cupboards if they are hungry. If you want your dog to do something, remember it needs to be taught.

Some people are also going to say your dog is challenging you. I don’t believe, however, that dogs push boundaries in the same way teenagers might do. I know how it is to face the challenges of teenagers who don’t understand the reasons behind social or cultural rules – believe me, when you’ve worked in schools as long as I have, you see a lot of that. I’ve certainly met teenagers who enjoyed getting a rise out of particular adults. But we do a lot of quashing teenagers’ “rebellion” with ‘Because I said so’, which doesn’t always wash. ‘Challenge’, even with human beings, is not always about pushing boundaries or rebelling against authority. I didn’t dye my hair to be rebellious but because I was finding out who I was and what I enjoyed. I liked noisy, dirty, loud music and I liked the way Lita Ford looked… It felt good to listen to Motley Crue, I got a lot of reinforcement from my friends, and I got a lot of peer reinforcement in ways that dogs just don’t. When we talk of challenge or rebellion, we need to keep those words for describing ourselves as humans, not our domesticated pets. He’s not going through a phase where he’s deliberately pressing your buttons.

Heston wasn’t showing off for his friends or rebelling against my rules.

But he was learning what felt good, what was rewarding and what wasn’t.

And sometimes that means getting attention in ways that your dog has realised is very effective, like barking at you or humping you, biting you and mouthing you.

They’re learning how to work the environment around them, finding out their preferences.

I liked, as a thirteen-year-old, to go off on the train to Manchester and explore. I liked long-haired boys and Hanoi Rocks, tight jeans and cider. I liked black eyeliner and red clothes. I very much defined my own taste and I picked and chose what worked for me. It wasn’t consciously about defiance or rule-breaking, but about finding myself. I still like to bugger off on my own and explore. I can pass happy hours wandering around cities and forests by myself. I still like noisy music, and my tastes are as broad and eclectic as they were when I was thirteen. I still have a thing about men with long hair, although I’m not a fan of the hipster man bun thing. And I still like cider, black eyeliner and red clothes. I wasn’t doing those things to be controversial or to be deliberately defiant, but because they appealed to something in me.

Dogs are the same.

Not that they like noisy rock metal or eyeliner.

But as they mature, they are developing preferences for things they enjoy, things that reward them. It’s not about defiance or dominance, but about preference. Dogs, actually, are a lot better at accepting ‘because I said so’ than teenagers. I thought, tonight, that Heston has never counter-surfed. He has never begged. He has never stolen food. He has never run off with my shoes. He has never made his own fun out of stealing things. We nipped his fun little off-site wanderings in the bud with some chicken wire fencing patches and what emerged out of the other side is a biddable, calmer dog. Sure, he has some bad habits. He loves a bark and a forage, he likes to explore, he’s a bit of a Tarzan with new friends and he is as noisy as I am. But those teen years are about trying out the full canine repertoire of dog behaviours and working out if it’s fun or not. Digging, barking, peeing on things, humping, counter surfing, stealing, chewing, biting, destroying stuff, dissecting toys, wandering, chasing things… all in the canine repertoire and all possible to be things teenage dogs will trial.

This is why, though, habits picked up in the teen years tend to be things dogs grow into rather than grow out of.

Tried it. Liked it. Worked for me. Will do it again.

This is especially true of behaviours that involve feel-good buzzes from adrenaline and dopamine.

If your dog has a particular bad habit though, and it is deeply ingrained, best to get some specific help for that problem. The longer they’ve been doing it, the harder it can be to stop.

So how do you deal with your furry teenager?

If you just have a common-or-garden over-aroused teenage dog, there are three things you really, really need to do to make a difference. That involves the right balance of mental and physical stimulation, teach focus and impulse control to help your dog manage their emotions and introduce a basic calming protocol to lower arousal.

The first is to bring over-arousal levels down through a balance of mental and physical stimulation. That means lots and lots of enrichment activities. It means making your dog’s brain work. This needn’t be time-consuming for you, but I promise you the best ones are the ones you do in partnership with your dog. They will take a bit of a time commitment, but the trade is that they’ll improve your relationship no end.

Some mental activities don’t take any time commitment from you at all. It’s fine to scatter food from time to time, to dig out your Kongs, to buy a load of lick mats and snuffle mats, to get out bones and chews, tendons and pieces of hide, but make sure you’ve got something you can actually enjoy with your teenager too.

