Keep Them Moving: Two games to help your dog cope in the real world

If you’ve got a dog who is reactive to everything, one of the most challenging things can be things moving up from behind, things moving alongside and things coming head on. In my experience, head on is worst, if only because it gives the dog time to decide that they don’t like whatever is coming towards them. If that’s someone walking towards you and your dog catches sight of them over 500m away, it can take them five minutes to get to you, especially if you’re battling a dog who is pulling on the lead. Now the bit that’s like high school mathematics: even if you’re moving towards them and they’re moving towards you, it could take you 3 minutes to get past each other: 3 minutes in which your dog is deciding that this is going to be terrible. Or, deciding that this is going to be wonderful target practice for a bit of “Catch the Monkey” or “Catch the Machine”. 3 minutes of you feeling anxious and passing that anxiety down the line.

I’m a fan of avoiding triggering situations whilst we’re learning to cope, but I’m also a fan of teaching dogs incrementally how to cope. If you’ve not already read about habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning, working below threshold and using L-turns and U-turns, you might want to do a little reading beforehand. You can also polish up your desensitisation and counterconditioning. Whilst you can avoid some triggers most of your dog’s life, it does not make for a full life. The more contact that you are likely to have with triggers that set off behaviour, the more vital it is that you train your dog how to cope with them.

One thing I’ve become very conscious of on walks is that Lidy is a visual scanner, constantly on the lookout for stuff to a) chase and kill b) chase and kill and c) chase and kill. I notice a lot of my clients’ reactive dogs like this too: constantly scanning the environment. It’s as true for reactive dogs or anxious dogs as it is for chasey dogs. They walk with their head up, constantly on alert. I find it’s very apparent with anxious dogs. Some of them spend their entire walk in visual surveillance mode.

Heston has his nose to the floor, and he’s a much more refined nose: Lidy’s telling me there’s squirrels, weasels, mountain goats and camels right here, right now, and Heston is telling her to cool her jets. She can’t seem to decide if scent is 2 minutes old or 10 days old, if it belongs to something 10 miles away or in the next bush. He’s so much more discerning: he’ll only alert if it’s close and if it’s recent, though it interests him if it’s older scent. A nose down dog is a great dog to manage. There have been many times when Heston has had his nose to the ground and I’ve managed to keep it that way whilst a hare, deer or boar shot past.

Flika was a dissector of smells. She’d have to stop and give it a very thorough investigation:


That’s not to say she spent her whole walk like that. Put a cow or a car in the scene and she’d go back to visual scanning.

Heston likes to quest: that process where they’re looking for a scent but they haven’t really got it quite yet – quite often running and ‘hoovering’ up that scent until they find the freshest. Tail up, head down, trot, canter or gallop. Visual scanning is only for when scents are really strong and you need to use your eyes because the thing is SO close.


And the Problem Child, she’s a visual scanner. The sod.


In my experience, dogs who are visual scanners are absolute sods for being really sensitive to the environment, to environmental change and for literally having more time to go over threshold. Nose down dogs, like it or not, can often be tricked. There have been many times when I’ve been able to fake out Flika or Heston simply because I saw what they were busy smelling. We’ve avoided all kinds of hare, boar, deer and dogs that way. I’m very conscious of dogs who are visually scanning the environment the whole time – they’re more likely to exhibit reactive behaviour or chasing behaviours in my experience.

You can’t fake out a visual scanner. They’ve seen it before you have. By scanning visually, they were literally waiting for things to move.

And I think visual scanning has something to do with anxious dogs’ feelings too. If you don’t feel safe enough to stick your nose to the floor and enjoy your walk, if you’re spending all your walks waiting to be pounced upon, then you’re going to find it less appealing to get your nose down and get on with being a dog.

Some dogs also need to be re-taught that it’s fine to get your nose down and sniff and investigate. So many dogs are taught to walk on a very short lead and never engage with the environment. We teach them to be visual like us, and don’t allow them to be dogs. I hate it when dogs aren’t allowed to use their primary tool of information gathering: their nose. So the activities I’m about to propose also help dogs re-engage with the world using their nose. When we forbid our dogs in gathering information in the best way they can – via their nose – we’re also limiting their understanding of the world in which we’ve placed them.

A final thing is about the appearance of dogs who are visually scanning and who have their nose down in terms of the threat level they pose to other animals, especially to other dogs. The visual scan often seems to set other reactive dogs off. Head up behaviour is instantly scary (and one reason I don’t like using fake dogs or stuffed dogs) whereas head down behaviour, whether you see it as appeasement behaviour, displacement behaviour or a calming signal, gives a very different impression. I’ve seen this so many times where I’ve encouraged my dog to stick their nose to the ground and the other dog has stopped posturing too.

A pose like this, then, can come across as quite hostile to other dogs, especially if the dog is stopped, if their mouth is closed and if they’ve got widely spread back legs.

This, on the other hand, says “not interested in you” and “just doing dog stuff.

A final reason I prefer nose down behaviours to visual scanning. It’s also why I’m not a fan of stopping still with dogs and asking them to stand. So very many reasons a ‘nose down’ is good and why it’s good to keep dogs moving.

So how do we teach our dogs ‘nose down’ behaviours? I use two techniques. The first is a game of ‘Find it!’ and the second is a Pattern Game from Leslie McDevitt called ‘1-2-3-drop!’. The first is ideal for when you’ve got something coming up from behind, if you need to move your dog quickly past or away, or if you’re moving quickly past something. The second is good when you need to be first, when you’re coming up to something, when you’re approaching a blind corner or bend.

Like everything, you need to start these easy and you need to start in a safe place. Start in the kitchen, in the garden, in the driveway.

Find it!

Start by practising at home and in the garden.

Do it so many times that as soon as you say, ‘Ready?’, your dog looks back at you and they’re ready to go hunting. Start with small throws, a metre or so, with big, smelly treats on flat ground. Graduate in complexity until you’re a pot shot over 5m or so with small treats in foliage.

If you’ve got a reactive dog, they should be on the lead in all cases until they can cope. Yes, the lead may well be playing into reactivity, but if your dog is reacting to humans, dogs, other animals or machinery, the last thing you want is them learning that aggression and charging in works. It’s the quickest way to turn reactive behaviour to aggressive behaviour.

If you’re using a longer lead than 5m, your dog has a lot of room to get into trouble. I don’t recommend longer leads until your dog can cope with everything at 5m. At the same time, if you’ve got less than a 2m lead, this isn’t really giving your dog lots of capacity to make good choices themselves. For this reason, a 2m, 3m or 5m fixed flat lead is your friend. Heston has 10m because he can cope. Lidy has 2m because she cannot. So your throwing precision needs to be as long as the lead.

‘Find it!’ is very easy. You just throw a treat in front of you about the length of the lead and tell the dog to find it! You move them forward. You can also do it moving very quickly if you’re very near the target, so if I’ve got Heston on a 10m lead, I shorten it so he has a couple of metres, throw big treats and move him forward quickly. If the target is a long way away OR they suddenly sneaked up and I need to keep my dog’s head down for longer, then a really slow ‘Find it!’ with a handful of treats into deeper foliage can also keep them busy longer. It’s a great management tool. There have been times we’ve diverted behind a bit of a screen and we’ve played a few rounds of ‘Find it!’ on the spot to keep them busy.

But you can also use ‘Find it!’ for when they see the scary or fun thing coming but have not yet reacted. They’re under threshold, still listening to you. So many people at this point ask their dog for a sit, then wait… wait… wait… maybe ask for ‘Watch me!’… and the dog is losing their patience, concentration and capacity to cope by the time the target gets closer.

I see so many problems caused by asking the dog to be static and to passively accept/cope with scary stuff or stuff they’d like to chase, especially if the target remains in their field of vision for several minutes. I needn’t tell you about the time Heston and I had to watch a whole wild boar family run across the horizon, crossing several empty fields. It must have taken them 10 minutes. How calm do you think Heston was by the end? Static behaviour like a sit or a down-stay is a tough ask when there’s moving things and you can’t chase them or run at them or run away.

‘Find it!’ keeps the dog moving forward, nose down, eyes focused on a target.

You can use it for emergency avoidance. Like I do when I spot a hare in the distance and I don’t want to cope with a very frustrated Heston.

And you can use it for counterconditioning. This is not distracting the dog, like avoiding. This is waiting for the dog to see the target, then using that as a cue to play ‘Find it!’. This process is much more conscious and is called operant counterconditioning. It’s a much less passive process, and for that I’m a big fan.

Think of it this way:

counterconditioning: scary thing appears > give dog food.

The purpose of this is to change the dog’s emotional response to the scary stuff. It doesn’t change the dog’s behaviour. It changes their feelings. You don’t need to mark behaviour in counterconditioning, because it doesn’t even matter what the dog does. Just as long as they’re accepting food, then it’s working to make them feel better about the scary stuff.

operant counterconditioning: scary thing appears > dog sees scary thing and does not react > guardian marks the behaviour with a ‘yes!’ or a ‘good!’ and then tosses the food and initiates a game of ‘Find it!’.

The purpose of this is to shape behaviour. It will also change their feelings, because ‘scary thing’ = ‘food’, just like in the counterconditioning bit. But it also reinforces non-reactive behaviour. It reinforces calmness. It shapes it from a small moment of non-reactivity into something much longer. Operant counterconditioning is the gold standard of reactive dog training.

There are lots of operant counterconditioning processes you can use.

You could reinforce check ins, where a dog sees the trigger, looks back at you and you reinforce with food. You could do this with a cue, like seeing your dog see the trigger, then asking them to ‘Watch!’ or ‘Check in!’ or you could just shape it naturally without a cue. My dogs (even the Problem Child) do this when they see a car. I don’t cue them. They look back at me and come back, sit down and we have snacks. The car cues that behaviour. That’s a gold standard because I don’t even have to pay attention to what the dog is even doing. They tell me. I can forget about the cars and they automatically come back to me and get out of the road.

