How to work with your dog to overcome triggers

How to work with your dog to overcome triggers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lili Chin & Grisha Stewart 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what happens if they move in?

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

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

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

So… where do you start?

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

What we are interested in are the behaviours before.

What do they do?

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

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

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

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

The first is ‘Sit!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crate and kennel guarding: teaching a new response

Crate and kennel guarding: teaching a new response

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

So why do dogs guard spaces? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So often, those barriers are there for a reason. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I guess that goes without saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full protocol is available to download here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fearful behaviour

Fearful behaviour

Fearful behaviour is another really thorny, long-term issue that many adoptants struggle with, particularly if your new rescue is completely shut down. In many ways, like separation anxiety, it is one of the most distressing behaviours that your dog can suffer from. Often, it can be tied up with aggression or reactivity around humans or other animals. It can manifest in escape behaviour, confinement phobia, destructive behaviour or isolation distress, and is not easily managed. What is worse is that many of us share a desperate desire to do something, anything, to help these dogs overcome their fearfulness, and we can often make it worse.

There are many reasons why a dog is fearful or less resilient than another. Patricia McConnell gave a talk recently for the ASPCA about resilience in dogs, and she talks of their ceiling or upper limits for resilience on a scale of 1 – 10. I think the same is true for fearful dogs, too. There is a limit to which our fearful dogs can bounce back, and I think that is often hard for owners to accept.

Sometimes that number on the scale is driven by genetics. Often it is a result of breeding. Some breeds are naturally more timid than others. It is unusual to get a shut-down beagle for instance, or a wire-haired fox terrier, but not out of the realms of possibility. But to get a scared or shut-down griffon or hound come through our gates is no rarity. And it is not that much about experience. Anglo-Français hounds, for instance, live in much the same conditions for the same purposes as an Ariègeois hound, but it is unusual to get a very timid Poitevin or Anglo, and incredibly usual to get a timid Ariègeois. Maybe we just get the gunshy ones and the rejects, though. I can’t say for sure. But where some breeds have the potential for a 10 out of 10 potential for confidence and extroversion, some dogs have perhaps a potential for a 6 or 7.

Sometimes it’s a result of parenting or family lines within a breed. Timid canine parents give rise to timid canine babies. They can be unusually fearful of new experiences within the breed. Accidental or thoughtless breeding can result in adult dogs who will never reach more than a 4 or 5 on that scale. Very, very occasionally, that may even be as limited as a 2 or a 3. For seven spaniels who came to the refuge over two years ago and who have now all been adopted, for the whole family, their chance to recover from fear or to cope with new experiences is perhaps a maximum of 5 for one or two. For two of them, one year on after their adoption, to think they might be a 2.5 out of 10 one day is as high an expectation as we could ever have.

It can also be pre-natal experience, in utero. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has the potential to cross the placental barrier if the mother experiences particularly high levels of it. Thus the puppies are born into a world that their bodies are already telling them is stressful or traumatic. Stressed mothers give rise to stressed offspring, and it’s not always a learned behaviour. Resistence to stress and resilience after a stressful event is very much determined by breed, familial lines and events during pregnancy. Those things in themselves can dictate whether a dog will be a 4 or a 10 on that scale.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. As soon as a puppy’s eyes open around 2 – 3 weeks, it is no longer cossetted in the comfort of a senseless existence. Their window for socialisation is long – much longer than it is for many wild predators, and certainly much longer than it is for species who serve as prey to predators. But even so, if we don’t prepare our puppies for life by the time they are 13 weeks old, we are only ever to undertake remedial socialisation.

After even 6 weeks, a puppy is much less open to experience than it had been at 5 or 4 weeks. One fearful trip in the car around 6 – 8 weeks can lead to a lifetime’s fear of cars. Then there are secondary fear periods throughout juvenile and adolescent periods that may affect a young dog too. One-off events in adolescence can make a big impact.

By the time, then, that you pick up an adult rescue dog, nature and nurture have done a good job of determinining whether you’re getting a dog who is fairly bomb-proof, or whether you’re getting a dog who is destined to go through life finding much of it the equivalent of living in a war-zone. The reason your dog is fearful is often nothing to do with abuse or neglect.

As with everything, a trip to the vet is part and parcel of eliminating medical reasons for fearfulness. Fear of being handled can be a reaction to pain. If a dog steers clear of you, they could have pains you just don’t know about yet. Deafness or hearing problems can also be an issue. Storm phobia or sensitivity to the weather is another type of issue that can have issues later: dogs who are storm phobic are more likely to suffer hearing loss in later life. Whether there is a link or whether it is just a surprising correlation isn’t known yet, but finding out your storm phobic dog has an inner ear infection that can be cleared up through a course of anti-biotics is much easier than dealing with his storm phobia. Of course, fearful dogs can be incredibly afraid of the vets, so many owners avoid taking them and miss out on a medical diagnosis that could be easily dealt with. Hypothyroidism and many other medical complaints can lead to behavioural changes. This is especially important if you have lived a long time with a dog who has become or is becoming fearful rather than a dog who has always been fearful.

The first step in overcoming fearfulness in a dog is knowing that you may need to adjust your expectations of what your dog will ever achieve in terms of confidence. It may never, ever be possible for your dog to find car rides to a busy day at the beach something wonderful or joyous. For some dogs, two hours in the car followed by ten hours on the beach surrounded by kites and tides, deckchairs and barbecues, screaming children, ice-cream vans and other dogs may never, ever be possible. A ten-minute ride in the car to a quiet lake with one or two people in the distance and a few quiet yachts out on the water may be the most your dog will ever cope with. And you may not ever get them to find that as pleasurable as you do.

The first thing you have to do then is ask if your expectations are humane? Is it kind to the dog to want to take them to a busy fairground? Is it kind to even ask them to find a fairly quiet park to be something of pleasure?

You also may have to adjust your timescale as to when you might expect progress. And you may have to factor in setbacks too. For some, overcoming fear can be a lifelong journey.

You may also have to do a lot of management and anticipation. For some dogs, a home may be a confining prison full of strange noises and bizarre contraptions like garbage disposal or refrigerators humming. Even the wires in your walls and your lights make sounds that can be terrifyingly incomprehensible to a dog. What you also cannot do is ever contemplate punishment or negativity, even if they become aggressive in the face of fear. Yesterday, when grooming a dog who seemed to be very much enjoying it, his eyes flickered. He moved away and growled, showing his teeth. The only time I have ever seen a dog do this has been when it has been safely on a lead or behind a fence when I could get away, or between dogs when it has escalated into a full-on attack if there wasn’t some substantial giving way. This one was blocking my escape. Something set him off – fear of being touched maybe, despite how much he’d been enjoying it – and despite how utterly terrifying it was, I was stuck. The only tool I had in my toolbox was my own body language. I froze. Two minutes, I was trapped there with a dog who was frozen too, eyeing me in case I moved, a dog with a bite history. When fear and aggression come together, it can be the most dangerous of situations. So you have to think of your own safety. If your dog is fearful of touch, confinement or restraint, grooming, handling or manipulation, make sure you always have an escape plan. Not every dog will shut down when afraid. Some will come out fighting. If you are in any way trying to deal with a fearful dog with methods to make them submit, be prepared for it to fail and it to risk both the dog’s life and your own. Now is not the time at all to subscribe to hierarchy and pecking order schools of thought. It is also not the time to ‘flood’ your dog by over-exposing them to the objects of their fear in a hope that they will ‘get over it’. This will almost certainly also lead to a shut-down dog or a dog who fights back.

For many dogs, being “shut down” is a learned response to stress. In human terms, we call this ‘learned helplessness’.

Many will no doubt accuse me of anthropomorphism. Seligman’s experiments about depression and stress in the 1960s were, however, performed on dogs.

What did he learn? That dogs who had faced inescapable trauma in the past could not see a way out, even when one was provided.

He said, for humans, that the best way to help them out of learned helplessness, was to help them find the exits, metaphorically speaking.

The same is true for dogs. We have to teach them how to cope again.

For humans, this is easier. We have talking therapies, hypnotherapy, cognitive therapies, group therapies, medications. We have psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, therapists. An enormous amount of funding is dedicated to helping us be resilient. We can learn to cope with trauma and become resilient once again. Despite all that, there are a lot of people who still have unresolved problems or fears. But if you’ve ever found yourself backing out of a friendship or relationship because the person ‘needed therapy’ or ‘had baggage’, then imagine this for dogs, who have no use for ‘human’ therapies at all.

So how do we teach them how to cope and find those exits from trauma or stress?

The first is by managing the environment in which the dog lives. Change and household disruption is challenging enough with a resilient dog, and can be almost impossible for a fearful dog. A household filled with lively, unpredictable children is also not a home for a dog who needs a lot of behavioural change. Regular routines, including mealtimes and bedtimes will be vital. Quiet homes away from major roads and away from a lot of external stimuli will also be a real bonus. Fearful dogs are more likely to try to escape if something startles them, so a secure garden is a must. That may well include netting over the top – when you’ve seen dogs scale 3m fences, or jump and clear 2m ones, you realise how nothing short of a total prison may be required just to keep them safe.

Needless to say, never let a fearful dog off the lead until you are 100% sure that they are unlikely to have a flight response (or fight) response and that you have a good six month period where you’ve not had a fearful response to anything on a walk. Anything less and you are risking the dog bolting for good. It is impossibly hard to catch fearful dogs, who then evade capture like a professional. Sadly, most fearful dogs who get out are never recaptured and we can only assume the worst.

A house may also in itself be difficult for a fearful dog to cope with, especially if they have never lived in a house before. Sometimes, the kindest thing to do is give them an indoor garage space with a dog flap into a secure, concreted outdoor yard space, and gradually introduce them to the house at their own pace.

Many fearful dogs may also have never known humans. Cutting them off from their own kind can leave them as autistic strangers who have nothing in common with their new life and no way to understand or communicate with the creatures around them. A confident dog can be the making of a fearful dog. To see how Jazzy, a fearful setter, came on leaps and bounds with Isaac was to watch a miracle happen. This is not always the case, but consider carefully about whether the fearful dog you plan on adopting or you have already in your home is a dog who only speaks ‘canine’ and finds it easier to be with others of his kind. Although little study has been done on how dogs learn from other dogs, dogs can and do learn from the others around them, just not as often as we’d like. If being with a confident dog was a ‘fix’ for fearfulness, it would make it very easy indeed. But it is a factor to consider. Certainly for dogs who suffer from isolation distress, other animals are a must. Just remember that learning goes both ways.

It is not enough, then, to simply want to save a fearful dog, to have noble intentions.

You have to have the right home for them, otherwise your struggle is going to be an uphill one.

You also will make more progress if you are conscious of your own body language around dogs. Turid Rugaas’s excellent book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals can help you learn how to move around your dog in ways that are not threatening or scary for your dog. For instance, few people realise how a direct stare or eye contact can be very rude and ill-mannered between dogs, yet we expect our dogs to stare dotingly into our eyes. Your attempts to look into the soul of your fearful dog could be making them think you have aggressive intentions. Tips like not looking directly at the dog, making very small movements, turning your back on the dog (if you trust them not to attack), turning your head away from them, or crouching or sitting on the floor can show them that your intentions are positive. It is vital to let a fearful dog approach you, and not the other way around, forcing the reaction. When you have a positive relationship with your dog and they trust you, progress will be much easier.

You can’t establish trust with a dog, though, if you keep forcing them to do uncomfortable things.

When you have managed your environment, so that it is as stress-free as possible for recovery, and you have also managed your own behaviour, you can then also start to write a list of your dog’s triggers – the things that set them off. For a fearful dog, you have to think about all the senses: sights, sounds, smells, sensations. That can be touch. It can be even things like a gust of wind. Whilst you may not be aware of the effect of your wind chimes or the buzz of a fluorescent light, these can be precisely the things that make it hard for your dog to settle. Then other things like thunderstorms, cars passing, sirens, low-flying planes. Even insects can be difficult for some animals to cope with if they have been stung in the past. You want a list of every single thing that sets your dog off on a fearful pathway. That can be people. Once you know it’s people, you can start to work out what type of people. It’s common for dogs to be afraid of men, though this is not usually an abuse reaction. Men have harder faces, more facial hair and are often taller and more purposeful in their actions than women. It could just be one of those things.

For triggers, you may well find that your dog can cope with one or two, but when the triggers come together, it can cause fearful responses.

Normally, our responses to triggers means that we have a recovery period between, where our adrenaline pathway returns to normal and our body adapts to the stressor.

When we start down the stress response pathway, adrenaline is produced to help us run or fight. Cortisol is also produced. This is important and we’ll come back to it later. Normal responses to stress include avoidance (not looking at it, backing off, seeking shelter) defense aggression (growling, snapping, barking) looking for contact with humans or other animals for reassurance (hiding between your legs, often!) seeking attention from a bonded human or animal. When dogs can’t escape or attack, you will see other behaviours too. Lip-licking, flat ears, tense faces, panting, low body posture, seeking escape, slow movements. They’ll be reluctant to take a treat (which has implications for positive training and counter conditioning to overcome the response)

Normally, the trigger goes away and the situation returns to normal. The body stops making stress hormones and within 70-110 minutes, most of those hormones have dissipated. The dog learns to tolerate these small events and episodes. Cats in the garden, postal workers, teams of cyclists going past… they’re strange and unfamiliar events and your dog will have periods between them to recover.

But when a fearful dog lives in a state of constant stress, those triggers stack up.

