How to help your rescue dog become more resilient

How to help your rescue dog become more resilient


With the number of people who read and shared my post about trigger stacking, I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in making a difference to the lives of their rescue dogs. Having listened recently to the very excellent Dr Patricia McConnell’s talk for the ASPCA about building resilience in dogs, which you can listen to in full here, I thought I would share some of the ideas I found most interesting, as well as a few of my own comments.

If you work in a shelter, if you volunteer, if you adopt a dog who comes with a range of traumas and terrors, the webinar is a fabulous guide that will give you a better understanding, a lot of inspiration and plenty of practical ideas. I thought some of the ideas I found most interesting, and share with you the story of a resilient little soul named Lucky, and a family of not-so-resilient spaniels (namely Zakari, Zouzou, Zoe, Zelda, Suzette and Teddy) so that you can see some of these ideas in practice.

Why is resilience such an important quality for our dogs to have?

Resilience is the ability we have to bounce back from adversity, trauma or tragedy. It’s how we cope with stress, how quickly we deal with those flight, fight or freeze hormones.

With shelter dogs who come in having faced a range of traumatic and tragic events, you can see how important it is that they have that “bouce-back-ability”. Resilience can prevent stress and can help us cope with physical or psychological trauma. It can also help us heal more quickly. But it can be damaged by trauma. It can also be healed through careful training. Resilience is also how quickly we bounce back, be it seconds or minutes, or even months or years.

What does a traumatic event entail?

In short, it’s any event the animal deems it to be. Sometimes, dogs face enormous adversity without batting an eyelid. We call these dogs “bomb-proof”. For others, even the arrival of a familiar face can stir up feelings of unrest and agitation. For some “bomb-proof” dogs, they can have exposure to events from which they don’t bounce back. But we have common ones that we see more often in the shelter:

  • dogs who have been hurt in some way, physically or emotionally;
  • dogs who have been exposed to aversive training methods or who have been punished during their training;
  • dogs who have come in from “backyard breeders”, kept in squallid conditions;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from other animals;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from human beings;
  • dogs whose owners have been sick or ill for a long time;
  • dogs who have been neglected;
  • dogs who have come in from a puppy farm;
  • dogs whose owners have died.

In short, these are dogs who have had a situational stress. For Lucky, that was living in an abusive household where he was eventually thrown out of a second-floor window, breaking his back leg and fracturing his pelvis. For the seven spaniels, that was living in a barn with little light, with minimal contact from human beings except for food. Why then is Lucky a resilient little soul and Zakari a shadow of a dog?

What we know about resilience

Some of what we know is related to our studies of fear and anxiety. Resilience is, after all, how we cope with fear and anxiety, as well as the stress from trauma. Thus, for Lucky, his traumatic past has not made him a fearful or anxious dog. The opposite happened for Zakari and his family: trauma has resulted in a family of fearful, anxious dogs. Why do dogs have such different reactions to trauma? Why do some dogs bounce back and others don’t?

We should be clear here. It’s not just trauma that makes for a fearful, anxious dog, we’re talking about a dog who finds it hard to cope with traumatic events and harder still to bounce back.

Science tells us that much of how we deal with fear and trauma is inherited – either through genes or through how we are nurtured as we grow up. Our understanding of that comes from much post-war study of the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on humans. Research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has also given us insights into the effects of psychological stress. Many studies of the offspring of Holocaust victims showed that they were more likely to suffer from a lack of resilience: anxiety, depression, PTSD. What studies are telling us is that if you take a stressful event, it can affect generations to come.

You would expect their parents to be more likely to suffer anxiety or depression, but how does that affect their children?

Some of that is no doubt as a way the events affected parenting, how the children were nurtured. However, one small study pointed to something worth further consideration, that compared with a control group, there were epigenetic changes as well, suggesting that the effects of trauma on our parents and grand-parents can cause changes at an epigenetic level in us. We know that the environment can cause genetic changes in plants; what we don’t know is exactly how that functions in creatures. In other words, trauma may cause changes in our biology that we can pass on to our children.

Further studies in animals (Dias & Ressler, 2014) have shown that animals can inherit a fear of certain smells from their fathers. Epigenetic inheritance studies are trying to say more about this tendency, but it’s a new science and there is a lot to learn. For now it’s safe to say that qualities like fearfulness pass through the generations in more ways than just learned behaviours we’ve picked up from our parents.

That said, our early experiences are also important. Studies have also shown that animal offspring that are nurtured become less fearful than animal offspring who are not. This passes down the generations too (Weaver et al, 2004). This suggests that a mother dog who is not nurturing towards her puppies may pass on not only fearfulness to her puppies but also the lack of nurturing will pass forward down the years too. This has huge implications for puppies removed from their mothers, like my dog Heston who was found in a box at a day old. Without that nurturing, fearfulness is a likely consequence. Either through lack of contact with their mother or through poor mothering, a dog may become fearful – and therefore less resilient – as a consequence. That behaviour too is at a genetic level. Licking and nurturing literally makes a baby animal less likely to be stressed as an adult.

And that’s not all. Parenting and a nurturing infancy is vital for a resilient dog. It’s also necessary that mums have a pregnancy that is free from traumatic stress. There are many studies in animals (though none in dogs) that show that there are links between traumatic stress and the way offspring process cortisol, the stress hormone.

So, who a dog’s parents are, what they dog’s parents are afraid of, what stress their mother was subjected to during pregnancy and how the puppies were reared are all vital in giving a dog a solid genetic predisposition for handling stress.

Can you see how important it is then to choose a puppy that comes from great parents with a responsible breeder? And why cheap backyard breeder pups are a catastrophe for resilience? For Lucky, his bounce-back-ability is no doubt a result of his parents, his time in the womb and his puppyhood. Life has thrown all kinds of crap his way and he’s just his happy-go-lucky self. But for Suzette, Zakari and Teddy, as well as their various offspring… take a fearful mum, a stressful environment during pregnancy and you’re two-thirds of the way to creating a dog who has less resilience from birth.

We also saw this lack of resilience with the twenty-odd GSDs taken by another shelter, (three of whom came to us) or indeed the seventy mixed-breed cane corso/doberman that were seized last year, six of whom came to us. More work needs doing before we can fully understand this. It’d be interesting to see those genetic changes under the microscope, but I don’t need science to tell me that – for whatever reason, be it nature or nurture – change is passed on from parents and early experience.

What this tells us is that shelters would do well to work closely with good breeders (and that’s not necessarily a pedigree paperwork thing) to ensure that we think as much about the emotional state of the parents we choose for our puppies. Fearful parents breed fearful offspring.

As McConnell says, you can only work with what you’ve got. If you think of resilience on a scale of 1 – 10, with lack of resilience being 1 and ease of resilience being 10, some dogs don’t come to us having anything more than the ability to reach a 6. You are either bomb-proof from the base, or you are not. Not only that, there is a limit to just how bomb-proof a trainer or behaviorist can make a dog. For Heston, deprived of early parental nurture, he is never going to be a super-resilient bomb-proof dog. 10 is not in his range. For Suzette and her offspring, they are never going to be bomb-proof either. For Lucky, well, he’s a “bomb-proof from the base” kind of guy.

That has a big impact for shelter work and for you as rescuers. What you expect of your dog may be too much: you’ve got to respect your dog’s limits. Depending on how resilient your dog is also impacts upon how they can cope with new stimuli.

It doesn’t mean that we should give up hope though. Even if we have a dog who is genetically predisposed to be fearful and anxious, or less likely to have that bounce-back-ability, there is still a lot we can do.

And, let’s face it, if we didn’t believe that, every single one of us should give up our work in rescue right now.

There are four strategies McConnell says that we can use to help our dogs be more resilient: safety and security, social support, autonomy, and a healthy and balanced physionomy. Two of those are ones that I’d like to explore in a little more detail here.

Safety and security

One of the major things you can do to make your dog feel safe and secure is to remove sensory overload. When you are not resilient, every walk can be the equivalent of a PTSD sufferer walking through a warzone. This can be hard in a shelter. It’s why our least resilient dogs are in quieter enclosures, sometimes on the periphery of the shelter. McConnell talks about limiting exposure to noise, sights, smells to make it less overwhelming to a dog. Shelters can do much by removing novelty for fearful dogs, whether it’s new smells or new sights. The same is true for rescue dogs too, especially in those first moments out of the shelter.