You could reinforce u-turns, where the dog sees the trigger, turns back to you and you reinforce by moving in the opposite direction from the target. In a way, the car check ins are a bit like this. One dog I worked with used to see a dog and turn back, then we’d get out of the way and go and have snacks. It was much better than holding on to 40kg of air snapping, teeth clacking German shepherd trying his best to navigate bouncy labradors in the best way he knew how.

You could reinforce hand touches, where the dog sees (or senses in my case) a trigger, turns back to you and touches your hand so that you can engage with them or work with them. Lidy does this. When she’s feeling uncomfortable or a bit bitey, she touches my hand and we play games until she’s ready to cope again. Again, better than holding on to 20kg of pocket rocket maligator trying to take a chunk out of someone’s shopping bags.

Leslie McDevitt, the queen of these procedures, introduced us to “Look at that!” – and you know from my last post why I like this cued behaviour. Unlike auto check-ins or the engage/disengage game (where you reinforce disengaging behaviour), this cues the dog for a predictable turn of events. So I say, “Where’s the Dog?” and Lidy scans the environment for a dog. When she sees it, she comes back to me for food. It turns scary stimuli into a game. If I say “Where’s Fred?” it prepares her for a person. Because it’s cued behaviour (i.e. you ask for it), the dog is prepared for what they are going to see. The world becomes predictable. If you want to read up on why predictability is great for anxious dogs, then you’ll enjoy my previous post.

You can see why counterconditioning is a step up from using ‘Find it!’ to just avoid the dog seeing a trigger. It actually starts to change their feelings. And you can see why operant counterconditioning is a step up from counterconditioning, because you can shape behaviour, not just change feelings.

You’ll also see that I deliberately only mentioned scary triggers for counterconditioning and operant counterconditioning. There’s a reason for that. Safety and predictability are the key reinforcers for an anxious dog. Food is an added bonus. Safety, predictability and food are NOT reinforcing for a dog who wants to chase stuff. Walking Lidy through town near humans and she is very much in need of safety, predictability and food; she often performs hand touches to access them.

How many times did Miss Predation 2015 hand touch me today on our woodland walk?

How many times did she engage with me without cuing?

None.

A big, fat zero.

Because… chasing… chasing… stuff to maybe chase and smell and chase and bite and smell and bite and eat.

Can you use food with dogs with strong predatory behaviours? Not at first, no. Chasing is the number 1 fun. Nothing you can offer (and no punishment you can inflict) is as fun as chasing. This is why desensitisation is a better friend. Heston today recalled for a food treat when we saw a deer. That took 8 years to achieve, lovely readers. 8 years. To be fair, I’ve only really been trying for 5 of those 8. We’ve been gradually picking off things he likes to chase, one by one, and working on them. Here he is, not fussed by cows. The other week, the cows were right at the fence line and one stuck her head through. He ignored her. She was just there. She might as well have been a leaf on the bush or a crazy piece of grass. When he was 10 weeks old, he barked at cows non-stop. We did a lot of desensitisation and now frisky, frolicking cows can do their business right up by a very flimsy barbed wire fence and my dog is ‘meh!’

That is also true for horses, for sheep, for goats, for chickens (we’re revisiting cats!) and for all manner of game birds. A pheasant in the bush didn’t get a reaction yesterday. Nor a fat little partridge. Ducks, the same. We picked off each one and we worked on desensitisation. This from a dog who once chased swallows for 30 minutes in a field. Part of it is just being older and not having the same thrill. He’s much less bothered by squirrels, weasels, badgers and rabbits since they have very good evasive techniques. His big thrills were running stuff on open ground: hare, deer, boar. But we cope with them these days. Desensitisation is a part of that. But what is vital is that we meet those ‘chase’ needs. That means a bit of a dopamine hit, a bit of hunting, a bit of running, a bit of chasing. ‘Find it!’, lame as it is, is a loose approximation of this. No, it is never going to compete if your dog is sensitive to things that move – Lidy is a long way from even coping with smells and sounds, let alone seeing moving things – but when you couple it with desensitisation and you practise often, then you’ve got something that can meet a little of that need.

1-2-3-Drop!

This is one of Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games as well. Here, you start counting, ‘1… 2…. 3…’ and then you drop a treat on the floor. Instead of tossing it in front of you, you drop it at your feet or slightly behind. Immediately you’ve dropped it, you start walking forward and start counting again. The dog is then trying to catch up with you and you’re able to use yourself as a bit of a screen as well as keep their head down. It’s more regular than ‘Find it!’ and the treat is easier to find. I usually use something pretty visible and this is not a routine that involves them hunting or looking for the treat, just putting their head down.

Like ‘Find it!’ you can use the rhythm to go quickly or to go slowly. I find as well that I can use it to slow the dog down a little, instead of a military pace with a drop every second or so, I can drag the ‘1-2-3’ out over 6 seconds, slow paces and then speed up as we get nearer, or bring their energy down by starting quickly and then slowing down.

It is so simple, it’s insane.

I find it fairly hypnotic and Lidy clearly enjoys it when she’s feeling a bit antsy, as she’ll often hand touch and then we go into 1-2-3-drop. It puts our dogs in a positive frame of mind and gives them something predictable, something routine. The key part of desensitisation that can be really hard to achieve is working around triggers in a relaxed state. No relaxation, no desensitisation. As you can see from the Youtube video of me working through these around a cow field with Heston, his body language is relaxed, he’s loose, he’s engaged with me, he’s not fussed about the cows. Full disclosure: Heston could walk off lead past frisky bulls and not bat an eyelid, so the video is just about practising ‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ as a cold trial so that when I need it, it’s as automatic as breathing.

You can, by the way, put subtitles on as I’ve added commentary about what I’m doing as we go.

Once you’ve got a really automatic recall for ‘Ready?… Find it!’ and for the ‘1’ in ‘1-2-3-drop!’ then you can start to practise in more challenging conditions.

Scenario 1

This scenario is what I call The Drive-By. In this scenario, not unlike the one I have here, using ‘1-2-3-drop’ on approach keeps your dog slightly behind and trying to catch up, so they’re focused on you as the moving target, and on a routine they have practised hundreds of times as you walk past a static or slowly moving target. Just a reminder: you don’t want these games to become a predictor of scary or interesting stuff in the environment, so make sure you always have a few cold trials at other points on the walk too. Just as you pass the last of the sheep (or horses, children in a playground, revving motorbikes or whatever it may be) switch to ‘find it!’ to high-tail it out of there. At all times, YOU are between the dog and the trigger. You are also moving at all times. It’s often in the absence of any other routine that a dog will resort to inbuilt dog stuff like chasing or reactivity, so this fills the void when your dog needs a crutch to lean on.

Scenario 2

This scenario is one I call The Blind Bend. I am absolutely not a fan of reactive or chasey dogs going round blind corners first. All hell can break loose. Whilst I’m also not a fan of frog-marching dogs, or them needing to be 2 paces behind at all times, I insist on a bit of corner management.

One real-life example is just up the lane where the video was made. The house opens directly onto the street and the owners often leave the door open. Their dog usually lies in the doorway (because… dog!) and I’ve had a few hairy and narrow escapes when the door has been open and the dog has come flying out. The dog isn’t actively looking for trouble, but if the door is open, we don’t go past the front of the house. I could easily also take the left turn and move away, but the safest is a U-turn. So we play ‘1-2-3-drop’ on all blind corners, and I often encourage corner sniffing too. Corners are usually good spots for marking – cats, foxes, dogs, whatever you like… corners are often smelly. Encouraging a dog to get information by sniffing means I can get information by looking. Again, the dog should be furthest from the target or potential trouble, and ready to U-turn if necessary. We practise on literally every corner on our walk and if I have the slightest doubt, I always go round first.

Scenario 3

This is my High Noon scenario, where your dog is walking up to a trigger they feel is dangerous or interesting to chase. Instead of gunslinging, looking for screens, u-turning if not and l-turning if you’ve got a suitable screen, you can either play ‘Find it!’ on the spot until the trigger goes past, or you can practise some other behaviour at a distance. I might have a few games of ‘Look at That!’ if we’re safe. This is the toughest of all the scenarios, particularly if the dog has had visual confirmation of incoming threat for the last 5 minutes or so.

We can certainly feel we should try to wrestle our dog past the trigger. I don’t know what it is about human beings that we prefer High Noon to taking two minutes to step off the battlefield and wait for the enemy to walk on by.

Scenario 4

The final scenario is Misaligned Stars. For whatever reason, you’re walking into the equivalent of a trigger minefield. Sure, you could get past the sheep, dodge the oncoming trigger and cope if there’s a loose dog, but unless you feel incredibly lucky, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. We u-turn. We pick another walk. Simple as that. I might end up 10 minutes longer on the walk as a result, but nobody will have had a meltdown.

‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ are not magic. They work through repetition in easy places until it’s an automatic response. They provide a structure for you to work at a safe distance and even provide a structure for you to work a little further into that safety bubble without incident. A busy dog will be much more able to cope with triggers all around them. If you’re interested in learning and education, there’s some interesting information about cognitive load in the classroom – basically, our problem-solving capabilities are less when we have to do more work. Giving explicit step-by-step guidance reduces the difficulty of the task and makes it much more easy the learner will accomplish it. Transferring actions to procedural memory (our muscle memory if you like) takes the pressure off. These two activities help dogs’ muscle memory take over the cognitive load, so that they can cope with managing two things at once – in this case, walking to heel and coping with scary or exciting triggers. Putting loose-leash walking to simple patterns like ‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ means that this routine muscle behaviour, automatic and simple to perform, polished to perfection, means that the dog won’t struggle quite so much to cope with the complicated stuff. In theory, at least.