I did heelwork to music first. Heston knows about 100 hand and voice commands and has a good routine to ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but it wasn’t his thing. It really was going through the motions for him. Scentwork fared better, but it was only when I began to do traditional gundog activities like blind retrieves, casting and quartering that he really came into his own. Know your dog, know what they like and do something every day in partnership with them. It can be really hard to stop yourself tearing your hair out with a teenage dog, and having an activity that reminds you of just how great they are can stop you coming to resent them. Plus it builds on the owner-dog bond, which is always a good thing. Fifteen minutes a day can make a real difference. Plenty of programmes do this, from Absolute Dogs to Susan Garrett’s Recallers’ Programme

You can also check out this fabulous Canine Enrichment group on Facebook. Be warned: there are people with a lot of kit and it can sometimes seem like it’s all about the food. It isn’t, and you don’t need all the cash in the world to keep your dog busy. But if you search for scent work or non-food, you’ll find at least a handful of ideas you won’t have tried yet and there’s plenty of stuff if you’re on a budget. Some of the ideas have become absolute go-to staples for me, like snuffle mats, scatter feeding and stuffed chews. But it should never be all about the food, nor all about things for your dog to do on their own.

The fact of the matter is that the more things your dog finds rewarding, the more you can use them. That includes handling, specific touches, massage, scent work, using smell, including food and edibles, and plenty of appropriate exercise from swimming to low-impact agility as well as toys and food. Bear in mind that your teenager may also be still growing so keep an eye on the physical exertion, and this is also a time when favoured objects can become accidental obsessions. Use the teenage years to build up a massive, huge bank of things your dog finds wonderful. You want that bank of things that your dog finds fun to be absolutely flipping massive. Twenty toys your dog loves, twenty scents (including the icky ones), twenty touches, twenty activities, twenty different taught words for praise and twenty food items  – you’ve got over a hundred amazing ways to reinforce your dog’s behaviour.

At the same time you are building up preferences, activities and mental stimulation you also need to watch the physical exertion. Adrenaline is addictive. I speak as an ex-runner who used to clock up 100km every week. There is a reason I am an ex-runner. Exertion is costly, physically. We all like to recall the 70-year-old doing the marathon, but in reality, addiction to adrenaline is no fun and it takes its toll physically. When it’s 2am, you can’t sleep and you’re itching for your trainers despite plantar fasciitis, it is a real moment or realisation, let me tell you. That’s as true for our dogs as it is for us. When Heston pulled a muscle earlier this year, the vet was convinced it was hip dysplasia. It wasn’t, but it cost me some sleepless nights wondering if I had caused this. Adrenaline begets adrenaline, and it can be hard to break that cycle with a dog who is almost bug-eyed with a crazy, amphetamine-like high. Now is not the time to take your dogs on 10-mile hikes or take up canicross or joring just to tire them out. To be honest, now, I’d avoid amping dogs up in their teenage years. Calmness is your friend. I made that mistake with Heston and it took me years to put right.

You may find other ways as well to find some calm for your dog. Gentle massage, Ttouch, music, even long, gentle grooming sessions can be just as calming for a dog as they are for you. If your dog is aroused by these, go slower and for shorter periods of time. Both Murgatroyd and Bernie had (male) owners who rough-housed with them. This has to stop I’m afraid. Whilst rough-housing might be fine with an adult dog who has good impulse control, it is massively over-arousing and I work with a couple of dogs whose mouthing is a direct response to rough play. I wrestle with Heston now from time to time, but he is six. I didn’t do it when he was 18 months and I’m glad for that. Dogs do play like-for-like with us if we play back – they play bow to us, they hip-check us and body slam us. It doesn’t take much for this to pass over into mouthing if you have a boisterous breed.

If you act like a dog and play like a dog, don’t be surprised if your dog plays back like a dog as well. I know dogs don’t see us as bald dogs on two legs, but if you play as dogs play, don’t be surprised if your dog doesn’t switch back to treating you like a human because they don’t know the rules have changed. How are they to know that a shoulder bump is par for the course but mouthing your limbs is not?

For dogs who do this as teens, there seem to be two agents: families who play physically with their dog, and dogs in single-dog homes who don’t get to play with other dogs, or those in homes with dogs who don’t play at all.

