Socialising your adult rescue dog

Socialising your adult rescue dog


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

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

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

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 Preventing your young Tarzan from being so rambunctious around other dogs, or your Garbo from being more withdrawn only comes from a series of high-quality, positive doggie encounters with a wide range of well-socialised dogs.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Dog Training Basics: shock collars or cookie comas?

Dog Training Basics: shock collars or cookie comas?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all four

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

“And what does that look like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With humans

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

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

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

With other dogs

Is it dogs in your household or unfamiliar dogs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doggie relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Dominance Myth: why it has no place in modern dog training

The Dominance Myth: why it has no place in modern dog training

FB dominance

I realise this may be a controversial post to many, given the number of conversations I’ve had in the last month or two about this subject. That said, I can’t bite my tongue any longer.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness that is France, surrounded by well-known local dog ‘trainers’ who recommend giving dogs a swift kick to the rump to ‘check’ it, who flood dogs with overwhelming stimuli in order to ‘make them submit’ and provoke dogs to bite, who recommend pinning (or “alpha rolling” a dog) and then recommend dogs to be euthanised if they do not ‘submit’, who recommend and use yanking, choke chains, prong collars and shock collars to ‘train’ dogs to walk to heel, stop barking or any other behaviour that they deem unacceptably ‘dominant’. What has made me particularly angry and sad is to see very nice and generally well-educated people nodding sagely at this ‘wisdom’ in ways that I’m sure they wouldn’t nod right now when they see it in black and white. It all feels very wrong to animal lovers when you look at dominance theory in all its splendour which I’ll do in this post.

Worse still is the proliferation of armchair experts who believe in the dominance myth. This last month, the word ‘dominance’ has been on the lips of all but a handful of people I’ve spoken to. It’s like a tidal wave of nonsense. I’ve been unable to have a sensible discussion with an ever-increasing number of people about canine behaviour in a scientific and objective way. It’s the answer to everything. Dogs humping your leg? Dominant. Dogs barking? Dominant! Dogs guarding? Dominant! Dogs trying to get a treat from your pocket? Dominant. Dogs growling? Dominant. And so it goes. According to the dominance theorists, dogs will quickly revert to their wolfish behaviour and will try to establish a rank as soon as they can, even with humans. They say we need to stop thinking of dogs as little people (which I agree with totally) and remember that they are essentially wolves (which I don’t agree with at all.)

And before you say that most people involved with dogs, who have a dog or who meet dogs on a daily basis don’t need to know about training, you’re dead wrong. If we have a dog, we need to know how they learn in order to help them fit into our families. We’re all training, every day. Whether we mean them not to jump up at strangers or for them not to eat off the table, we’re all engaged in a relationship to help our dogs learn and understand how they function in life, unless the only thing our relationship consists of is leaving them up in a yard outside and feeding them every so often.

It’s time for an honest post about how I feel about this word. And before you tell me it’s all semantics or that “it’s just a word”, it’s a word that leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about our relationship with dogs, a misunderstanding underpinning a view of dogs that leads to “strong leadership”, “being the Alpha” and “being the leader” (or any other words you’d like to substitute based on a power balance) and a view that leads us to correction and punishment as a treatment for this behavioural ‘diagnosis’ that it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harriet are experts in making.

What is the cure then for this dominance? The treatment? What does it mean if you’re “the Alpha”? Opinion ranges from jerking their leads and using choke chains, or not letting them on the sofas and “treating them like dogs” to advice so utterly bizarre, threatening and intimidating that it’s almost laughable someone would suggest it.

A friend was told to approach her rottie with behavioral issues from behind like she was going to mount him and “Show him who’s boss”. Another person was advised to sit on her puppy to show it who was boss, as that’s what mother dogs do. Apparently. Some other ‘advice’ included not to play tug of war (or to win at it if you do) as you will lose the respect of a dog. Because dogs are capable of higher reasoning that leads to respect. And make sure you eat before the dogs eat as that’s how wolves do it to show who’s boss. Don’t let them put a paw on you or lean on you as they’re dominating you. Bite or twist your dog’s ear to show them you can hurt them if you like as this is what Momma Wolves do… not passed your comfort zone yet?

Other advice includes spitting in a dog’s food, or even in its mouth. Seriously. Apparently, mother dogs do this with their baby dogs and it establishes you as the “dominant leader”. Are you absolutely off your rocker?? Spit in the dog’s mouth? Apparently it’s calming. Or complete crap. But hey, my neighbour’s friend watched a guy on a Youtube video was told to do it by a long-dead dog trainer of dubious credentials, and so it’s something I should do with my dogs. That is actually the train of ‘expertise’ that was quoted to me about why someone spat in one of my foster pup’s mouths. I didn’t let him have the dog on account of him being a complete knob. I didn’t actually believe he was telling me about some genuine dog training technique until I read a little on the subject. I just don’t have words. I did however, want to roll him on his back, hold him by his neck and make him submit. I used to do competitive jiu-jitsu, so it’s always a possibility with me. In lieu of that, I told him that I couldn’t possibly let him take the dog until he had read Dr Ian Dunbar’s “Before You Get Your Puppy” book. He told me it was too long, at 65 pages, and there was too much in it. I told him to forget the dog. I guess he probably went and bought one from a breeder who didn’t care less if he spat in a pup’s mouth or rolled it to show it who’s boss.

Unfortunately, although dominance theory does not relate to punishment-based training directly, the two often go hand in hand. All of this ‘advice’ came from so-called ‘trainers’ who all use ‘dominance’ as the reasoning for their methods. And it really does come from dog trainers. I wish it just came from ignorant neighbours and their friends who watched crazy guys on Youtube. I suspect it would be less pervasive.  Worse still, this word is now bandied about by so many people that it’s horrifying to hear it infiltrate virtually every conversation that I have about dogs’ behaviour. Sadly, being a dog trainer in France or the UK is not a regulated industry. Anybody can say they are a dog trainer. You need years of training to call yourself a hairdresser or a plumber and set up in business by yourself, but anybody can make a living  as a dog trainer. This is one way so many of these myths are percolating into society. Couple that with a lot of well-meaning advice from people who once watched an episode of The Dog Whisperer and you’ve got a reason for the huge numbers of people blithely diagnosing dogs with personality disorders.

It’s time to put a few myths to rest for the sake of our dogs.

This is the reality.

In the last month, two dogs that I know of have been surrendered to our refuge “because they are dominant”. SOm dominance is a reason to surrender a dog. Worse. In that month, two dogs that I know of from one local ‘trainer’ have also been euthanised on their recommendation. You’d think we were talking about Cujo, but we were talking about family pets! Dominance is now a reason that dogs are euthanised and why they are surrendered to shelters.

The most pervasive – and pernicious – idea informing modern-day dog training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself.

This quote from John Bradshaw, author of the MOST excellent dog book In Defence of Dogs touches occasionally on dominance and hierarchy and is a book I recommend every dog owner or lover should read. But the ironic fact remains: despite the huge growth of science-based knowledge about dogs and learning, we’re relying on a myth dating back to disproved data from a couple of captive wolf studies in the 1940s to inform our 21st Century relationship with dogs.

So what does a dominance-based human-dog relationship look like according to this principle?

Kind of the exact opposite of my house. So I’ll describe my house.

My dogs sleep in my bedroom if they like. They also sometimes sleep in the living room on the couches. Tilly sleeps on my bed. (We’re single girls… it’s allowed!) Sometimes Heston or Amigo get on the bed too, if they feel like it. When we wake up, they usually come to greet me which is pretty damn good in dominance training, as I should never go to greet my dog according to them.

When we get up, I let them out for a pee. I pee in the human toilet. They pee in the great outdoors. Then I give them their breakfast, which I let them eat peacefully without interruption from me (although I do make two of them sit before they get their bowls). After this, they go to sleep on the couches until it’s walkies. Sometimes Heston pulls when he’s on the lead. He always jumps up at the door and goes out through the door before I do. He barks and shouts although I do insist on him sitting at the gate quietly before he goes out (before me). He gets in the car before me, as do all of my dogs. I get in last when they’re all secure. When we’re on the walk, more often than not, he’s in front of me. When we get back, I have my breakfast, some two hours after they have had theirs.