And if nothing else, it helps you manage the dog in relation to the position of the trigger.

As you can see from this video, nose down, moving past…

The cows aren’t at all near (about 50m) but even my one-eyed sixteen-year-old girl could have seen these (and would have reacted to them when I first adopted her, aged 14) so don’t overlook the distance you may need to work at, but don’t feel like it’s hopeless.

You may feel like you’re going to have to do this with every single trigger and it will take you a gazillion months, but in reality, once dogs realise what we’re up to, then they begin to generalise much more quickly. Sure, it took me 4 weeks to work around cows, but it didn’t take me 4 for sheep, chickens, cats, horses, goats and the other animals we come across in the neighbourhood. The aim is to make these triggers no more and no less a part of the landscape than the trees and the water butts and the bushes and the fence posts.

So if you have a reactive dog, start teaching these skills now. Start easy, start simply, start without the trigger near you at all. And then, very gradually, up your game. After all, if a one-eyed old lady can learn not to chase and not to lunge, then I’m pretty sure there’s hope for us all.

In memory of Miss Flika

30.05.04 – 28.09.20

May we all live as joyfully as you

Creating Predictability and Certainty for Anxious dogs

Global lockdowns, decreased road traffic and non-existent air traffic meant that for many of our dogs, March 2020 to June 2020 were peaceful times. I know for many anxious dogs, it was a break from the daily grind. It wasn’t a surprise then to find my books filling up with anxious dogs post-lockdown. It seems strange now to think back to those times without traffic and planes disturbing the peace.

For anxious dogs who returned to normality post-lockdown, it seems to have hit them really hard. The only equivalents I can really give are where you give something up and then find you can’t cope with the levels of whatever you used to do.

For example, I gave up drinking alcohol little by little over the last fifteen years or so. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t something I purposely quit. I just started drinking less. Now, half a glass of wine makes me sick, beer bloats me in ways I don’t want to describe to you and even half a glass of cider makes me hugely inappropriate.

It’s the same with many things I’ve quit the habit of in the last few years. I used to always wear perfume. Five or six squirts every day. Wrists, neck, clothes. I had so many different bottles and I was never without. Now, I can’t even tolerate the slightest spritz – it seems to follow me all day and give me a headache.

And don’t get me started on traffic and city life!

Like the proverbial frogs in hot water, we habituate to noise, smells, experiences, tastes and even our daily activities. Take us out of the water for a while and we find it impossible to tolerate when we’re immersed once more.

And I think this is what happened for a good number of dogs. Add more regular walks, anxious guardians, families off work, changing routines, people at home more and a beautiful spring, and it’s not a surprise to me that our dogs found it difficult to tolerate what they’d previously habituated to in the past. For our anxious dogs, I think this was particularly marked.

In the past few months or so, there’s definitely been something in the air about the use of predictable routines and objects in dogs’ lives. First, it was a little-shared study in by Joke Monteny and Cristel Moons in Animals back in January: A Treatment Plan for Dogs (Canis familiaris) That Show Impaired Social Functioning towards Their Owners.

The paper is very nice, discussing the effects of modifying the environment and lowering stress in dogs who are reactive to their guardian’s behaviour. I read it nodding sagely at the parts that informed guardians about thresholds and low level behaviours. They used Dr Kendal Shepherd’s excellent Ladder of Aggression that I shared a couple of posts ago:

So far, very straightforward. Recognise the lower level stress signals and notice how your dog is feeling. That’s always my starting point with anxious dogs.

Then they suggest education, and explanation, giving reasons for the dog’s behaviour, explaining things from the dog’s point of view. Yes, yes. Always good. The paper’s authors suggest going back through the guardian’s behaviours to explain to clients what the dog is doing at each point, and the effect of their behaviour on the dog.

They go to explain how to manage the environment and avoid stress, as well as avoiding punishment.

Finally, just when I was thinking they’re simply describing a very simple procedure, some 2500 words in, they hit me with two descriptions. One is something they call The Predictability Game. The second is something they call a safety cue.

The predictability games are great. They tie in to lots of other things I do with the guardians of anxious dogs, from Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games to Chirag Patel’s Counting Game. As Leslie McDevitt often says, they teach the dog rules and predictable patterns. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the world around us, the dog and I are involved in a relationship, we’re doing stuff. We’ve got our routine. We’re undertaking easy, fun, reliable, predictable, reinforcing activities that normalise the unpredictable and help dogs cope. I’ve been doing a few of these with a couple of clients, and one said to me this morning that their dog has become more affectionate and more relaxed as a result. The dog knows the routine. It brings safety. The dog isn’t spending all day scanning the environment for threat and they trust their human to keep them safe. For me, I’ve used these hugely with Lidy – she comes out like Kato in a Pink Panther movie, attacking everything on site. Pattern Games are our crutch for when the world gets tough. We go back to our really simple ‘one – two – three – drop’ food game. We play ‘ping pong’ where she shuttles back and forward for treats. I use these to vary the pace and to bring down her energy levels and to provide a reliable routine. I also love them because they’re moving games. So many trainers ask dogs for stillness when threats are approaching, especially when the dog is on the leash, and it’s just creating a lot of problems because the dog has nothing else to do. So they go back to relying on predictable behaviours like barking that get them what they need – safety.

That tied in to listening to Leslie on Hannah Branigan’s great Drinking from the Toilet podcast, where again, they were talking about predictability and routine. I highly recommend this episode if you haven’t already listened to it. I’m on my fifth time through and still it’s giving me more. You can find the podcast here.

I’ve also used Chirag Patel’s Counting Game for the same kind of purpose. To be honest, I don’t think it matters what you do with your dog as long as the dog enjoys it, it’s not adding to their cognitive load by being too difficult and it’s getting the nose down and breaking up the dog’s visual scanning of the environment. When I say “one – two – three” my dogs are back with me, no matter what, because what I’m about to ask will be easy and it will be routines we’ve practised a thousand times in a very large number of situations.

I find that this just builds up so neatly to Leslie’s ‘up-down’ game and to ‘ping pong’.

So the Monteny and Moon study really reassured me that this was a useful kind of approach to take.

But it got better. These safety cues. I mean, this was something I had to go away and sleep on, then come back and get my head into again.

So for Monteny and Moon, a safety cue is “a novel item for the dog without any previous association”. They give the example of a mat, and I think that is genius for a number of reasons, not least because it’s portable and you’ll be able to work with it in a variety of places. The process they explain involves working to create an association between positive experiences/lack of stress and the mat. So you’d start in a quiet environment where you are still and the dog is calm, where you’re not likely to be disrupted by television noise, music, doorbells, people arriving or other dogs. And you just sit whilst the dog does something fun. So you might give them a chew or a lickimat and just let them get on with it. If your dog is fearful around you, you do absolutely nothing other than give them a cue to announce the arrival of the mat, like “here’s your mat!” and give them a toy, puzzle, chew or food game and go and sit down. You do absolutely nothing. You don’t make sudden movements, you don’t play noisy games on your phone. You just sit.

This happens over a few times (and I’d vary the games/chews/puzzles so that the mat is the announcer of good stuff, not the toy or chew or whatever) and you need to do five trials where you can see the dog relaxes within five minutes of the mat going down.

Then the mat gets picked up and put away until next time. What you want is a positive association with the mat, so that just like Linus in Peanuts it comes to signify something pleasant and can induce a state of relaxation. To finish, throw a couple of treats away from the mat, say something like “mat time’s over!” and put the mat away.

If you use the mat often enough and gradually enough, it comes to help your systematic desensitisation. If you remember, that relaxed state is vital for desensitising a dog to things, so the “safety cue” is a way of inducing relaxation and calm.

Now I know objects can be a great talisman for dogs. For instance, for one very territorial dog I worked with, whoever had his bowl did not get barked at. If you arrive with a bowl, you are a welcome guest, whoever you are. It doesn’t make the dog feel better about YOU until later, but it does not evoke the kind of barking and aggression they were getting without it. Same thing in shelters for people who arrive with leashes or other recognisable “goodies”. It can also work the other way too. You may remember my saying about my dog Amigo who had quite clearly been trained with a fly swatter. Seeing him trembling to see one on a table told me all I needed to know. So these kind of items with a positive or negative association can induce emotional states such as relaxation (and fear, unfortunately, if they aren’t used correctly).

So I chewed this study over for weeks as its implications sank in.

When Hannah mentioned “certainty anchors” very briefly on her podcast, though, it sent me on a bit of a search to find out what she meant.

So a certainty anchor is exactly this: a learned process in which we use predictable factors as a crutch to cope with the unpredictable. Not unlike Monteny and Moon’s ‘safety cues’. Now in another life, I was involved in change leadership and working with organisations involved in a change agenda. Sometimes, we call this the Red Queen hypothesis, that we’ve got to always keep moving just to keep up. A kind of use-it-or-lose-it mantra. What I learned from my 4 years in consultancy was that some people find it hard to change.

We started with a really simple game – one I still play in group classes. The presenter pairs you up and asks you to stand back to back. You then have 30 seconds to make 5 changes. Then you turn back and your partner has to work out what you changed. The first time, invariably, people take things off. Sweaters, earrings, bracelets, watches, glasses. It’s fairly liberating. That kind of change I think we can all deal with – removing the extraneous. Nobody, by the way, ever removes the essentials. Interesting. I’m sure there’s something profound in that.

Then, without prior warning, the presenter tells you to turn your backs again and change 5 more things. Now people start to use the environment to pick things up. They pick up cups, binders, stand on chairs, put pens in their hair. I think generally speaking people do that too – abandon the extraneous and then add on new things.

Finally, once more without warning, the presenter asks you to do it again. Now this is where it gets fun. People get creative. People are liberated. I’ve seen shirts come off, or shoes. I’ve seen people make impromptu hats out of bags. I’ve seen them fashion earrings from pens.