My sideline in foster caring for kittens involves a lot of work with small kittens on appropriate play. Having raised hundreds of non-clawy kittens, all that comes down to is appropriate play. My hands are never, ever honorary prey. We play with toys, but my kitts don’t ever chase my hands. The only thing my hands do is calm stroking and gentle grooming. People who play with their kittens using only their hands often end up with bitey, scratchy cats who don’t respect the ‘no-blood’ rule. Play finishes when this happens in my house and there’s no blood. We could all do with imagining dogs to be tigers with retractable claws and then we’d probably give off fewer mixed signals about play. This is especially true if your dog is going to grow up big.

It is really, really important as your dog leaves puppyhood around 12 – 20 weeks that you teach other things than jumping up or mouthing. Good manners are taught not caught, and there is no use crying over spilt milk when your ten-month old ridgeback or weimaraner is still nipping and playing far too hard. A puppy has no idea that the rules have changed unless you teach them.

Alongside teaching about these rules, it’s also important to teach focus and impulse control. These are things that you can be teaching your puppy from the moment you get them, because good impulse control in their teenage years will help them – and you – emerge unscathed. Dogs need to be taught that they don’t charge up to every single person or dog. They need to learn how to pass other dogs on lead without reacting or expecting to interact. They need to learn how to pass barking dogs and dogs behind fences, dogs in cars and dogs behind windows without feeling the need – or the right – to interact. This is as true for other dogs as it is for humans, cats, kids, cars, bikes and joggers. There are many great ways to teach impulse control, from Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” to Absolute Dogs’ games, from flirt pole games to games with food or other toys. A dog that knows to look to the owner before making a decision and knows that they don’t have to interact with the whole world is a dog who will emerge as a wonder-dog from its teenage years. The most simple way to do this is through toys. Once you have taught your puppy to retrieve, it’s not hard to use this to teach them to only chase, fetch and retrieve when you give the okay.

I think this is one of the most fundamental things that overly-aroused dogs lack: the ability to look to the owner or handler before interacting. The lack of understanding that there are some things we just don’t need to interact with is a big part of the problem.

The final thing I ask owners of over-aroused dogs to do is to implement a relaxation protocol, such as the one devised by veterinary behaviourist Dr Karen Overall. For this, alongside the enrichment activities, you may find you’re ditching the bowl completely and using all of your dog’s calories for learning. The Relaxation Protocol at its simplest is a “sit/stay” programme with a variety of challenges and complexities. It can be practised in a variety of environments and can build up to non-engagement in a range of more challenging situations. It’s something I adapt with owners, because some dogs find it too difficult, and every dog is different. For some, it’s a “down/stay” rather than a sit.

Other aspects of a dog’s life that can promote relaxation include Ttouch or canine massage, certain oils or flower remedies, zoopharmacognosy, white noise and music. Thinking more holistically will certainly help.

A final word is about collars. Many teenage dogs pull. The stronger they are, the more they can pose a problem for you. Whilst I have no problem with leads and flat collars for dogs who don’t pull, a dog who is pulling is in need of a programme to help them walk nicely. I heard someone say this week that harnesses encourage pulling. Hmm, I thought. Not sure about the ‘education’ harnesses that plant a dog nose-first on the floor if they pull, or those that restrict movement. They definitely don’t encourage pulling. More likely that normal collars or chokes discourage pulling, and a well-fitting comfortable harness is more likely to show how your dog walks normally. That might be pretty bad indeed if your choke collar has been the only reason your dog walks to heel.

However, once a dog starts pulling on a choke, a martingale or a normal collar (never mind a prong!) things happen that will increase your dog’s arousal, not lower it. If your dog is pulling towards something, limiting blood supply and oxygen will only increase arousal.

Nobody, not anybody, will tell you that being short of breath is good for lowering arousal.

If you have a reactive dog, the unpleasant sensation can add to those feelings. Lead tension can be a powerful clue that something arousing will shortly appear in view. Aroused dogs, in my experience, will still pull – whether you are popping, yanking, tugging or jerking, or even if you have a constant pressure. I’ve seen aroused teenagers being ‘popped’ every two or three paces by their owner. We use slip leads at the shelter at the beginning because dogs need to get used to a harness, and there are few harnesses easy to fit to a bouncing scaredy setter who has spent 23 hours confined and surrounded by 200 other dogs. But do you think those slips discourage pulling? For our pullers, we switch as soon as we can to a harness. They still don’t walk on a loose lead unless we do a programme with them, but at least they aren’t hurting themselves.