For many of us, we take our new dogs home and subject them to an endless onslaught of new stimuli. We show them new beds, take them round our homes which are filled with new smells, give them new toys, new food, new water bowls.

New is not always good for dogs. Some dogs love new experiences. Neophilia – or the love of new things/novelty – is a key sign of an extrovert. For an extroverted dog who enjoys and thrives off novelty, new things are curious and interesting, not frightening. For an introverted or neophobic animal who is fearful of new experiences, the adoption process can be very hard, even though you think it is a great thing. The shelter, for all its faults, is predictable. It is familiar. It was new once and the dog has adapted. Routines are obvious. Smells are familiar. Sights have become expected. Don’t be upset if your newly rescued dog seems to be more terrified at first, not less.

The ASPCA rehabilitation centre has done some interesting initial work with dogs who come to their centre from animal hoarding situations. It’s only small scale, but it’s very promising and has implications for shelters and rescuers.

One group of their rescued dogs have been kept in kennels where the stimuli has been minimised but where they are quickly introduced to shelter routines: they can’t see other dogs, they have little human contact, routines are established after three days. They are counter-conditioned, desensitised to their fear, involved in active rehab programmes right away.

The other group have a very limited stimuli for three weeks. They have muted sound, few distractions, no sensory overload.

Guess what? The animals who bounce back quickest are those who have three weeks of limited exposure to sensory overload and who are just left to “be” for a little while in a quiet, unstimulating place with limited interaction.

For me, this is very promising. It ties in to what we know about cortisol, the stress hormone, and its “bodily shelf life”. Cortisol can take up to eight weeks to be completely reabsorbed (especially in those dogs who have a genetic glass ceiling on their resilience levels) and until then, it’s floating around in the body. What this shows is that our dogs need time for those cortisol levels to return to normal.

To help them do that, a stress-free, stimuli-free environment is crucial. You should think about how your dogs acclimatise to the noise of your home, and minimise unfamiliar noises. You can also think about keeping novelty to a minimum. Is taking them for a four-km walk every day through what is essentially a warzone for a stressed dog going to help them build resilience? Far better to keep those things to a minimum so a dog can feel safe and secure. Gradually reintroduce walks, new stimuli and new experiences and you’ll find your new rescue dog better able to cope.

McConnell suggests that we take each sense in turn and try to eliminate as much as we can control. Closing curtains or shutters in the home can help if the dog can see a lot of activity outside. Putting a screen up across French windows if you live on a road can also help. Likewise in the garden.

In shelters, there are also things we can do to help stressed dogs recover. Ensuring dogs aren’t facing other dogs’ enclosures in shelter situations is one way we can eliminate visual stimulus (or at least putting a screen up so they aren’t permanently faced with other dogs) and putting them in a low-traffic zone in the shelter can also help. If you have rescued a fearful or anxious dog, ask how you can remove as much visual stimulation from outside as possible so that they can acclimatise quickly to what there is, and not be bombarded with additional stuff to process. A quiet corner can help those who are aversive to noise. At the Refuge de l’Angoumois, we use our ‘satellite’ blocks for this, as the dogs aren’t facing one another in the same way across a corridor. Even in the main block where dogs are, we keep the corridor dim for the most part. Some of our enclosures are out of the way of all other dogs. It’s why Hagrid and Daluk, who find it harder to deal with stimuli, are in the outer parks. I don’t need to tell you the difference in Hagrid when a quiet, non-reactive GSD moved in next door and took the place of two dogs who would regularly run the length of the park barking and jumping up at the panels that separated them from Hagrid. Actually, it wasn’t good for me as a walker: Hagrid was more alert, more energetic, more his “normal self”. He was quite literally worn out from all the noise!

Aim for predictability and as little novelty as possible for a good three or four-week period, longer if necessary. If you must walk your dog, walk them in predictable, open spaces where there is little sensory stimulation from other humans or dogs. For Teddy and Zakari, adopted from our pack of spaniels, having regularity, stability and a lack of stimulation has been vital. Their progress has happened largely because Liliane, their owner, has made sure that everything is the same. They live in a quiet house with few visitors. They have an open, secure garden. Liliane has regular routines. The dogs have regular routines. Their progress has happened because Liliane has turned away visitors and has stuck to those routines. Safety and security has been her path forward and it has made a huge difference. She has also used her regular dog walk in a quiet, predictable space to ‘mop up’ some of those stress hormones.

As for Lucky, there’s a dog who thrives off novelty but has also come to appreciate regularity. Novelty does not frighten Lucky. Rat poison? I’m not going to sniff it – I’m going to scoff it right out. New shoes? Well I’m just going to run down the garden with them as they must be a marvellous new toy. A resilient dog is one who loves new experiences, or, at the very least isn’t frightened by them.

Once your dog has had a chance to reset its stress hormones, it’s time to reintroduce them gradually and carefully to some of those stimuli. Bear in mind too that exercise is a good way to use up adrenaline (and release endorphins) and that movement uses up adrenaline. Mental and physical exercise are vital for dogs to help them build resilience as they use up those stress hormones.

Social support

Social support helps us build resilience and overcome stress. This is also something that is true for dogs. Dogs are social creatures. Living in complete isolation can be stressful for them. Some dogs prefer other dogs, especially if they have not been socialised with people. For our hounds who arrive, many have had little handling. The presence of other dogs is critical. It’s why we refused to adopt our pack of seven spaniels to single-dog homes and why it is best for our scared hounds to go with other dogs. To cut them off from the only social support they have ever had would be akin to removing all connection with the rest of the world. When Zoe and Zouzou were adopted together, Teddy and Zakari went rapidly downhill. Sure, they made each other more fearful, but they also supported each other. Now Teddy and Zakari have been adopted, they need each other to make progress. If a dog comes from a hoarding situation or a pack group, they NEED other dogs. If they come from a home where it has been them and a treasured master, they NEED human contact. Dogs who have been completely isolated from both humans and dogs can take an awfully long time to build resilience with.

Even for our bomb-proof little Lucky, having a stable family home and owners with whom he can find support from has no doubt made that bomb-proof-ness even more rock solid rather than being passed from pillar to post in those first twelve months of his life.

Some final thoughts

Balancing a lack of stimuli to reduce stress, and then building in appropriate mental and physical stimulation to use up stress hormones is a challenge. It depends on each dog to tell you when they are ready for novelty and when they are ready to move on. There will be failures. There will be set-backs. There will be times that your Zakari comes in contact with something that really freaks him out and it may set him back for weeks. There may be times that your bomb-proof Lucky, who has lived through trauma after trauma, finally decides there IS something after all that he is afraid of. Resilience is easy to damage and hard to build.

For shelter workers and rescuers, there WILL be dogs you will fail. There will be dogs that you can never teach to be resilient. For every traumatised Kiki and Coco, eating out of my hand within two minutes, there are uncountable hounds who will never, ever be bomb-proof and for whom life is equivalent to living in a warzone.

We should remember too that learning curves peter out and level off, that learning and progress are not linear. Learning resilience can come in fits and starts. There will be days when there is a lot of progress, and days when there is very little. There will be setbacks.

As we set off on our mission to desensitise our rescue dogs to the stimuli around them, we should remember that the opposite of desensitisation is sensitisation. We can very easily, and accidentally, render our dogs more sensitive to stimuli, not less. Our daily walk may start with the intention of habituating our dog to the world beyond the fence, but can end up putting our dog on edge. Our attempts to introduce sounds and novelty can easily backfire.

But despite the fact that dogs are a result of their genes and their early experiences, we need to remember something. All dogs are more than their genes. Ask any geneticist. Genes are not our destiny. Or, should I say, they are not our only destiny. Nor do they have to be our destiny. Nor are they for a dog. The way we help them to be resilient is vital as well. We can teach our dogs to be resilient, through providing safe and secure environments that do not overwhelm them. I’d like to leave you with something that McConnell said that really resonated with me.

You don’t know how much difference you can make until you start

Pre-walk excitement and how to deal with it

Pre-walk excitement and how to deal with it

At the shelter, we have a number of dogs who get really, really excited before you take them out for a walk. Whether it’s circling, excited barking, jumping up or biting the leash, they’re behaviours that dogs find very rewarding but can also be dangerous. For some of those dogs, they are so excited that they end up biting their walker. These are not behaviours that are isolated to shelter dogs, though, and I see plenty of frayed leashes and chest-height mud-prints that show lots of owners have similar problems in the home.