I play tug of war with Heston for a while, and often I let him win. Sometimes I play fetch with him and he brings the ball back. I never take Tobby’s toys off him and he wanders around the garden with them. When I work, they sleep on the couch. Sometimes Tilly taps on the door as I’ve taught her to, and I let her out for a pee. Yes, I’m a doggie toilet attendant. She goes out of the door before me. I go for a pee in my own toilet. I do some training and heelwork with Heston at lunchtimes, using treats as a lure. I know. I’m putting him in a cookie coma according to the dominance experts.

I give them their tea at 4pm before I ever have my own. Then in the evening, they all climb onto the couches and I squeeze in with whoever is on the big couch. Sometimes when they’re snoozing, I go and give them a cuddle and a greeting. When we go to bed, Amigo hops on the bed for our cuddle fest, often pinning me down and nuzzling me for more.

According to dominance advocates, every single bit of this is wrong (except for the getting-up greeting bit – although I confess if Ralf was ever still snoring on the sofa, I’d go and greet him and give him a kiss first thing in the morning) and according to these ‘experts’, I must have a houseful of dominant dogs who are stressed and badly behaved. Allowing them such liberty, I’m not doing what’s right for my dogs. Luckily – and I’m not sure how, since I break all the dominance rules – this rag-tag bunch of ex-refuge dogs, pups who were abandoned at one day old, and pedigree dogs with personality defects actually rub up together pretty well. None of them bite my face in my sleep. Tilly might if it smelt of burger. But not because she wants me dead. Who’d handfeed her cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks?! And none of them bully or dominate each other.

So what should I do if I want a peaceful household, according to the experts in the know?

I should never let dogs on the couch or the bed. These are Alpha privileges. I’m making them think we are equal beings if I let them do this, and the only reason they want to get on the couch is because it’s an Alpha privilege. It’s their first step to world domination. It is nothing to do with the fact that it might smell of me, or heaven’s above, that it might be comfy. No. I shouldn’t eat after them either. Wolves apparently, according to a load of self-appointed experts, let the Alpha take the food first. Some dominance experts even suggest I eat out of my dogs’ bowls before they do. Just. Gross. Letting them eat before me, I’m prioritising them and giving them privilege, and they won’t respect me. Outside, I should never let them pull on the lead as they are dominating me. Forget the fact they’re excited and it smells amazeballs outside, they’re just pulling to take me where they want to go. Thankfully on no given day does Heston ever pull me where he usually goes off the lead, as I have an aversion to rooting in bushes myself. He must be granting me a bit of slack as he always walks in front on a walk (though he can walk to heel) and I’m a fool for letting him. I shouldn’t let dogs through doors first, either. I don’t know about wolves, but I’m pretty sure their Alpha goes first there too. No, that’s silly, I know. There must be a good reason about privilege and space domination. Well, not a ‘good’ reason, per se. Just a reason. Don’t play tug. Wolves that play tug of war always surrender the toy to their pack leader and if they don’t, they’re plotting a Kong-related coup. Or something.

Does it sound ridiculous enough yet?

And that’s the ‘sensible’ bullshit! Excuse my French, but there’s no dressing up this crap. When you get to sitting on puppies, humping your rottie, mounting your bulldog, spitting in their mouths and their food, peeing where they’ve peed (or saving it in a well-cleaned Fairy Liquid bottle) so that I can mark my scent higher and more thoroughly than theirs once they’ve been, we’re into some crazy-arse bullshit. Excuse the language. But that’s what it is. You shouldn’t teach your dogs stuff either, and if they offer behaviours, they’re giving YOU the command to give them a snack. This is why you shouldn’t throw a ball either, since the conniving sons of biscuits will bring the bloody thing back again and make you throw it… and it’s 0-1 to the dog. If they sit, they want something. If they sit and you’ve not asked them to, they’re just subtly dominating you into giving them affection or a treat.

If that sounds logical to you… I’m worried. Usually, most dominance-based trainers don’t sound quite this Looney Tunes.

Some of the ‘trainers’ put a pretty, sensible and rational-sounding spin on their bullshit. They have great websites and lots and lots of positive feedback. Take the Monks of New Skete who popularised a lot of this nonsense. I thought they were like some phenomenal dog training family from the name, like the Lees of Lowercroft. Nope. Some actual religious monk nutbags – with, guess what, zero actual science-based training knowledge – 40 years of experience with zero-science training nevertheless – who CNN called “trainers sent from heaven” who have a “holy bond” with dogs, who tell you “to learn about dogs, learn about wolves”. Cos monks, they know about dogs. I’m not sure why there isn’t a single piece of negative feedback about their books on the interweb, given that they kind of invented the Alpha Roll (you should routinely pin your dog to the floor and make it submit, they said, in 1978… only to retract this method by the mid-90s as “not something your average dog owner could do”… so, still do it IF you are an above-average dog owner, I guess) but it’s the same for that other zero-science “trainer”, Cesar Millan. If the Monks of New Skete gave birth to the dominance theory in the mainstream, Cesar Millan gave it wings. It’s okay though. They’re all dog whisperers and they have special relationships with dogs and/or God. But hey, they make great books and videos and it makes AMAZING television. And never mind that the bit of the Monks’ stuff I could bear to watch without paying for it actually seemed to be using positive reinforcement to train the dogs. But hey, if they can wrestle the floor back from the dogs after positive reinforcement, all power to them. As they say though… learn about wolves if you want to learn about dogs.

Now, John Bradshaw gives a lengthy, scientific and somewhat waffly section of his book to explaining why dogs are not wolves, and why the wolves that formed the basis of original “wolf studies” were not typical wolves since they were captive and their behaviours weren’t typical, and why we shouldn’t be basing modern animal training on wolf “packs” and what happens between a constructed pack of captive wolves who may or may not have last shared a common heritage with the modern dog some 40000 years ago in order to disprove the nutbags. I’ll give you a short section explaining why dogs are not wolves.

Dogs ARE NOT wolves, nutbags.

Besides, the behaviours that we say humans should do to teach a dog its place are not things that wolves do to each other anyhow. The famous “Alpha roll” for instance. Well, there’s no 20-minute pinning of unruly teenage wolves by their elders and betters until the little beggars submit. Sometimes, younger wolves with less status will voluntarily roll on their back and let other wolves have sniff, but Daddy Wolf doesn’t spit in his kids’ brisket and he never holds them in a pin position. Dogs may offer you their bellies too like captive and non-captive wolves. Sniff if you like, but I don’t think there’s any danger that your Tricky Woo will think you’re not Alpha enough if you don’t.

“Saying ‘I want to interact with my dog better, so I’ll learn from the wolves’ makes about as much sense as saying ‘I want to improve my parenting — let’s see how the chimps do it.’” Dr Ian Dunbar

I watched where the so-called Dog Body Language “Experts” were talking about dominance in play, where it was quite obvious to most that the ‘dominance’ between the two puppies was a fluid, moveable feast and that when they were talking about dogs’ hackles rising, well, they kind of miss the point that many modern pedigree dogs don’t even have hackles any more. Sadly, what makes good television doesn’t make good training: watch Barbara Woodhouse and cringe as she talks about how you can telepathically communicate with dogs and you might just laugh out loud once you’ve stopped cringing. “If I had a little choke chain on him, I’d have given him a jerk…”

But forget the dominance bit and the television presenters. Nobody ever said that punishment doesn’t work as a method for training dogs.

Oh, wait a minute. They did.

“A 2009 study by University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences showed that methods of handling that relied on dominance theory actually provoked aggressive behaviour in dogs with no previous known history of aggression.”