But two things also happen. As soon as the presenter tells you the game is over, invariably, people change back everything to how it was. That says a lot about habit. And the second things is that people usually have a few things they’d never do. Like remove a wedding ring or change the finger they’re wearing it on. We don’t change our core values.

So all this is interesting, but out of four years’ work, if you ask me what I learned is that adults will invariably groan and shut down any time any change is proposed, even if it removes work from them. I also know they go back to default as soon as the pressure is off unless the change was wanted and it came from within. Change is hard, even for humans who seem to be one of Nature’s most adaptable species.

Change, at a biological level, is threat. Mice and rats who’ve been habituated to a new environment for five days are more likely to survive when a predator is then introduced, compared to mice and rats in a novel environment. Novelty is not good, especially when we’re under threat.

So this is where certainty anchors or safety cues come in. Author Jonathan Fields in his book Uncertainty says rituals help ground us. They help us find equilibrium. He says they’re powerful as tools in ways to help us deal with uncertainty and anxiety. It adds something known and reliable to your life at times of change. Their consistency is the crucial element – that we can deal with the cognitive load of change without it throwing us off balance. They’re a bedrock or foundation that allow our brain time to process the other things. Fields says these ‘anchors’ secure us and help us cope during times of stress and change. He also says that when we have these, we are then able to take risks. They give us some control over the uncontrollable. They build structure and build practices that allow us to cope in constantly changing circumstances.

Now for anxious dogs, we know that predictability and certainty help them cope. Routine, ritual and predictable patterns help them cope with the uncertainty of everyday life. They free up brain bandwidth.

Chirag Patel’s latest Domesticated Manners presentation makes good use of those anchors… the items in a dog’s life like bowls or blankets. I highly recommend everyone watches the whole video. If you’re just a beginner, it’s easy to follow, but for those of us who like the subtleties, there’s so much going on underneath the hood there that I watched that at least twice too.

Now a lot of these things are about props. Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games are about routines. For dogs who are anxious, I’d argue that both of these things are essential. But I think there is one more element.

Ourselves.

More precisely, our relationship and interactions with our dogs.

Now most of you will know my journey with Miss Lidy, my reprobate shepherd. About four years ago, I made her a promise. I promised that I would keep her life predictable. That I would be predictable. I didn’t say I’d become her certainty anchor, because I didn’t know such words then. I didn’t say I was her safety cue for the same reason. But I wanted her to know that when she was with me, none of the scary stuff would happen. Her voice would be heard and respected. She’d no longer have to rely on her teeth. I would be her routine and her regularity. I would always be 100% reliable. Our relationship would be based on consistency and safety.

Much of her first ten months here with me has been about the small routines of an ordinary life. It’s been about restoring predictability. It’s been about creating routines that we both abide by that help us both cope when the unpredictable happens. Sometimes, unpredictable things happen, but I’d like to hope that she knows that as long as she is with me, I am her certainty anchor and that I can generate for her those feelings of safety and security. If you’re well-versed in attachment theory, no doubt you’re reading this thinking about how we can be a secure base for our dogs, and I think that is exactly what I try to provide for her.

If we have anxious dogs, creating routine, regularity and structure can help us for those times of change. They help us cope. They may well be crutches, but nobody said the only way to live is to be completely self-reliant.

So what can we do to help foster a sense of predictability and build that foundation onto which change can be built?

First is to think about our daily patterns. That means regular times and sometimes even regular walks. That means being routine and teaching dogs patterns to cope when things change. I’m heavily reliant and massively indebted to Leslie McDevitt on that score, but I also use a lot of Deb Jones’s focus games from Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for exactly the same purpose.

Second is to teach a safety cue. Work on building up an association with a mat or an item like a toy. I do a lot of freework as well with anxious dogs, and having reliable, known toys and surfaces in there can also help dogs have an environmental base to explore the novel items in the activity.

Third, and perhaps most crucially for me, is to build up your relationship so that it becomes the safety cue, the certainty anchor. I’m sure you have friends or family members who act in that role for you – 100% reliable, you know you can trust them instinctively and completely. When you have that, you realise that you’ll always have that solidity from which to explore, to experiment, to try out the new. Of course, we need to make sure we’re fostering independence too – Lidy panics if she can’t find me in the garden once she’s spent her time exploring – and that’s something I’m conscious of too. All that remains to say about that is to make sure that we have a solid range of certainty anchors, including ones from within. Some of what we can do with anxious dogs is certainly help them know how to cope on their own and find their own anchors. Sadly, when I see ritualised or compulsive behaviours, I often see dogs who are using those in order to cope. Finding pleasurable, functional and productive behaviours that help dogs cope is part and parcel of overcoming anxiety.

Anti-Anxiety Aids for Dogs

On Facebook, I’ve been running a short series on helping our anxious or fearful dogs cope with stressful events. This post brings all of those posts together in one simple, easy guide.

What prompted the posts was the opening of the hunt season in France. Sunday mornings are often a key day and different regions also operate other days during the week where different kinds of hunting are permitted. The best place to check for these if you live in France is your local ONF (Office National des Fôrets) in your department. They usually have a guide to hunt seasons.

Suffice to say this is not a pro- or anti-hunt post. The guidance in here is as useful for people with roadworks, noisy neighbours, fireworks or storms. It’s also useful for dogs who suffer when they are left alone, who have social fears, phobias or find it difficult to cope with change.

The opening of the hunt season is going to be a shock to the system for our dogs in the countryside though, especially after 6 months of calm and the first 8 weeks of lockdown, so if you also have regular days where your dog will need to cope with a lot of noise, make sure you use it as an opportunity to do something fun AND safe. It’s a great day to stay in and do some work in the garden or in the home.

If you have a dog who is struggling to cope, there are a number of things you can try. Pet Remedy and various other diffusers such as Adaptil contain things that can help your dog calm, like valerian (Pet Remedy) and dog appeasing pheromones (like Adaptil and Feliway, also, for cats). You could also try things like Zylkene, Adaptil tablets, NutraCalm, YuCalm or Anxitane. Any number of nutraceuticals and scents or pheromones might be able to help our dogs. Remember also that they might need extra Omega oils and B vitamins to help their brain function at optimal levels. It really is very individual to the dog, but some of these should help in the short term and you can seek your vet’s advice if you need anything more.

If it is very noisy, you may find things like pressure wraps and massage also help your dog cope.

Blocking some of the noise out can also help. Playing classical music or reggae has been shown to help dogs de-stress in shelter environments, but only if used temporarily, so you might want to consider putting on some Bach or some Bob Marley at a level that won’t stress your dog out. Calming and soothing words also make a difference for some dogs, so reading the latest blockbuster to them can also reduce their stress (and yours). Make sure you also play it when there’s no noises to block out – it’s not unknown for dogs to form associations between you putting on music and then loud noises starting.

Of course, our dogs pick up on our anxiety too, so if you feel like you’re contributing to your dog’s emotions, take some time today to relax a little (in amid the gunfire!) and play YOUR favourite music at a gentle level or read a book, do some yoga, try some tai chi, get some breathing techniques to help you relax.

You can also pair up the gunshots or loud sporadic noises with food or toys. Have a little time with chews, with stuffed bones, with Kongs, with snuffle mats, with pickpockets and even a pile of laundry with a handful of treats in. Make it a pleasant and soothing experience as best you can.

Even if your dog isn’t usually sensitive, this can help.

Remember too to keep your dogs secure. Fearful dogs can take flight very easily at times when there are more noises than usual, and it’s really important you keep them safe. Keep doors and windows shut and locked. If you take them out in the garden, be vigilant and supervise them actively. Keep walks to quieter times like lunchtime or dinner time and keep your dog on the lead. If there are hunts in your area, use a long lead (3m – 10m) even if you normally let your dogs run free. Even if they aren’t nervous and they just like a chase, there’s a lot of animals being displaced from their usual places of safety and they’ll be making their way into unfamiliar territory at speed. The last thing they need is your off-lead, out-of-control spaniel joining in. The risks are very high that your dog will get injured or lost, or that they may accidentally get shot.

Remember, you can’t reinforce fear, so if your dog needs attention, they can have it. If they need safety, let them choose where they feel safe. If a trainer tells you otherwise, or expects your dog to ‘just get over it’, find a better trainer. Remember also to be safe. If your dog is cowering or fearful, frozen to the spot or even shaking, be careful of touching them or grabbing them even if you are moving them to safety – it’s a quick way to a bite.

Zylkene

First, we’ll look at a very common remedy that vets in France recommend: Zylkene. This is also available for cats in France too. I know I write lots about our dogs, but don’t forget noisy, busy or stressful times can be just as traumatic for cats, and you will need to think about them too.

Zylkene is a food-based supplement manufactured by Vetoquinol, a French veterinary medicine company. Its active ingredient is Alpha casozepine. This is a peptide derived from milk protein and is believed to work with GABA in the brain. GABA is associated with hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, hyperexcitability and hypervigilance. One of the first studies carried out by French veterinary behaviourist Claude Beata in 2007 showed that, alongside behaviour modification, Zylkene was as efficient as other pharmaceuticals at reducing anxiety.

Zylkene is often given as a remedy for anxiety from situational change, from new homes to car trips, new guardians, loud noises, grooming, additions to the family, storms, vet trips and hospitalisation. Because it is a food supplement, there is a very low risk of overdose, and so studies recommend vets try Zylkene before anything else. In studies (Beata et al. 2007), it has been shown to be as efficient as prescription drugs such as Seleligine (Anipryl/Selgian) and it’s always useful to try first because if it is as effective and has fewer potential side-effects, then it’s worth a try. Remember, this study showed that behaviour modification must also be part of the plan. That means doing things specifically to change behaviour, rather than just hoping a pill will function on its own.