In the home, you may find that your dog quickly associates the putting on of shoes or the picking up of keys or a leash to be a predictor of a walk. And when we know we’re about to do our most exciting thing of the day, what do we do? We might bark. We might circle. We might decide that the leash is a marvellous opportunity for a game of tug. We might be much harder than usual to bring back down to a level where we are a thinking dog, not a reacting dog.

The thing about excitement is… it’s like a big wad of €100 notes. You’ve got lots to play with and you’re like a gambler at the roulette wheel. I call these ‘Excitement Dollars’. Those dollars accumulate through natural energy levels, age, genetics and associations. Some dogs are Excitement Dollar Paupers, turning up with a few to spare when there’s a walk on offer. And some are Excitement Dollar Millionaires who seem to regenerate those millions in minutes.

Take your average doggy pensioner who came from great doggy lines (no crazy-eyed loons in the old family tree) … a pensioner who’s pottered about the garden all day and is sprung a walk from out of nowhere. Well, there’s fairly few dollars available there.

But take a one-year-old Breton spaniel with excitable parents, negligible training, who’s had a nap and had food and can see people walking around with leashes… who knows that after sleeping and eating and cleaning, people come with leashes and walk him… it’s 2pm and he is BOUNCING with Excitement Dollars. One huge wad of excitement dollars.

Between those two, there are a million different dogs with different amounts of excitement stored up when a walk is on the cards.

Until that wad of excitement is down to a manageable level, you may find that your dog simply won’t listen to you. And if you close the roulette, they’re just going to go and try and spend it at the dice. In other words, you may well deal with leash biting only to end up with a jack-in-a-box Zebedee dog on a spring.

Let’s not forget that a walk for many dogs is the highlight of their day. It’s an arrival in Las Vegas with a million dollars to spend.

Take my young collie x retriever cross Heston. Excitable genes, youth and a lifetime of getting used to my habits. Those dollars stack up quickly. Add shoes, keys and a lead…. 2 + 2 = TWO MILLION EXCITEMENT DOLLARS TO SPEND! It used to be that I couldn’t put my socks on, or even look as if I might put my socks on without frenzied barking and circling. Heston LOVES his walk. Now we’re at the point where he’ll wait until I’m at the door. It’s progress. Shoes are on, socks are on, teeth are brushed, keys are picked up and then we have a 30-second bark and circle burst until we’re out of the gate. To be honest, it’s not perfect, but I can live with it.

Part of the process is realising that sometimes, we’re paying out dividends on those Excitement Dollars. Whenever I get excited, whenever I put on my shoes, whenever I put my keys in my pocket, it’s like I’m that roulette ball slowing down and getting closer and closer to PAYDAY!!!! Those cues that a walk is on the cards give a dog even more to spend. Sometimes, they’re the reminder that they’ve got two gazillion Excitement Dollars burning a hole in their fur.

What worked were removing a lot of the cues and also repeating a lot of the cues. I had to stop giving Heston more dollars to play with. I wanted him to understand that me picking up the keys didn’t mean that he was going out. So I picked up my keys a hundred times a day and made for the door. I rewarded calm behaviour and Heston quickly picked up on the fact that keys didn’t always mean a walk. I did the same for my shoes as well. And then I did the same for the lead.

He still gets a bit excited when I pick up a lead but he’s still biddable and his excitement dissipates quickly once he realises we’re not going for a walk.

I walk Heston for 4km at least once a day and mostly twice. At least 2km of each walk is off-lead unless there’s a reason to put him on the lead, like other dogs or joggers. He runs for that time and a lot of it is at full gallop, chasing swallows or distant rabbits. I want those dollars spent, please. We do scentwork, agility and obedience for a good thirty minutes at least every other day and we play fetch a lot too. More expenditure. He doesn’t have as much exercise as he needs to tire him out, but he has more than many dogs and his behaviour as a result is pretty biddable. That’s a lot of work, but he’s not your normal dog. He came with a big vault of everyday excitement in the bank. I just had to find more ways for him to spend it.

Still, that’s a dog in a home, who doesn’t have 200 other dogs barking at him, circling next to him, snapping at him from behind bars. Talk about other dogs giving you a payday! Heston’s a dog who is exercised in the day, has obedience training and an owner he can bond with. For dogs in the shelter, it’s a bit different.

Imagine your dismay at walking past a house with a reactive dog behind a fence. And then times that by at least thirty that you have to get past before you can get out for a walk. Imagine the excitement of your dog if you’ve had a couple of days off from a usual walk, or your dog who hasn’t had any way at all to let off steam. Those dollars have just been sitting there gathering interest unless they found a way to spend it themselves, like racing a figure-of-eight in the garden or digging a giant hole.

Our dogs at the shelter, even if they go out for a walk every single day of the week, only have a maximum of 30 minutes of one-to-one with a volunteer. That is a very short amount of time to expend all that excitement. This is what life is like for Regis, Estas and Hagrid. No wonder they’re bouncy or leash biters. When I had a couple of weeks of high temperatures and other shelter work to do, I realised Hagrid had not been walked for ten days. Other than a bowl of food twice a day or occasional people who stop by, or the staff who bob in for a few minutes, Hadrid had perhaps two hours of human contact and two hundred and thirty-eight hours with no contact at all. And we wonder why he is so excited to see a walker that he’ll launch himself off the ground, bite at their hands or air-snap at the other dogs as he’s leaving the site for his walk. Just think of all those dollars sitting there, waiting to be spent.

I have a confession to make too. I have, in all my years walking dogs at the shelter, only ever ‘lost’ one. His name was Jony. He was a one-year-old beagle who needed to blow off some of that excitement more than others.

Let me describe what happened, because it’s very relevant here.

Jony came to us with a good level of obedience. Here he is doing a sit when he first arrived. What a great, attentive, focused dog!

Soon, though, all that excitement and lack of stimulation got a bit much. Normally, for safety, we lasso the dogs from one side of the gates with a slip lead. We’d use harnesses but with 200 dogs on site, we’d need 200 good-quality harnesses of varying sizes. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to fit a harness to an over-excited Anglo who’s not used to touch, or a fearful Ariegeois who doesn’t like to be cornered, or an untrained shepherd who’s a bit mouthy. Ethically, my heart is with harnesses. Practically, slip leads fail less than the alternatives and they fit all. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is. A dog can easily slip out of a harness if it’s not fitted properly. I don’t believe haltis are a solution for our dogs. We don’t use flat collars because we can’t leave it on a dog as they can accidentally hang themselves far too easily if a collar is on. Jony was just new in, which is why he still had his collar. Usually, collars are removed. Only very few dogs have a collar. They are never housed with another dog and we have to be very careful that there are no pegs, nails or edges that a collar could get stuck on. Thus, every time our dogs go for a walk, a pair of hands materialise and offer them a cord slip-lead. Or, in doggy terms, what looks like both a walk and a great tug toy all in one.

Anyway, fast forward twelve months. Jony had been getting more and more frustrated. Once, he learned that the fabric slip-lead coming at him through the gate was actually a very great game of tug. We see us trying to lasso an excited dog. They see a human being offering a game of tug. For that reason, I went in to put Jony’s lead on inside the enclosure. Usually we avoid doing this because dogs can rush out. You don’t want a loose dog on site with dogs being walked, with cats on the prowl… you just don’t. So I went into the enclosure to get Jony. Bear in mind, too, that we have to make a choice. Go in and you risk an over-excited dog putting their teeth into your body if a leash is not on offer or even if it is. I got a slip leash on him, and he grabbed the leash. Thus, the leash wasn’t securely fastened and every time he tugged or shook his head, he was actually getting looser. The only reason he was still “inside” the slip leash is that he was enjoying this wonderful game of tug. I put another on him and he did the same with that.

You can see how this is also a vicious circle, because which volunteer wants to walk an over-exuberant dog who’s hard to handle on the lead? It’s the same reason that people stop walking their excited dog: no matter how much you want to, the situation is a nightmare, so you just try to avoid it as best you can. We do the same at home. Hence why many people also let their dog off the leash when really they shouldn’t. If leash skills are poor, we often either let our dogs walk off-leash, stick an aversive shock or prong collar on, or stop taking them out rather than deal with the problem. Poor leash skills are the number one reason for a whole host of poor decisions we make as owners.