You know this very well if you’re a regular Woof Like To Meeter.

At this point, not only does the adrenaline not subside, but the cortisol in a dog’s system has no chance to subside either. Where adrenaline is used up quickly in the fight-or-flight response, cortisol, the stress hormone, is not. It takes much longer, sometimes as long as two weeks between fear reactions.

This is when it’s time for a ‘cortisol vacation’ or a ‘cortisol break’ – a period of time where your dog has as few triggers as possible. Usually, this means no walks and no over-stimulation. No ball play or energetic play (which also sets off an adrenaline response) and absolutely zero triggers. This might be two weeks, or it might be a month or two. Only your dog can tell you.

That means too that you’ll need to find other ways to engage and entertain your dog so that their system has a chance to purge itself of cortisol. There are plenty of ways you can keep your dog’s mind going when you are having a break from walks or stressful environments: Real Dog Yoga, mental games, brain games for dogs and Sprinkles are just four ways. This can be tough to manage in a multi-dog pack if you walk together, but I generally find the collective energy of group walks for dogs to be incredibly over-arousing, not a good way to let off steam at all. It takes a bit of getting around, but see if even a 48-hour break makes a difference? 48 hours without walks won’t do your other dogs any harm and could begin to break a pattern of over-arousal in the home.

You can also use this time to build in other trust-building exercises like “Look at Me” where you reward your dog for moving towards you. Reinforcing basic obedience like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ can also help. Touch-targeting, hand-targeting and eye contact are also teachable things that you can do instead of dragging your dog out for a walk that may well be the equivalent of an hour in a warzone to your dog.

A cortisol break is not a long-term solution for your dog. It is exactly what it says it is: an opportunity to recover from elevated levels of cortisol. Your aim is not to cosset your dog from the world in the long term but to give them the equivalent of a hormonal spa break. You can reintroduce the walks and their various triggers when your dog is showing you that it feels comfortable.

A good way to do this is a game called “Ask the dog”. When a dog who has been trained to stop and check back with you does exactly that, it’s a good time to check if they are comfortable going forward. Take one step forward and see if your dog is happy to come with you. If they are, things are good. This is a great game for any dog who is hesitant or nervous. I start by dropping a treat on the floor about two metres away, then rewarding the dog for looking at me. I move, reward the dog for moving towards me or looking at me by saying “Yes” once I’ve made sure the dog knows this word is a cue for a treat, and then I drop another on the floor. Every time the dog looks up and moves in, I say yes and drop the treat on the floor. You can see Leslie McDevitt explaining about Pattern Games here

You can see Leslie modelling the Up and Down game at 3.00, which is another thing you can teach a fearful dog during a cortisol break instead of going for a walk. This works also with fear-aggressive dogs too. It’s a great game for establishing trust with your dog and keeping the focus on you. Your fearful dog must be able to trust you and look to you, and food is an amazing way to do that.

There are many, many stages in dealing with fearful behaviour and establishing trust in you is the toughest step. A dog that backs away from you or won’t come to you is a dog that needs to start right at the beginning, learning to be around you and learning to relax. This is where you absolutely need to let your dog make the choices about coming to you. It is not something you can force or coerce. If you are having problems with a dog who constantly backs away from you and cannot be caught, this is a good time to seek out a positive trainer who can help you change that response. Approaching you is step number one for many dogs.

Being handled by you is often step number two. Many dogs are afraid of being handled. Our hands and arms move fast. We grab first and think later. That can be very scary to a dog. Teaching them that your hand coming towards them means good things can also help them establish trust in you. Collar grabs are another important thing to teach a fearful dog. Once your dog accepts handling, you can build in TTouch or canine massage to help your dog relax even more around you. That is a huge step forward for many fearful dogs.

When you have a dog who accepts touch, you can also teach them a chin target or Chirag Patel’s “The Bucket Game” both of which allow a dog to communicate with you that they are feeling uncomfortable long before they get to the flight-or-flight response. You can see Emily Larlham teaching a calming chin touch here.

Since this is a behaviour that the dog offers, they only offer it when they feel comfortable.

Keeping your dog calm and avoiding the biological stress pathways is the best and most reliable way to overcome fearfulness. A gradual reintroduction to triggers one step at a time is vital.

With that in mind, the next post will look at how to help your dog overcome his arousal around a trigger. That might be something he is fearful of, or something he is reactive to, or even something he is aggressive around.

I also can’t recommend highly enough Debbie Jacobs’ book, A Guide to Living With and Training Fearful Dogs and her website, Fearful Dogs.

You may never, ever have a 6 or a 7 out of 10 where it comes to your dog’s confidence levels and resilience, but there is magic in moving a dog who is a 2 out of 10 to being a 2.5 and a 3 or a 4. It is all progress, no matter how slow. Some dogs, particularly street dogs, seem to come to a moment where they kind of shake off their anxiety and begin to make huge strides once they realise they are no longer in a threatening environment. For most, however, the road to fearlessness is a long one with many points where you feel like you are making slow progress indeed. Staying motivated is vital.

Problem Behaviours: Resource Guarding

Problem Behaviours: Resource Guarding

Griffon and Spaniel* in Resource Guarding Shock!

*Insert breed or cross-breed of choice here.

For all the problem behaviours that I hear most about, this is one of the thorny ones. If you are in any doubt whatsoever about how you can manage this challenging behaviour, it’s well worth getting in touch with a behaviourist. At the very least, Jean Donaldson’s most excellent book Mine! is easily the best tenner you’ll ever spend. This is often not a behaviour you can deal with without a bit of help. That said, I think resource guarding is like any behaviour: it has extremes. I might see Amigo my griffon x collie guarding once or twice a year (usually when he’s nicked somebody else’s Kong) and Tilly has low-level guarding virtually every day, but it’s something we can manage. If your dog is guarding things from you or from a child, if the guarding escalates into contact aggression, it is worth paying for help. Like poor socialisation, it’s not a problem for the faint of heart or those who are not invested in the dog’s long-term wellbeing.

Unlike many other behaviours which can be pain-related, hormone-related or age-related, this has fewer biological explanations, but a vet visit is worthwhile anyway just to rule out any biological or hormonal reasons. This is especially true if nothing in your home life has changed but your dog has suddenly begun to show these behaviours. It’s worth ruling out that your dog is not in pain before settling on the fact that they are guarding a bed spot. It’s not uncommon for older dogs to have some kind of ‘night-time’ episodes, and although the last three owners of elderly dogs who’ve exhibited guarding behaviours have wanted to go with canine cognitive dysfunction (Doggie Dementia), often there are cataracts and low-light, hearing problems and just general fatigue on old bones. Dawn and twilight are busy times for dogs who are crepuscular by nature, so if they’re old and they’ve had a long day, it’s worth ruling out pain issues if your dog ‘suddenly’ seems like a King Grump with you or your dogs in the evening. If you’ve got a mixed age or mixed size dog family, you might not have to go far to explain why your ancient old spaniel is having issues with your bouncy young retriever at bedtime. If you’re tired and grumpy and you feel like your bed is under threat from a younger, more energetic hoodlum, then you might well show them your teeth to keep them at bay. In these cases, vet visits can help. Pain medication, glaucoma treatment or other medicines can help your dog feel less like a misery when it’s been a long day. Medication can also be the cause of behaviour change, especially if corticosteroids are involved. As with everything, vet first, behaviourist second.

So why do dogs guard and what do they guard?

First, you can’t pick what your dog guards. Your dog might guard a resource they value – and you can’t choose or understand why they might be guarding it, I’m afraid. They might be guarding an object, a bed place, an entry, an exit or even another human being. They can guard other dogs and they can guard other animals. From stolen underwear to shoes, moldy bread to bones, back yards to beds, if there’s an object, there might be a dog who’s spontaneously decided to guard it. A dog can even guard someone who is petting them or giving them attention. You become a resource if your dog has something you want.

As to why dogs guard, it’s not always sensible to even ask what purpose the behaviour has. They’re dogs. They guard things. A dog guarding stuff is as natural as a dog barking at stuff. Often, we’ve encoded that behaviour in the dog’s very DNA. It can’t come as any surprise that a Maremma might guard a property as well as it would guard sheep, or a naturally suspicious German Shepherd, what Brenda Aloff calls a ‘living fence’ would guard things either. But hunt dogs and gundogs can guard as well, so don’t be surprised that a labrador has got the find/pick-up/retrieve bit down pat but then ‘forgets’ that it’s supposed to hand over the duck at the end of it. To a dog, guarding is NOT a problem behaviour!

Even recognising guarding behaviour can be difficult. So many times, I hear people say that the behaviour ‘came out of nowhere’ or ‘came out of the blue’. This can be especially true if your dog isn’t guarding an object. Dogs’ body language is much more subtle than ours, and the way they communicate with subtle movements can often be missed by owners. Sometimes, we even see those behaviours in play – I’m sure many of us have played tug with our dogs, where growling is just part of the game, or our dogs play with each other and may frequently show signs of what you might think to be pretty shouty behaviour which is just play.

So what can cause guarding behaviour?

Most dogs fall into a “mid-range” for their normal breed tendencies. But there are some who’ll present with more natural and more heightened tendencies than others. Sometimes, it’s a cause of excessive breed tendencies in a dog. Tilly, believe it or not, is a gundog (sorry, to all those people at Crufts who were outraged by an American cocker spaniel winning best in class and best in show in 2017) and she is supposed to be able to carry birds in her mouth. Giving them up… not always as reliable for a gundog as you’d expect. I don’t think she has more heightened guardiness than any other gundog though. Poor breeding for looks rather than personality have caused a lot of damage.

Other times, it can be improper socialisation. If you have a dog who is bred to guard or is known for territorial behaviour, if you don’t get appropriate socialisation in early, you can end up with a monster on your hands. There are also those irresponsible individuals who’ve also increased a dog’s guarding tendencies through early experiences, either deliberately or accidentally. I am sure this is what happened with Tilly. A one-off experience aged 5 months of a child trying to take a toy resulted in her being whipped off to a behavioural vet in the US, according to her notes. If you have a gundog, it’s your responsibility to teach it a safe “give” or “leave”. And if you have a shepherd, it is your duty to teach it safely that strangers are not a mortal danger, and that people can come onto your property without causing offence. Breed is not an excuse for poor behaviour, and socialisation is vital to overcome natural guardy instincts.

Sometimes it can be a pack structure kind of thing, which I hesitate to say, but dogs who feel less secure within the group can also exhibit guarding simply as a defence mechanism. Changes in the household often precipitate or exacerbate this kind of guarding.

Other dogs have low tolerance for frustration and have poor manners. Heston always gives, because he always gets back. From a young age, he learned that I take things off him and I give him things. Having been taught patience, tolerance and how to handle frustration means that he never, ever runs away when he has something, and he’ll always trust me for a game. Having been taught specific behaviours as a young dog ruled out a lot of issues as an older dog, to the point where no toy is worth fighting over because there’s always more toys, dude. And if it’s one you prefer, there’s plenty of them. That is not to say that having a surplus of a specific toy stops a guarder. It doesn’t. Tobby, my champion Mali toy guarder, rounded up those toys like lambs, moving them about to secure them from others. Though he would never challenge another dog who had a toy, he wasn’t ever easy without the toys under his supervision.

By the way, for some dogs, I’ve noticed a high correlation between touch sensitivity and guarding behaviour. For me, I think this is often a learned response, particularly with little dogs. We so often grab a collar to retrieve something safely that they’re guarding, or we manipulate them physically, that it becomes a learned response. It’s always the little dogs who’ve guarded and been moved physically – and I always tell people to imagine the dog is 50kg. If you imagine your dachshund is a doberman, you’ll be less likely to try and physically restrain it to get it to quit guarding something. That’s not to say I feel you shouldn’t be able to manipulate and restrain big dogs – I really feel it’s even more essential to be able to safely lift and carry a 50kg rottie without them batting an eyelid than it is to be able to pick up a 5kg minpin – but I feel often people risk a bite simply because they decide to physically restrain or lift a little dog. My first nip was a terrier who didn’t want to be picked up. I’d never, ever have attempted to pick up a Great Dane. Collar grabs are the same. For a mouthy dog, collar grabs and hands approaching is one of the first things I would teach.

Still, it’s worth saying.

If you physically restrain or constrain a dog to remove an object or remove it from a spot it’s guarding, then you’d do yourself a massive favour in doing collar grab practice. And you’d do yourself a massive favour to imagine it as a big, scary, slobbery, growly, grumbly 50kg dog too.

Fear can be another reason a dog might guard something: it feels that the item or person is of value and you (or whoever the threat is) will take it away. There’s no justifying this anxiety. One of my friend’s dogs gets upset when the cat comes around. He is convinced her geriatric cat is going to steal his bone, even though he has lived with the cat for a good couple of years without the cat ever having shown the slighest interest in that bone. You can’t reason or rationalise with a dog.

The best way to deal with resource guarding is to stop it in its tracks and stop it escalating. When you realise what the signs are of low-level threat detection in a dog, you can work below that threshold to keep them from feeling threatened. Conditioning them to accept others around them is the next step, and there are many protocols to help with that.

Dogs go through a series of behaviours when guarding. Sometimes that series is fast and sometimes it’s fairly slow and easy to identify. Often how quickly they escalate through those behaviours depends on how quickly the perceived threat is advancing. Like all other behaviours on the fight-or-flight adrenaline pathway, you’ll notice physiological changes. It depends too on what the dog is guarding to some extent, although the behaviours have a lot in common. Many people think that guarding happens out of the blue, but often it has predictable patterns that we can see way before dogs get to the shouting stage.