Switching to a harness at least means that YOU aren’t contributing to their arousal by interrupting their blood and oxygen supply to the thinking bits of the brain. Sure, you may then realise you need a loose-lead programme as well but this is not because harnesses encourage pulling, more that collars are unpleasant and they discourage pulling. The end-result is the same, but it’s not because harnesses make dogs pull more.

If you have a short-nosed dog, a dog with a predisposition to thyroid problems, a predisposition to eye problems, heart problems, collapsing tracheas, paralysed larynxes, heritable disc or spinal issues, syncope, retinal problems or glaucoma, the very last thing you want to do is allow them to pull even slightly against a flat collar, choke, slip-lead or half-choke. If you have a dog who has ANY congenital or heritable likelihood for anything to do with thyroids, breathing, heart problems, spinal problems, eye problems or inner ear problems, a harness may not discourage pulling in the same way, but it will certainly reduce the likelihood that you’ll accidentally spark some congenital disorder. From ataxia, bloat, cardiomyopathy and cervical disc disease right through to ventricular tachycardia and vasculitis, if your dog pulls and you want to avoid stressing your dog’s blood circulation or breathing, then a good harness and a loose-lead programme is a must.

So there you have it.

Alongside a wide variety of mental enrichment activities and a reduction in adrenaline-boosting physical activities, teaching impulse control games and using a relaxation protocol, you should see an over-all reduction in arousal and over-excitement. This programme should be specifically tailored to your dog’s own preferences and tendencies but it does no harm at all to build up other skills that are lacking. Whilst Heston, for instance, was a very independent teenager, if I only did independent activities with him, I’d end up making him even more ‘unbalanced’. By building on his tracking skills, his heelwork skills and finally his gundog skills, I was able to move him from independent to inter-dependent at the same time as building on his natural talents.

Every dog is different. For Murgatroyd, a harness, an hour or so of specific mental enrichment activities, a calming protocol and some impulse control games helped him get past his bitey stage. And for Bernie, a regular rule-structure, some scent-work, reduced physical rough-housing and a relaxation protocol helped him learn how to play with his owners without grabbing.

Please get in touch with a force-free dog trainer or behaviourist if you are having problems and you want a way forward.


Help! My dog keeps escaping!

Help! My dog keeps escaping!

I don’t think there’s anything more worrying than a dog who is an escape artist or a dog with poor recall. When our dogs are out and about, our modern world turns into a nightmare – one filled with any number of ways our dogs could get into trouble, become an anti-social menace, get into an accident or even end up dead. I’ve written about digging and escaping before, but today I wanted to take a closer look at the reasons why dogs escape, including four more serious reasons.

I really hadn’t thought about escape problems until I started getting the figures through for our local pound. When you see as many animals as we do at the pound coming through, you come to see the many number of reasons dogs have to escape, and the problems it causes – mainly for the dogs, for the community, for other animals, for those who are charged with capturing them and for motorists. Even for those who wander without causing harm or getting harmed themselves, it can also cause a problem if your animal is in need of daily medication.

But it’s not just about those who arrive at the pound – it’s about those who don’t, whose owners spend years looking for a fearful dog who was never captured, or owners who receive the most terrible news of all.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the corpse of a husky was found by the road near our shelter, having been hit by a car. There are several dogs who meet such a fate every single month. Barely a month goes by at the pound without an animal coming in seriously injured from a run-in with a car, a van or a lorry.

And vehicles are not the only hazards.

A hungry animal is more likely to accidentally poison themselves.

A loose dog is more likely to come up against other animals, be they wild or domesticated. You might not think a dog in a horse field is a problem until you’ve been asked to identify the corpse of the dog the next morning.

Some fearful dogs become impossible to catch, and it is only through our luck or near starvation that they find themselves trapped, as others are never caught.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you about the terrors that await a loose animal, even one that is road-savvy. You’re reading it because you already know the possible fate of dogs who escape.

And you don’t need me to tell you the feeling you have of sick dread and anxiety that you have when your dog has absconded.

You do want to know why your dogs escape and how to best deal with it.

So why do dogs escape?

There are lots of Fs involved here: fighting, fleeing, fornicating (I’m being polite because I know how uncouth I am at heart), food, friends, fun and following something.. That’s not any order of rank or merit. I would hazard a guess that fun & friends, fleeing, unexpected freedom, following something and fornication are the top reasons, but there are few statistics available based on why dogs escape – I can only go off the dogs we get through the pound and those who are returned to the shelter.