It’s just bizarre to see how a term describing “a relationship between two individuals at a particular moment in time” has come to be so widely bandied about, as Bradshaw says, “sometimes even used – incorrectly – to describe a dog’s personality.” and “widely used in descriptions of dog behaviour.”

How is a term that has so little evidence for in terms of dog-dog hierarchies (a thing that scientists and scientific-based trainers say is “fluid” if evident at all) ever come to be seen as impacting on dog-human relationships to the point where we’re endowing dogs with personality traits that make them at least as clever as some adult humans? A dominant personality implies that you have some kind of end-goal and overarching plan (and are therefore capable of envisaging a future or having a long-term goal)

“There is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs, either in their relationships with other dogs or with their owners.”

Finally, Bradshaw says even the descriptions of dogs’ dominance behaviours from dominance trainers really indicates an “unruly, untrained, yet somehow charming, dog.”. I’d agree with that.

None of this is to say that dogs SHOULD pull on the lead, SHOULD sleep on the couch, SHOULD go through doors first, SHOULD bark at other dogs or SHOULD be allowed to be possessive over resources. Just because you don’t feel like you need to be “Alpha Dog” and hump your rottie doesn’t mean you can’t teach your dog to sleep where you want it to, to eat without begging or snatching food from your plate or to play games in a mannerly way with humans or with other dogs. Apart from the barking at guests, my dogs are exactly how I love them to be. They don’t rule me, or each other. And even the barking at strangers thing… I’m kind of a fan. Everybody thinks I’m very well-guarded, at the very least. Alerting me to people on my property and stopping those people getting past the gate… well, that’s a perk, not a behaviour defect. And if it were something I didn’t like, I’m pretty sure I could train them to stop without spitting in their mouths, over-peeing where they’ve peed, rolling them on the floor or hitting them with a fly swatter. I trained Heston to Alpha Roll his own self so I don’t even need to bother, so it’s feasible he might be trained to stop barking at ogres outside the gate. Other than that, my dogs are calm, quiet, lazy and cuddly, despite their hang-ups and reject status.

That’s what saddens me the most. If I took the advice about dominance in dog-human relationships, I’d wreck my relationship with my dogs.

Perhaps if we took the word dominance out of circulation, we’d stop seeing our dogs as cunning villains who’ll bite you if you let them sleep on the bed. Then perhaps we’d fall in love with them again. We’d stop feeling that prong collars, choke collars, pinch collars or shock collars are okay. We’d stop feeling that our dogs are somehow flawed by their evil genius and encourage them up on the couch in the storms if they’re feeling nervy and we’d remember what amazing animals we have as our companions, who share our adventures, bring us love and laughter, who are strong enough to take down burglars and gentle enough to play with our babies, who are smart enough to detect fits and diabetes crashes and dumb enough to love us, and who have so far done a spectacular job at adapting from the field to the home when we decided their roles had changed.

“We know now that this conception [of hierarchy] is fundamentally misguided.”

If you believe even a tiny bit in dogs dominating human beings, but you love dogs anyway, PLEASE watch this video.

It’s 30 minutes, but it may make you see why John Bradshaw went out of his way to say that, no, dogs are NOT wolves, and why I felt like I needed to let off steam. I must warn you, you may end up feeling emotional.

Because this is such a common idea now in dog relationships in France, with so many owners and trainers (and their neighbours) talking about “being a leader”, “taking control,” and because this idea has literally infected virtually every conversation about dogs this week, there will be follow-up posts about:

  • The D word: what dominance really is and pack fluidity within dog-dog relationships
  • The carrot or the stick? Positive (R+), Punishment or Dominanced-based training and “Balanced” training. Why we can’t learn under stress
  • Assessing your dog’s behaviour objectively without the D word

The most common reason people say a dog is dominant is in their own lack of understanding. If you want to know how dogs and humans function, read any of the excellent books by John Bradshaw, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson, Dr Ian Dunbar, Gwen Bailey, Patricia McConnell or Dr Sophia Yin among others, and I promise you, you’ll never again say that you need to be the Alpha to your dogs.

If everyone read a little – just a little – before they got a dog, then maybe I wouldn’t be photographing beautiful dogs who have been so sorely misunderstood. And then I wouldn’t find myself on a 10000-word rant because I’m so sick of people ‘diagnosing’ their dogs in ways that are damaging and saddening and trainers who rely on euthanasia when they can’t break a dog’s spirit in this way. Dogs don’t dominate people. There isn’t one single shred of scientific evidence that has ever suggested that dogs do that. To take a pack of damaged captured wolves who may pin and bully one another and then suggest that dogs may do this with humans… a leap too far for this girl. That’s not ethological research. (If you insist on reading about wolves to “learn about dogs” and you think I’m crazy wrong about the whole dominance thing, read L. David Mech and you’ll hear what I’m saying from the wolf experts too.) But in the meantime, if anyone tells me their dog dominates them, be aware that I’m likely to start shouting out “what a load of horseshit” in the future.

Next week: dog/dog behaviours that could be called ‘dominance’ and how the theory of pack hierarchy is fundamentally flawed.


Bad dog! Why people abandon their dogs… and it’s not what you think

Bad dog! Why people abandon their dogs… and it’s not what you think

Before I start, I need to say that there are sometimes situations in which animals are abandoned where there are just no words to say. For the soldier, recently split up with his family who has to deploy for nine months and with nobody to look after his dog, what solutions are there? Sometimes life throws us curveballs that we just don’t expect.

That said, there are curveballs we should expect. Let’s not forget, after all, that these are dogs I’m writing about. They poop, they pee on stuff, they might hump things, they might kill your chickens, they might chase your cat and they may well eat your very favourite thing in all the world.

Sometimes, there are serious and sad reasons. Sometimes there are reasons that make shelter staff boil on the inside, reasons that make us want to go on a biting rampage. For those of you who think that refuges are full of crazy dogs who’ve never been trained, or they’re filled with abused dogs who’ve been beaten or mistreated, read on.


#1 Because of a death. Whatever you feel about animals, it’s a sad fact that about 15% of our dogs at any one time come to the refuge as a result of a death. No matter what your family tell you about how they’ll look after your dog when you’ve gone, sometimes it’s just a bit too much. Sometimes it’s just not possible, with the best will in the world. Many animals are privately rehomed following a death, but for some families, there are no solutions. It’s not all old ladies of eighty buying puppy poodles and baby yorkies. Sadly, we often don’t think. Death will happen to all of us. If you’re single and you have animals, your family just may not be able to cope with them after you’ve gone. If you’re married, your spouse just may not be able to cope in the aftermath of your illness. That said, I do wish people would stop selling puppies to old people. There’s the inevitability of death and then there’s the very likely and imminent inevitability of death. There’s nothing like seeing a six-year-old mourning bichon frise brought to the refuge to make you want to write laws and make statutes.

#2 Because of a family break-up. Some couples fight for custody of the dog. Some couples don’t. Where you may have had a great life with a dog as a couple, splitting walks between you and taking it in turns to come home at lunch to let them out and play with them, being single means that if you take on a dog, all that responsibility falls on your shoulders. Sometimes, it’s just not feasible for a single mum with a family of three, newly on her own, to cope with a dog as well. And don’t forget, change stresses dogs too. Sometimes, you are left without the means to pay for vet treatment, and if you think of all the acrimonious divorces, imagine how low a priority an animal may be. But, a bit like having a baby, some couples should realise before they adopt a dog that their relationship won’t be saved by an animal: there are far too many dogs brought back within a month or two because a relationship has broken up.

#3 Because of a change in your circumstances. You lose your job. You have to downsize to a smaller house. Your previous landlord allowed you to have a dog and your new one won’t. Many landlords won’t allow pets, and if it’s a choice between sleeping on the streets or rehoming your dog, it’s a tough call. I know many of us say we would rather sleep rough than rehome – and many people do! – but can we really offer our dogs a stable environment or pay for their care if we’re out on the streets? Being unable to cope with animals is often a factor in giving them up.