Here I’m going to first identify what food guarding looks like in Tilly.

Tilly eats in the kitchen with the other dogs. She gets her food first. There’s a reason behind this, as she likes to stick her snout in other dogs’ bowls. It almost brings to mind that kind of human transference we do, where we accuse others of doing what we do ourselves – who knows if Tilly thinks other dogs might do as she does? Either way, she has poor eating habits which may have been caused by being forced to eat within 5cm of an older, more confident female for five years. With me, she has her own eating space. Tilly is fine until the other dogs have finished and she has not. She will start to eat more quickly which is something you will often notice in food guarders. The food is safest when you’ve swallowed it, and where better to stash it than in your own stomach? If another dog approaches, she will stop eating. If it keeps approaching, she freezes completely, her head low over her food, her body leaning over her bowl. That head down or over/eyes up rigid posture is such a key thing to watch for. You can see her body weight shift to protect the food. At this point, she is not looking at the threat and will often stare straight ahead. This is not direct confrontation, yet. Her whisker bed starts twitching, and it looks like she’s caught a whiff of a bad smell as she is in pre-growl/teeth display mode. Then she will make her feelings more clear if a dog should approach further. She will stare at the oncoming threat, growl and show her teeth. From here, if a dog does not heed her warning, she will lunge and snap. That behavioural pathway rarely changes. 

Tilly also is protective of her space and does not like to tolerate the approach of other animals when she is relaxing. First, she notices the other dog’s approach. She freezes and stares at them. Her whisker bed gets all lumpy as she prepares to growl, and you can hear some low, quiet grumbling. The growling and staring intensifies and will finish in a full-on attack. Big or small, old or young, Tilly doesn’t care. You can be a 5kg MinPin, a 50kg beaceron, a 3-month old pup or a 12-year-old muttley. This is her space.

Amigo is a toy guarder, particularly if the toy has had food in it, but even a low-value tennis ball can be something he would guard. First, he lies with the object between his paws, almost under his body. You see this quite often, this use of the body to block access to a resource. Heston also did it with his girlfriend Galaxy in case anyone wanted to steal her from him. A dog who is standing over a resource or blocking another creature from it is ‘claiming it’. They aren’t ‘dominating’ it as Cesar Millan would have you believe, but they are laying claim.

This may look kind of innocuous, like he’s just put that old chewed up ball on the floor. And maybe it is. But a dog standing over something or putting themselves between the threat (you, dog, cat, stranger, child…. you get the picture) and their ‘precious’ is on the first step to guarding. Tobby’s body language is otherwise okay – he is open mouthed, lolling tongue, soft eyes.

If I approached and his head went down as if to pick it up, or he repositioned himself, then that is one of the early warning signs that this is his, and he is letting me know. A dog with a low head, eyes looking up but head over the object and ears splayed is giving signals that they’re preparing to guard.

You can see this in this video very clearly as the first dog’s Kong bounces near to the brown dog who’s lying down. At 0.44, the Kong bounces onto her cushion and you can see her, head down, ears splayed, eyes up, noticing the “intruder” (who just wants his own Kong back!) At 0.46, you see a really good example of whisker bed movement, the low head, the eyes up (interesting to note the other dog’s body language as well – he also has his head down and eyes up, but his nose is not pulled back and he’s fearful or nervous, not guarding). He just wants his Kong back, but the brown dog is saying “Try it!” I’m interested to know, without a soundtrack, whether the brown dog growled or not. The hound looks away, licks his lips and the brown girl has intents on the hound’s Kong at 0.49. Even though the brown dog goes back to playing with her own Kong, the hound has clearly got the message that she is not a dog to be messed with, and when he tries again, she moves closer to the lost Kong and the poor hound has lost out.

All those early warning signs are well understood by dogs, and often we don’t even see them. We assume the ‘attack’ came out of nowhere, especially where there are not stuffed Kongs involved and we can’t tell what the dog is guarding.

After these moments, if a threat continues to move in, a dog will then escalate to growls, snaps, bites or even frenzied attacks. The trouble for us is that dogs often realise these clues and we don’t. For instance, with three guardy dogs, each with their own peccadillo, you’d have expected more fights than there were. In reality, there has been one scuffle over resources in three years. Once, Amigo got too close to Tilly’s food bowl and she had enough. That’s it. There have been many moments where a dog has let another dog know that it is cruising for a bruising if it continues to move in, but they usually end before growls.

But… and here’s the but… we’re often really bad at reading those signs ourselves. We are the ones who ignore the dogs’ warning signs, as are our children. It’s really important to be able to recognise those early warning signs and pay attention to them before a dog needs to shout.

Once you recognise them, you can decide what you want to do. You have choices here.

All this behaviour from a dog is distance-increasing behaviour. It wants to put space between the threat and the object it is guarding. So you can choose if you like to give the dog some distance. I did this the other week with Amigo, who was guarding a chew he’d stolen from another dog. We gave him distance so he could finish it or leave it. In actual fact, he left it after two minutes. What we were doing up in the house was more interesting than guarding a chew. If you feel like it’s okay to leave the dog with the object, that is a line you can take. Personally, I don’t like a dog to think that this behaviour is acceptable, so I don’t do it very often, because it could risk the dog thinking that guarding is a successful behavioural mechanism to keep hold of stuff. This strategy is not about ‘winning’ against the dog but about avoiding inadvertently teaching a dog to guard. It goes like this:

I have this thing I like – uh-oh, under threat – guard – threat goes away – that worked!

I don’t want a dog to learn that.

What I do want is a dog who will relinquish things when asked, as Heston does. One of the best ways we can teach this is how we teach puppies not to be guarders. Heston always – always – received a reward for “leave it” – and then he got the item back again. Reward AND item returned. Why wouldn’t you give it up?! It’s important to have times where you don’t return the object, where you switch it and change, so that the dog doesn’t always get the item back, otherwise you run the risk of a snatch-and-grab. I’m working with a toy-obsessed dog at the shelter at the moment, and we’re using a rope toy with him to stop lead biting. But the last thing I want when I walk out with the toy and the lead is that the dog thinks I am leaving with stuff he wants so he better snatch it from me. Teaching a dog to leave it and to trade is so important when they are young.

You can see Emily from Kikopup doing this here:

When she talks about severe resource guarding in adult dogs or younger dogs, she is absolutely right. For that you need a resource-guarding protocol. There are a couple of really good ones available from Jean Donaldson and from Brenda Aloff, but they do not beat working with a professional. I’ll explore these protocols in more detail in another post.

You can see why there are often (mean) critics of toy and food rewards and their use in dogs. One woman I know accused Kong of creating ADHD dogs or obsessive dogs and creating guarding, and said that she thinks dog attacks on humans are more frequent because we mess with their food instead of giving them two bowls a day in peace. I disagree, but she has a point about not letting dogs become obsessed by food or toys (or space!)

Until you have successfully taught your dogs not to guard, management is vital. Practise house hygiene with toys, treats and beds. By that, I mean if you have a moderate to severe guarder, keep food treats to hand-mouth-swallow and keep toys restricted. A surplus of items doesn’t stop guarding. Indeed, with Tobby, it made him less secure because there was more to protect. If your dogs guard bed space, make sure they do not feel threatened by other dogs and do not leave dogs unsupervised to fend for themselves if they guard, especially if there are size differences involved. A small dog constantly aggressing towards a larger dog may come a cropper one day, and the last thing you want is a dog whose patience gives when you are not there. Harsh as it is, a fairly sterile environment can make things a lot easier. It can be hard to see resource guarding at the refuge, for instance, because there are beds and that is it. Food is fed separately to dogs in shared enclosures. Toys are only there for dogs in shared enclosures who have no guarding habits. But the person who flung a handful of treats into an enclosure and left two new dogs unsupervised needs a lesson in sense. One of the dogs could easily have been killed. There are reasons that a sterile environment works for us, and the main one is safety. It would be lovely to have a shelter full of pairs of dogs (so they don’t feel isolation distress – hard for social animals) who can also have toys, food and bed space, but it’s unsafe.

Other than managing your environment, there are other things you can do around a resource guarding dog. Teaching a bomb-proof ‘Come!’ is one of them (especially if you have a dog who likes to nick your stuff and run off for a game of chase before getting guardy over something you need) and a Sit/Down are fundamental as well. Object exchanges, leave it and drop it are also useful for an object. Move away, back up and go to bed/mat can also be helpful with territory guarders. Down and Off are vital for dogs who guard couches or beds. There are whole rafts of useful commands that can help dogs learn in positive ways that if they relinquish what they’re guarding, it works out well for them.

You don’t need to resort to shock collars (which WILL make the dog feel less secure and more under threat) or other punishments. Look at it this way…. if you were afraid of being mugged, and someone mugged you and then punched you in the face or tasered you, would it make you feel better or worse about being mugged? But if someone mugged you then returned your stuff immediately and gave you a slap-up meal, you might feel better about handing over their stuff. Be mindful though that just because a dog learns that YOU can mug them and it’ll end well, they most likely won’t generalise. Whilst I might be happy to hand over my car keys to a person who had a track history of returning them immediately with a bunch of flowers, I wouldn’t feel comfortable about a stranger coming up and doing it, even if they do it in the exact same way. Just because I’m telling you about how humans would feel doesn’t mean it’s different for dogs. They generalise less well than we do.

All protocols should be done with all people who might need to stop a dog guarding, not just one family member. Dogs who guard, even a little, should always be under supervision around children and children should be taught actively to look for signs of the dog guarding. Children should never, ever attempt to engage with or interact with a guarding dog, not even in play. If a dog is a food guarder, if crumbs go on the floor, no matter what they are, better to let the dog ‘win’ it than face a bloody incident with a child who has been bitten and a dog who needs to be rehomed or put to sleep.

However, since guarding is so personal to the dog, it’s better a programme or protocol designed specifically for that dog. A professional will be able to help you work out if the behaviour is compulsive or if it is related to you or another animal in your family. Is it generalised or specific? When does it happen? Where does it happen? What preceded it? There are lots of variables that affect guarding that a professional will be able to help you identify. This behaviour is quick to escalate and can end very badly indeed. Given the shelter protocols in some places to test dogs for guarding and put them to sleep if they ‘fail’, you might feel angry about this or you might feel that it is justified. Personally, I think even dogs with poor bite histories, resource issues and a hard mouth can successfully be rehomed in the right place, but those ‘right places’ can be few and far between.

Guarding is part and parcel of owning a dog. It’s our duty as owners to help them understand that humans (and even other dogs) may take things from them. This happens with good puppy socialisation and careful teaching in the early months. However, with an adult rescue dog, you get what you get and it is your job to work safely within that. I’ve not come across a guarder yet who I didn’t think could be helped, but at the same time, not all family situations make this behaviour an easy one to deal with. Along with poor socialisation, it’s a hard one to remedy, which is why it’s important to get help from a professional.

Finally, there aren’t many times when I would actively and adamantly insist that you find a trainer who uses force-free methods, but resource guarding and/or aggression are those times. When a dog is in a set of complex, negative, hard-wired emotions, adding pain, submission and punishment to the equation is never, ever going to change that. You can’t cancel out a feeling of threat by threatening, shocking or punishing a dog, only make it worse. Backed into a corner, a dog is never, ever going to learn good manners. At best, you might get a dog who shuts down completely. Your best result would be a psychologically damaged dog. Rolling dogs, pinning dogs, spraying dogs in the face with water, vibration collars or having a ‘shake can’ to startle them can end very, very badly indeed if you thought these alternatives were more kind or ethical. It’s why also I would never, ever recommend electric fencing with a territorial dog. Like you need to make what’s outside of the fence or over the perimeter more of a threat?! Restraint, leash pulls or physically handling a resource guarder can also end really, really badly.

Resource guarding is a manageable issue, even in a multi-dog home, but it is one that this post, no matter how many words I stick in it, will not rectify. There are plenty of DVD resources and paid programmes out there if you are committed and have time to deal with it by yourself, but a behaviourist will be invaluable.

Next week: fearful dogs and how to work with them to reduce their fear as best as possible.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ridiculous argument.

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

Utterly ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

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

That works for children too.

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

Tiny, tiny steps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Problem Behaviours: Biting

Problem Behaviours: Biting

Always be kind to animals,
Morning, noon and night.
For animals have feelings too,
And furthermore, they bite.
— John Gardner

Newsflash, oh people with internet… Dogs bite! They mouth, they chew, they snap, they show their teeth, they play bite, they open their mouths wide to show us their lovely pearly whites…. it’s what they do.

Where we punch, where we grab, where we snatch, where we knit, where we fiddle, where we hit, where we draw, where we tickle… dogs use their mouths. Whether it’s in anger, in excitement, in pleasure, in fun… we use our hands and they use their mouths. Using a mouth for a dog is as natural as… well… as natural as a human being using their hands.

This week, I’m exploring biting, which is different from chewing. You can find information about chewing on this post.

Normally, during a great socialisation process, puppies learn to moderate their bite strength. Just as you learn a little fine motor skill whether you’re turning out lace or colouring inside the lines, dogs learn not to hurt when they bite. Big dogs and little dogs, gentle dogs and fierce dogs… they learn to moderate their strength. By socialisation, I mean the way dogs learn to interact with animals of their own species, as well as with their humans and with other household or domesticated animals. Learning the rules of biting is often about relationships and the rules of interaction as much as it is about learning the rules of being a dog.