There is little evidence to say whether Zylkene is effective in the short term or in the long term. Where studies exist and have shown a reduction in anxiety, they have been medium- to long-term studies. You may need to think about Zylkene doses daily over at least a six to eight-week period. It may work best with dogs who have other signs of hyper-reactive behaviours in general. For instance, it works best with Flika, my ancient hyperactive old malinois, but not with Lidy, who is mostly (contrary to popular belief!) fairly laid back unless her environment changes. It’s worth having a conversation with your vet about dosage if you don’t see a change in your dog’s behaviour before moving on to prescription pharmaceuticals. Remember, you can also safely use Zylkene as part of a layered package of remedies, though you will need to check with a vet before starting.

Before you start, it is a very good idea to get an idea of your dog’s behaviour by making a chart. It can be very difficult to tell if any change is being made, and why that change is. For instance, I noted a 10 minute period, filming it and counting how many times Flika got up and lay down again, how many times she paced, and how fast. Then it was easy to see that this changed at another period when she had taken Zylkene, and then to see the effects again without. Because the change was relatively small – she barked less, panted less, paced less and moved less, but around a 15% reduction in each – it’s easy to think that it might not be working, when in fact there had been some abatement in activity.

Despite its popularity, there are actually very few studies about Zylkene, so don’t feel disheartened if it does not give you the results you were expecting. Studies have also included behaviour modification or other dietary supplements, so it’s hard to say for sure what the effect is. The studies that do exist have design flaws that make it difficult to know exactly what was making a difference, so we still have a lot to learn about this over-the-counter remedy.

References:
1. Beata, C. et al. (2007) Effects of alpha-casozepine (Zylkene) versus selegiline hydrochloride (Selgian, Anipryl) on anxiety disorders in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research, 2 (5), pp. 175-183

2. Buckley, L. A. (2017) Is Alpha-casozepine Efficacious at Reducing Anxiety in Dogs? Veterinary Evidence, 2 (3).

3. Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. eds. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.

3. Kato, M. et al. (2012) Effects of prescription diet on dealing with stressful situations and performance of anxiety-related behaviors in privately owned anxious dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7 (1), pp. 21-26

4. Palestrini, C. et al (2010) Efficacy of a diet containing caseinate hydrolysate on signs of stress in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 5 (6), pp. 309-317

Adaptil collars and diffusers

Adaptil is made by Ceva, another French company, this time based in Libourne. Their global products include many household names for veterinary treatment, including Selgian, which may also be used for some similar abnormal behaviours in dogs.

Adaptil is an over-the-counter plug-in or collar. The plug-in is useful if your dog is in one place when they are anxious or fearful, such as in the home, where a collar like Lidy’s can be more useful on the move. Remember, just like pills, dogs can’t choose to get away from the collar, so the plug-in might be your first stop. Then, if the dog finds it offensive, they can move away.

Adaptil, like its sister product Feliway for cats, is a pheromone-based product. The principle by which it works is to release artificial odours that replicate those of a mother dog. It can be a useful addition for when puppies move to their home and Ceva recommend it for puppies who are struggling to be left alone during the night, to prevent separation-related distress and also to help them cope with loud noises. It may also have a use in puppy socialisation classes. Veterinary behaviourist and researcher Daniel Mills, and his group at the University of Lincoln, have done some studies into the efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) products, as have French veterinary behaviourists Emmanuel Gaultier and Patrick Pageat. Mills et al. (2006) shows that DAP products worked to relieve distress in a veterinary clinic setting. Sheppard and Mills (2003) also showed that DAP products could be effective in helping dogs cope with fireworks. Landsberg et al. 2015) showed that DAP collars could be useful in reducing anxious and fearful behaviour during thunderstorms. Dogs were less anxious and chose to hide more rather than freezing during storms when wearing a DAP collar than when they were not. This perhaps shows that they may be better able to cope and make good choices during noisy events.

However, like Zylkene, not all studies are published, and there have been questions over the efficacy of Adaptil. Some trials have shown that DAP is as effective as prescription pharmaceuticals (Gaultier et al. 2005; Gaultier et al. 2008). Again, it’s another product to test and see whether it makes a difference. It really does seem to be very much about the individual dog.

For Lidy, it reduces her night-time pacing significantly and also her pacing during gunfire in the hunting season. It also helps her cope with storms. The best test for me is the change in her behaviour that I noticed when the collars were coming to the end of their life-span and her pacing and distress vocalisation would increase once more.

Like Zylkene, it may be that Adaptil is best in use with other products and because it is a very low risk product, it’s worth trying and layering in with other things. Adaptil also make a tablet, which is discussed below.

When talking about risk, it’s really important for people whose dogs have distress behaviours around doors or dogs who jump that you choose the plug-in rather than the collar, since dogs can easily and quickly hang themselves. This collar is of no more risk than any other collar, but it’s something to bear in mind if your dog jumps up at door handles or has a risk of catching themselves on it. Since it may be used outside the home for reducing kennelling distress, distress during veterinary visits, car journeys, separation, fireworks and gunshot, it’s worthwhile remembering that panicking dogs must be safe too.

Landsberg et al (2015) recommend arranging the environment to minimise exposure to noises, such as keeping dogs inside. Playing music would be another way to minimise noise exposure in the home as long as the dog accepts it and is not further stressed. They also highlight the role we play in our dogs’ anxieties – not that dogs’ fears, anxieties or phobias can be “reinforced” by us, but that our own behaviour impacts on the dog’s level of stress. So taking some calming breaths, reading a good book aloud, sticking on a bit of Handel and trying an Adaptil plug-in or collar might be a great combination for some dogs.

References:

Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Bougrat, L. et al (2005) Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. The Veterinary Record 156, pp. 533–538

Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Vienet-Legue, D. et al (2008) Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone in reducing stress associated with social isolation in newly adopted puppies. The Veterinary Record 163, pp. 73–80

Landsberg, G. M., Beck, A., Lopez, A. et al (2015) Dog-appeasing pheromone collars reduce sound-induced fear and anxiety in beagle dogs: a placebo-controlled study. Veterinary Record.

Mills DS, Ramos D, Gandia Estelles M et al (2006) A triple blind
placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behavior on problem dogs in the veterinary clinic. Appl Anim Behav Sci
98:114–126

Sheppard G, Mills DS (2003) Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks. Vet Rec 152:432–436

Anxitane / L-theanine

Anxitane is produced by another French company, Virbac. It’s not a particular surprise to anyone who regularly visits a French pharmacy to know that the French are ever so slightly obsessed with herbal remedies and with nutraceuticals. Parapharmacies are filled with a number of products for all manner of mental and physical complaints.

Anxitane is their only product aimed at canine behaviour, although they also make an anti-stress product for cats. The active ingredient in Anxitane is L-theanine, derived from tea. L-theanine is an amino acid and has been shown in randomised control trials in humans to reduce heart rate and symptoms of anxiety without causing drowsiness. It’s also been demonstrated to improve focus. L-theanine is also found in products like Solliquin. You’ll also see L-theanine frequently as an ingredient in blended products.

You always knew a cup of tea was the solution to all life’s woes – this just works on the same principle.

So far, studies about the efficacy of L-theanine have been small, with usually under 20 dogs. Other studies have been funded by the manufacturers themselves or behaviours have been owner-reported rather than videoed and coded externally. The role of bias and placebo effects can’t therefore be ruled out. In general, the studies on L-theanine have been less robust than those for Zylkene and for Adaptil. That is not to say it is inefficient or does not work. As we know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. One trial explored the effects of L-theanine in conjunction with behaviour therapy versus the effects of therapy alone (Michelazzi et al. 2015) and took cortisol readings during the trial. They noted a reduction in stereotypical stress behaviours and phobic behaviours. L-theanine is believed to work with GABA and glutamate at a neural level. All three – Zylkene, Adaptil and Anxitane – are manufactured products meaning their active ingredients are tested and assured, as opposed to other products which are not, and are very much more ‘hit and miss’ in terms of quality and levels of active ingredients. Like the other products, branded L-theanine has also fewer risks in overdose than other pharmalogical products, and so it is an option that many caregivers may wish to consider before trialling pharmaceuticals, in discussion with your vet.

References:

Araujo, J.A., de Rivera, C., Ethier, J.L., et al. (2010) ANXITANE tablets reduce fear of human beings in a laboratory model of anxiety-related disorders. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 5, pp.268-275.

Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R. et al. (2007) L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology 74 pp. 39-45

Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G.V., Minero, M. et al (2009) Effectiveness of L-theanine and behavioral therapy in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 5 pp. 34-35

Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G. V., Talamonti, Z. et al (2015) Efficacy of L-Theanine in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs: preliminary results. Veterinaria 29(2) 

Blended products

So far, we’ve looked at products with a single ingredient. Now, we look at blends of ingredients in over-the-counter tablets that might help out your anxious dog if they’re in need of a boost.

We start by looking at a UK product. Sadly, this isn’t available easily outside of the UK, but it’s interesting to consider the ingredients and their use. Nutracalm is a product from Nutravet. They manufacture nutraceuticals to supply as over-the-counter remedies for dogs, cats and horses.

Nutracalm contains an ingredient we looked at yesterday, L-theanine, which is the active ingredient in Anxitane. It also contains L–tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in the production of serotonin and melatonin, as well as in the way B vitamins are absorbed – essential for healthy brain function. Whilst chemists are not sure exactly how modern antidepressants work, many stop serotonin being reabsorbed and recycled in the brain, meaning there is more of it floating about helping us feel calmer and less anxious. Tryptophan is usually available through diet, and you can find specialist diets aimed at boosting serotonin in dogs.

With all changes that we make to our dogs, I would advise a degree of caution, so run any changes by your vet first, especially if your dog is on medication, if they have heart, liver or kidney problems, or if they are prone to gastrointestinal problems. What we do to our bodies is not without consequence, but many of the consequences only show up many weeks or months later.