In these situations, the dog is never to blame. Many dogs find themselves at the refuge having never put a foot wrong. They are perfect family pets who have been treasured and whose owners may have been heartbroken to admit defeat, or to pass on the beloved pet of an elderly relative who bequeathed them a dog without realising that a full-time job may make it impossible to care for the animal adequately.

Then there’s reason #4…

#4 Because people are idiots. Idiots who blame the dog for their own inadequacy or failure. Idiots who can’t put their hand on their heart and say, “I don’t have the time to walk him as he needs” or “I can’t afford to treat his skin condition and he’ll need a home that can.” There are idiots who buy dogs and discard them like a pair of shoes, who fail to train them and can’t cope with the consequences. If you’re ready for the blood-boilingly infuriating reasons… continue. I must warn you: you may end up with a very dim view of some members of the human race. Sadly, these are all real reasons that dogs have arrived at Mornac.

  • The dog digs. Holy Baloney. Dogs dig???! STOP THE PRESS!
  • The dog chased a deer. Beagles on flipping bicycles!!! Dogs chase stuff? HOLD THE PHONES!!!
  • The dog chewed a pair of slippers. Great SCOTT! Dogs chew things??! Don’t tell Kong, whatever you do!!!!
  • The dog humped you. Sam Hill in a telephone box!!!!!!! Disinfect your leg quick and send the dog to the shelter.
  • The dog ran off with your scarf. Holy Horse Feathers!! Who’d have believed a dog might do that.
  • The puppy grew. Shut the front door. You bought a Great Dane pup and it GREW??? Send it back!!!!!!!!
  • The dog destroys things. The son of a biscuit. How dare he make his own fun?!
  • The dog runs off when he’s left alone in the garden. Good grief! Those invisible fences not working again?
  • The dog barks. Hell in a handbasket! Dogs bark? Who’d have guessed it?
  • The dog poops. Whoever could have predicted that? Good lord. I hope the papers have been informed.

It’s quite simple. If you aren’t prepared for the smells, the hair, the exercise, the expectant little face that wants to be taken out for a walk in the pouring rain, the whining at first light, the days when you come home and realise you left the food cupboard open and you’ve got four dogs in food comas, you’d be better to find yourself nother kind of pet. A gerbil maybe.

Because, sadly, the majority of dogs arrive for reason #4. Human idiocy is the main reason dogs end up in shelters. Not puppy farms, who take advantage of idiots who think dogs should be cheap. Not breeders, who will most likely rehome the animal themselves. Not governments, whose laws are too flimsy and not enforced. Not those hunters who realise their prize pack are worth picking up and have them chipped AND tattooed AND with phone numbers on their collars. Idiots who don’t chip their dogs, who don’t have secure areas for their dogs where they can be outside, unsupervised, and who don’t realise that dogs may come with a few doggie behaviours.

So do we get bad dogs? We get dogs who have been failed by humans. We get some dogs who haven’t been socialised properly with other dogs or with people. We get occasional dogs who have never been taught to inhibit their bite. But we don’t get bad dogs. I wish I’d stop having to hear owners surrendering their dogs, listing a catalogue of things the dog does wrong. I wish I’d stop seeing dogs who can sit, who are well socialised, who have the exuberance of a two-year-old dog, whose owners surrendered them with statements like “runs away, digs, doesn’t know any commands.”

A girl can dream.

Trigger stacking: how we set our dogs up to fail

FBpage trigger stacking

When we adopt a dog, what we expect is for them to be happy. We like to think that they get what’s happening and that it’s all blooming marvellous. We tell ourselves that they know what’s going on and that they’re going to love it. 

When I adopted Amigo, what I told myself was that he was thinking:

Lady, you are the best person I ever met. I’m going to be such a good boy! We are going to have the most amazing adventures together! I’m just going to lick you and lick you and lick you. Thank you! Thank you so much. See my waggy tail? That’s how happy I am! 

What we don’t think is that really, they’re most likely thinking:

Who the hell is this woman? She seems very nice. I wish she’d stop looking at me. Please don’t touch me. Don’t touch me… Don’t touch me. I don’t even know you!!! She’s touching me. I don’t like hands. Hands hurt. Why is she touching me? Where are we going? What’s going on? What’s this tiny thing? What’s that noise? What’s she doing? Where does she want me to sit? It sure smells funny in here. What the f@*&’s that noise? Why is the seat moving? OH MY GOD this thing is moving!!!! I want to get out. Can I get out. How do I get out? Where is the door? How can I get out? Stop touching me! Stop looking at me! 

Not only did I pop him in the car, I took him to a new house. I introduced him to new animals. I set him up to be stressed and without really considering it (he was the fifth dog I’d adopted) I didn’t think about the stress he was feeling. It took five months to wrestle him back to a place of calm. Sorry Meegie. I wish I could start again. Luckily, he forgave me for this and I hope he feels safe now.

The modern world is stressful to a dog. They are living in a world that does not always make sense to them. It’s akin to moving to a different country with a different language and very different customs. Notch that discomfort up a little and you get a sense of what it must be like to live in a dog’s world. If your dog has ever barked at anything new, you may have laughed it off, because we simply don’t know what will freak our dogs out. Tilly spent a good five minutes barking at the washing basket in the garden yesterday. I don’t know why. She’s seen it before. It’s been in the garden before. Nothing was different in most ways than every other time the laundry basket has been in the garden. But yesterday it spooked her. Heston once spent a good while barking at a sieve. A stone cross also freaked him out. Amigo doesn’t like to be inside during storms. Molly used to bark at snowmen. It’s common for dogs to bark at hoovers, lawnmowers and other animals. These are fearful responses to things that don’t make sense to dogs.

But barking is not the only way that we can see an animal is stressed.

Creatures feel fear and have a stress response. This we know. When something makes us feel afraid, our bodies have surprisingly similar responses as a dog’s. Adrenaline is produced. Our heart rate increases. Our brains become less capable of making choices as our fight-or-flight response kicks in. Once the brain says, “hey I don’t like this!” the thalamus gives us a shot of hormones that set us off on a very typical “stress pathway”. Ever tried to reason with someone who’s red in the face? Ever tried to get your dog back under control when they’re barking at a stranger? You’ll know how hard it is to overcome the stress response.

What normally happens in a dog’s day is that they meet a series of stress-inducing triggers. If you’ve socialised them and introduced them to these triggers when they are young, they will most probably learn that these things are nothing to be afraid of. If you don’t, you’ve got an uphill battle to show them that a strange man in a hat is nothing to be afraid of. When we adopt an adult dog, we have no idea what they have been socialised with and what is a trigger.

For the most part, our dogs meet an unfamiliar trigger and then they move on. They may growl, show their teeth, snap or bark at it as they attempt to “fight” the trigger, or they may run away to a safe distance and hide if they are in “flight” mode. The other week, someone dropped a sack of fertiliser by the side of the field. Heston did both of these things: he stood, he stared, his hackles went up, he growled. The thing didn’t move. He went a little closer and growled more in case it hadn’t heard him. Then he barked at it. It didn’t care. He went closer, barked and then backed off. He did this progressively, getting gradually closer until he’d decided that it was nothing to be scared of, barking, retreating, barking, retreating.

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

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

trigger stacking1

But what we do with a shelter dog is take an unfamiliar dog and give it a short, sharp shock of everything we know to be stressful. We take a dog who is already stressed. Even two weeks in the shelter is enough to have long-lasting consequences on the stress hormones and body, especially if they have been kept on their own.

Shelters are good at recognising unnatural stress responses for dogs, but there aren’t often solutions to this. Displacement activities may be evident (licking, grooming and eating stuff they shouldn’t) as well as stereotypical responses such as circling, excessive grooming, tail chasing, tail biting, excessive drinking, fence-line running, anorexia or excessive eating (yes, dogs comfort-eat too) and dogs may even hallucinate, chasing imaginary flies or staring into space.