Using a mouth comes more naturally to some dogs, and what they use a mouth for comes more naturally too. It’s part of many dogs’ predatory sequence. Some dogs are better at withholding any mouthiness. A pointer or setter would be, quite frankly, a bag of uselessness if it went from the point or set into a full-on terrier style mauling frenzy of whatever it is they’re pointing or setting. If I had a penny for every time I’d heard people say, “Get a labrador. They have a soft mouth.” Errr…. kind of. Sometimes. Bearing in mind that labradors are implicated in more bites than any other breed of dog (because they’re one of the most popular dogs in Europe and Northern America) you must also remember that the bit of the predatory sequence you want a lab to do out in the field is ‘grab-bite’. You want them to use their mouths. You want them not to maul stuff too. But you want them to use their mouth. Just as an aside… labradors are not particularly born with a soft mouth. Many hunters of the past would be quite capable of weeding out any labs with a hard mouth, a process that doesn’t happen any more. Now, instead of some living working dogs with soft mouths and a lot of dead working dogs with hard mouths, we’ve just got dogs with mouths.

All dogs come into the world, therefore, furnished with a mouth and a desire to bite some stuff with it. Shaking, holding and dissecting are also part of that predatory sequence that dogs are born with.

It would be good if we all remembered that.

It’s not just what they bite, but also when they feel the urge to bite. Effel here, my beauceron foster dog, feels the need to bite moving stuff. Coincidence much that my much missed Malinois also felt the need to bite moving stuff?

I don’t know… it’s like they see that stuff moving and they’re all… “I just got to stop it with my mouth!”

My cocker and my griffon cross just don’t feel the same about moving things.

And Effel doesn’t just share the shepherd tradition of stalking, chasing and biting moving stuff, he shares the herding tradition of biting stuff that’s not moving to get it to move (nip to the ankles, anyone?) and also nipping things that are moving the ‘wrong’ way. In France, dogs like these are often called ‘driving’ dogs. That’s because they drive domesticated species about. They use their body and their eyes on the whole, but the mouth follows. It’s certainly not a good technique but it’s part of those fixed action patterns for herding dogs. Like collies, heelers and other shepherds, you’ve got three things that make a dog want to bite in certain circumstances. That behaviour is hard-wired into their DNA. Effel here has never met a flock of sheep. He wouldn’t know what to do with them if he did. But that behaviour manifests in a) biting the ride-on lawnmower b) nipping me if I’m not moving fast enough into the garden c) biting other dogs who get ahead of him and d) nipping smaller animals who run. It’s not a shock to hear of dogs biting inanimate moving objects (or trying to), biting running or moving things, or biting to get things to move. That behaviour is encoded in their very being, and set off by environmental factors.

But there’s another in-built behaviour that can cause a dog to bite: guarding. Whether they are guarding you, your cows, your property, your sofa, your bed, a bone, a mouldy bread roll, a stuffed Kong, a long-empty Kong or a treasured pair of their owner’s undergarments, when a dog feels under threat, you could also see that manifest in a bite, or a snap at least. Sometimes that can be a breed thing or sometimes it’s just a thing they’re born with. Stress, nervousness or territorialism are behaviours that can affect this. Again, not a surprise to get a phone call saying dogs won’t relinquish a bone, a bed, a pair of shoes or a scarf.

Don’t be surprised then if your collie nips bicycles, your malinois herds your lawnmower, your terrier shakes his chew toy or your Grand Pyrenees bites an intruder.

Despite this, breed should never, ever be an excuse for biting. If you have a heeler from strong working lines, it is your absolute obligation to socialise it wonderfully with children and never, ever let it out of your sight. If you have a shepherd, it is your obligation to socialise it around humans so that it never, ever becomes suspicious of strangers. And if you have a livestock-guarding breed, it is your duty to make sure it never, ever feels like it needs to protect you from the postman. Top-notch socialisation is crucial here. By this, I mean a gradual and careful programme of systematic desensitisation that does not over-arouse your young dog. That can definitely backfire.

That socialisation must happen early for the simple reason it is easier for them to learn as a puppy. Not impossible as an adult, but not as easy. You think I’m not working on Effel’s lawnmower biting? Not so easy with an 8-year-old dog who doesn’t have a history of learning, not even a sit or a down.

All dogs need to learn how to moderate their bite so that they don’t puncture. Great bite inhibition is vital. Puppies need socialising in two ways to acquired good bite inhibition. One is with other puppies and other adult dogs, so they can learn how not to hurt (and breeds or crossbreeds who get off on squealing victims need you more than ever to teach them play restraint around other puppies, even from 5 weeks of age). And the other way is good bite inhibition with all manner of humans, be they large or small. Again, a degree of caution is absolutely vital so that you don’t end up accidentally teaching your young dog the marvels of biting and just how much fun it is.

Another factor comes into play as well: emotions.

Like it or not, dogs are much more governed by emotional reactions than people are. If we can’t stop ourselves smashing plates in anger, or punching a wall, you can imagine how hard this is for a dog, whose brain is hard-wired to be much more instinctive and emotionally reactive than ours. Acquired bite inhibition is the only thing stopping them hurting an animal or a person when they are angry, frightened or excited. Teaching impulse control should sit alongside good socialisation.

Some people will no doubt argue that you don’t have to teach it – that it comes naturally. This is no doubt a fallacy. You can teach adult dogs to use their mouths more softly. The mouth is controlled by muscles. Dogs learn by trial and error just how much effort to put into an action. Without practice, that doesn’t happen. Just as they learn how much effort to put into a leap to get over a ditch, they can moderate the power in a muscle when they bite. My dog Heston knows just how much effort to put into a jump to get over a ditch. But he had to learn that. Once learned, you don’t have to think about it. Effel, who is not used to free-running over ditches has to take his time. He has even done a proper roly-poly into the ditch. Why is he so inept? Lack of practice. He got better as time went on.

See? Motor learning at work. One looking, going slow (as he tumbles at speed) and one who is able to do it at speed because he’s been doing it since he was young and we gradually built up all the muscles he needed to do it instinctively.

Using a mouth is a motor learning skill. That’s why a dog needs to learn how to do it before it becomes instinctive. If you don’t use it and don’t have the right opportunity to use it, chances are when you come to use those muscles, they won’t be under motor control.

Imagine learning to drive – or even changing a car. You don’t instinctively know how much pressure to put on the accelerator to move forward, which is why learner drivers kangaroo and have problems on hill starts. You learn and then it’s instinctive. Muscle memory – once acquired – is instinctive. Muscle memory, or motor learning if you prefer, is acquired through practice. In my opinion, practice is what socialisation should be.

Along with inherited behaviours, then, poor socialisation in my experience is another piece in the jigsaw of why dogs bite. If they have been isolated from other dogs too early, you may find an adult dog who has poor bite control. That’s what happened with Putchy, the little chihuahua surrendered to our shelter. 5 months old and he was a serial biter. Removed at six weeks from his family group, he never learned how to control the strength of his bite, or how to use other behaviours like a growl that prevent the necessity for a bite. Three weeks of intensive socialisation with great dogs and he’s a different dog. This also happened with Julio, removed at the same age. A beauceron cross, he would bite when excited and was surrendered for this behaviour. Sadly, with bigger dogs, teaching them soft bites can be that much harder because they can’t be trusted not to inflict a lot of damage on other dogs. Putchy got lucky.

There are plenty of hormonal and physiological reasons a dog might bite too. The common we talk about is testosterone, implicated in aggression and competition. But this can be tricky. For an aggressive male, castration can make a real difference (although testosterone is manufactured at other points in the body too) but if that aggression is driven by fear, it can make the fearfulness (and therefore the biting and aggressive behaviour) that much worse. Be really, really sure if you are castrating to sort out a biting issue that you are dealing with testosterone-led aggression. If not, you are running the risk of leaving the dog feeling even more vulnerable and under threat. Several studies support this so if you have a dog biting out of aggression rather than play or over-stimulation, it is something to really discuss carefully with your vet.

“With various types of aggressive behavior, including aggression toward human family members, castration may be effective in decreasing aggression in some dogs, but fewer than a third can be expected to have marked improvement.”
Neilson et al., 1997

Maternal hormones can also be involved. Females with a litter may be more aggressive around other dogs. Oestrogen and progesterone levels can be implicated too. There is some evidence that sterilised females may bite more frequently than those who are not sterilised, no doubt related to more long-lasting changes in hormones.

And it can be chemical. A surge of adrenaline doesn’t just come from fight-or-flight hormones and neurotransmitters, but also from excitement or over-stimulation. If your dog’s got a lot of adrenaline coursing around their system, it can be much more likely that a bite will happen. That can happen in times when they’re being exercised. It can also happen when they’re stressed or excited.

Biting can also cause a pleasure response and therefore become a learned behaviour. I did it. It felt good. I’ll do it again. Or I did it. It worked. I’ll do it again. Like one of the shepherd females at the refuge. When she is over-stimulated, when there are too many people around, when there are cats moving and dogs approaching, men with wheelbarrows, she is much more likely to jump and bite. She NEVER does this when she is just trotting along besides me doing a happy sit-and-focus. She did it twice yesterday. Once when we’d been sitting and waiting for two dogs to go past. Once when we got back into the shelter and we were cornered by three people. That is entirely related to shots of adrenaline and norepinephrine, which cause her a manners hijack. Couple that with being a malinois and having had little training or socialisation and every single time she does it, it feels MIGHTY FINE and gets rid of all that chemical energy, so she does it again. But for another dog who doesn’t like dogs in her space, she has learned that if she bites dogs and gets her attack in first, it solves her problems superbly.

Biting can be done for pleasure, like the girl above, or it can be done in rage. It can happen when dogs are anxious or panicking too. Biting can be a resource-guarding habit, and you have no way of helping your dog decide what an appropriate resource for them to guard is.

Through all of this, we must not forget that pain is a big factor in why dogs bite. The very first stop that you should make if your dog’s bite behaviour has changed is the vet. But make sure you’ve prepared your dog for a muzzle! Being manipulated or constrained can also be the reason for a nasty nip. You wouldn’t handle a scared cat without expecting confrontation, but people expect dogs to be in some way more docile.

I’ve actually known more little dogs bite than big ones. We feel that obligation with big dogs and we can’t manipulate them in the same way. We don’t try to wrestle them into car boots or carry containers. When our big dog grumbles, we don’t force them to do stuff, which we then might be tempted to force a smaller dog to do. When a dachshund was guarding a bed, the owners tried to lift the dog out and the dog bit them. If it had been a great Dane, there wouldn’t have been a choice but to find ways that didn’t involve hands-on.

So the first step in treating bite behaviour is to know what’s behind it. Then you can act accordingly. That might involve putting a feeding mum in her own space with her babies. It might involve teaching a dog in pain about consent and how to let you know in appropriate ways that he is no longer feeling comfortable. It might involve remedial socialisation for a young dog removed too early from the pack, or teaching an older dog how to manage their excitement.

One thing that is very effective no matter what the cause is, is knowing the signs your dog is giving you that precede a bite. This great, simple guide from Lili Chin at Doggie Drawings

For many dogs who nip, it’s primarily a grab-bite instinct that appears each time they’re excited. These are often dogs who have relatively good bite pressure normally. For instance, my current nippy Miss at the shelter has great manners and would never bite when she is not over-aroused. Mr Nippy the labrador has a generally hard mouth and poor manners, plus he is demanding when over-excited. The nips or mouthiness happen when the dog is over-stimulated.

For those things, it’s really important to keep them below that excitement threshold. That means you need to manage their environment. Trigger stacking is not all about fear or aggression. It can be about excitement too. Think of how your dog is if you have sausages for lunch and if they see their leash. Think of them at their three most unmanageably excitable moments and then think of those things coming together. Adrenaline isn’t just about fear and aggression. It’s a reaction when we are excited too. Anticipation, arousal and pleasure are all emotions that start a dog off on a complex chemical journey that can end in exuberant behaviour (like when your dog gets the zoomies or the mads, and races around the garden in a frantic burst) or even a bite.

So the first thing to do with a mouthy dog is to think about what triggers it and when. Bitey Miss can’t handle a walk, cats, other dogs and people all at the same time. Three out of four she can manage. But four is too much. Put a wheelbarrow in there and you have a perfect storm of conditions for a nip. Bitey Mr can’t handle the excitement of a walk coupled with the stress of 100 barking dogs and the anticipation of the treats you most certainly have in your pocket. Bring both of them back down from that excitement and you’ve got two dogs who are either really docile or relatively non-grabby. What is very interesting however is that the majority of dogs who nip in over-stimulation are also dogs who get excited by inappropriate handling. Sorry. That sounds rude. But biting in excitement is a behaviour that is deeply related to dopamine in dogs. It’s heavily implicated in the basal ganglia in the brain, which is not only connected to reward learning (so when something feels good, we do it again and again and again, she says, eating another biscuit… ) but also related to voluntary motor control and action selection (which is why I can’t stop myself eating another biscuit even if I am full and I’ve had enough and I’m reasoning with myself!) For some dogs, the level of dopamine in the system is no less than the effect of cocaine on a person. Decision making is poor, rational learning is impossible, and we’re stuck in an addictive loop. The nucleus accumbens is implicated in impulsivity, reward and motivation too. For some dogs that’s what mouthing and biting is: a biological impulse that feels bloody good. And the more they do it, the more they’re chasing the feeling.