Nutracalm also contains GABA, working on the same systems as L-theanine and alpha casozepine. GABA levels help regulate activity levels and also contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. It helps dogs in particular who are showing nervous or anxious behaviours. Benzodiazepine drugs work on GABA pathways, and so supplementing with GABA may lead to anti-anxiety effects, just without the side-effects and drowsiness associated with these prescription pharmaceuticals.

The final two active ingredients in Nutracalm are passionflower extract and B vitamins. B vitamins are essential for the function of the brain, and passionflower has a long history in herbal medicine as having a calming effect.

In theory, then, Nutracalm has something to boost dopamine and give us back an interest in life, something to boost tryptophan and serotonin, GABA which is involved in management of anxiety, and a couple of added extras in passionflower and B vitamins. Unlike Zylkene or Anxitane, which only have one active ingredient, this has five.

Other supplements such as YuCalm, manufactured by YuMove who are part of the UK-based Lintbells family, also contain their own blends. YuCalm is available in France and for those of us with dogs with arthritis, we may already be familiar with YuMove. YuCalm is also a blended product. It contains L-theanine, lemon balm and fish protein hydrolysate. Not unlike Zylkene which also contains a hydrolysate from cow’s milk, YuCalm is working in the same way. Landsberg et al (2015) demonstrated that fish protein hydrolysates had some efficacy in reducing anxious reactions in dogs. Adaptil tablets also contain a blend of GABA, L-tryptophan, L-theanine and B vitamins, not unlike NutraCalm, so you can find lots of products on the market that work with blends. Since all the blends are proprietary, there will be variations, and just because one does not work, it does not mean the others will not. Other products like CaniRelax also contain lemon balm, passionflower and eschscholtzia extract that also may have a calming effect. CaniZen contains valerian, passionflower, eschscholtzia extract, brewer’s yeast and minerals. Ananxvia and Animigo Calming Aid are two others. These last four French products contain herbal extracts, sometimes with additional minerals or vitamins, to help boost a dog’s natural emotional resilience.

You’ll find then a number of blended products on the market, containing various proprietary blends of L-tryptophan, L-theanine, GABA, passionflower, fish protein hydrolysate, lemonbalm, brewers yeast, B vitamins, valerian, essential minerals and eschscholtzia. These are less well-trialled than the products mentioned earlier, but at the same time, it would also be difficult to isolate the effects resulting from each individual product.

Still, these products have all been demonstrated in some trials, be they on humans or on other animals, to have some calming effects, and so lack of trialling shouldn’t stop you from picking up a couple to try out. NutraCalm, YuCalm and Adaptil tablets would be my starting point, perhaps even adding in one or two other products to layer them. Of course, they do start to become really expensive then, and so it’s worthwhile doing a quick check to make sure what’s making a difference. For instance, I like to try 7 days on and 7 days off, then 7 days back on again, making a note of anxious reactions during that time with a simple tally. If I can’t see much of a difference, I’ll probably try a different tack. Although it certainly won’t hurt dogs to have supplements and nutraceuticals, there’s no point giving them a very expensive cocktail of products if it’s making minimal difference to their quality of life.

References
Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.

Herbal supplements

I confess I have a healthy (?!) skepticism about herbal remedies. I know a good few millionnaires who got rich off selling diet pills, herbal remedies and CBD oil from their spare bedroom, and whose sales pages are littered with negative reviews that don’t seem to stop the money rolling in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am too knowledgeable about the profit to be made from untested, ineffective and poor-quality remedies to be able to endorse them wholeheartedly.

At the same time, I know there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in my philosophy, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Ayurvedic medicine, indigenous medicines, eastern approaches to healing and even our own “old wives’ tales” often prove to have something to them. Take willow and foxglove as two very simple examples. Aspirin and Digoxin are just two examples of how the so-called myths and ‘woo-woo’ medicine found a place in Western drugs markets.

So there’s that.

And with those two provisos out of the way, we’re going to take a quick look at some herbal remedies that might just be able to help your dog cope during stressful events. As with everything, run things by your vet first. Some products, like St John’s Wort, are contraindicated with other medications.

Gingko Biloba is the first product we’ll look at. One study, Reichling et al (2006) showed a reduction in anxiety related to geriatric conditions, activating GABA and reducing anxiety in generalised anxiety disorders.

St John’s Wort has a long history of use with mild depression and anxiety, and this is also a herbal supplement you might wish to try if your dog is otherwise generally depressed or not enjoying life very much. If you’ve noticed dips in your dog’s curiosity or interest, their engagement in the world, St John’s Wort is believed to function in similar ways to modern antidepressant drugs. In fact, sometimes St John’s Wort is contraindicated in use with such products, so definitely one to run by your vet before trialling (Sarris et al. 2009)

Valerian is another herbal remedy that may also reduce the effects of stress. It’s one I trialled with Heston here when it was clear his epilepsy was linked to stress. As with all herbal remedies, it is worth doing a really thorough investigation of behaviours over a period, withdrawing the treatment and then doing the same analysis before reinstating it. That way, you can measure the effects of any herbal remedies on behaviour in a slightly more rigorous way than just a general impression.

Products such as Pet Remedy have been put through some small clinical trials and include extracts of valerian among other herbal extracts. Now Pet Remedy is one I keep on board for personal use, and I use both the spray (on myself) and the diffuser. Lidy is certainly much more relaxed during stressful events when the Pet Remedy diffuser is plugged in.

I also use it as a kind of talisman scent, by which I mean that I use it to anchor anxious dogs, by pairing it up with calm times over a period of weeks, and then gradually transferring the scent to more challenging or difficult events. I was thinking this morning of how much the various perfumes and aftershaves of my paternal grandparents was a smell that could calm me, how the smell of coconut suncream immediately relaxes me and how the smell of ripe damsons transports me right back to a place in my childhood on my maternal family’s smallholding. Smell is such a powerful, powerful tool to evoke feelings that if we use it right and we pair it up carefully, over a long period of time, it is bound to be much more salient to dogs with their supersized olfactory bulbs. I know we need to use it carefully because essential oils are a bit of a punch in the nose for dogs, and I know myself that too strong odours can be really headache-inducing, but if supermarkets can make us buy more by wafting the smell of bread, and estate agents can sell more houses by roasting coffee beans in the kitchen during viewings, then I don’t think we should overlook this very powerful tool with our dogs. Ultimately, as long as we offer our dogs the choice when using odour, and we know they can move away if they want, then it’s definitely worth a trial. It’s much less invasive or intrusive to start with smell than it is to start with giving the dog something to ingest, and so these can be the gentlest approaches. But just because they’re gentle doesn’t mean they’re not effective. If you know a smell that can transport you instantly into calmness and a feeling of safety, then you know just how powerful this might be with dogs whose sense of smell is so much better than ours.

References:

Reichling, J., Frater-Schröder, M., Herzog, K. et al (2006) Reduction of behavioral disturbances in elderly dogs supplemented with astandardized Ginkgo leaf extract. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd 148(5) pp.257–263

Sarris, J. and Kavanagh, D.J. (2009) Kava and St. John’s Wort: current evidence for use in mood and anxiety disorders. J Altern Complement Med 15(8) pp. 827–836

joggers and dogs

** and walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders and people on scooters too

The universe conspires, sometimes, to put themes into my head. A message from a friend of a friend asking about jogging, writing up a case study about territorial aggression and an accidental encounter with a jogger kind of all came together.

We risen apes, we humans, we hairless bipeds, we monkeys, we’re different than dogs. There’s a surprise. Our nearest living relatives are chimpanzees and bonobos, and up until around 13000 years ago, we lived in similar sized social groups to our genetic cousins. Mostly, that was about small social groups of up to 20 people who lived together, stayed together and occasionally split up for foraging or reproduction, then to come back together again.

Madness. 13000 years ago and that was our mode of living.

But then we changed. Our human brains had already been evolving. Part of that evolution meant handling bigger groups of up to 130 or so. We started to form clans. Mostly we’d live apart, but we’d come back together for special occasions. That meant greeting people you mostly already knew. You were kin. Your old Aunt Edna had married some bloke from the village over the big hill and you might only see her 4 times a year at special events. But you knew her. And you knew that bloke too.

Even when we moved into autonomous villages with bigger populations – and bearing in mind most of the world’s population weren’t doing that even 7500 years ago – you still knew most people. Friends of friends. Relations of Relations. If you were born in the UK or Ireland even 2500 years ago, you probably still lived a life in a village where you knew everyone.

Bring on the change to city states and nations, great cities of Ur and Jericho and Nineveh, and you’ve not a chance. You have to handle living with people you don’t know. Lots of them. And that’s so hard we needed to invent laws and religions and consciences and social codes and all sorts just to be able to handle how hard it is to live with loads of people you’re not related to.

And at that point, we moved out of mammal territory, right into the Anthropocene – the Age of Man. We leave our mammal relatives and codes behind and within a geological blink of an eye, we forget a lot of what we once knew until we’re really fighting for our lives.

With all our social codes, we forgot how hard it is to split up (fission) from the group and to come together (fusion). Most mammalian species do not do this. Not repeatedly and definitely not with big numbers. Another thing happened too. With farmers doing all the agricultural work and the rich keeping hunting for themselves, we forgot what it felt like to be a predator. We forgot how easily the world around us spooks. We grew up around cats and dogs and goats and sheep and we forgot that it is not normal for the lamb to lie down with the lion.

We forgot.

7500 years and we forgot what it feels like to be a predator.

We forgot how delicately you need to move towards things in order to catch them. We forgot how to sneak, to hide, to move slowly, to pounce. We forgot what happens when you take your idiot Uncle Kevin (married to Aunt Edna over the hill) out on a group hunt, he sometimes charges at a deer and spooks it and the game is over. No supper for you, thanks Uncle Kevin. Clumsy oaf.