Those five reasons are behind why dogs escape – many of them emotional or instinctive. This is going to affect the choices you make on how to prevent their escape, so knowing the emotions or instincts behind the escape is fundamental to solving the problem completely. This is about the one behavioural problem that doesn’t come with an absolute need to get a vet check – although some of the solutions may call for a vet.

The biggest risk factors of severe accident or death statistically for our area are for elderly dogs and for those who abscond together. I don’t know why that is for dogs who go off as a pair, but the risks for a pair of dogs who go are much, much higher than for dogs who go alone. The risks are also much higher for elderly dogs, although the reasons behind that make more sense. Poor eyesight and hearing, dementia and poor response times are all health factors that negatively impact your dog’s chance of survival.

I’ll explore some of the five reasons in more detail. Some I have already explored in my previous post on the topic.

One of the very first things to consider is if your dog is escaping TO do something or escaping FROM something. Many dogs are attracted by something over the boundary fence, but some of the saddest cases I know are the dogs who are escaping from a perceived threat in the place where they are supposed to feel safest.

Let’s start with the easier stuff…. escaping to do something on the other side.

One of the reasons a dog might escape is hormonal. It’s not the call of nature, it’s the call of hormones. It won’t surprise you that a lot of roaming is based on our number one biological urge: procreation. Whilst female dogs won’t be responsible for bringing all the boys to the yard when they’re on heat, if they are walked regularly or they are loose, the smell of their hormones in urine and in the air may be enough to sway the usual direction of a male dog. So it’s unlikely that your male dog will wander from the yard unless a female in season is in fairly close proximity, but if your male dog catches a scent, it may be enough to cause them to wander. In one village near me, when three local females would wander around when they were in season, the number of intact male strays suddenly increased massively. That’s not a shocker, is it?

Sterilisation may reduce wandering which is caused by hormonal drives, but it won’t reduce wandering that’s rooted in other behaviours. If your dog can get out, though, sterilisation will not just inhibit their likelihood to wander, but it will also stop them taking part in any unplanned matings. A question to raise with your vet, for sure.

But if you are hoping sterilisation will stop your dogs going for a wander, you may be in for a shock if it has little effect.

Escape can be related to genes and training as well. There is a reason why my neighbour’s hunt hounds are kept in a secure pen – biology is not something that is always easy to bring under control if you’re a dog who has been bred for independence and for ability to follow smells. If gallumphing through the undergrowth as part of a team is in your blood and you’ve been trained to do it, if you’ve got wildlife regularly roaming past your home, it’s not impossible to think that it may cause some animals to go off on their travels. After all, an ice cream van will get me out of the house when nothing else does.

Roaming cats or other wildlife can be a problem for the untrained dogs who become self-employed. Cats are often lucky that dogs are secure, as they aren’t always shy of coming into gardens where dogs live. You’d think with the number of dogs I have, it’d put cats off for good. Not so. Plenty of dogs are capable of chasing a cat or a squirrel over or under a fence that they’d never normally breach. And other dogs have a better genetic sense of ‘stay put’ like lifestock guarding breeds or those used for protection work. A dog that couldn’t be left independently to stick with a flock of sheep wouldn’t be good at its job. But that is not just a question of genes, but a question of training as well. Your Grand Pyrennees may well be a homebody, but unless they’ve been specifically trained to stay with the flock, they too may wander.

Genes and hormones are only part of the equation. Learning is the rest. I’ve had two shepherds that patrolled happily or never thought to abscond, and two who did one when opportunity presented itself. You may have the right ingredients to be a homebody, but it’s not a thing dogs just do by instinct.

Much of that is about the original incident in which escape happened.

I did it once. It was high amounts of great dog fun. I’ll do it again.

I had a few weeks about four years ago where my shepherd cross Heston was always buggering off through a hole. Since the behaviour increased, I can only assume that it was very rewarding out there, otherwise he’d not have done it again.

It’s now been a good three years since he went off for a wander, even though there are certainly holes he could get out of if he wanted. Very little actually changed other than I broke the habit. I’m always vigilant for the moment where he ‘remembers’ and that epic learning experience is remembered, but it’s not a surprise that he started doing it because he was young, he was unsupervised and he had means, motive and opportunity. The holes were there. There is still a lot of game that comes via my garden. He was unsupervised. A learning trifecta that led to some very enjoyable roamings indeed.