I think for many dogs, the sight of a hand or arm moving can be a precursor to other things. For herding dogs, it’s just a limb like any other. Also, our hands move faster than our other bits. Legs are pretty slow in comparison. Those lovely fingers might as well be dancing targets. I think that for many dogs who do get over-excited and then bite, they need a lot of remedial socialisation with hands. You literally cannot touch these dogs face first. Jean Donaldson in her book Mine! has a good programme for touch desensitisation. For Bitey Miss, you can pet her so long. She lies on her back for a tummy tickle, or sits for a chest rub. But when she gets excited, it’s the hands or feet that set her off. Desensitising her around hands is a crucial part of her ongoing treatment. This has also been true of Bitey Senior. He enjoys a side-on back rub and rump rub, but we’re not past shoulder rubs. Head touches are the stuff of snappiness, especially if that happens face-to-face. Bitey Junior is another one who gets over-stimulated when hands arrive. Possibly this is a throwback to poor socialisation with humans for all three, but breed is a definite part of it as well. Desensitising a dog to hands and their movement is essential.

And what about dogs with poor food manners or treat reception?

Handfeeding is your saving grace here. Handfeed every single morsel that passes the dog’s mouth and your dog will soon realise that a hard mouth means food stops, and a gentle mouth means golloping as much of it as they like.

Just as you’d desensitise a puppy to hands to stop mouthing and nipping, so you need to with an adult dog. Yes, teeth and all. For this, I’d recommend well-fitting gloves or even gauntlets if they have a very hard mouth. To be fair, I did it without gloves with Bitey Senior who has a super-hard bite, but I must have been mental that day. To start the dog must be in a place of real calm. I mean super calm. And relatively full, if not completely. Start with a really, really crappy, massive, low-value treat – something one step up from cardboard, especially if they are food-motivated. A huge thing. Bear in mind that a lot of dogs have poor food manners because they haven’t been hand-fed and if they have a long nose, they have no idea where your hand is or where the treat is. Sometimes it’s just like grabbing in the dark for them. So a huge treat at least gets them in the right ballpark while they learn. Think of someone learning to throw darts at a board. I mean you want to use a really, really big board if it’s important they hit it. For Bitey Junior today, I was using big old treats that taste of flour. Massive ones. He isn’t overstimulated around them and I’m less likely to get a snap. I started this way with Bitey Senior, just with HUGE chews. As you move on, you can use higher-value treats and smaller objects, just as you would with a puppy. So they miss from time to time as a puppy, and you say “Ow!” and they learn… not something you can do with an adult mali who is food-obsessed and has a snappy bite. They don’t call them Maligators for nothing.

With adult dogs, there’s no reason you can’t do the same as you do with puppies… just with more care. You absolutely have to have a dog that is at its calmest for this bit. If that means putting it on a really good lead and working with a partner so that you can move away if necessary, do it (just be mindful of redirected frustration bites coming back on your partner!)

This video from Kikopup is essentially the same programme I use with mouthy, bitey dogs who’ve not learned a soft mouth with humans yet. I’m just much more careful and take it much more slowly. What Emily says about teaching an alternate response is very possible. You may fear using the closed fist approach to “no hand mugging” but I actually find snack-snappy dogs function better when your hand is super-slow, when they see the fist is closed and they can’t get the treat. You can almost push the treat into their mouth with a flat hand. Bizarre I know. What you want to do is take your hand away completely, yet your snatching your hand away is what causes their snapping on the treat. I would not try this at all with any dog who has a very hard bite. I still don’t do it with Bitey Senior, though it worked with Bitey Junior well this afternoon. You absolutely CAN do the reach and touch with a fully-grown Dally who snaps at hands, just take it really, really, really slowly and use huge, low-value treats when they are calm. You can also use games like ‘It’s Yer Choice’ by Susan Garrett, which I find very helpful for dogs with hard mouths.

To my mind, mouthiness, nipping and biting can be some of the most frightening things about a dog. It is not impossible to bring them back under control, though it takes longer with an adult dog and they may never get it to an instinctive part of motor memory. Although some people feel that they could never trust a dog with a hard mouth or poor control over impulsivity, I think it would do us all good to remember that dogs bite. I’d rather work with a hard-mouth dog whose bite I’m familiar with than a dog who has never bitten – one has a bite pattern I’m familiar with, and the other is a completely unknown quantity. Knowing that most biting is either a reaction to pain, a result of poor handling or as a consequence of over-excitement and poor impulse control is a good way to stop your dog being put into a position where biting is the only option. If we all kept our hands to ourselves when meeting unfamiliar dogs, it’d do both species the world of good.

Next time, a quick look at what you can do if your dog growls and grumbles when they’re guarding: how to handle a resource guarder.

Problem Behaviours: Poor Socialisation

Problem Behaviours: Poor Socialisation

Sometimes it feels that the universe is pointing you in a particular direction… today’s post about poor socialisation in dogs, and how to rectify it, feels like there is something in the global zeitgeist. The shelter accepted a 5-month-old chihuahua to rehabilitate a couple of weeks ago. Mr Putchy’s main problem? Poor socialisation! I’d also posted an article from veterinary behaviourist Dr Jen Summerfield, “Socializing Your Puppy: Why Later is Too Late” which ended up causing controversy for one person who didn’t like recommendations of the article. And this week, I’ve been spending a lot of my shelter hours with another young lady whose main problem is… you’ve guessed it! Poor socialisation.

Socialisation in itself is a word that can be confusing and often misused. So before I start, I’m going to clarify what I’m talking about for the purpose of this article.

Socialisation refers to the way in which a young puppy is introduced to the world around it. That includes but is not limited to: dog-dog exposure; dog-person exposure; dog-other animal exposure; dog-world exposure; dog-home exposure. Socialisation usually means the way in which a young animal gets to experience positively the world around it. When we talk of socialising a puppy, what we mean is that we are going to introduce it gradually to the world around it so that it is familiar with and can cope with the world in which it will live.

Socialisation in itself is a minefield. It is supposed to be a gradual process by which a young dog can get used to all the things in life that it will need to in order to function as a great, well-adjusted adult. However, many people fail to do this at all because they are worried about exposure to diseases, or they don’t realise what a puppy needs and the short timetable in which this has to occur. Or many people do it badly and end up over-exposing the dog to the world around them, so that the dog develops a fear response or an aggression response to the world rather than one of a confident dog who feels comfortable in the world.

Our dogs pay a heavy burden for our human lives. We expect them to cope with strange monsters like hoovers, sieves, coffee machines and snowmen. We expect them to get on with every single other dog they meet (even the arsehole spaniel down the street who likes to hump anything that moves, and lots of things that don’t…) and we expect them to accept babies, toddlers, people on bikes, people moving on skateboards, sheep, cats, kittens, postal workers, cars, chickens, horses, cows, stairs, doors, gates, French windows, mirrors, noises, storms, fireworks, gunshots, engine noises, lawnmowers … the list of things that might not make sense to a dog is enormous. They’re all things that we need to introduce our dogs to.

And extensive research tells us that the best time to do that is generally between 3 – 13 weeks. Some say 16 weeks. Some say 11 weeks. Some say it’s breed-specific. But nobody says it’s 5 months. And nobody says a year. 3 to 4 months is around the cut-off point for what is called the “socialisation window” where dogs will greet things without fear. They will then enter into a period of heightened sensitivity to stuff that can last a good couple of years, where their reactions may well be very extreme indeed. Add hormones, growth and a bunch of other stuff to that equation and you can see why so many owners miss this critical period or it ends up going catastrophically wrong and teaching a dog to be afraid.

Not only that, a puppy is not a “blank slate” when they are born. Breed has a strong influence on behaviours. Parents also do. Fear and aggression are known to be inherited traits, but they aren’t the only other behaviours that are. If you have a dog who is a naturally suspicious breed by nature (think of all those breeds for livestock guarding and protection work!) then it’s extra important that they have the right socialisation. If you have a dog who is naturally nippy, then it’s vital that their socialisation includes really, really good bite inhibition. Trying to do that with a five-month-old is much less reliable. Trying to do it with a three-year-old and you have a long and lengthy battle for something that will never be entirely reliable. In-utero experience can also cause a puppy to be born fearful. So if you have a naturally fearful breed coupled with fearful parents and a mother who was releasing lots of cortisol during her pregnancy, then you have your socialising work cut out. Patricia McConnell did a great ASPCA webinar about resilience in dogs, that bounce-back-ability. She says that dogs have a ceiling for what they can be, a potential. If the most well-rounded, well-adjusted dog was a ten, then some dogs are only ever going to have the potential to be a six or a seven. For some of our shelter dogs, although many have great potential, there are occasional dogs whose potential is perhaps a two. If you were born in a barn to fearful parents and never socialised, your potential is incredibly limited. Likewise if you were born of suspicious stock and taken from your mum at two weeks, your chances of ever being more than a two or three out of ten are very limited. Those dogs are rare though.

So some puppies come into the world with a ‘confidence’ or resilience potential of perhaps a six or seven at best. Good socialising experiences will get them to a seven. Poor socialising experiences can keep them at a three or a four. As with any Nature vs Nurture debate, sometimes there are people who think it’s all in the genes. Other times, people think it’s the result of experience. Scott and Fuller’s trials in the 1950s and 1960s are the most detailed information we have about the effect of socialising: it is their work that defined the ‘critical period’ for a puppy.

For that reason, anything beyond 16 weeks is remedial socialisation and can be a long, hard slog. This is just as true of real-world life experience socialising as it is of dog-dog socialising. For the sake of this article, I’ll be talking about dog-dog socialisation. Everything else in one post is just… a bit much!

Anyone who tells you that your antisocial dog can be easily socialised around other dogs is telling you porkies. Forget what people say about introducing dogs to enormous packs, and how dogs will quickly integrate when there’s X amount of dogs, or how ‘canine communication’ classes can allow dogs to teach each other. At best, they may work. At worst, the potential for physical damage or even death is absolutely massive. For some dogs whose lineage includes those bred for increased aggression towards other dogs, this ‘in at the deep end’ approach can have serious consequences. It makes me very sad when I hear of dogs introduced to enormous groups and the line “we just stick a muzzle on them”… essentially, you’ve got a dog who’s been ‘hobbled’ and what happens is not socialisation, it is learned helplessness. Adult dogs who have increased suspiciousness, increased gameness and increased pugnaciousness in their genes, coupled with a real lack of socialisation in their puppyhood will need a very realistic target for ‘social’ behaviour indeed.

Some dogs may be afraid of other dogs. You may find that they are fearful around them, cowering back into you, or rolling on their back passively. Others prefer the tactic of attack first, ask questions later. Barking, growling, airsnapping or even biting are common with dogs who have little experience with others. You may even find that some dogs have lost their way to communicate effectively with other dogs, or they’re rough. This post about different types of dog  and how to socialise your adult rescue dog outlines six different types of dog. Whilst some dogs come on too strong, others prefer space. There are also dogs who get a rise out of targeting a specific dog (or type) and those who have no demeanour-shifting skills, meaning they’re always the chaser and never the chasee. Then you have your resource guarders and also your habitual fighters.

Don’t forget too that aggression can be caused by many medical issues, so a trip to the vet should always be your first port of call. Whether it’s a hormonal thing or an age thing, there can be many reasons your dog may be less friendly with others, particularly if your dog is generally okay with other dogs or you’ve noticed a change in behaviour.

So how do you manage your anti-social adult rescue dog?

Firstly, you can manage their environment. Little Miss Playful who I was working with this morning would be perfectly happy in an environment with no other dogs at all. We have lots of dogs like that. There are plenty of dogs who have no desire to meet others of their species and who are too far down the anti-social dog route to be comfortable coming back from it easily. For these dogs, keeping them away from other dogs as much as possible until you can manage a careful programme of rehabilitation is a reality that most dog owners choose. If the dog doesn’t need to accept the presence of other dogs, you may well find that it is the easiest route. You will find that you can avoid other dogs on walks if you walk in antisocial hours, or you can even engage a friend to redirect a dog behind a fence so you can pass quietly. Taking walks where you deliberately avoid dogs behind barriers can avoid a ot of the problems.

You can also do this in a selective way. For instance, I know my foster dog is okay with bigger dogs, but with smaller dogs who run, he needs a very careful on-leash introduction. The first moment a dog takes off, he’s after it. One of my own dogs, Heston, is okay with smaller dogs or bigger dogs. Amigo likes shy dogs. Tilly is okay with smaller male dogs. Tobby was okay with everything except for hormonal uncastrated young male hounds. That’s a fairly specific environment to manage and it was easy enough to make sure he didn’t ever meet any off-leash teenage hounds in the cusp of manhood.

That said, managing the environment is a prevention, not a cure.

You may choose to deal with it head-on and train a better response. One of the ways you can do this is to listen to what your dog is telling you. Most dogs are communicating much more than we know before they even get to the growl or the bark. You can see quiet changes in their body language way before they get to their ‘threshold’. For many dogs, they stop and stare, focus hard on the dog in front of them. You can see their body hard, their neck high, their eyes focused. If they are afraid, their ears may be back. If they are aroused, their ears may be forward. By looking for the small changes in your dog’s behaviour, you will be able to tell when they are in the ‘training zone’.

Grisha Stewart’s Behaviour Adjustment Training  is a programme that I use with reactive dogs. I teach lots of other things too, such as the emergency U-turn and the automatic check in. The emergency U-turn, from Patricia McConnell’s book Feisty Fido is a way to avoid confrontation by putting some space between you and another dog. This needs a rock-solid ‘sit’ and ‘focus’. I also teach ‘wait’ and ‘down’. For Hagrid, a very airsnappy shelter boy, we worked from his sit to focus, then to wait and then to down. I taught him an automatic check in – he looks back at me and I move away. Working in that green ‘under threshold’ area, even 300m away from dogs, I can see if problems are about to occur and move away.