But there are many dogs who do not exhibit such behaviours in kennel environments, and we may be unaware that they are very close to the point at which they cannot control their responses or when it all becomes too much for them. We call this point the “threshold” and it’s marked in red on the diagram below.

When we take a dog and subject it to a range of new and stressful experiences, we stack those triggers all together, and we are not allowing their bodies to deal with the triggers we are subjecting them to. In one short hour, everything changes. They go from an austere environment where the majority of dogs show some signs of stress, and we think that what we are doing is comforting and reassuring. It isn’t. We introduce them to new people. We may put them in a car, which they may never have experienced except for a brief trip to the pound or their journey to the refuge. We take everything in their world and turn it upside down.

And instead of being able to tolerate the stress, we don’t allow sufficient time between all of the changes, and we stack the triggers so that they build up, one on top of another.

trigger stacking 2

Once they pass the red line, you are going to see exaggerated stress responses. Stares and teeth displays or pinned ears and avoidance techniques can turn into defensive attacks. This might just be a good old bark or grumble. They may urinate (I showed Tilly a new dog coat once and she did this…. I call her Tilly Piddle for a reason!) They might “give in” completely, overwhelmed by fear. They may try to run away or hide. In French, we say se sauver, which literally means they try to save themselves.

There are lots of things you can do to avoid this situation.

Visiting the refuge often to meet the dog and spending at least an hour with the dog before you adopt them is one of those things. For dogs showing signs of an unnatural stress response (licking or circling, bark displays) you may want to sit in with them for a couple of hours, doing absolutely nothing until they are ready to approach you for a high-value treat. Giving them a small amount of high-quality treats will show you that their stress levels have gone down enough to think of moving on to the next stage. Heston accepting treats when he met Tobby was my cue that he was sufficiently unstressed to move in a bit. But take your time. Though the adrenaline will have dispersed, the cortisol will not.

I was also really glad to see a lady taking the time to introduce her new dog to her car, spending a good few minutes over a few days getting him used to being in it, then turning the engine on, and so on. Not all dogs will need this if they have been used to getting in cars as a puppy. I’m pretty sure Heston would hop in anybody’s car given the chance. Cars mean adventures to my dogs because what happens after being the car is 99% good (except those vet trips!) But for a fearful or anxious dog, the guidance she’d received will certainly help the dog feel more comfortable.

If you have other dogs, be careful how you introduce them and take your time. When Tilly and Saffy arrived here after their car journey, I just randomly let them meet Molly, the new house, a whole load of strange men… no wonder Tilly quickly turned to submissive urination and excessive drinking. I’d say it took a good four or five months for her behaviour to return back to “normal”. You know my story of Amigo already. That ended with five months of serious retraining. Ralf… I got smart. Tobby… even smarter. And guess what? Those dogs weren’t stressed out. I doubt whether Ralf ever got stressed, since he was a big, chilled-out mattress-back. Tobby certainly has stress responses: he is happy to run away and he has the potential to bite. But I like to think that I did everything I could to avoid walloping those triggers one on top of each other that first day home.

Avoid stacking those triggers and you’ll avoid pushing your dog to the limits of its tolerance. Time and calm is your best friend. Although everyone will want to come round and say hi to your new dog, what is best is a recovery period. Although you may want to give your new dog toys, treats and love, what they need is calm. Perhaps the very best thing you can do is sit very quietly for a couple of hours and read a book whilst they make some sense of their new environment. It’s not exactly what you envisaged, I’m sure, but it’ll help break up those triggers into manageable blocks.

For further guidance you can read:

The first days home.

Fearful dogs.

Introducing new dogs.

10 tips to dog-proof your home.

And if you want to know a little more about trigger stacking, this video from trainer Donna Hill will help

10 Myths that people believe about shelter workers

10 Myths that people believe about shelter workers


I was in a meeting today when the phone rang; I could see it was the refuge and they only ring in an emergency. It was our secretary who wanted to know if I could arrange to pick a dog up. No problem. I took the number and called the woman. She’d adopted a puppy three months ago and now she wants to return it. I don’t have words. Still, I ring her and ask her when she wants the dog picked up.

“Tomorrow,” she said.

“I’m really sorry. I’m working tomorrow and it’s just not possible. I’m free next Thursday.”

The tough part of the decision is wondering what might happen if I don’t do exactly as she says, dropping everything to meet her request. Where you’re holding a vulnerable hostage, you’ve got a pretty big bargaining chip. One that makes you a nasty piece of work if you use it, but who’s to say who’s bluffing and who’s not?

I went back into the meeting. “This is why I wanted to work with dogs.” I said. Dogs aren’t arseholes, by and large. You seriously wouldn’t believe the stuff that people say to us on a daily basis. I thought I’d take a minute to debunk the myths and give you a bit of an insight into the daily world of a shelter worker or volunteer.

Here’s ten of my favourite things people seem to believe about us.

#1 We’re stupid. We had a phone call last week from a “concerned” member of the public who didn’t think we should let our elderly dogs go to a particular home that often takes on dogs for palliative care. “Dogs die there!” they said. Bloody hell! Thanks for telling us! We had no idea that old dogs might die, even though the vet gave them a month tops at the last check-up. Ten minutes of badgering later and the person is now angry at just how stupid we are. When you’re a shelter worker, people think nothing of telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing. We’re so lucky to have an army of armchair experts to suck the time right out of us. I guess most people in the caring professions feel like this though. There’s a type of person who loves to tell the experts how they should do stuff. We’re lucky we’re not premiership footballers, I guess. Some days it does feel like there are 80000 people surrounding you who know better than you how to do your job, though.

#2 Loosely connected to #1 is the myth that we know nothing about dogs or cats. According to some people, working at a shelter means you have prioritised caring over canines. We’re all so blinkered by our big old hearts and our blinded by naive stupidity that we can’t tell our Basset Fauve de Bretagne from a Great Dane. Not only that, since we work in rescue, we must all therefore be totally against breeding, totally against breeders, totally against pedigrees and totally against doggie stuff like rules or training. Never mind the fact that without breeding, there would be no dogs, so if we were against breeders, we’d be against dogs. A guy last week lost his rag with me because I personally wouldn’t re-categorise an American Staffordshire Terrier. Not that I can. Never mind the dog has been classified by a vet who is one of five vets in the region whose job it is to do just that. We’re all idiots who have no idea what we’re doing. And never mind that just because we might love the muttleys doesn’t mean that we don’t rescue pedigrees or have special places in our hearts for the bulldogs, the huskies, the Anglos or the cockers. Another guy was happily telling me how we knew nothing about gundogs and showed me proudly his photos of his “English Pointer” who looked very much like a mutt to me. Our English pointers just aren’t English pointers, according to him. Another time suck. And never mind what breed it is: how would anyone who works in a shelter, with our big bleeding hearts, know anything about canine behaviour? Never mind that both our president and the refuge director are both canine behaviouralists and most of us bone up very quickly on animal body language. Ahhhh.

#3 Not only are we stupid, we’re also all bleeding hearts. We’re just too kind. Nobody can understand how we can do what we do without torturing any number of individuals who’ve brought us dogs or been the subject of a legal seizure. It’s probably because we’re all a little bit touched. Fact: we have the biggest bullshit detectors, and, like the dogs, we can smell it on you. We’re not just a bunch of gullible hippies who believe every story about dog bites, who doesn’t get on with whom, what little Rover did to little Rex. Last week, a woman dropped her dog off telling me quite categorically that the dog was bad with “big dogs.” We were at that moment standing next to Belle, the refuge guard dog. She’s a statuesque shepherd cross. Then Dino walked by. He’s a big bruiser of a filo de San Miguel. “Not good with big dogs, you say?” I just raised an eyebrow and walked off. Just because we clean up other people’s shit doesn’t mean we were born yesterday or that we’re all soft. And just because we refrain from chaining people up like dogs as a punishment for what they have done themselves doesn’t make us a pushover either.