And because it was such epic dog fun, it was likely to be repeated.

Once a dog has sussed out how, they’re quick to repeat it.

Epic dog fun is one reason a dog might hup a fence and bugger off. One of our dogs was returned after an 18-month adoption for constantly getting over a 2m fence to play with the dog and the kids next door. Another dog was returned for a very similar thing. Dogs are social species. For those kept in isolation outside, don’t be surprised if the dog suddenly finds a burst of motivation to escape if there is something willing to play on the other. Of course, there are other emotions at work here. There is a reason those dogs are not secure in the house, often. Usually that is because they are destructive indoors. There can be different emotions behind that, but if one of them is boredom, don’t be surprised if a dog finds the outside way less boring because they can get out and make their own fun. Lack of supervision with a young, energetic, bored dog and you have a recipe for an escape artist. The desire to have fun and to play can be a very powerful motivator indeed for a social animal. If all that social fun is on the other side of the fence, then you have a situation where it is not unlikely a dog will decide to

What would pull Heston out of the garden again? Threat. If his barking and growling at the fence didn’t make the threat put some distance between them and the boundary, it’s not unreasonable to think that Heston might up his own level of threat.

If you watch anything like Ring, Mondioring, French Ring, IPO, Schutzhund with shepherds, you can see at the ‘Guard of Object’ trial how they take a dog who has been bred to stay put and use training to refine and hone those skills. Basically, the dog has to stay put on an object whilst an ‘attacker’ comes to retrieve it. Well-trained dogs will circle the object, staying right on top of it and only come off to attack when the threat becomes imminent. What makes them breach that invisible boundary? Threat. And then they return to base.

For some dogs, were a threat to come too close to the boundary, be it canine or human, then they would be more likely to go off territory to increase the distance between the threat and the territory. Mondioring and sports like this just capitalise on a fairly usual dog behaviour. It’s in the canine repertoire, and dog sports just capitalise on that, polishing and refining it.

Now, this is just a hypothetical situation. Heston is not that territorial that he’s ever likely to do that, but if there’s a bit of faulty wiring or a lot of stress, it’s not unreasonable to find dogs darting out of secure spaces to force a threat to make some distance, before they return once again to their territory. The aim of this behaviour is not to escape. It’s designed to protect a territory from threat. Territorial aggression and its relation to escape needs very careful management because the risks are very high. But how you address it may be very different than how you deal with a dog who is escaping to go and chase squirrels. One of those dogs is going to need a lot of motivation to stay put and one is going to need ways to minimise their sense of threat from the outside environment.

Aggression and predation, then, can be other factors that influence a dog’s behaviour around boundaries.

Most of these situations are ‘escape to’ situations, in which something over the fence is more attractive than staying put would be. Given the choice, it’s more appealing to get out. Fun, friends and fornication make up a lot of the reasons why a dog may escape.

But some of the harder cases to work with are cases where dogs are ‘escaping from’ something in the home. There are several conditions in which a dog may feel the need to escape from a situation, and many of these happen in great homes where the dogs should feel safe. Four of these behaviours present such a level of distress that they almost certainly will need some degree of professional support, be that from a vet or a behaviourist.

Containment phobia is one such phenomenon. This is the dog who hates to be confined to such an extent that it is a very real phobia or fear. This can be a biological instinct for self-preservation – feeling cornered often makes us fearful and anxious. We want to know where our escape routes are if we are under threat. If some kind human has gone to great lengths to make it impossible for us to escape if something startles us, that is going to add to our anxiety and our fear response. These are the dogs who may trash a crate or small room, but feel happier with an open house. I know there’s a view that crates create a sense of ‘den’ for dogs, but a locked crate is not a den that a dog can choose to get in or get out of… it is a prison. If you’re used to transporting dogs in transport crates, you’ll know the sound of a panicked dog who is frantically digging at the crate or biting it in hopes that something will give. It doesn’t happen often, but the frantic scrapes of a dog who will wear its claws to the quick to get out are not sounds you want to hear if you’re moving dogs about. Vet techs and vets will know these dogs too: the ones who panic in crates and on whom sedation rarely works. When we feel trapped, we’ll go to desperate measures to secure our safety, which is why a 5kg minpin trashed a crate that has safely housed a 45kg shepherd.

For some dogs, containment phobia isn’t just claustrophobia – an enclosed space doesn’t have to be small. These are the dogs who focus their destruction on doors and windows or on gates. It’s not just generalised distress, but a very focused, targeted destruction in panicked attempts to get out.