You can see Donna Hill doing an emergency U-turn series here.

Most of these things are just basic obedience training, but I find they give your dog a structure that helps them know that you are working as a team together. It allows them to put their trust in you and know that you will make decisions that don’t make them feel uncomfortable. For many shelter dogs, they don’t display affiliative behaviour with volunteers or shelter workers. They don’t see you as a leader or a partner, just the person on the back end of the leash. That makes it very hard for them to trust you. When a dog trusts you to read them, to back off, to move away, never to put them in situations in which they feel uncomfortable, they are immediately less reactive. I don’t just do a sit-focus-down-focus-wait sequence when other dogs approach – it is a staple of my training. They get treats or play and I get a dog who can manage their behaviour better when others pass.

Another technique I teach reactive dogs around other dogs is the ‘up-down’ game, explained here. Leslie McDevitt (whose DVD is excellent, by the way) explains the way pattern games can help a dog overcome reactivity

You can also teach flip finishes (and there are some great Youtube videos with Malis doing flip finishes!) as well as the “side-side” game.

Another thing you can teach is the automatic check in. This has enormous benefits for dogs who are unsure. When they look back to you, when they look to you for guidance, capture and reward it. You’re teaching the dog to look to you as the decision maker and check in with you when they’re unsure. When you act on that and reward the dog by making a choice that works for them, you’re helping them make good choices. It also allows you to gauge how interested they are in the environment. A dog who doesn’t check in is a dog who is over-stimulated by the environment. It’s easy to teach just by sitting with the dog or moving about their enclosure. When they look at you as if to ask where you are going, mark and reward them. Doing it for the best check-ins over a period of time and then giving occasional jackpots is a good way to get their undivided attention. A dog whose attention you can get in one place, but never offers an automatic check-in in others is a dog who has not yet made the connection between auto-check-ins and your presence (i.e. you’re just the person holding the lead) or is a dog who is over threshold and needs you to dial the environment back a bit. For dogs not used to doing this, use high-value rewards at first. 

You will find you’re using a lot of rewards at the beginning, and high value ones too. That’s okay. You won’t always be using them. For this reason, I work on Roger Abrantes’ principal that a third of the dog’s diet should always come from training, a third from searching and a third from the bowl. In fact, for a reactive dog, I’d say half-search and half-rewards. You have zero need for a bowl with a reactive dog. All those free ‘wages’ for a dog being given away on a silver platter. I also have a handful to spread over the floor for emergencies. A dog who is happily rooting around in the grass for sausages won’t notice a herd of elephants going past if done right. I can’t tell you the number of times that this has helped me deal with an emergency dog appearing in the distance. Plus, it teaches the dog to sniff the ground. This activity is often called a calming signal – if done as a displacement by the dog. To a dog in the distance, a dog sniffing the ground looks like a calm, non-reactive dog. They don’t know he is looking for sausage. I can’t tell you how many dogs are way calmer when passing an under-threshold dog. It diffuses so much. They’re calmer. Your dog is calmer. You are calmer.

That’s just some of the methods I use with a highly-reactive dog as remedial socialisation. When it gets to the point that the dogs can accept another dog in the vicinity without incident, it’s time to move it up to off-leash stuff. You should have worked your way through a number of stooge dogs and any trustworthy friends with well-socialised dogs. At this point, it’s a really good idea to have a structured support programme like Grisha Stewart’s, or the programme outlined in Jean Donaldson’s book Fight! Off-leash introductions are a whole new level of challenge for a dog and remedial socialisation past this point will need to be absolutely spot-on.


You’ll find other information about counter-conditioning and teaching new behaviours in my post about socialising your adult rescue dog.

In the next post, I’ll look at some ways that you can deal with a range of biting issues that your dog might present with.


Problem Behaviours: Chewing

Problem Behaviours: Chewing

Or… perhaps I would be better to say inappropriate chewing since most of us would be pretty alarmed if our dogs gave up chewing altogether. I know my dogs sometimes seem to inhale their food, but there is a small degree of mastication involved in the eating process, depending on what and how you feed. A dog that never chewed anything would be as alarming as one who chewed everything.

Like other destructive behaviours such as digging and trashing, there are many reasons why dogs chew. Why they are chewing and what they are chewing has a lot to do with how you stop it, too. This post is also about dogs who eat stuff that they really shouldn’t. I dare not tell you the disgusting things that Tilly has unearthed from the trash. But inappropriate consumption of hot kitty turds… that’s Tilly. A litter box is just a hot food buffet for that pretty little monkey.

If you’re interested in stopping your dogs chewing things they shouldn’t, or avoiding costly trips to the vet to extract an army of plastic soldiers or a kilo of pebbles, it’s important to understand why dogs do this crazy stuff.

For a dog, chewing can be an age-related thing. Chewing is one way to explore the world. Where human babies want to touch and grab things, puppies want to chew it. A lot of that chewing is just pure investigation as to what is good to chew. Too hard stuff is not good to chew. Flat stuff that doesn’t have a corner or edge is not good to chew. It’s all a process of elimination to a puppy. To chew or not to chew, that is the question. At this age, many puppies can be little land sharks, running around and sinking their teeth into everything just, you know… because… well, why the hell not? They haven’t tasted your sofa cushions yet and they just might make an excellent chewtoy.

Chewing can also relieve toothache when teething, so you’ll see it when your puppy ages as well.

As your dog ages, you may find that youthful exuberance manifests in chewing. A young dog who doesn’t get enough stimulation and has too much access to the world around him will quickly work out that chewing is an effective way to while away the time. You might turn to Netflix or gaming to fill your hours, your dog might turn to chewing. For many dogs, dissection is a part of their predatory motor pattern. It’s an innate desire to shred, destroy and dismantle. For dogs with a strong desire to dissect, it’s going to be really important they have robust chews and that they do not have access to things with stuffing. Leave a terrier with a cushion and you may wonder what happened, but for dogs with strong urges to dissect, that cushion is a fabulous substitute for a small furry critter.

Chewing, like many other behaviours, is also reinforcing for a dog. It can release stress-busting endorphins too. Believe it or not, that’s also true of self-mutilating chewing. Tilly does this. She nibbles her feet compulsively. It doesn’t harm her and she can be stopped, but when she goes to bed, she nibbles her feet. I noticed her doing it when I did a video of my dogs home alone recently. A minute of self-grooming is not an issue, but for dogs like Diabolo and Lucky at the shelter, those tail-biting times have led to severe self-mutilation. It doesn’t seem logical that pain would release endorphins, but it’s as true for humans as it is for dogs. This is why you might notice your older dog starts chewing at their paws. Arthritis or old injuries can cause issues. For Gaven, who’d nibbled away a lot of his fur on one of his rear paws, an xray revealed an old fracture and some necrosis in the tissue, as well as arthritis. Antibiotics cured his chewing. Nibbling the undercarriage, tail or rear end can also be a sign of anal gland issues, particularly if your dog is a ‘scooter’, so a vet check will help rule out medical reasons for self-mutilation.

Self-mutilating chewing and another specific chewing behaviour can also be signs of psychological factors that you might need to check out. If your dog is chewing or destroying exit points when alone, you may want to explore further whether they have separation anxiety or isolation distress.

If your dog is self-mutilating, it’s really important you seek out the help of a trained behaviourist or veterinary behaviourist who can help you deal with these issues. Every programme will be adapted specifically to your dog.

Another reason your dog may be chewing is dependent on what they are chewing and whether they’re swallowing. Chewing is one thing and can be annoying or lead to damaged teeth and mouths, but swallowing is another ball game completely. Dogs are happy to self-medicate in some circumstances, and it is not unknown for dogs to develop pica. If your dog is eating turds (their own, other dogs or other animals) they could be following a happy pattern of many dogs of the past who may have survived from eating human waste – including our most personal and intimate physical waste. For females who’ve had a litter of puppies, they may find it hard to put aside their maternal instinct of cleaning up canine fecal matter. Puppies, in turn, can learn this behaviour from their mum. But if your dog is seeking out specific things to eat, like they’re mincemeat of the plasterboard, you may want to check out vitamin and mineral supplements. Parasites can also be a reason why a dog might consume things that it’s not supposed to. A vet check would be a good starting point.

Most destructive chewing when alone is not a sign of anxiety, however, but a sign of boredom and access to too much space or too many resources. If a dog is chewing when you’re present, remember that you telling them off is giving them attention. A dog doesn’t care much if your attention is positive or negative. If they chew and you say, “Ahhhhh, Nero, you bad dog!”, your dog will quickly learn that they have a magic way to get you to stop looking at the television or at your phone and look at them instead.

Once you’ve thought about why your dog is chewing, it makes it a lot easier to get them to stop. As always, rule out medical reasons first with an appointment with your vet.

For puppies, removing every single item you don’t want them to chew is vital. Managing the environment is key here. This is why pens and crates are great when you are not actively supervising your dog. By that, I mean your eyes must be on the puppy ready to intervene the moment before it starts looking at your computer wires. It also prepares them for adolescence when destructive chewing can reach epic proportions especially if you have a high-energy dog. Teaching your dog how to deal with your absence (and those ‘passive supervision’ times when you are present physically but occupied mentally) will stop them ever developing bad habits in the first place. If habits have developed already, it also stops your dog getting a fix of something that is very rewarding and reinforcing.

When you are actively supervising your dog, you can use the switch and trade method to teach them what you want them to chew. Have a range of really interesting toys in different materials and allow your puppy to decide whether it wants to chew on a chewable strip or whether it wants to suck on something softer. Making sure your dog understands what it is acceptable to chew and making sure they always have access to these things (and no access to your prized possessions) can help.

As your dog ages, it’s important to make sure they are occupied in your absence and that they have access to many chewable things. Kongs are a gift and you can make all sorts of wonderful chewable goodies that help your dog use up its chew-time wisely. At adolescence, it’s vital they don’t develop preferences for things. Counters and table tops should be clear so that your dog doesn’t learn to counter-surf to find contraband chewables. You can also help your dog out by providing lots of mental and physical stimulation, especially before absences from the home. If your dog has a strong innate desire to dissect, soft furnishings are nothing but fun substitutes for a rabbit or rat, so keep delicate toys and soft furnishings out of reach when you are absent. For power chewers, it’s going to be really important that you have a robust chew toy. Even my Ralf who could dissect a can of dog food if he felt like it didn’t manage to break a Kong Safestik. Be careful with chews and think of your dog’s teeth. Slab fractures are more common than they should be. The rule is that if it’s stronger than a tooth, it is too hard. Weight-bearing bones are not good, neither knuckle bones of bigger animals. Some soft horns may work along with softer uncooked bones, but these are things to discuss with your vet. Tendons often make good chews, where hooves and horns can be too hard for many dogs. Rawhide may seem like a good option, but often it is treated and you need to be careful about the chemicals that have been used in the process. Supervision is also important, which is why not all chews are things that a dog should be left with.

Don’t forget that if you have a persistent problem with a dog eating other dogs’ turds, or snaffling things on a walk, a muzzle can help. Muzzles are not a long-term solution but if it’s a very specific problem and a habit that is entrenched, a muzzle is certainly an option to consider, although not something that I would leave on an unsupervised dog. For a dog who self-mutilates or nibbles, see your vet and a behaviourist in tandem. For a foot or tail-nibbling habit, it’s vital you break this endorphin-producing habit and have plentiful access to more interesting chews can help stop the self-soothing and transfer it to a more appropriate chewable.

For dogs who chew or eat inappropriate things, managing their environment is crucial to preventing habits and breaking habits. Giving them lots of appropriate alternatives will help them refocus that energy. Muzzles, pens, supervision, leads and crates are your friends here. For dogs who can’t manage alone, this is especially vital. Rule out anxiety-based reasons and make sure your dog has been exercised before your absence as well as having zero access to contraband as well as bountiful access to the stuff you do want them to chew. When you’re present, a trade will help your dog understand what they should be chewing or eating.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at ways that you can deal with poor socialisation with other dogs



Problem Behaviours: Digging and Escaping

Problem Behaviours: Digging and Escaping

Okay… two very different behaviours, sometimes linked (if you’re a dog involved in The Great Escape) and mostly not. However, they have a similar solution so I’m sticking them together for that reason and lumping them under “unwanted behaviours in the yard”.


I had a digger. Ralf, who also ate a month’s supply of vitamins, a kilo of sugar and once dragged me on my arse through a cow field to see a dog on the other side. He didn’t just dig. He sculpted tank traps. He excavated. He hollowed out moats, quarried for loot, dug for victory. That dog loved digging. My beautiful flat paddock was filled with craters and holes.

And I let him.

He was 12 years old and had been a working guard dog all his life. If you can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of a hole in your retirement, when can you?

Had he been younger, I’d have put a stop to his behaviour. When you’re trying to navigate bunkers and trenches on a lawnmower, you get a little cross. As it was, he taught Amigo and Heston the simple joy of digging too. Nothing like a little social contagion between friends. The joy of digging was easily stopped once Ralf died, and my garden soon returned to its former flatness.

So why do dogs dig?

There are so many interesting reasons behind this behaviour.