#4 We don’t know the law. I can’t count the number of times I’ve explained procedures to people only for them to say, “well, I’m going to do this instead.” Good for you. I’ll wait for your call when you’ve tried that then. People get really mad at us because, believe it or not, there are systems in place for dealing with animal neglect or cruelty. Without those, we’d be an unregulated army of stupid bleeding hearts, so it’s a good job we do. I can’t tell you how many people suck the living time out of my soul with forty-minute phone calls about how some dog spends a lot of time outside and how that’s tantamount to cruelty. I re-read the guidance about animal welfare the other day and thought “I sound really hard.” But I wrote that to stop the endless phone calls about various acts of animal “cruelty” that are in fact very legal situations. So often, the real cases of animal abuse get lost in between lengthy arguments over what is or what is not animal abuse. Our time and energy is absorbed in fruitless conversations with people about why exactly you have to get the authorities involved or whether or not some animal is being abused. Not only that, but people get really angry at us because the law, in their opinion, doesn’t do enough. We know it doesn’t. This is what we live with. Still, spending an hour on the phone to you whilst you moan about it isn’t changing anything. Glad you feel better to have offloaded about how incompetent and inadequate everything is, though.

#5 Not only are we all naive, trusting souls who don’t know about animals or the law, we’ve also got bags of free time. Personally, I don’t mind phone calls at 10pm, but I’m damned if I’m going to call the boss and ask her to reserve a dog for you. We do try to have lives. For me, I have a full-time job, four dogs of my own, a full-time garden, a semi-derelict house that I’m trying to do up in full frugal style and I’m on two other committees besides the shelter’s. I know there are people who think I don’t work, that I don’t have other stuff to do or that I have times when I am not available. I know there are people who get cross because I’ve decided something is not as urgent as they think it is and I’m not bothering the staff with it tonight. No, I won’t give you their numbers or email addresses. They’re at home with their families. Our vet nurse actually volunteers in the afternoons at the refuge, since her salary doesn’t cover her for anything but mornings, but she’s still there of her own volition, and people are mad when she’s not on 24 hour call. And no, I’m not calling her when she’s on holiday. Take your animal to the vet and pay the vet for an emergency consultation. No, I won’t reserve a dog for you at midnight. No, I won’t give you my mobile number. You’re horrified that the refuge phone lines are busy or engaged? Why don’t we answer before lunch? I just don’t know. Feel free to come in at 9am, man the phones and sift through our daily bullshit though, if you want to help.

#6 We’re powerless. So we can’t march in to a property, break open the doors and check whether Flopsy-Woo is sleeping on the sofa or not, but we can and do investigate. We prosecute too. I’m sick to the back teeth of asking “Have you been to the mairie?” and being told “No, they won’t help.” Here’s some news for you buddy. Yes, there are maires who stink. We know exactly who’ll do something and who won’t. But most are helpful human beings who have a modicum of education. Not only that, they can order the police about. And us. They can order us too. But we’re good at doing things in other ways and believe it or not, it’s not always just about removal of abused or neglected animals. We’re good at putting dossiers together. We’re good at talking to neighbours, negotiating with mairies and negotiating with people who’ve neglected their animals. Just because we can’t hand out 30-year sentences or issue the death penalty doesn’t mean that we’re without power. We’re neither Judge Dredd nor are we wandering around doing nothing at all.

#7 We’ve got the patience of saints. Right now, it’s 07.28 and I’m in a message exchange with a staff member who’s blowing a gasket about someone we’d banned from having a dog who came and picked one up when neither of us were there. She’s also got to go and pick up a dog. My fingers hurt a bit from all the anger. Staff turnover is high. People burn out. Keeping a lid on all the frustration and anger takes its toll. Caregiver burnout is a constant risk. Volunteers can luckily walk away and take a break before coming back at it. The staff can’t do this. In my view, this is why we need as many volunteers as possible, to help share the burden. Fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression are standard and it’s exhausting. Given #1 to #6, you can kind of understand why the patience we have wears thin from time to time.

#8 We prioritise animals over people. I’ve lost count of the times that people say that my priorities are out of whack, or that we must really hate people. Ironically, despite everything that humans do to animals, the people who adopt our dogs and cats largely restore our faith. What mostly restores my faith is working alongside so many great people who I can rely on totally. There are still plenty of good people to believe in. And, contrary to popular belief, just because I’m an animal lover doesn’t mean that I don’t give a stuff about human welfare issues. I’m quite tired of other ‘humanitarians’ treating me as if I’ve got my priorities out of order because I didn’t suddenly drop animal welfare issues and start expending all my energies on refugees. Just because I didn’t doesn’t mean I don’t help out with that too where I can. I’m very tired of the idea that any one cause is more noble than another or people feeling that they can take a pop at those who live and breathe animal welfare just because “they’re only animals.” We should care for all things on earth, full stop.

# That we’re somehow wonderful and noble, nay saintly, for everything we do. Because scooping up dog shit is noble. “I couldn’t do what you do,” people say. Yes you could. You just don’t want to. Just say “I don’t want to do what you do.” That’s fair enough. But we aren’t harder, tougher, more in control of our fists or more in control of our stomachs than the average person. We’re just people who think, “If I don’t do it, who will?” We just keep turning up. Day after day. Month after month. That’s all. I’m pretty sure everyone can turn up to stuff.

#10 We spend our days with the healthy sheen of our halos casting a benign light over our beatific zen-like faces as we romp with animals. Yes, we’re not just better than the average person who couldn’t do what we do, whatever they think that is, but people seem to think that we’re basking in the wonder of our happy do-gooding. Mostly, we don’t romp. We get dragged along by dogs who’ve been out once or twice in the week, because so many people “can’t do what we do” and we often look like shit. We laugh about this, because either it’s cold, and we’re wrapped up so thick that nobody even noticed I’d had my hair cut for six whole weeks, or it’s wet and we’re wearing mens’ waterproofs or bin bag accessories, or it’s too hot and we’re sweating beneath our long trousers in case some over-excited dog fancies saying hello to our calves with their teeth.

Whatever you believe about shelter workers and volunteers, we’re all just people. That’s all. We’re not stupid. We’re not gullible. We’re not swanning around like Lady Bountiful, sunning ourselves in our own virtues. I’d be glad for just one day when people didn’t make assumptions about us. It sure would make my day much nicer.

And if you think like we do, if you can turn up from time to time, if you want to make a difference and you love animals (and people!) why not come and join us? Find out how to volunteer here


Resource Guarding: Prevention and Management

Resource Guarding: Prevention and Management


This week, I had a little dog on a foster placement. “She’s dominant,” her owner said. I asked a little about this to get behind this rather too-often-used statement, and it seems that Little Miss likes to growl and snap when the other household dog was getting attention and she was not. It didn’t take long for this so-called “dominant” behaviour to emerge at my house; I was eating a pizza at the table and Little Miss sat under my chair like a troll beneath a bridge and snapped at anyone who tried to get near.

She’s not the only dog who has behaviour issues. Last Saturday a lady in a photography group I’m part of shared a terrifying story. Her dogs were eating in separate rooms as usual, when one rescue dog turned on another as she walked behind him towards his food bowl. The size difference meant that the ‘intruder’ had her jaw broken and the owner was devastated.

Then on Tuesday, I got a call from a guy who’d adopted a dog from us a few weeks ago. In fact, it wasn’t a query about the dog he’d adopted from us, but the dog he’d adopted a few months earlier from another refuge. He would happily steal items of clothing, run off into the sunset with them and growl or snap at anyone who tried to remove them from him. What could he do?

It might seem that these three things are not particularly related, but they have one thing in common. Resources. Whether it is food, toys, bedding, other animals or even human beings, some dogs haven’t yet learned to “Leave it!” with good grace, whatever “it” might be.