Anyway, here’s Jony… And here’s Emma. And I’d just not realised how loose Jony had the slips, how his tug was the only thing keeping it on, and how he was one back up away from running off into the wilds. Which is exactly what happened. He dropped both leashes. He backed up. He was out. He was off.

Luckily, he did no damage and we got him back on in seconds. We were still inside the compound and the gates were shut. Plenty of staff were around to shout him over. He was such an affectionate guy that he went to the first person who called him, and we could then make sure his leash was absolutely secure. By the way, just because you’ve never taught a dog to play tug doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyway… although some dogs who’ve never been taught to have anything in their mouth have a natural aversion to doing so, and will probably exhibit another displacement behaviour instead like circling, leaping on you or barking.

So, for dogs who are over-excited, who leap, who tug the leash, who bite hands… what do you do? Here, I’m thinking about dogs who are not in a shelter situation, but is tailored for dogs who range from gentle over-excitement where you can easily distract them with a high-value treat or favourite toy, to dogs who are extremely over-excited and either have no training at all, no play experience at all or are too excited and focused to want to do anything other than play tug with the lead, jump all over you or nibble your hands. In this article, I’m just looking at leash biting behaviours and will explore jumping up and excited barking or circling in the next.

Leash biting

The simple solutions to this come in several forms and it depends very much on the level of excitement your dog is presenting as well as the level of obedience training they can demonstrate at this moment.

If your dog knows how to play and has some obedience training (even just a sit) the first thing that will make a real difference is to expend that energy before you go for a walk. A dog who has lost that initial burst of energy is less likely to want to pull on the leash and play tug with you. A good game of fetch, frisbee or catch is just a great way for your dogs to get rid of that burst of energy. Ten minutes followed by some simple routine obedience like ‘sit, focus, paw, down, stand’ and you’ll have a dog who has already worked a bit of their steam off and who is more in control of their choices.

You should think carefully about playing tug before a walk… sometimes it is exactly what your dog wants to do, and a good game of tug before a walk can get rid of the desire or need to play tug if your dog will tire of it, but if your dog is the type who can play tug for hours, you should avoid encouraging that tug instinct right before the walk itself. At least have a good period (at least five minutes) of doing something else. I do try to encourage a range of play from my dogs. Whilst I like them to have preferences, I don’t want those preferences to become obsessions. That is very true in this situation.

For dogs who will sit and can be distracted with a high-value treat or toy. 

When the dog takes the leash in its mouth, simply ask them to ‘sit’ and do a couple of other things instead. If they start to bite the leash, interrupt them, ask for a behaviour and then reward it. Distract and refocus. You can use a high-value treat (like chicken, ham or turkey) or a favourite toy as a lure, but don’t give the dog the reward until they’ve done the behaviour you’ve asked for.

In other words, distract with the lure, ask for a different behaviour, use the lure as a reward for the new behaviour.

Be vigilant and watchful, and as soon as you see your dog beginning to look as if they might bite, interrupt the behaviour, ask for another behaviour and refocus your dog. This builds up the connection with you and they’re paying more attention to you, and less to the leash. You can also “tease” your dog with the leash a little to ensure your dog understands that the leash is not a chew toy. Once you’ve done it a fair few times, offer the lure less frequently to get the behaviour and phase it out completely over time. Use it as a reward if they give the behaviour and transition that to a more intermittent reward over time.

You can see the first part of this in the video here: distract with a lure, refocus with a new command, use the lure as a reward.

I would caution however to watch for other behaviours popping out as ways to expend that excitement. You can see this dog will also need a little work to make sure that excitement is not popping out as a jump rather than tug-of-war on the leash.

Also, remember that the dog in the video IS easier and more biddable even after two minutes, because sometimes that’s enough for that burst of Excitement Notes to be spent. That’s why you could make LOADS of progress in one session, but it’s the beginning of the next session that will be vital, when you wonder why Johnny has forgotten exactly what you did the session before.

What about dogs who are too excited to be distracted with even half a leg of lamb or the best of frisbees? 

Pre-walk exercise is really, really important here. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t use your walk as exercise with a dog who is over-excited. Let them burn it off a bit and you’ll have a biddable dog once more. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a no-win situation.

You also need to avoid all the cues that a walk will happen. If you put your shoes on and your dog knows, put your shoes on at the beginning of the day, take them off, put them on, take them off… you get the picture. Break every single clue that your dog can use to get excited.

The third thing you should do is think about the type of leash, harness and collar you are using.

Anything that has to go over the head (and is thus presented face first to the dog, like a slip lead) is more likely to be something they want to chew. The same is true of a front-clipping harness. Haltis for dogs who bite the leash can be very frustrating.

The best solution for a dog who bites the leash is to have the leash out of the dog’s mouth area, so a leash that fits to the top/rear of a harness is the best solution. If the dog can’t reach the leash easily, they can’t grab it to pull. It’s that simple.

The type of harness you fit is important too: you want to avoid your arms going near the dog’s mouth. A playful, mouthy dog who doesn’t have good control at that moment in time has a stronger propensity to bite and to present yourself to a dog in an excited state with poor bite control is a recipe for disaster. It must be quick-fitting and something you can fit from behind or above.

The best solution, until you have eliminated mouthing altogether at walk time is to keep the harness on for much longer periods, so that the harness itself doesn’t become associated with the walk ritual. For instance, fitting it immediately after breakfast and leaving on until you’ve walked your dog can break the habit of thinking ‘harness = walk’. For this reason, it should be a high-end harness that does not rub and does not give your dog anything to chew. For those first few days, supervise your dog very carefully to ensure they are not chewing the harness during this time.

For over-excited dogs, I cannot stress enough the need to have a securely-fitted harness. They are more likely than many dogs to make a bid for freedom. If you’re lucky, like I was with Jony, no harm will come of it. If not, an over-excited dog could run into traffic, could chase another animal or could simply run off.


I’d also advise you to wear good gloves. They will shield you from nips and will make it easier to control the leash.

Having chosen a harness that is less easy to chew, you will then find it much easier to present your dog with great choices to bite, mouth and chew instead. Don’t expect that mouthy energy just to disappear: an excited dog wants to use its mouth to express its excitement, just as some dogs bark or circle. Encourage them to have something in their mouth and you will find your job much more easy. That can be a treat or a toy. I find toys work better here as the energy levels are higher.

Why do you think my Mali Tobby ended up with a toy at the shelter? Because he was a mouthy leash biter who thought he was being presented a toy.


As a consequence, he was given a toy. Tobby loved that toy. He’d only put the toy down to eat, and that toy-habit is one he still has. That came out of our need to stop him biting at the slip leash when it was presented to him.

The tactic here is exactly the same: ‘distract and refocus’. You distract with a toy, especially one they are happy to carry, and you can begin your walk in peace. Be prepared for them to drop the toy after a couple of minutes as their excitement level drops though. That toy will stop being a great thing to carry the minute that first burst of excitement is gone, I bet you.

Absolutely never walk a dog like this until you’ve got rid of that energy burst though.

I also want to take the excitement out of the leash. Here’s Emily from Kikopup showing how to do it with a young pup. I would do this AFTER the walk when the dog is calm and relaxed. And I am really, really with her about using a partner to help if it’s very challenging indeed.

What about dogs who’ve never learned to play, or have no obedience skills and have taught themselves tug?

We have a number of dogs adopted every year as adults who have never learned to play. I have four of my six who have never been taught (or appear not to have been). Tobby will carry a toy but never give it. Tilly only cares if her toy has wings and feathers and goes by the name of ‘pheasant’. Mimire doesn’t care for toys and Féfelle wouldn’t know a toy if it bit him. Heston dropped every single toy in his possession at Féfelle’s feet and Féfelle was completely disinterested. Worse still, though Tilly and Tobby have obedience training, Mim and Féfelle don’t. What do you do with a big lump who has no training?

Surprisingly, most dogs who don’t do toys don’t actually understand tug. It would never cross their mind to put something in their mouth in that way. That’s what it is like with Hagrid. He never, ever grabs the lead and though I’ve tried all sorts of toys with him, it all means nothing to him. Féfelle is the same. Don’t understand toys = don’t think a human will ever play tug with a bit of rope. I mean, why would you?! I don’t go up to Japanese people, drop sticks at their feet and expect them to Morris Dance.