If you think you have a dog with containment phobia, you will see that whether someone is present or not. It may present as separation anxiety or isolation distress, but a dog who has a phobia of being confined will present that behaviour when they are in company or when you are home. Don’t get me wrong: this is not just a dog who doesn’t want to be in a crate or behind a door because they want to be near you. This is a dog who is panicking because they feel trapped. This is dogs who panic when they are confined or constrained, even on a lead sometimes.

It can be hard to work out the difference between containment phobia, desire to get IN to a room, desire to get OUT of a room, even to understand who is doing it if you live with a number of dogs. Video is your friend here, and the help of someone who can identify the probable motivation behind the behaviour.

As you can see from this image, there are lots of ways dogs can cause damage around doors. Want to tell me which one is caused by containment distress during a storm, which one was caused by a greedy dog getting into the place the food is kept and which one was caused by an over-excited dog who knew his owner was on the other side?

Just because your dog is causing damage near doors, gates or crates when unsupervised is nothing in itself. A good behaviourist is looking to understand the motivation behind the destruction and to understand exactly what is happening and when. They’re also looking for other behaviours that form a part of the habit. For instance, I’m working with a dog at the moment whose owner told me the dog suffered from separation anxiety. It had one symptom (escape was not part of it, nor destruction to doors) and when we videoed the dog, it turned out the dog was actually fine when alone. The behaviour was unrelated to anxiety from being left alone and was related more to lack of supervision at that time.

The moral is that you’ve really got to know what’s going on before you make a judgement.

Often, there’s evidence that containment phobia or distress at being confined is the result of a fearful dog having a one-off learning event in which they were confined. A very poor vet experience, poor crate training, being found roaming and trapped into a transport cage, being cornered, being moved about in a small crate or being kept in a small crate during trauma may cause this, but so can being confined during a storm or some other event that the dog considers to be traumatic. If the dog associates the fearful event outside the crate or space with the crate itself, then it may well panic if unable to escape.

The key thing here is that you will see this panic whenever the dog is contained or confined, or in a small space. Other than that, it may manifest similarly to separation anxiety or isolation distress. Attempts to escape are rooted in panic and a sense of relief from the choices the real world can have. If you’ve saved a streetie, you may find they panic in the home if they’ve only ever roamed. For dogs who have not been used to walls and doors, it can be very distressing to have an event occur that scares you and then not be able to get away, especially if your journey to your new home was also under stressful circumstances in a small transport crate. You can see how easily those things can be linked –  the movement, darkness, other animals who are also afraid and the sense of confusion only happen when you are in the crate. It is rare, but increasingly more common because of the number of fearful free-ranging dogs being rehomed. How you deal with containment phobia or claustrophobia should only be worked on with a vet and a behaviourist if symptoms are extreme. For my dog Amigo, who hates storms and confinement, he copes with storms as long as he can find his own safe spot, but his symptoms are minor compared to some dogs I know.

Separation anxiety can also cause a dog to want to escape from confinement. It is not the fact that they are contained that they are fearful of, but the fact that they are not with you. Again, escape is only one factor in this and you will no doubt find other symptoms. Video is the quickest way to clear up whether your dog has separation anxiety or not. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, you may also wish to get expert help. It is not easy to deal with on your own, and a planned programme is more effective than hit-and-miss attempts to help your dog feel secure. How you treat separation anxiety is different than containment phobia. One relies on teaching your dog to feel okay on its own. The other relies on teaching your dog to feel okay in confined or closed spaces. And the two behavioural labels are not mutually exclusive: it’s not uncommon to find dogs who have developed a sense of containment phobia because they associate it with separation.

Isolation distress is another reason a dog may seek company and seek to escape from a situation where they are on their own. Dogs are social species. Whether they feel most comfortable with their owner or are happy as long as there’s a familiar creature around, separation anxiety is different from a dog who just feels anxious because they are alone. Malena diMartini-Price, who wrote the excellent Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs says that, often, mild cases of separation anxiety do not involve hyper-attachment to the owner (ie your dog isn’t trying to escape to find you specifically) but for my old mali, he certainly had isolation distress (any old warm body would do for company) but he also had some hyperattachment/shadowing, and his distress was certainly not mild – it is not mild when a 14-year-old dog who is crippled with arthritis will move furniture, destroy window fittings and break gates to come and find you. On the whole, though, I do tend to agree. Isolation distress is an easy rule-out as well. Is their behaviour different when left with a friend than it is when they are left alone? Tilly howls constantly when left alone, but sleeps in company. Amigo paces when alone, and sleeps in company. Though they are relatively mild symptoms, they are both relieved completely by being left with other dogs.