We also forgot how every single thing outside our direct social group is a threat. We forgot how it is to be suspicious of everyone but the 20 people you know. We forgot how it feels when someone of your own species runs at you.

We’re unlike every other mammalian species in that respect and we forgot how it all operates out there in the big wide world.

The San bush people in Africa classify the animal world in three ways: edible, threat and non-edible/harmless. I like to think animals might classify other animals in the same way. Can I eat you? Will you kill me? Do you taste bad and you’re no threat to me? Are you prey / predator / other? I wonder if dogs work in the same way? Can I eat you? Will you kill me? Or are you nothing of interest?

Well, we remember when we’re around other species under pressure that they think of us as predators. We don’t expect to walk into the rainforest and be greeted by gorillas saying, “Welcome! Snacks at 5. Drinks on the terrace before supper!” We don’t expect to run through fields and blithely expect all the sheep to continue merrily eating their way across.

Run at a bull and you’d be the least surprised person at the planet if the bull dipped his head, lowered his horns and ran at you like the pure-blooded predator you are. THEN, you’ll remember your 4 million years of hominid existence, that innate knowledge will awaken from the depths of your subconscious mind, and remember that, outside your own species, pretty much everything else on this planet thinks of you as a threat.

There is not a walker or a jogger alive who doesn’t know how a bull might feel if we ran at it. Just because you’re a prey species doesn’t mean you don’t fight back. And just because you’re a predator doesn’t mean other predators don’t scare you. Don’t make me remind you of how we feel as a species about sharks and man-killing tigers.

So we know that we can’t run at bulls, lions, tigers, leopards, rams, billygoats, gorillas, bears, wolves and chimpanzees, pigeons, wasps’ nests or even angry swans. We know this stuff. We spend all our time fretting about being eaten by sharks instead of bitten by mosquitoes – one of which is thousands of times more likely to cause us serious injury or kill us. We know if we run through Trafalgar Square, we’ll set the pigeons flying. We don’t expect animals to say, “Yeah, bud? Nice run? How’s your heart rate”

Yet we come to dogs (and also cats I think) and expect them to play by human rules when they are an animal. An animal who lives with us, sure, but an animal who is 100% animal and hasn’t forgot that stuff running at you probably means to kill you. It’s sitting there in their primeval memory waiting to pop out when you startle them. It even comes back to you too when a dog charges at you. Suddenly, your primitive old ape brain says “Run!” and you do. Exactly the same for dogs. Except we are so very, very human-centred that even though that dog might startle and scare US, we can’t possibly comprehend that we just might have done the same to them. Talk about a need for empathy….

Dogs ARE different than bulls in that they are much more used to our human ways, interlopers as they are between the animal world and the human one. Many dogs will blithely accept your sweatpants and your yoga pants, your neon trainers and your waterbottle obsession.

What about the times they don’t? Part of it comes down to poor socialisation and lack of exposure. For dogs who aren’t taught that people do insane things like cycling, jogging and walking with weapons (aka walking poles) then they just haven’t learned that people might do such crazy things. Then, woe betide both of you if you startle them the first time they learn about such things. My dog Heston is like that. We have literally seen three joggers in a year. People just don’t run at us. Normally we see no joggers in a year, but lockdown put paid to that.

Some of it, even with very well socialised dogs who are used to jogging, scooters, cyclists and pram pushers, is about the startle response.

The startle response is that primitive mechanism that takes over when predators run at us, too, or scary big edible things that could kill us, like bulls. We still have one. So do dogs. Don’t tell me, if you are a jogger or a cyclist, or even a walker that you have never come up behind someone and given them a bit of a shock. Unless you are very bad at jogging and you pant like you’re in the process of dying, you’ve probably made at least one person jump, right?

The startle response is heavily implicated in fear learning, which is the best and most successful learning of all. Take that, Hamlet. It wasn’t your fault I couldn’t memorise more of you for my A levels and that practically all of you has vacated my head (or at least all the neural pathways have died). It was just because I wasn’t afraid. The tiny amygdala takes over with fear learning sending very loud and immediate messages to the hypothalamus which controls all sorts of things, but most importantly the fight-or-flight response. Nothing controls the hypothalamus like the amygdala. The amygdala says “run!” and the hypothalamus doesn’t even ask how fast. It just says, “Yes, Chief!”

So there’s that.

Whilst the lovely, rational, sensible, evolved (and very small) neocortex of a dog is explaining that it’s nothing to be afraid of and humans don’t mean to kill them, the amygdala has already tripped the fight-or-flight response.

Fear learning has been so crucial to mammalian existence these last 50 million years that our lovely brains have made it the best learning of all learning. It’s why PTSD is so bloody hard to overcome and why scary experiences are so much more powerful than everything else. Like I’m here desperately trying to remember facts for an assessment and my brain is going, “Do you remember that time when that tramp ran out of the barn at you all?”

When fear has been involved in learning (and we’ve survived – fairly crucial) then we are sensitised to the same stuff happening again.

That’s often what happens with dogs. Especially youngish dogs who had never experienced a jogger before. The first one might have startled you and frightened you, and then you spend the rest of your walks for the next year thinking a jogger might leap out at you.

And you joggers with your lovely silent shoes and your headphones and your lycra that makes no sound and your efficient breathing and your bloody great speediness… if you haven’t made at least one person jump that you’ve run up behind, you’re probably just not trying hard enough.

So when a startle response is involved, then it’s very likely the next time a dog hears someone come running up behind him, he’ll go straight into angry defensive behaviour. And if it happens often enough, they’ll start listening out for you. This is especially likely if the dog is on a lead or the dog is on their territory or the dog is near their human. All three take that flight-or-fight response and rule out the ‘flight’ bit. Whether territorial behaviour or the lead or even the emotional bond they have with their guardian, it’s strong enough to make ‘fight’ the only option.

The problem is the whole “running towards”. Just as we can’t understand (and I count my former marathon-running self in here) that dogs might be as startled as we are, and afraid, we also can’t understand that we might actually slow down. It’s like it doesn’t cross our tiny minds to slow down any. In fact, if anything, we speed up to get past quicker.

Because that helps as much as pouring oil on flames.

Whether you sneak up from behind, or you come barreling in head first, you’re still an apex predator running at something much smaller than you who doesn’t have the faintest idea that you’re just trying to lose a few pounds before Christmas. Chimpanzees, and let me be clear on this, do not go running unless, you guessed it, they’re after something. Wolves might track and pace, but you see them running directly at you and you’re probably a deer that needs to think about bolting right about now.

So first let’s have a little empathy and understanding for the species around us that haven’t yet got their head around the whole recreational aspect of human behaviour. Understanding why dogs sometimes react badly to people running or moving, especially towards them, is to begin to understand why you might get into trouble.

Second, know how to deal with it when you do.

I’m going to get absolutely serious for a moment. If you continue to run at a dog who is already alarmed, do not be astonished if you get bitten. If you walk too close with sticks and weapons and you just keep approaching, with a smarmy, self-righteous “right of way” thought in your head, you’re very likely to get bitten at some point. Just as you’d be likely to get head-butted by a goat or gored by a bull.

And yet you still do it.

Yesterday, I saw a guy running straight down the road at us. I’m going to stop saying ‘towards’ as that’s a very human word. I knew he was jogging. He was wearing lycra. Clue number 1.

This is what a dog might see…

Yep. You are Pennywise the Clown just running right as us.

Now I try to be a good citizen and I know dogs and joggers. I try to get out of the way, but that means literally stepping into a cornfield and not as much distance as I’d like. Joggers and cyclists are often moving so fast that they don’t give dog time to get out of the way.

Does the guy slow down? No. Does he move over in the slightest? No.

Now he’s a nice guy and he’s a neighbour who obviously thinks jogging is a good way to pass a Saturday. So be it. But I’m the one trying to manage animals and I’m the one changing MY behaviour.

So I say this with kindness, but I’m serious. Change your behaviour and stop selfishly fixating on your run or on keeping up your pace. So you slow to a walk for five minutes – or, heaven forbid, you jog on the spot a little. It won’t kill you.

Instead of sticking to your guns and thinking about you and your run, shift your thinking just a little and it’ll be easier for everyone.

That said, I do understand what it is like to run through a dog’s territory, to run past people with dogs on leads and how scary it can be if you feel like you’re not safe.

So now I’m going to give you some tips as to what you can do, what you could do and what you might do in three different situations if you feel a dog might attack you if you are running or walking. These three situations include off-leash dogs who are running at you and look like they might attack, dogs on home turf whether they are fenced in or not, and moving past people who have got their dogs on a lead.

First. Dogs on leads.

Dogs on leads have nowhere to go. They are literally attached to someone who often doesn’t even realise that their dog can’t cope. Not every guardian will take their dog into a maize field so you don’t have to slow down. Dogs on leads can’t run away and so out of fight or flight, that dog has one option as you approach. Slowing down might take the threat off, but even walking towards an alarmed dog risks a bite, so the best thing to do is find somewhere to screen yourself from them and wait for them to pass. Stop by a tree and do some jogging on the spot. Take it as a moment to pop onto the other side of a parked car and do some burpees or full bastards if you don’t want your heart rate to drop. Don’t do those, of course, if you haven’t seen a doctor recently or if the people and dogs are passing at that moment. Burpees are WAY more alarming than joggers. The main thing is not to continue on that trajectory directly towards them if the dog is already barking and alarmed. Change your route temporarily. Take five minutes to do some on the spot. As soon as you are out of sight, the dog will relax.