Let me make this clear: resource guarding is NOT dominant behaviour. I don’t like the word ‘dominance’ anyway in the dog world because so often we mean other things; I just can’t get my head around the ‘dogs want to rule over humans’ idea. Dogs don’t reason particularly well, so I’m pretty sure there’s no master plan at work. Resource guarding is usually the very natural behaviour of an animal which we have been breeding selectively for many thousands of years for – guess what – their excellent guarding behaviours. Long before doorbells, CCTV and on-site security, a guard dog was the best way to have a little security for your sheep, your babies, your treasure or your lap. Now that we’ve removed ‘guarding’ from the job description of most of our canine companions, they’re to be forgiven if they still struggle a little with letting go of things they treasure. After all, we spent thousands of years capturing that behavior, cultivating it and reinforcing it.

Neither is resource-guarding a result of either deprivation or over-indulgence. We simply do not know what makes some items of higher value than others in a dog’s mind, or why they think someone might steal it. But it is still a problem for many dogs and can lead to situations in which the dog feels it must growl, bark or bite to keep hold of its “possessions”.

So how can you treat this worrisome behaviour?

The first thing is to accept that guarding, although a genetically-coded behaviour, is still something we can change. It is something that all dogs have the capacity to do and something that all dogs can be trained not to do. It often happens in changes of circumstance or where dogs become stressed.

The best point to start ‘treating’ resource guarding is before it appears, when the dog is a puppy. This isn’t always possible with adopted adult dogs, but unless the resource-guarding is very aggressive, you should still be able to apply many of the techniques here.

Puppies should be taught to “leave it!” and learn that humans (and other dogs) can take things from them. “Leave it!” is not just a good technique to use with all dogs to allow you to retrieve items safely, such as food or toys, but it’s also a great command to teach them so that they don’t pick things up off the ground or steal items. Teaching them “off” and that the approach of other dogs, cats or humans is nothing to be scared of is also vital. Grisha Stewart’s explanation of Give or Trade is excellent. Be careful, though. You don’t want your dog to make an association between stealing or guarding and getting a treat. Make sure there is sufficient interruption between “Leave it!” and the moment you reward, otherwise you could easily reinforce this behaviour. You must reward the leaving, not the growling. Good puppy training classes should tackle “Leave it!” as part of the basics. Otherwise, you should seek the advice of a dog trainer to help you.

Older dogs can be taught the techniques in the same way.

My top ten tips:

  1. Recognise what your dog guards and what it doesn’t. Get to the bottom of the guarding behaviour. Make a list of things this happens with, note times, situations, circumstances. We simply don’t know what is worth guarding to a dog, and what is not. I’ve seen Tilly guarding a mouldy bread roll she’d buried and then unearthed. The mouldy bread roll is unpredictable. A chew that lasts more than a minute is a thing that is a predictable source of growls and grumbles. If she can’t finish something in one sitting, there’s a lot of dog-dog guarding going on, and she’ll even snap at me if I try to remove it. By knowing exactly what your dog guards, you can nip the problem in the bud. Note the behaviour and its intensity: head turn, stare, growl, teeth demonstration, air-snap. Note the distance at which it happens: does the dog still do it if you are 2m away? 10m away? Where’s their ‘threat line’? This helps you not only identify the problem but gives you the ability to discuss this with a behaviouralist.
  2. Pick out a reward that is worth more in value (to your dog!!) than what they’re guarding. That might be a mouldier bread roll for Tilly. The dog that turns its nose up at a cheap dog treat may well sit pretty for a piece of stinky cheese. You’ve got to know which treats will work to get the “drop”. When dogs fail to give up the object they are guarding, owners tend to think that the swap has failed. This isn’t true. The treat has failed, not the swap. A better treat is needed!
  3. Start by rewarding small “gives” or “drops” with high value treats for items of little worth. What dog wouldn’t happily swap their bowl of dog biscuits for a bit of chicken or ham? At this point, you want the treat in your hand to be absolutely valuable – and use play outside eating hours if your dog is not motivated by food. For puppies, I start by making sure I can safely remove their food if need be whilst they are eating, or that they are not so obsessed by their food bowl that I cannot interrupt them. I do the same with their toys. The first time I do this, I start with a completely empty bowl. I get their attention, I may ask them to sit or have an interruption activity like look at me, then I reward with a really high value treat in the bowl. Then wait, and do the same. Repeated around the food bowl, this means they soon learn to be very glad when I approach as my being around their bowl means MORE food! I wouldn’t do this with an adult dog with food issues, however, although it is a great way to get puppies used to the fact that someone might stop them eating, and that is perfectly okay. I will also interrupt the puppy whilst they are eating, reward them with a high value morsel of something and then let them continue with their bowl. I never want my approach to signal the removal of food. It also means that both I and other dogs can move around my dogs without starting a war.
  4. This technique also works for toys. Start with a low-value toy and reward for letting go. Even Tobby, my toy-guarding monster, will drop his toys for a piece of meat. I’ll then give him take the toy again. I don’t ever want him to think, “I drop this item and I just get that…” otherwise he won’t drop it. In all honesty, Tobby is 14 and a Malinois without a history who has a toy guarding thing and a bitey thing. He is too old and it is too infrequent for me to need to remove his toys completely, so I save this for moments when I really need that toy back, like when a foster puppy arrives unexpectedly. He cannot tolerate other dogs trying to take his toys and so I don’t want him to feel that he has to guard his stuff from puppies. I also do this by offering him a better toy. I quickly noticed that there was a hierarchy of toys and that he would swap for some but not for others. With my younger dogs, it is vital that they give things up when I ask, including toys.
  5. With older dogs, remove all triggers until you know you have overcome any guarding behaviour. Food and toys are not things that should be lying around the house with a guarder. This is the main reason that we don’t leave out food or toys at the refuge – they can quickly become objects of value to dogs who are kept in small spaces without the same level of stimulus that they get in a home. Sadly, to make the refuge more stimulating with food, chews and toys would also make it worth guarding. With Little Miss, who was guarding me when I ate my pizza (or any bits that might drop on the floor, maybe, since she had already developed a begging habit before she got here) I removed myself. I went in the kitchen, closed the babygate and fussed and petted her when I finished. For Tilly, who guards bones or mouldy bread rolls, I do the “trade” routine when bone-time is over, and then I put them out of the way. Bone-time is over when I can’t supervise them any more; it’s the same with toy time. Living in a multi-dog household which often changes in numbers and levels of training, I don’t want a situation to arise in unsupervised time.
  6. Teach your dogs these things in isolation if you have a multi-dog household and then gradually change the environment and the presence of other animals. For instance, practise the Give and Trade behaviours in isolation, then have other dogs at a distance, before moving in closer and closer. Dogs don’t generalise well so just because you have taken their food bowl away from them doesn’t mean you will be able to get a stolen shoe back from them without a snap. Neither may they understand that because you have done Give and Trade in your living room that the same principles apply in the garden or on a walk.
  7. If your dog guards you, a valued resting spot, a toy or food, it is not a good time to try training them when they are guarding. Don’t punish them for their behaviour, just ignore them. An emotionally-charged moment is not the time to try and remove something from a dog, whether they have taken it in play or they have taken it to guard. It is not a teaching moment. Turn away and walk off. Keep them away from children or other animals at this point. Whilst Tobby’s toy-guarding is a bit of a problem, my other dogs and I will just walk off and leave him to it. When a crazy terrier foster took my boot before I was due to go out, he wanted to play. Chasing him would have been a great game. He needed a stooge to run from, so I walked away and went to the fridge. Sure enough, he dropped the boot and came running within two minutes. I was a bit late leaving, but better that than ten minutes of an angry ‘chase’ game in the garden. That of course was stealing for play and a little different, but the same principle applies: if you are not there, you are not going to take whatever they have. Plus, that fridge is an interesting place that is full of things that are way more interesting than a shoe nobody is playing with or a scarf that nobody else wants.
  8. Accept that your dogs in a multi-dog household will need to tell other dogs they are too near, and that this is not always an issue. Tilly is an invariable bowl dipper. She will happily go to everyone else’s bowl and stick her head in it if unsupervised. They’re so good-natured and the food is not so important to them that they’re bothered, so they let her. It’s not nice behaviour though. However, if she does it to Heston, or if Amigo – who finishes first – does it to Heston, he’ll give them a grumble. They’re too close. It serves its purpose and they back off. I know it horrified one prospective adoptant who came to see a puppy in my care that I let my dogs take care of telling puppies not to come near them when they are lying down. Yes, my dogs growl at each other from time to time, and yes I allow it. Stares and mild grumbles are the ways that dogs communicate. A puppy who doesn’t know this will never be well-socialised around dogs and this is a major problem for some of the older puppies who arrive with me: no dog has ever told them ‘back off!!’ and so they have never had to. For their own preservation, dogs need to understand dog language and if they rely on humans to intervene and keep them separate, then you have dogs who can never be unsupervised. These are dogs that inadvertently provoke others into biting them because they don’t understand when a dog growls, it is not playing and no human will come along to stop the escalation.
  9. Teach great bite inhibition at the same time. Then if you know you really, really need to, you can take something from them by force. I’m not ever going to be a fan of prising something out of a dog’s jaws, but I know with my dogs they’ll let me if I need to, like when one found a sheep carcass and “Leave it!” wasn’t enough.
  10. Dogs who resource guard should not be treated as “dominant” dogs. In fact, many are deeply insecure and afraid. Thus they are more likely to feel cornered and that they need to protect themselves from threat. Treating dogs such as this with negativity, punishment or hostility will only worsen conditions, not improve them. If you are worried about the level of hostility that your dog is showing around particular situations, seek help from a qualified behaviouralist who can help you get to the bottom of the problem and overcome it. E-collars, pinning and punishment may stop the behaviour as the dog “submits” but it does so at a huge emotional cost.