In most cases, a gradual and carefully planned programme of desensitisation will help your dog habituate to isolation, separation, small spaces or confinement. However, it is what you are desensitising them to that will change. No point desensitising a dog to small spaces if they are not claustrophobic, or to isolation if they are not distressed when alone.

With programmes such as these, it can also be easy to inadvertently sensitise the dog more to the situation, making them worse not better. You need a ‘Goldilocks’ of a programme: not too challenging, not too easy. That in itself can be hard to do, which is why for these four types of behaviour, working with somebody else will really help. Accidentally making the dog worse is not something you want to happen!

Just a final note on how you secure your distressed dog… I’m becoming less and less of a fan of invisible electrified boundaries (or even visible ones). For a dog who hups a fence in search of fun, the motivation to cross the fence in search of it can be huge. Because you’re pairing a negative stimulus that is then followed by a positive one, the negative stimulus risks losing all its power, as it’s just a clue that fun will happen. For a dog who hups a fence to escape from something, the shock also precedes the sense of freedom, and will not prevent a distressed dog from seeking out the relief of space. Negative experiences followed by positive ones may only serve to take away the power of the punisher. That means you’ll need more and more power to that punisher. Are you prepared to keep turning the level up and up until you reach the maximum?

Funnily, I was just watching Mondioring trainer Michael Ellis (I wanted a photo of mondioring object-guarding) and he talks about shock collars in the world of mondio. Now I don’t share aversive stuff (which is why you don’t have a photos of a mali guarding a stop sign with this post) but I do listen to trainers talking about the use of bad stuff, as I hope they listen to us about the use of good stuff. He talks about when they use shock and when they don’t, but he also talks about the accidental factor of causing superstition when you use electricity. He says, and I totally agree, that using electricity is like no other sensation a dog has, and he talks too about how that can inadvertently cause a dog to generalise about the wrong stuff. Because it is such a novel punishment, it has to be used so, so carefully – more carefully than I think most people are capable of doing, or more carefully than most dogs are able to experience.

I think that what he said about superstition is SO true of invisible fencing. Mostly, when a dog will approach a boundary is when it wants something on the other side. Now that may not be such a horrible thing if the dog is seeking a squirrel or a snake compared to if a dog who hates dogs has seen another dog on the other side of the fence. I have much less of a problem with Lidy the Lou learning that if she tries to chase a cat over the fence, she will get a bad thing happening than I do with Heston learning that every time he approaches the fence to bark at the postman or a dog on the other side. I absolutely do not want, at all, my dog to feel WORSE about stuff he already feels bad about. Now I’m not about to use shock on Lidy to tame her predatory instincts, but it would be way, way worse if I tried to use shock with Heston. Do you think he will feel BETTER about the bad stuff outside if I add shock, or WORSE? Imagine if, for some easily understandable reason, he comes to associate the passing dog outside the fence with a punisher such as a shock? Horrific learning consequence right there.

Not only that, electric fences are completely incapable of determining whether your dog is coming or going. If a dog goes over, how do they get back when their motivation to be inside the boundary wasn’t so great to begin with? If I ran off because of a storm, and the pain wasn’t big enough to keep me in, do you think I’ll risk crossing back again once the storm has gone? If I escaped to have fun with my mates and risked a shock to do it, do you think I’ll hup back over it to get back into a place I didn’t want to be in in the first place? Were they one-way, that’d be different than indiscriminately shocking a dog whether it’s coming or going. For the time it teaches the dog to use an invisible electric fence properly, you can easily have taught other behaviours. Makers of invisible boundaries – or even visible ones – don’t tell you that, do they? Nor do they make clear the risks associated with the fact that their fences don’t distinguish between coming or going. Now you don’t want them to go, that’s for sure, but if they do, you definitely want them to be able to return.

If your dog is reactive, fearful or aggressive towards things outside the boundary, a shock collar or electrified fence is not the answer. If they are attracted to the world outside and the shock is just a precursor to fun, don’t be surprised that they don’t feel motivated to come back under their own steam and if that threat of shock is enough to keep them out when it wasn’t enough to kep them in.