For these dogs, they may pull, they may bounce, they may bite through displacement, but they don’t often put the leash in their mouth and play tug.

Worse is with a dog who has taught themselves to play tug but don’t have any other tricks in their magic box and/or you don’t have the facilities to allow them to expend that energy.

The first thing to do is to teach them some skills. Féfelle doesn’t do sit. But we’ve done ‘focus’ and we’ve done ‘follow me’ and ‘play bow’. Even six-year-olds with nothing have something they can learn. At least with this, we can get somewhere.

The second thing is to condition calmness around the leash, as shown in the Kikopup video. Again, a partner is a really valuable tool here so that you can add some distance. You want a calm, non-stimulating environment when all those Excitement Dollars have already been spent.

When I’m attaching a leash in these circumstances, I want to make sure that we are in closed quarters and that it doesn’t matter if I drop the leash. This is precisely what I’m going to do. I’m going to drop it. Instead of participating in the super-fun walk-tug game, I’m opting out. I’ll even go and stand in the corner and face away from the dog. I’m so totally not interested in that game of tug. And tug is only fun when someone is providing resistance. I’m going to drop that leash as soon as the dog’s mouth makes contact with it. I’m going to turn around and I’m going to ignore any jumping up or barking, or other ways this frustrated dog is going to get me to interact. If I bend down and the dog goes for the leash, I’m going to stand up, back off, disengage. The very first time I get hold of the leash and the dog has not got the leash in his mouth, I am going to give him such a massive celebration that he is going to forget about the leash altogether. I’m going to keep the dog in those close confines with the leash, dropping every time it looks like becoming tug and reward every time the dog doesn’t. I want this to be rock solid and I want to be absolutely sure that I can move it on beyond the closed quarters because dropping the leash is not something I want to do outside.

With Regis and Estas yesterday, I spent twenty minutes dropping the leash and picking it up, practising sit, habituating them to the leash itself. I didn’t get to the point where I walked them (they’d both been walked already anyway, which is great). I want to stop the leash being such a fun item so it becomes as meaningless as my t-shirt is. I say this with a degree of irony, having had my jean cuffs involved in a game of tug with a terrier puppy. Both Estas and Regis can sit, and they both responded to a tug rope and a toy too – they might be older gents, but it’s this precise combination of savvy tug knowledge and the stressful environment of the shelter that is leading them to ‘play up’ in this way. Like I said, dogs who have no toy or chew experience usually don’t think to pop the leash in their mouth. In all the times I’ve walked Hagrid, when the leash is accidentally in his mouth, he’s like a young horse in halter for the first time: he can’t get it out of his mouth quick enough. But then Hagrid doesn’t respond to a ball or ever walk around with a toy in his mouth. Luckily, dogs who know toys often know some obedience (both Regis and Estas can sit when asked) and that makes it much easier to teach them to stop tugging the leash when we walk. It’s the dogs who don’t tug – who circle, bark or jump – who often have little by way of training and who face a bigger battle.

I’m looking forward to continuing with them as well. They’re both lovely dogs who just have a lot of excitement to expend.

Hopefully with these tips, you’ve got a good range of ideas to help you manage leash biting and reactivity. I promise to make a video of a couple of our worst leash biters (and sorry Kevin and Emily, but they make your dogs look like stage props!) and demonstrate how these techniques can stop frantic tug-of-wars with a leash that can end very badly indeed.


Changes in environment and its effects on dog bite behaviour

Changes in environment and its effects on dog bite behaviour


Today, the shelter accepted the fifth dog in as many weeks that had been surrendered for biting a child. It seems more and more that we are having to write “NO CHILDREN” on dogs’ files as they come into our facility rambunctious around adults, boisterous around children or unpredictably over-excited. Whilst some dogs bite out of fear, biting, mouthing and unruly over-excitement can be just as challenging: they are often the reasons given for dog bites that have led to a surrender to our shelter.

Some would argue that we are irresponsible in rehoming dogs who have bitten children, whether the bite is driven by fear or excitement. There are plenty of people who would throw their hands up and say “oh, well, but it was a child! We can’t have that!” and many, many more who would agree with them. It’s a very tough call indeed.

Sadly, a vast majority of dog-human bites are directed at children. Evidence would show that we are in fact facing more and more situations than we ever have before where children are bitten by the family pet. How is it that we are failing our dogs so badly? How is this happening in a week where my post on trigger stacking is once again doing the rounds and people are so happy to share it?

That fifth dog gave me a lot of answers to these two questions. That answer pointed to changes in a dog’s life and changes in environment.

I only had to listen to the story to know exactly what had gone wrong and how it caused an eight-year-old dog who had never bitten before to nip two children.

In fact, she is very similar to my foster dog Féfelle in many ways. Both are herding/working pedigree. He is a beauceron, she is apparently a border collie although she seems like she is crossed with something else too. Both have lived their lives in caring homes, albeit homes where they have not been taught basic commands like ‘sit’. That’s important, and I’ll come back to it later. Both have lived in tranquil environments with elderly or infirm owners and have led unstimulating, cosseted, peaceful lives. I firmly believe Féfelle had never seen animals running before. I strongly suspect that the dog surrendered today had limited experience of children other than visits or holidays. Either way, for both of them, when they have moved to a new environment, they have lost touch with the security of their owner and been placed in a more stimulating environment with owners who knew them less well than their former owners, new families who had less of a connection with them and less familiarity with them. For Féfelle, that environmental and lifestyle change was to come here, with four new dogs (albeit three old codgers) and daily walks, exercise and hours in the outside. For the dog abandoned today, that was with the daughter of the original owner, and her young family. Both dogs have had an upheaval involving the long-term illness of their owner and then been placed in a new space where they haven’t perhaps (or definitely, in Féfelle’s case) had the same rules, connections, familiarity, routine, places to escape to or places to go to cool off.

And the result of that? For Féfelle, he started stalking the lawnmower and my dogs (you can insert ‘child on a bike’ in here as they are noisy and unpredictable too and I’m pretty sure he’d be stalking whatever moves, just as he does with my dogs) and he started air-snapping my other dogs. On Wednesday evening, that ended in a shouting fight between Féfelle and my other young male, Heston. Féfelle snapped in excitement, Heston took exception. Growling escalated into a “bring it on” from Féfelle. That all ended in a lot of noise and tension. Luckily it ended without bloodshed.

The result of that for the border collie? For her, she nipped an 11 year old on a bicycle (you can insert ‘Emma on a lawnmower’ here) and she nipped a child on a swing. She has never nipped before in her eight years.

So what caused this and what is the consequence? More importantly, how do you manage it?

The cause is simple: stimulation.

Any kind of stimulation can cause fear or excitement: they are feelings of arousal that are on the same spectrum. They can be bodily, physiological reactions. Let’s be clear about that excitement. I’m not talking about Tricky Woo getting excited when they are offered a treat, maybe a gleam in their eye. I’m talking about dogs playing tug of war with leads, barking, full-frontal leaping, manic circling, mouthing hands and even nipping or biting.


This is Hagrid, who I work with at the shelter. He mostly is a wonderfully obedient dog. He can sit, give a paw, walk to heel, lie down, stay, give eye contact, hold a look. And when I take him out some days, he jumps at me, he bites my hand hard enough to bruise but not break skin. He doesn’t play tug with the lead, but he has never put anything in his mouth before other than my body parts. Sometimes, he turns around, races back to me, leaps up at me with all feet off the ground, body-slams me, grabs a body part or spare limb and tells me just how over-stimulated he is with his lovely teeth. For him, this is not a change in the environment particularly, but just a way to express those physiological changes coursing through his veins. Excitement at its most intimidating for a walker or dog owner.

Fear and excitement do the same things to our bodies in many ways. Adrenaline courses through our systems. Our hearts race. Our breathing is fast and shallow. We have a burst of energy. We stop digesting food and our blood vessels in our muscles expand. We talk of adrenaline junkies when we talk about people. I don’t know whether dogs can have the same desire to chase those feelings of stimulation and arousal as humans do, but adrenaline certainly is a key factor in over-arousal just as it is in fear.