Here’s a couple of videos to help you with “Leave it!” and “Drop it!” and ignore the advertising! A guy’s got to make a living after all…

And the fabulous Emily from Kikopup. You can do the same with food bowls too.



What you need to know about dog bites that can save your dog’s life: Part Three

What you need to know about dog bites that can save your dog’s life: Part Three


Following on from previous articles about dogs attacking other dogs and dogs biting adults this post focuses on advice to help you avoid the most catastrophic situation of all: when a dog bites a child.

In such cases, when a shelter dog, or a dog you have owned from a puppy, bites a child, there are few alternatives we consider other than euthanasia. Once a dog bites a human, a line has been crossed. As adults, we can reasonably ensure we can avoid such situations again in many circumstances. But when a dog has bitten a child, we may feel we have no other option than to destroy the dog. This is not to say that dogs who end up at the refuge having bitten a child are dogs that we euthanise: we take reasonable precautions in alerting new owners and insisting on homes where the dog will have the most limited of contact with children. We have had many successes in rehoming dogs who have been bitten because their new families understand exactly what has happened and have worked to retrain the dog.

Hopus is one such example.


A young spaniel, he had been taken to the vet to be euthanised. The vet thought the dog would not bite in other circumstances and performed a series of bite tests. Once the vet was happy that Hopus had some bite inhibition, we were able to offer him for adoption. He had a few moments of aggressive behaviour with other dogs in his new home, but his new owner, in a home without any children, was happy to re-train him. Over a year later and he is very settled. It took considerable faith and commitment from his new family to overcome a very serious problem and he is lucky to be alive.

But how does a dog like Hopus go for two years without biting and then suddenly snap?

Once we heard the story, it was easy to say with hindsight why this happened. A breed bought as a family dog that is still very much a field dog in need of exercise, young children, lack of respect for dogs, a dog who was two years old and had not had enough exercise or training, had never really been taught to inhibit his bites, mums who are busy being mums and not having enough time to focus on being dog owners… It’s a ticklist of circumstances that describes almost exactly every dog brought to the refuge because it’s bitten a child.

Fritzou was another dog adopted from the refuge who was brought back for biting a child. A nine year old terrier, he had been brought back to the refuge after a short time because he had bitten a child who had disturbed him in his bed. Now he is very happy with a lovely couple who understand that when Fritzou is asleep, he doesn’t like to be disturbed.

You can see the pattern… a dog bred for working with its mouth, young children, busy mums… add grumbly old age to the mix and you can understand why we say you should let sleeping dogs lie. All very well in retrospect!

So what can you do to make your home as safe as possible? How can dogs and children live harmoniously?

First is in your choice of dog. Some dogs are recorded as high-frequency biters because there are a lot of them. Forget about what you believe about labradors being great family dogs- they’re on the bite list. They are also many countries’ most popular breed, though, which accounts for the numbers. Little dogs are not exempt: spitz, minpins and chihuahuas can have a real temper. Collies and heelers are prone to herding and nipping: I saw an Australian Shepherd nipping at a child’s feet last summer – the child was laughing and I was horrified. Cockers are known for their furious tempers – a fault of in-breeding. Malinois and GSDs are also on the list. Molosser breeds, rottweilers and dobies are on the list too. And although a little dog may seem like a great idea, many have not been sufficiently bite-proofed simply because they are small and their owners find it less important than you would if you owned a rottie.

The second thing to consider is the dog’s nature and age. Young dogs can be hugely tolerant of grabby hands, but as they age, they may snap when they never have before. A fearful dog is more likely to bite as well. Believe it or not, many dogs are scared of children if they have never been socialised with children. Only last week a griffon froze under a tree and couldn’t be moved. The problem? He was being walked by a lady with children and he’d got spooked. He came out as soon as the children had gone. And they were great children – gentle and sensible. Being small can be freaky to a dog.

Once you have picked a dog that is right for your children, it’s time to ensure your children have great manners around dogs. 77% of bites come from a dog that is known to the person it bites: it’s not strange dogs that you have to be worried about around your children.

Before getting a new dog, even if your children are familiar with dogs, please go through the ground-rules with them.

  1. We don’t disturb sleeping dogs. We don’t go in dogs’ beds and we don’t invade their space.
  2. We don’t corner dogs and we always make sure they have plenty of space.
  3. We don’t disturb dogs when they are eating. We never interrupt them if they have a treat.
  4. We don’t hug dogs, even if they let us.
  5. We don’t encourage them to jump up by waving our hands about.
  6. We don’t kiss dogs.
  7. We don’t pick dogs up.
  8. We don’t take the dog’s things off them.
  9. We don’t discipline dogs, smack them, shout at them or tell them off.
  10. We don’t yell at dogs or frighten them with loud voices.

This video is a great starting point for young children


If children follow these basic rules, you will find that the situations which drive dogs to bite are minimised.

There are lots of great resources to be found at

The Family Dog

Jimmy’s Dog House videos

Preventing dog bites is the one thing all parents should put at the top of their agenda, and making sure dogs and kids feel happy around one another is the best way to ensure that. If only everybody spent a little time at the beginning of their doggie relationship giving space rather than cuddles, giving boundaries and foundations rather than kisses and giving dogs time to adjust, far fewer dogs would be returned to the refuge under the black cloud of being a biter.

The sad fact is that most people choose to euthanise a healthy dog that may never bite ever again simply because they did not take adequate advice from the shelter about which dogs would make good family pets and because they did not dog-proof their children.

There are seven million dogs in France, and every single one of them is capable of biting under the ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances. As the American Veterinary Medical Association say: “the majority of bites, if not all, are preventable.” Most dog bites involve children. Most dog bites involve a familiar dog. Most dog bites involve everyday interaction between children and dogs. It is up to us as owners to make sure that children understand the boundaries that dogs have. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to someone recounting events when returning a dog knowing that the bite was entirely preventable. There is also nothing more frustrating than seeing parents take risks with their children’s lives and health.

By being proactive, parents can ensure their children are safe around dogs and that their dogs are safe around children. It is better never to cross that line than constantly test it – as it is a line that, once crossed, can never be uncrossed.