First and foremost, it’s in a dog’s DNA. You don’t need to teach a dog to dig (though it helps to have a mentor, doesn’t it Heston and Amigo?) and you’ll find dogs who are natural diggers. It’s instinctive and ancestral. Some dogs do different kinds of digging… Tilly ‘digs’ in the bed or the couch before she lies down. Amigo scrabbles for rabbits. This primeval behaviour could be a throw-back perhaps to their canine cousins who hollow out a space to sleep in as well as those who dig to find hidden prey. It could be a den to raise their young in and it could be a way to find a meal. It’s what scientists call a motor pattern, and it means that all dogs know how to do it instinctively.

There can be other reasons for different types of digging, so you need to know what kind of digging your dog does.

Is it more like clearing a space or making a dirt nest? They can do it to clear a space of grass (Tilly does this) perhaps clearing it of insects, or to enjoy the cooler dirt beneath. Or they can do it in colder temperatures to make a kind of protective space against the elements. Some digging precedes resting or raising the young, and that’s a form of digging that you might see your dogs doing.

Do they run off with your socks and hide them? Dogs also dig to bury stuff. If you’ve got a little hoarder in your midst (that’s you, Tilly!) you may find that they bury things that they unearth later. Tilly once buried a bread roll. She unearthed it when it was green and moldy, and then she guarded that moldy-old bread-roll as if it were a leg of ham. We also have a burial bone that Heston, Tilly and Amigo have all buried and unearthed. In fact, when Tilly used to bury her stuff, Molly would unearth it and re-bury it. Poor Tilly was a confused cocker indeed. Digging can therefore serve as a kind of safety-deposit-box for dogs. If they are a bit insecure and needy, you may find them taking off with something that smells of you and burying their stash.

Is your dog digging because they’ve a sneaking suspicion there’s a critter to be had? Dogs will also dig to unearth stuff. Obviously. If you’ve buried treasure, you’ll want to dig it up at some point. But it might not be a treasure you buried yourself. Digging is a way of unearthing mice, rats, voles, shrews, moles and even rabbits, coypu and badgers. If it lives in a hole, a dog might like to eat it. Digging is a counter-part in the predatory motor sequence to chasing. Heston lives to chase hare – but never digs for rabbit. Amigo will happily dig away and excavate a hole if he thinks something’s down there.

Does your dog do a frantic and exuberant scrabble for no good reason at all? Digging can be a way of passing time and relieving boredom. It’s a fun pastime for a lot of dogs. Got an hour to spare? Feel a sudden surge of energy? Digging is a great workout for a dog. You know how occupied your kids are with a bucket and spade on the beach? It’s the same for some dogs. If it’s frantic, joy-filled scrabbling sometimes coupled with a mad figure-of-eight run, digging is just a dog’s way of celebrating how good it is to feel alive.

Understanding why your dog digs can help find a solution. For the insecure dog who is burying a stash, only giving them instantly consumable chews and clearing up their toys can help eradicate the habit. When nothing needs interring, there’s no need to dig. If your dog is digging in the yard, it may be hot and trying to find a cool spot, like you turning your pillow over in the summer to enjoy the coolness of the underside. In that case, putting up a parasol, using a cool mat or keeping a cooler area in shade will help get rid of a summertime digging problem. If your dog is a yard dog who lives outside in the winter, you may find them excavating a hollow to keep them away from the wind or to find a warmer spot. In this case, a shelter or nest of blankets would help.

For dogs who are ‘digging’ in their bedding before they sleep, most of them only do it a couple of times before settling down. It’s not typically a behaviour that people want to or need to eradicate.

For others, who are digging to escape, addressing the need to escape (below) will help with the desire to dig. In that case, digging is a means to an end, rather than a pleasure in itself.

But what about dogs like Ralf, who dig for the sheer joy of digging, or dogs who dig because there’s something moving down there, dammit!?

Supervision is vital here. The moment they start to dig, you have to be able to intervene and distract. That means watching them all the time they are outside and not turning your back for a second. Don’t worry – you’re not going to have to do it for long, but you will have to do it. If a dog is unsupervised, you’ve no way of intervening when you need to, so you will need to be vigilant. For my dogs, post-Ralf, supervising them in the garden and introducing a range of new toys helped them ‘forget’ about how fun digging can be. Sure, it meant keeping them in a closed yard until the urge had passed, unless they were out in the field with me being supervised directly, but a few days of complete vigilance and supervised outdoor time gives you chance to intervene. It also stops your dog getting the pleasure they would from digging, so it stops them from self-reinforcing.

Your aim is to watch for the behaviour, disrupt it the moment the dog paws at the ground or seems interested in the ground, and then redirect the dog with another behaviour that is a fun way to expend energy. Be careful though. You don’t want your dog to decide that it has to dig in order to get you to play ball. Make sure there is a change in behaviour before you throw a ball or play chase.

Bear in mind that if your dog is digging because it’s after a subterranean creature, it can be really difficult to intervene and distract. You know how your dog’s recall evaporates when they’re in the midst of a chase? Digging can be just the same. Easier in some ways, because they’re not running off twice as fast as you are. But hard just the same. In this case, you could find the digging is less if you find ways to move those blessed underground creatures on. But the following technique works too…

The key to success is to manage the environment, making sure your dog does not have access to the places they like to dig. Fencing is your friend, even if it’s only temporary. This works even better if you build in a place for them to dig, encouraging them to dig in a new, approved spot. Just make sure that it’s a good spot – broken nails and bloody paws are the last thing you want. Remember that digging is a pastime for dogs like this, and you can easily provide another pastime that encourages your dog to use another skill, like chewing, puzzle toys or a whole load of games. If you’ve got a dog who’s got a particularly hard-wired digging behaviour, like a terrier or a dachshund, then you may find that their urge to dig is better than your ability to supervise. Instead of fighting an uphill battle, go with the flow and provide your dog with a place where they can dig to their heart’s content. Some sites will inevitably tell you that dogs like freshly turned earth, but Ralf would dig in hard, compacted soil as often as not. Some dogs like sand, some like harder substances… pick whichever your dog likes to dig in and seek to replicate it in a ‘dig all you want’ zone.

But if they only dig if they’re after a creature, you either need to restrict access to that spot or find ways to move those creatures on. Personally speaking, I’m a fan of creatures in general, so the badgers who pass through my garden are as welcome as the birds. The moles are messy guests but they’re welcome here too. For me, if I had a digger, restricting access would be crucial as well as supervising when the dog is in the garden. Killing the underground creatures is out of the question, and there’s no easy way to relocate a determined badger.

Managing the environment, phasing out habits, providing digging spaces, making sure nervous dogs feel secure and energetic dogs have something to do should really help eradicate the bunkers on the lawn.

If your dog is digging as a means to an end, read on…


If your dog is escaping regularly from the garden, you’ve also got to think about the causes of that behaviour in order to eradicate it.

Younger puppies are unlikely to escape, but they can wander off and get lost, especially if they are confident puppies and your property is not secure. Exploring is part-and-parcel of growing up. Adolescent dogs may seek opportunities to escape if they are unsupervised, bored or hormonal. Picture your teenager sneaking out of the house of an evening to hook up and have fun, and you get the picture. Adult dogs may escape if they are hormonal, and elderly dogs may escape as part of canine cognitive dysfunction.

Hormones are a big factor. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just male dogs that go a-wandering. A female in a yard doesn’t emit THAT powerful a smell that it brings all the boys to the yard. That said, with the right weather conditions, it’s not unlikely that a female outside could attract males from a quarter mile away. As many females get out to go seeking out male company as boys get out to service their needs. One village I went to last year had enormous problems with escapees because one guy let his three unsterilised females wander willy-nilly. As a consequence, every intact male within a quarter mile of their very large roaming area was then desperate to get out as Nature was very certainly calling. If you’ve got an escapee, castration is one way that is very likely to stop the urge to wander if that’s why they’re escaping.

The wind might not just be bringing the scent of mating hormones over your fence: it could also be bringing the smell of creatures. Cats, wildlife, other pets… I don’t need to tell you the sad tale of a Frenchie who escaped, dug a hole through to next door, broke in and ate the guinea pig… if something fun is over the other side of the fence (or, conversely something that makes your dog mad) they might try to escape too.

You also have to look at breed. Some breeds have had their ‘chase’ motor pattern diminished through years of selective breeding. What good would a livestock-guarding breed be if it ran off every time it saw a predator and got the urge to chase it. It’s one reason why beagles don’t guard sheep and why Maremmas aren’t good at hare-coursing. Some breeds are more ‘homey’ than others. Dereliction of duty would be a rubbish skill for any kind of guardian dog or livestock dog. Likewise, a collie or shepherd herding livestock would be useless if it had strong scenting instincts as my dog Heston does. Heston would be a rubbish herder as he’d be easily distracted by a scent of rabbit and disappear just as he was about to bring the sheep into a fold. Genetics can play a strong part in how likely a dog is to stray from a property where boundaries are less secure. If you have an active, curious, tenacious and independent dog bred for any form of hunting, your work is going to be a lot harder than if you’ve got a companion breed or a guardian breed. A shih tzu simply doesn’t have the same genetic drive to escape as a terrier might if he smells a badger beyond the property line.

There are also psychological factors at work. Dogs escape when something upsets them, from time to time. Like us, they vote with their feet. For my geriatric malinois, who was of a very sensitive disposition, he would regularly escape through a hole and wander off. Was he chasing skirt? It’s possible. He was intact and very sensitive to female hormones (I called him the canine womb-detector). He was also going out through well-used badger and rabbit holes in the fence, so he could have detected a smell that he wanted to follow. But given he only went at very specific times, I think it was most likely a vote with his feet. When puppies arrived here on foster, Tobby was off. I’d find him wandering down the road like the Littlest Hobo looking for new friends and a puppy-free home.

Another very powerful reason a dog may escape can be in an attempt to save themselves. I simply cannot tell you the sad number of dogs who have been rehomed from our shelter and then got startled by something and taken to the hills. Fearful dogs present a very high risk indeed of escape. If they are noise-phobic, storm-phobic, anxious, suffering from separation anxiety or scared, a dog will flee. Fight or flight? Flight wins out. This is the saddest form of escape and is better treated with a programme for fearful dogs than it is through the solutions that follow, but they may help too.

A final reason can be boredom and lack of supervision. I said about Tobby wandering off when I got puppies here, and one reason for that might be that he felt less secure here, but it’s also true that puppies are attention-sucks. So is gardening. When you aren’t keeping an eye on your dog and actively supervising them, don’t be surprised if your dog takes advantage of that.

The easiest way to deal with escapes is in managing the environment by which I mean that your dog will need a secure – and interesting – area to keep them in. Our shelter may not be the comfortable and stimulating environment a garden is, but by-and-large, it’s secure. Do dogs get out of their enclosures? Yes, from time to time. I’ve seen dogs use kennels to climb on and hop over, and I’ve seen dogs dismantle the gutter covers to use the gutters to get out. I’ve seen dogs who learn quickly how to flick the catches on the gates and I’ve seen dogs charge people’s legs when they open the gates. I’ve seen dogs shimmy (is that the right word?!) up over the 2m grilles that make the fencing. But I’ve never seen dogs escape from the enclosures we have that are covered over the top and where the gutter grids are fixed, where the gates are padlocked. If a dog can climb over a two-metre fence, rolling tops, inward-sloping panels or a mesh over the top will stop them doing so. If they charge the gate, put a double gate system into place like a kind of airlock. Creating a secure enclosure for your dog may cost you a fair whack, but it will work. A concrete base, a 2m fence, mesh over the top and a double gate entry will stop even the most determined hounds. And you can pretty it up. There’s no reason you can’t put grass over the top of the concrete base, no reason you can’t put artificial turf in there, no reason you can’t fill it with toys. Then, when your dog is in the garden you can keep them on a long-line so they can’t run off. 

You can buy 20, 50 and even 100m long-lines from many websites. Sadly, in France, shock collars are often used and promoted as anti-fugue or “anti-escape”. A lead is more reliable than a shock collar for stopping your dog running away, both out of your property and within your property boundaries. For dogs whose impulse to escape is based on a primary emotion such as fear or on a hard-wired predatory instinct, a shock collar or so-called ‘e-fencing’ is unlikely to work. Particularly with dogs who escape because they’re afraid, adding a shock collar or any kind of punishment will worsen the situation, not improve it. Shock collars and electric fencing can also worsen boundary and barrier aggression too.

Why do people choose a shock collar or electric fencing? Because kindness is time-intensive and requires you to actively supervise your dog. It is hard work keeping your eye on your dog at all times or keeping them on a long-line when you want to spend half an hour in your vegetable garden. This is why an outside enclosure is a bonus. For me, it was very easy as the lady who lived here before me was obviously a lover of dogs. Not only is there a fairly secure courtyard (although I’d struggle with a dog who realises you sometimes have to go up to get out as they could probably hop over the barbecue) but there is also a 2m high kennel and pen, which opens up to a 10m x 2m fenced, grassed run with a hatch. I know people might be all ‘oh, but they’re penned!’ … well, people, a garden is a pen. A house is a pen. A garden with walls or fences is just a bigger, prettier, grassier version of a pen. A house is a painted, furnished version of a pen.

Many dogs are rehomed because their owners do not have secure properties, or they are consigned to life on a chain. Every day, I walk past a boxer on a 10m chain, attached to a sad-looking kennel. His owners could so easily build him a run with two bits of fencing. It makes me so sad when I see adverts for dogs “free to a good home… must have secure garden” because it is a problem that is so easily solved.