Think how roller coasters make our normal feelings of fear into ones of excitement, or how horror movies take those same feelings and use our fears to excite us. For fear and excitement, our bodies do very similar things. That can be positive arousal in both humans and animals, like excitement, or negative arousal, like fear. Anything can cause arousal, and anything can cause fear. Sometimes those are the same things. How many people are phobic of things that are stimulating to others? Toys, food, treats and affection can be excitement triggers for dogs just as much as they can be rewards. It’s stimulation. You can’t decide as an owner whether it will be positive or negative: only the dog can do that. Thus a squeaky toy can be met with fear as well as excitement if a dog has never seen one before. It’s all just arousal.

For some dogs, those feelings of arousal can be hard-wired. We may call them dogs with a high-prey drive or dogs who have a strong genetic propensity to chase things. If something moves, it’s stimulating. Thus for my mali Tobby, if a kitten is sitting on my knee, no problem. If a kitten runs, he will be on it and it’s in his mouth. Today, I watched my super-reactive Heston race off into a wooded strip. Then there were four yips, three deer ran out and there was Heston doing his best impression of Benson, the internet’s favourite deer-chasing owner-ignoring Youtube dog. I have never taught him to chase, though I did teach him to fetch. I never taught my show-bred American cocker to forage excitedly in the undergrowth when she smells a pheasant, or to chase stags. In fact, she never plays anything. But she will chase a deer through a field or a hare along with the best of them. Add movement to arousal and several hundred years of selective breeding, and you’ve got a very good reason why lawnmowers, cars, kids on swings, kids skateboarding or other dogs running cause dogs to have a momentary spike of adrenaline. And once you have switched a creature’s reward system on, so that pleasure is derived from an adrenaline spike and the stimulus that caused it …. well, that is going to be one hard habit to break. This is why my dog Heston is like Charlie Sheen on the rampage in a cocaine factory, and Hagrid is like an over-amorous Jean-Claude Van Damme with bitey white snappy teeth.

The consequence however is those enhanced states where a dog is less likely to pay attention to you. Of course, we see that most in fear, with dogs who you’re shouting your head off at just to get their attention and they’re not listening at all. But we see it in excitement too. It’s why Heston’s recall is 100% when unstimulated and 0% when stimulated. My chance of getting him to come back when I’m competing with running deer: 0%.

Often, that can manifest in a loss of control for a dog, where their genes and dog behaviours take over rather than learning. If a dog hasn’t had any learning at all like Féfelle and the dog abandoned yesterday, well, that’s ten times more likely to happen. There’s a correlation between dogs who displacement bite and dogs who are not trained. Training opens a channel of communication between humans and dogs. It doesn’t even matter for the dogs in our shelter if that training was with some long-gone owner.

A dog who has had the training button switched on looks to humans for instructions more often than a dog who has not. You can also use those commands as a gauge for how much your dog is listening to you. Dog trainers and behaviorists do it all the time to gauge how well a dog is mastering its instincts. A dog who can sit and look at you is a dog who you can train easily to be calm around new experiences. I say easy, and it really is. Well, it’s an easy concept. It’s just time-consuming, repetitive and you have to plan it meticulously. That’s true for lead training as much as it is for your old feisty fidos who want to shout at other dogs on a walk.

And then you have Féfelle and this young lady today. For Féfelle when he’s excited, nothing is stopping him from showing you how excited he is… with his mouth. He’s not only air-snapped my dogs but nipped my elbow. He’s not the only one. A small percentage of our shelter dogs do it too when they play leash-tug, nip walkers’ legs or jump all over you mouthing you vigorously. Recently another surrendered dog also did it to a very experienced and wise handler, requiring the handler to have medical treatment. We call these misplaced energy or arousal bites and they happen fairly often in high-stress situations, like taking dogs out through narrow doorways or having to walk them down past 100 other over-stimulated dogs. For dogs and people alike, excitement can be contagious.

Sometimes at the shelter, excited dogs go for other dogs to sink their teeth into (which is why I always ask my partner to keep their dog well out of the reach of mine when we take them out in pairs) but if no other dog is available, well, you just might find yourself with a bite to the thigh, calf or ankle, or a dog playing tug of war with you.

There’s a level of energy that’s all WHOOOOOOOOOO! and if I’m a dog, I want to run, I want to hump my friend, I want to bark, I want to go mental… and a person is holding on to me. You can understand how frustrating that can be. You can see dogs bite metal fences, sink their teeth into the leash, even want to play tug of war with it. It’s all frustrated, excited energy. It’s not aggression. It’s just WHOOOOOOOOOOOO in a dog that has no outlet for their Whooing. That lead can be so exciting that it may lead to a bite. This is exactly what it’s like to take out four or five of the dogs at the shelter, including Hagrid.

And yes, this is going to happen more frequently in dogs with a strong desire for action. Collies and Australian Shepherds are known for the nipping at the ankles. Terriers – big or small – are also dogs who like a lot of stimulation and arousal. Other herding breeds are also known for that energy and love of action. Malinois are also prone to it: it’s not a surprise that Tobby my Mali got bitey around a high-energy hound pup.

So what is the prognosis for a dog like this?

It’s good, if they have tricks in their toolbox to fall back on. If you can get a sit or you can get a paw, you can build up frustration training. Thus, with Hagrid, we’re working on displacing that energy before we go out (we do ten minutes of scentwork, since he also doesn’t know how to play – tug would be great for him) and then I require him to be calm and quiet before we walk. My aim is to get him past his arousal point and slide him back down the spectrum into a neutral, calm point. Luckily, he’s really responsive and I can get a very good sit-paw-eyes-down-eyes-stay sequence even when he is highly stimulated even if I can’t get him to chase a ball. This is why he looks beautifully mannered at every single other point on that walk. People even ask me who it is, because they can’t believe it could be the same dog I was just being full-frontalled by moments before.

But if dogs don’t have those tricks, like Féfelle and the dog today, that’s when a bit of avoidance is crucial. Distance from the source of stimulation is vital. I’m going to put a lot of distance between a source of stimulation and do my best to be as far away from it as possible. I’m going to put out lots and lots of calm body language, no eye contact and zero movement (however, I am watchful of the fact that this can be frustrating too and a dog may bite to get you to hurry your own self up a bit). And I’m going to try to elicit a calmer state in the dog before I engage with them, whilst trying to ensure that I’m giving them an outlet for frustration too. I deal with frustration first, usually with something really distracting and an outlet for that adrenaline. For Hagrid, that’s two minutes of searching for high-value treats that I’ve hidden. That’s all he needs before I can get him to sit and give me eye contact. That is now all I need to stop him saying hi to my arms with his lovely white teeth.

Here’s another example. Féfelle is stimulated by seeing animals run. I keep him as far away as possible from running animals. Then I can work with him. In the meantime, I’m avoiding running animals like the plague, because I want every single occasion to be at my arrangement until he is rock solid. Counter-conditioning and desensitisation are the only tools I need here. And then, only then, will I up the challenge a little bit. For a dog who is stimulated by children’s energy, space and calm are absolutely essential. I can also reinforce and reward calm responses, or teach them a more appropriate response. For instance, when creatures run, I want Féfelle to look at me. When a dog walks by, I want Hagrid to sit and focus on me.

Here is a GREAT video of two Aussie ladies working with a reactive dog in the exact same way. I wouldn’t say the dog is excited, but it’s the exact same principle of reducing an unwanted behaviour and replacing it with a new one. I’d suggest everyone who has a trigger point with a dog finds a way that allows the dog to get rid of their adrenaline burst before trying to engage.

In the meantime, a muzzle is not a bad thing and can save your dog’s life if your dog is nipping. It can certainly save them from ending up in a shelter. If I avoid unpredictable situations, protect my dog from biting and help my dog through structured counter conditioning and desensitisation to move back to a more neutral response then I am onto a winner. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The video above shows how easy (and how structured/time-intensive) it is as a strategy.

Other things can also help: good quality physical stimulation or mental stimulation before the stimulus is a real lifesaver. For the over-excited lead-tuggers, a game of tug might be just too arousing. However, they could also learn that the toy is for tugging and the lead for walking if you go about it right, as well as when to tug and when not to. Tug is obviously a thing they are really enjoying! How wonderful would a structured teaching of tug-release-leave be to help this dog understand when to pull and tug and when not to? Anything like scentwork, chase, catch, fetch or mental puzzles can help dogs burn off that nervous energy and focus on you. As with fearful responses, you can see it happening and dogs’ body language is shouting about how excited they are. Avoiding or diffusing those moments is your goal.

Here’s the very excellent Donna Hill explaining about both counter conditioning and the arousal spectrum.

Identify the times and situations or stimuli that trigger the dog’s excitement, and then you can work easily with a good dog trainer or behaviourist to lessen the excitement at those points. But first you have to know what it is that is causing that perfect storm. For Hagrid, it’s going on a walk, but it’s also me crouching or moving my hands quickly. For Féfelle it’s the burst of energy as six dogs plough into the garden. For Angel, it was the excitement of a water hose or a lead.

Once you have identified these triggers, you can work to lower the response to them through appropriate energy outlets, desensitisation and counter-conditioning, to bring the dog back to a place of calm. You can also then build in a replacement behaviour for the dog to do instead.

As for the new arrival at the shelter, she may well have gone all her life without had she had owners a little more conscious of her obvious excitement and arousal, who then took the sensible measure of keeping her away from stimuli until they could get a bit of help. Sadly, because they ignored how excited she was, their children were injured and the shelter has yet again become a dog jail.

Should you have taken on a new dog, or changed the environment and stimuli that your dog meets on a daily basis, be mindful of the fact that the changing energy levels can be difficult for a dog to manage and that it’s up to you as the rational one in the relationship to help them manage those changes in ways that don’t hurt them, don’t hurt children and don’t hurt other animals. Just as it was true of fearful responses in trigger stacking, a calm, quiet structured environment can help overcome those moments of stimulation that can end so very badly. Leash-tug, yippy over-excited barking and Tigger leaping are other behaviours that you may also see with newly adopted dogs (or ones you’ve had for a long time!). In the next post, I’ll explore ways in which you can identify those unwanted excited behaviours, channel them appropriately and work to reduce them.

How to take great photos of your family dog

How to take great photos of your family dog


If the past three years have taught me anything, it is how to get any dog to feel comfortable around a camera. Shy ones, barky ones, worried ones, bouncy ones, crazy ones, sweet ones… I’m full of tricks these days.

What follows are ten tips to help you get a great photo of your family pet.

  • If you’ve got a shy dog or a scaredy dog, a bouncy dog or an over-exuberant dog, don’t be scared of the lead. You can always edit it out afterwards. Unless you are happy to keep trying to get a photo of a dog as they move about endlessly in and out of the sun, back and forward, in front of things you don’t want them in front of, a lead and a friend are your best friends. Even with a simple point-and-shoot camera, your camera will struggle to focus and you’ll get more blurry shots than not. These ones weren’t taken with a lead and as you can see, it took me a fair few shots (twenty in all) to get her closer to me, and even then, she was right over that nasty grid! A lead would have made it so much easier.


  • Do what the dog trainers do: counter-conditioning and desensitisation! If you’ve got a dog who’s camera-shy, try getting them used to the camera gradually. Hold it away from your face so they aren’t threatened by it. Give them a treat every time they look at it, come near it or come near you with it in your hand. Gradually put the camera in front of your face, giving them a treat every time they look at the camera. Then fire off one or two random shots in different angles away from your face, continuing the treats. What you want is for your dog to think that every time they see the camera, something good will happen. A camera can be a scary thing to a dog who’s not seen one before. This usually doesn’t take very long! Both the girl above and the boy below were scared of the camera and both were happy to pose within five minutes.


  • Use a lure to help you get their eyes on the lens. Photos where your dog connects with you through the lens are so much nicer on the whole. You can do this by holding a small treat just above or below of the camera lens so they look right at the camera. Often you’ll get a happy, smiley face too because who doesn’t smile for a treat, right?!


  • Get down to the dog’s level for some shots but don’t under-estimate the “look up” shot too. The first shots are ‘look up’ shots that I took at a 45° angle (at least).


  • Be prepared to kneel or lie on your front. The littler the dog, the lower you go! Kneeling will do for many dogs, but for smaller dogs like dachshunds and Yorkies, be prepared to lie down on the ground and get as low as you can. Alternatively, you can always find a small hill and have the dog a little higher up than you are!


  • Go for shade rather than sunlight where you can, and avoid dappled sun like the plague! The best days to photograph your dog outside are days when it is grey and overcast. That way, you don’t end up with a shiny, shiny dog who’s half in sunshine and half in shade like this handsome specimin on the right where you can’t see their eyes. Much nicer to have one in shade or one on an overcast day. You can always get yourself a portable reflector or use off-camera flash, but far easier to find a shady spot and shoot your photos there.


  • Make sure you’ve got a full-on repertoire of noises and switch the camera beep back on if necessary. I can’t tell you how many more curious dogs will look directly at the camera when it beeps to focus. If you have a Curious George, use your phone, camera or mouth to make noises and see if you can get the Curious Collie head tilt! But… if you have a scaredy dog, switch the beeps off and keep the noise to a minimum.


  • Try to capture a little of your dog’s personality in the photos, if they’re shy, curious, playful or just plain silly. You may not get it picture perfect, but these are always the photos you will treasure because they say so much about the character of your dog too.


  • Be patient. If your dog is young, over-excited, stressed or too focused on other things, there are several things you can do. The first is to tire them out before you try to take their photograph. The second is to have something of a high enough value that they’re interested in you and not the environment. The third thing to do is just stand. Stop wherever you are. Stop trying to get photographs. Stop trying to get their attention. Just wait. If you don’t move at all, the environment will soon get much less interesting and you’ll be able to get their focus on you. The more energetic and lively the dog, the more you need to ignore them. I had to take photos of six young adult dogs on Friday, all on my ownsome. No lead. No assistant. No rules. I didn’t have any treats (I’m enough to interest a bored teenager!) and I stood just ignoring them for ten minutes or so until they were much less jumpy and excited.


  • Take lots of photos and practise, practise, practise! You might throw lots away at first, but sooner or later, you’ll get to the point where every shot is a winning shot. Teach your dog a few tricks too and build up that trust with them, and you’ll end up with some amazing shots.


If you think that’s hard to take a few shots of dogs, go and find yourself some kittens. They should remind you how wonderfully easy a lead, a bit of cheese and a good sit make taking photos of your family dog. Those cat photographers deserve a special kind of medal!


Dog Commandments #4: A dog is what it eats

Dog Commandments #4: A dog is what it eats


A dog is very much a Return on Investment product: what you invest, you get back. That’s as true of food as it is of many other things.

This week, I’ve been reading Canine Nutrigenomics by Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure-Dunetz. It’s a book which explores what things are good for your dog to eat, and what is not so good. The best thing about it is that it doesn’t make you feel guilty if you are feeding your dog a raw diet, a biscuit diet or a cooked diet, and has ways that you can improve your dog’s health whatever you feed them. It’s a brilliant book, scientific but not science-speak.

When I did a lot of fitness training, I was obsessed by what I put into my own body. Sugar was a dirty word. Carb-loading was a norm. I weighed and counted how much protein I had and from what sources. I was vegetarian and ate a mostly vegan diet, apart from occasional cheese and milk. Now I’m much less hardcore about it and accept more pleasures in life. After all those years of abstinence, cake is a joy.

To be honest, when I first got dogs, I was governed by the cat I’d had for 16 years in terms of what they ate. Basil the cat was a finicky eater. Whiskas was the only food he’d tolerate and he would literally starve if he didn’t have it. He would also only eat the ones in jelly. It also had to be fish. He’d eat rabbit, chicken and beef, but throw them up again. I tried my best to add biscuits so that he had something to balance all that soft food out, but it was a battle. He did love cheese, yoghurt and ham, though. I came very much from the generation of people who believed that cats ate cat food, with occasional tuna or chicken treats. Any cat who had hand-cooked food was a pampered primadonna.

When I got dogs, I did kind of the same. What they would eat was the thing that they ate every week. Mostly that was supermarket-bought dog biscuits. A new dog would kind of go through different biscuits until they hit on one that they kind of ate more than others. You just put your faith in pet food companies and hope for the best. This is also why, you should have a look into a food guide for huskies to be sure of the recommend food intake. Surely they would do the best for their clients, right? Absolutely. The same way that United Tobacco do the best for their clients and cake companies do for theirs.