Over time, if you prevent your escape artist from running away, you may find that their drive to do so is much reduced. This is the same if they are fearful or following some innate urge to chase. You can work on making the home environment reinforcing with lots of games (especially ones that refocus a natural urge, such as playing chase or fetch) and lots of fun stuff to do in the garden. You may find that over several months your dog is looking less to escape than they once did and the habit dies out. But you can never rest on your laurels with a dog who has ever escaped… it only takes one very powerful incentive to run off and you’re back to square one. Vigilance is essential.

If you have a dog that dashes the gate when there are visitors, you can also build in some reinforcement training. I think this is vital for all dogs, personally speaking. I live on a fast main road and a blind bend… if I can’t trust my dogs to stay calm when the gate is opened, the risk of one getting squished is enormous.

It’s not something I’d trust if a cyclist, jogger, dog or herd of cows went by, but for wagons, cars, motorbikes and general traffic, it’s one of the most useful things I’ve taught my dogs. Effel has had a month of gate-training to stop him trotting out into the road when guests open the gate, since he was nearly a squished fosteree last year. Obviously, this kind of reinforcement clicker training isn’t going to solve the problem of a hardened escape artist, but it’s a reliable way of stopping your dogs making a bid for freedom in day-to-day entrances or exits.

Next week, I’ll be exploring ways that you can use to stop your dog from chewing.

Problem Behaviours: destruction when home alone

Problem Behaviours: destruction when home alone

Have you ever gone out and come home to a scene of carnage? Got up and gone downstairs to find a canine midnight feast has taken place whilst you slept? Rubbish everywhere, bins upturned, cupboards open, flour prints all over the floor, things shredded? Christmas trees dismantled, sofas repurposed, stilettos refashioned as mules? Cowboy boots turned into moccasins, pillows destroyed, pills pilfered? This article will help you address all those times you realised that your dog had helpfully destroyed your stuff, raided the fridge or eaten your lino flooring.

My own dogs are not without sin. I once got home and this fine fellow – Ralf – had knocked everything off the shelves and used those teeth as an impromptu tin opener. Every single carton had been pulled off the shelves and torn open. There were lentils covered in flour mixed in with pasta and teabags. The joys of a twelve-year-old retiree! Ralf once won a competition for being an amazing Golden Oldie. He won a year’s supply of senior vitamins. The next day, he yoinked them off the shelf and had a vitamin party with about a month’s worth.

Hopefully, your dogs are only destroying things when you’re not there… I mean, they’re not making light work of your kitchen cabinets when you’re sitting reading this, or helping themselves to the contents of your bin while you’re actually watching them? If you have dogs that destroy stuff whilst you are actively watching them or when you intervene, you definitely need more help than this article can give you. If you’ve got an opportunistic counter surfer who takes advantage of a brief lapse in surveillance (or even right out steals in front of you) I’ll be doing a follow-up post on that another time.

But for owner-absence carnage, breathe easy… it’s fairly easy to sort out.

Before Ralf arrived, I’d had minor carnage. Tilly was so bad at leaving the bins alone that all bins were out of reach where she couldn’t get to them. Funnily enough, she never used to be like that – it was only the introduction of puppy Heston that sent her seeking out remnants of goodness in the bins. And Heston had had some minor incidents as he grew up – he went through a fair few books in his youth, chewed an electric blanket and ate my toothbrush. Anyone who’s lived with a puppy will no doubt have a tale to tell.

Destruction is a common reason for abandoned dogs or failed adoptions. Sometimes, it’s complete carnage. Other times, it was largely avoidable. Sometimes, it’s downright silly. In fact, a guy sent a dog back once for chewing his slipper. I was quite cross really. I explained why dogs chew or destroy things, and the owner was adamant that they had done what they needed to to protect the slippers. He saw nothing wrong with leaving slippers out and leaving a young dog unsupervised in the house. Clearly the dog should have been able to distinguish between those cured hide bits of animal skin we give them to chew on, and those cured hide bits of animal skin we wear on our feet and have been left in range of a dog, you know, like you do, as a test to see if they know the difference. Slippers or dog chews – you’d think a dog would appreciate the difference.

I’ve got news for you, people. It’s all chewtoys to a dog.

Out of reach? Just a chewtoy in need of liberation. Cardboard? Why the hell not? Walls? If there’s nothing else. Doors? Just things that stop me getting to potential chewtoys beyond. What dogs can dismantle in ten minutes never ceases to amaze me.

So why do dogs chew?

First, because they are creatures of the mouth. You know those signs that say in shops ‘If you break it, you bought it’ or ‘Please don’t touch with your hands’, or downright simple ‘Don’t Touch!’ signs… humans are creatures of the hand. We touch stuff. We do stuff with our hands. We’ve got a gazillion expressions like The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands and if you’ve ever sat with a hyperactive child, it’s the hands that cause chaos.

But dogs are creatures of the mouth (and nose!) Where we might take up knitting or compulsive fidgeting, sorting out Rubix Cubes or endlessly flicking through posts on Facebook, dogs don’t. Paws are pretty rubbish at that kind of thing. A mouth, on the other hand, well it’s good for big stuff like bringing back a hare, and it’s good for detail stuff like getting the marrow out of a bone.

Mouths are a good way to engage with the world if you’re a dog.

There are age-related reasons why dogs might enjoy chewing and destruction as well. Young puppies will enjoy chewing and destruction because it helps with teething. Older adolescents will enjoy it because it gets rid of a bit of that excess dog energy, especially if your owners don’t let you do other fun dog stuff like digging, barkin, jumping and biting. And like humping, once you’ve got the habit, it’s psychological too. If you chewed something or destroyed something and it was really fun, well, you’re going to want to do it again.

There are other emotional reasons too why a dog might chew or destroy stuff. First is that it was fun. I’m sure there are people out there like me who love a bit of therapeutic bottle bin time. I just love throwing the glass into the bin and smashing it. Don’t get me started on Minecraft and the whole psychology of people who like to build stuff only to destroy it… ripping stuff, tearing it up, smashing it and obliterating things is enormously rewarding if you are a dog too.

It’s especially fun if you are a bit frustrated or if you need to burn off steam. Ever gone boxing or done ten rounds with a punchbag when you’re frustrated at work? It’s the same for your dog. At moments where they are frustrated, anxious or worked up, you may find they turn to destruction to blow off steam. Yesterday, walking a malinois at the shelter, I’d navigated three cats. Three things she really, really wanted to chase. And coming out of the gate (all that barrier frustration too) she jumped up, grabbed a guy’s sleeve and started tug-of-war. She was hard work yesterday. And that frustration is enormously pleasurable to take out in a bit of destruction. When we prevent dogs from doing what they want to do (like leaving on a walk with you) then don’t be surprised if they find their own outlet for that energy.

That’s why, when walking Heston and not Effel (who has stalking issues…) Effel developed this nice habit of going to the food cupboard and helping himself. Talk about eating your emotions.

What happened when it went under lock and key? He learned to try the handle to check.

A one-off Jackpot is surprisingly hard for a dog to forget. A Jackpot that keeps paying out is one to keep doing.

Another emotion that can lead to destruction is distress… isolation distress and separation anxiety can also lead to destructiveness or chewing. But that is a post for another day. If your dog is not exhibiting other signs of anxiety, most likely that destruction is just a great diversion in your absence, a way to manage your frustration and sometimes – if food is involved – an occasional Jackpot.

Destruction can also be a social thing. We call it social learning or social facilitation – one dog is doing it, so I will join in or behave differently than I normally would because, well, those other dogs are doing it. If Ralf’s kindly knocked all the things off the shelf, am I just going to let him enjoy that picnic himself?! If my best friend dog starts to tear apart a blanket, why that looks like an amazing game of tug!

Finally, boredom can be a factor in destruction. If you find it’s happening at the end of the absence rather than the beginning, it may be a sign that your dog just can’t handle too long without occupation.

The best way to know what is happening exactly is to video it or watch it in real time via Skype or Facetime. Put your speakers on mute, keep your microphone on and video your dogs. I just did it with mine. What did I see? Higher energy when I leave, they all watch me go, watch me lock up, watch me get in the car, watch me drive off… Effel paced very slowly for 20 seconds, looked on the table (for loot!) seemed to think about where he was going to lie down, shook off and climbed on to the couch where he sleeps. Tilly relaxed as soon as the car drove off. She self-groomed for about a minute then went to sleep. Heston was on guard for about a minute, watchful, but then went to lie down. I’d thought Amigo hadn’t woken up at all (he’s deaf) but he lifted his head and put it right back down again. Within a minute after I left, all the dogs were in their beds and relaxed. Absolutely zero happens until I pulled up again. The very occasional destruction in my home certainly doesn’t happen in a 15-minute absence. They’re not all super-charged the moment I leave. That points to boredom and curiosity for mine in longer absences.

And once you can see the video, you can decide if it’s boredom, frustration, anxiety (or if you’re just like a prison warden when you’re about, and when you leave, it’s time to PAAAAARRRTTAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY!)

When you can see what is happening, you can think about why it’s happening. Then you can think about how to stop it happening. Obviously for my dogs, a fifteen-minute absence is no cause for excitement. My leaving and re-entry are the most emotional bits, and Effel whimpered twice when my car pulled up outside. Heston got into a perch position to see who it was and all of the dogs were relatively calm when I got back. Not a very good example of why Effel might decide to go and help himself to the empty box from a tube of toothpaste as he did last week (I found the evidence once he’d passed it through his bodily systems) but a reassurance there is no anxiety or distress. It’s a great way to see what is really going on. I also know that for longer absences, what they need is something when that time is stretching out too long. A Kong or chew is not going to help here, but someone coming round to let them out and give them a break sure will.

But what else can you do with a destructive dog, especially one who takes the first opportunity to go and dismantle stuff or chew things?

First, you need to manage the environment. You need to find ways to stop them getting to the things they are destroying. In Tilly’s case, that meant all bins and yellow recycling sacks are outside. In Heston’s case, it meant putting all books out of reach. In Ralf’s, it meant putting food under lock and key. Confinement is great if you have time to crate-train your dog (and you can see why crates are a popular way of managing problems as they help with many other unwanted behaviours) although if you have a big, rambunctious dog, you might need more than a crate. Doors are your friend. Crates and pens are your friend. Baby gates are your friend. Dog-friendly rooms with closed doors are your friend. If you lock your dog in the kitchen, you are taking a big risk because there is sooooo much in there that is fun to destroy. If you can open a cupboard, there’s chocolate to be had as well as other foodstuffs. If you can get in the bins, there’s juicy leftovers. If you can manage the fridge, that’s a smorgasbord of dog feasting. But there’s also a lot of household chemicals, poisonous or toxic foods, dangerous plastics… would you leave a toddler unsupervised in a kitchen? And just because dogs don’t have opposable thumbs doesn’t mean they can’t use their paws or jaws to get stuff open. No tin opener? No problem, as far as Ralf was concerned. Although a kitchen may be easy to clean, it is not a good place to leave an unsupervised dog. Find a room where there is nothing that can be interpreted as a lovely puzzle box for your dog, a room that doesn’t smell of food or have any associations with food.

Then, because your dog has a need to let off that energy somehow, you need to make sure the only things they can access are good things. The room should be filled with fun stuff and absolutely zero access to other things. That might include carpets and rugs or chewable dog beds too. But it might not necessarily need to be a room inside, and the things you think a dog might chew shouldn’t be limited to what you think they might like to chew. A lady last week said her dog was eating stones in the yard. The easiest solution is a stone-free enclosed play area. But you can’t take away a dog’s occupation and expect it to be happy. Other behaviours will emerge… excessive barking, tail-chasing, circling. That safe space has to be filled with things you have pre-approved as acceptable for a dog to chew or destroy safely when you are absent. You can’t just expect a dog who finds your absence to be arousing for one reason or another to suddenly lie down calmly when you are not there, simply because you’ve put them in a chew-free prison. Be sensible though, and make sure the toys or chews you leave aren’t likely to present a choking risk.

If you have a multi-dog household, be careful of what you leave for the dogs – the last thing you want is a fight over a toy or food treat in your absence. In those circumstances, it would be far better for your destructive dog to be left separately or crated so that no fighting will break out. Be mindful of the fact that dogs are a social species and may find it more frustrating or distressing to be alone.

If energy or boredom is a factor, you can also make sure you have planned in exercise before you leave your dogs. If they’ve had a good run, if they’ve had an hour’s walk or a half-hour of agility, they’re going to be more likely to use that time to catch up on the zees. That said, the last thing you want to do is ramp up your dog’s energy and then leave them in your home. That’s like filling a child with Haribo and coca-cola and letting them loose in a china shop. Leave a good thirty minutes after exercise or stimulation to ensure your dog has time to calm down after that exercise.

If lengthy absences pose a problem when short ones do not (like my dogs), asking a neighbour or family member to pop in and let your dogs out might be just what is needed. A dog walker can easily break up the monotony of long periods at home and ensure you don’t return to carnage.

If you manage the space that your dog can access, make sure they are adequately exercised before absences, minimise exit fuss and stop expecting them to ‘be good’ when you aren’t home, there will be fewer opportunities or reasons for them to get into your underwear drawer and scoff your socks. No amount of dog training can make a dog into the perfectly-behaved canine when they are on their own in a giant room filled with stuff that might need chewing or when nerves get the better of them and they need a little comfort from chewing your shoes. When it comes to being home alone, it’s better safe than sorry.

In next week’s post, I’ll look at two outdoor unwanted behaviours, digging and escaping.