There are of course lots of reasons why people go for dog biscuits. Firstly, they are convenient and they are entire in themselves. You don’t need to do anything other than put the recommended amount in a bowl. Some people feed once a day. Most people feed twice a day, thinking that it is not good for a dog to fast for so long between meals. I just posted a question on a specialist dog allergy group only to be told that I should be getting up in the middle of the night to feed my dogs and they should be allowed to graze. To be honest, this is nonsense. Nobody really knows what an optimal  number should be, but based on a dog’s biology, two or three times in smaller meals seems ideal. Like us, really. They are no longer “carnivores” as such, having evolved along with us. Like pigs, it’s likely they made their living eating whatever by-products of humanity were available, and yes, that probably included the dirtiest by-product of all, human waste, which is why some scientists speculate that dogs relish fecal matter.  Carnivores might get by on irregular feeding, and herbivores might need to graze all day, but dogs are neither pure carnivores nor herbivores. Even owners who feed their dogs raw diets include some vegetable matter. You only have to watch dogs to know what they like to eat – Tilly is a bin dipper. Three-week old rotten eggs are okay with her. Cat turds are also okay with her. I’ve seen her carry stale eggs in her mouth as delicately as if they were her offspring and wait for a cat to finish in the litter tray for a bit of a hot buffet Tilly lunch. Amigo likes fallen plums, though I pull the flesh off since I don’t want the stones in his stomach. Tobby loves windfall apples. My dogs are happy to graze in the garden, except for Heston, who has never been a bin dipper, a thief, a plum forager, or an apple scrumper. That dog is a fine example of training at work. He eats if it comes from a bowl or if it comes from a hand. All other eating is not his cup of tea. Dogs are not classic omnivores like chickens, pigs or people: they are primarily carnivorous. But they are still omnivorous scavengers. Anyone who tells you that a dog is a carnivore like its ancestor the wolf is wrong: wolves have a preference for flesh like dogs, but will voluntarily eat plant and fruit matter. What bearing does this have on meal times and frequency? Very little. Dogs do well on routine, so whatever works for you. For me, that’s twice a day, twelve hours apart.

So now you’ve navigated the bear-trap of how often you *should* feed your dog (and few topics are so hotly debated and defended) then you have to think about what you are feeding them.

As Canine Nutrigenomics explains, just like any other being, an animal is what you put in. With so many disorders in dogs related to diet, many of us end up medicating our dogs when food may be part of the problem. I have six dogs at the current time, including two in foster. Two have food intolerances (and the subsequent gastric, skin and yeast infections that go with that), one has advanced arthritis, one has a thyroid disorder and obesity issues, and two have food-related hyperactivity. That’s 100% of my dogs who can’t eat the stuff in the supermarket.

The food-related hyperactivity was quickly sorted by a good quality biscuit. Ask most professional dog trainers what the first question is that they ask if a dog presents with hyperactivity and they’ll say “What are they eating?” Bakers is a familiar answer. Purina dog foods are marketed under many guises, including ones that say ‘natural’ or ‘ultimate’ food, suggesting their premium quality. Of course, the US and the UK have great pet food suppliers who have organic, free-range biscuits made with natural ingredients and nothing else. Getting hold of those in France is less easy: luckily, I manage well with Acana, a company that, like Orijen, EVO and Taste of the Wild, do well in independent reviews. Amigo and Tobby have Royal Canin foods which are prescription-based and are essentially a dog biscuit with medical ingredients. Tobby’s arthritis is managed by both food and medication. One without the other and he struggles to move at all. Tilly and Mimir both have food allergies. It’s for guidance on Tilly’s diet that I bought the book: she has intolerances to beef and rice (gastrointestinal issues, skin issues, lesions, ear infections, yeast infections, diarrhea, vomiting) and to chicken and soy (the hypoallergenic product she was on) although arguably the chicken and soy was better, since she never suffered from wind, stomach acid reflux, bilious vomiting or diarrhea with them: the yeast infections did not clear up, however, and neither did the skin complaints.

Having been through a number of biscuits with proteins and carbohydrates she’s never had before, she’s back on an elimination diet of home-cooked stuff. Once that is done, I’ll be happier that her sensitivities are environmental, not food-related.

See… absolute minefield. You shouldn’t eat supermarket dog foods made with dodgy meat, bulked up with grains and ash, by-products and additives. But they are convenient and cheap. It’s easy to pop a bag in your trolley when you do your shopping. You are then left with navigating dog foods that are special order only but there’s no regulatory body to help you know who’s saying whether one food is a good food or another one is better. I look down the list of food constituents and try to add up the percentages given for protein, fibre, ash and the likes and I can’t get 100% – there’s always missing bits!

So what are the top tips from Canine Nutrigenomics?

  1. Try to add a little of the “canine superfoods” to your dog’s diet (even if you are just supplementing their biscuits) blueberries or cranberries, coconut oil, curcumin (turmeric) raw honey products (not for puppies) milk thistle, omega 3s, pomegranates, probiotics and spirulina.
  2. Try to add some organic products to supplement your dog’s diet. “Functional carbohydrates” can give your dog a boost of vitamins and cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Choose from cruciferous vegetables, fresh fruits (not grapes!), gluten-free grains, green leafy vegetables and legumes like lentils.
  3. Supplement your dog’s diet with high-quality protein. Whilst dairy products are out if they are from cows, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are good examples, as are low-mercury fish (sardines, Alaskan salmon) and meat from novel sources such as rabbit, duck, fish or goat. Eggs have many great reasons to recommend them.
  4. Good fats will also give your dog a boost, especially with their coat. Fatty fish oils and things high in Omega-3, as is coconut oil, hemp oil, sunflower oil, olive oil and primrose oil. Try for expeller-pressed if you can rather than extracted with hexane.
  5. Avoid all the foods that are toxic to dogs: alcohol (that’s a food?!) chocolate, citrus fruits, caffeine, grapes, raisins, cultivated mushrooms, nutmeg, nuts, onions, peanuts, spoiled or mouldy foods (no bin dipping for Tilly!), strawberries, xylitol and yeast dough.
  6. Avoid high GI products like corn, sugar, white potatoes, wheat and white rice. Soy can also be difficult for dogs to process and can cause complications with the thyroid. Food-grade soy may have long since been proved not to interfere with humans, but is the soy in your dog food food-grade?
  7. Be careful with pet food packaging including plastic and tin cans.
  8. Don’t be taken in by a dog food’s claim to be “natural”, “premium”, “gourmet” or “holistic” – look at the ingredients.
  9. Build in the three key components to a healthy diet: a variety of nutriet-dense, whole foods.
  10. Make sure your dog gets plenty of calcium, if not from ingested raw bone.
  11. Puppies, mums and seniors have different needs: make sure they are catered for, not just in terms of calories.
  12. Don’t stick with one diet for a dog: change it up and supplement it. There are fewer health risks and more benefits from doing so, including less of a likelihood of building up a food intolerance.
  13. Food intolerances are not the only issue from a limited diet: chronic itching, gas, gastrointestinal issues, yeast infections and ear infections can also be present.
  14. Just like humans, dogs with existing health issues can find certain foods beneficial. Weight issues and arthritis can also be improved with a better diet.

It goes without saying that food is one of the first things you should ask your vet about if your dog is presenting with health problems. The same is true for behavioural problems too. If you can’t upgrade to better dog biscuits, a raw diet or a cooked diet, a little addition of something fresh at every meal time can really help your dog out, whether that’s a pot of organic goat’s milk yoghurt, a couple of cubes of feta cheese, some broccoli or cauliflower, or a handful of turkey or duck. Good-quality food shouldn’t be considered pampering or over-indulgent. We love our dogs and we want them to be with us as long as they can: food is an essential part of that deal. In terms of your dog’s lifetime, energy and health, they definitely are what you put in.

Canine Nutrigenomics by W. Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure-Dunetz is available from Dogwise, but is also available in a Kindle edition from Amazon. 

10 questions you SHOULD ask when you adopt a dog

10 questions you SHOULD ask when you adopt a dog

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

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

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

So what should you ask?

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

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

Food guarding and how to deal with it

Food guarding and how to deal with it


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a shelter photographer takes time, understanding and dedication.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After that, happy photographing!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How urgent is it that I address this fear?

How important is it that I address this fear?

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

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

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

Except for one thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had a small wound – no vet required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dog Commandments #2: thou shalt learn to speak dog

Dog Commandments #2: thou shalt learn to speak dog


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think these things are very true of dogs too.

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