This excellent guide from Dr Kendal Shepherd gives you signs to watch for. If you see a dog slow down or stiffen, good chance it will escalate if you keep running towards them. If they’re barking or growling and you keep going, then snapping, snarling or lunging will likely be next. Don’t think that once you’re past, you’re safe. Plenty of joggers get nipped on their backside and plenty of cyclists find their bikes get bitten on the rear tyre.

Under no circumstance run within the distance of the lead and the owner’s arm and the dog’s mouth. If the lead is 2m and the owner’s arm is 1m and the dog’s head is 25cm, then know you need to be at least 4m away at all times, and probably more since they could lunge. If you absolutely have to run past (and really, do you?) a dog who is already standing like an enraged Cujo, make as much space as you possibly can.

It is absolutely possible for you NOT to continue your jog for 2 minutes. It is absolutely possible for you to let them pass.

Want more? Don’t eyeball the dog (you wouldn’t eyeball a bull… tell me you wouldn’t eyeball a bull!) keep your gaze averted, body at 45° from the dog, be slow and still and wait until they’re at least 10m past you until you move again.

And once you’ve passed, say thanks. That dog owner standing in a ditch with two big German shepherds has put a lot of work into getting them like that. They’re also stopping so you can pass. It’s just rude to keep going as if you don’t even give a stuff. Yesterday, my neighbour was very chatty and decided to stop 5m on the other side and jog on the spot. Don’t do that either. A simple thank you and a smile from both sides would be just lovely. Remember that 13000 years we’ve just had as a species? It was engaged in learning this.

Second scenario. Dogs in yards that aren’t attached or may come over a fence to get you… don’t think that you’ll be able to run up to them and just run past. You are literally threatening their territory. You don’t stop being a threat just because the dog is behind you.

Beautifully trained attack dog here, but ALL dogs can do this and if you carry on running, your motion sets off all kinds of other primitive hardwired patterns. If you’re running up to what a dog considers his territory, you don’t get to have property law discussions about where the boundaries are. Like it or not, we bred dogs to be territorial because our ancestors thought that would be kind of cool some 5000 years ago. We purpose-bred some dogs for that exact behaviour. If you lock your house to guard it from intruders and would take offence at people traipsing through your garden, please don’t judge a dog for guarding his home from intruders.

If you really feel that the dog is escalating in behaviour, slow down and back off. Don’t turn your back on the dog, but know that the dog is unlikely to come off his or her terrain if you’re no longer advancing. I know one or two dogs who might come over property lines but most dogs will make very big and noisy displays if you are coming towards their property (the same if you run at them) and they just want you to stop. When you do, then they don’t need to keep doing it any more. Territorial behaviour is about a threat to their territory, and once you stop being a threat, then the behaviour subsides. If that means you have to get your phone out and choose another route, so be it. It may save you from a very nasty situation.

By and large, the situations I deal with where dogs have bitten or tried to bite joggers, walkers or cyclists have been because you’re near their territory or they’re on the lead and the human attached to the other end didn’t read the situation well enough to keep you and their dog safe. Or you got much closer than they could have anticipated and can’t manage their dog. Some – very rare – dogs are also protective of their guardians and might issue a silent bite as you pass. The situations you should be most able to cope with as a jogger are dogs on leads, dogs not secured in gardens and dogs who are with guardians. But you may still be worried about loose dogs running at you if you are running. Round here, it’s kind of rare, but go 300 miles further south and you may find the formidable Chien de Montagnes des Pyrénées or Pyrenean Mountain Dog also known as the Patou. These dogs who look like polar bears got busy with golden retrievers are there to protect the flock from wolves, bears and men. You’ll often see signs that they are working, and information about dealing with them.

What is says is essentially this:

* Do a U-turn or make a very wide arc. The same is true with a loose dog who doesn’t seem to have a human attached.

* Don’t scream, shout, flap about or panic.

* Don’t wave a stick at the dog or a walking pole – it’s an act of aggression.

* Likewise with throwing things.

* If you run away or towards, both actions will likely incite the dog to engage with you.

* Don’t stare at the dog.

* Turn slightly away, continue slowly, staying calm and passive.

In the thousands of dogs picked up by our pound every year, all loose, the only time they bite is if they are approached and someone is trying to restrain them. That also doesn’t happen very often. Loose dogs, off territory, without owners, in full daylight (don’t jog in the dark like I used to – that’s just silly) are not likely to be that bothered by you if you don’t bother them. Slow down, turn away, stop running and arc away from the dog if you absolutely have to pass them.

Sadly in my work with dogs, I do know dogs who’ve bitten both joggers and cyclists. It’s usually that rare combination of circumstance: the owner was coming out of the house with the dog and the jogger was just there… the owner came round a corner and found themselves face-to-face with a cyclist. Sometimes, it’s stupidity on behalf of naive owners who get a rude wake-up call because their dog isn’t as capable as they think they are. Other times, it’s because joggers have determinedly tried to run too close to dogs. One jogger I know got bitten because he ran through a group of people walking their dogs on a social activity. I don’t do victim blaming but I struggle to think of many dogs that I’d 100% trust to have a stranger run less than a metre from them.

You may think about carrying deterrents like airhorns or pepper spray, a spare lead or whatever, but I’d advise you not to. If you’re thinking like this, you’re thinking of running too close to dogs still when really you should be aiming to understand that it’s your behaviour that’s triggering the dog and that small changes for a few minutes will reduce your risk to zero in most cases. This is not to say that you’re giving in to dogs who should have been better socialised or should have had better breeders or whose owners are idiots for thinking a walk around joggers and cyclists is something their dog can cope with. See the dog as an angry bull and you’re probably going to find it a lot easier to remember what to do.

Hopefully that helps. It’s not to say joggers are demons or that dogs are bad, just that life is what it is and we all need to live harmoniously. I’m a big fan of both joggers and dogs. But I know how scared you both are of each other.

And if you’re a dog guardian reading this and you know your dog can’t cope with moving people or machines, get in touch with a qualified trainer.

Improving your desensitisation and counterconditioning

In the last few posts, I’ve been taking you through some of the training methods I use most with clients: desensitisation and counterconditioning in particular. Where there are emotional undercurrents behind the behaviour, if you don’t address them, your very best training programme in the world will fail. This is why these two skills underpin everything I do.

These two techniques – especially together – are particularly useful for dogs who are excited, fearful or aggressive. If you’ve got a chaser, a worrier or a warrior, you can no doubt put gradual desensitisation to work and add a little counterconditioning where appropriate to give things a boost.

But there are ways you can sharpen your planning and make sure your dog stays in that cool learning zone without flooding them. When you have this final piece of the puzzle down and it’s really tight, you are set up for success.

Today, we’re all about stimulus gradients!

Fancy ridiculous psychology term for a super-useful concept that will help you with your desensitisation and counterconditioning programmes.

Stimulus just means any kind of environmental thing that sets your dog off, whatever that may be.

A trigger, if you will. A cue. A thing in the world that says, “Hey, you there! Feel this amazing feeling now!”

Kind of like me when I hear the sound of an ice-cream van or the smell of sun-cream, and I feel all wonderful and summery. Or like when I feel the solemn cool air of a church or old building and I get all serious and contemplative. That kind of stuff. Chanel Number 5 making me ache to give my grandma a hug, or the smell of fresh coffee that puts me in a positive frame of mind to get on with work.

Those things are stimuli.

A gradient, then, is just a factor that determines its difficulty or easiness to cope with. For example, sun-cream makes me feel nice, but it doesn’t really compel me to do anything with that floaty-light summer feeling. If it made me so yearn for the sun that within seconds of smelling it, I booked a holiday, then that would be pretty difficult to cope with. And expensive.

It’s kind of important to understand the emotional undercurrent behind canine behaviour, but not always. That’s not what’s at stake here. I don’t really care whether the stimulus makes them feel excited, aggressive, predatory or fearful, I just care how much of it they need to be exposed to before walking them becomes like an exercise in wrestling greased pigs. I don’t even need to know what they would do if they could get to the trigger. I never know what Flika would do for instance with a field of cows, because, guess what, I never let her in a field of cows.

I mean, you know gradients, right? Those graphs from school on an incline?

Slopes, if you will.

Most people get the idea that we need to expose our dogs to stuff, and I’ve practically no client at all who has ever said to me that they haven’t already tried getting the dog used to whatever they find scary or fun or annoying.

“Tried that,” they say. “Didn’t work.”

Mostly that goes back to the fact that their dog is waaaay over threshold (see last week’s post here if you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about) or that they are exposing their dog to far too much stuff for far too long or far too close.

Or, we were just getting it and our dogs were coping-coping-coping only for us to get far too near and boom, we’ve lost the dog to the thrill of the chase or a need to protect themselves.

Those triggers usually come in four main flavours for dogs: stuff that excites me, stuff that frightens me, stuff I want to chase and stuff that annoys me. BIG crossover between stuff that frightens me and stuff that annoys me, too. I’m just going to call that category “Stuff I Hate”.

Generally speaking, for my three, I can generally divide up their triggers into Stuff I Want To Chase, Stuff That Excites Me or Stuff I Hate.

When we think about our dogs, we can think about stuff they can see that triggers an emotional response to chase, like chickens, sheep and cows do. Or like joggers, scooters, bikes and cars might. We can so think about things they can hear, like planes and thunder. We can think about things they can smell – a world that is so potent for dogs and so insignificant and puny for humans that we’re seriously in danger of massively underestimating how something smells to our dogs. Smell is everything. We put visual stuff first but stuff they can smell is much more likely to signal the proximity of those triggers.

We should also include other experiences that our individual dogs find unpleasant like being trapped, being confined, being restrained or loneliness too.

Flika is a hot mess of sixteen-year-old one-eyed neurotic chaser. I’ll refrain from sharing my theories about that here, but if stuff moves, she’s got the Way of the Shepherd: control the moving stuff, s’il vous plaît. And the more anxious she gets, the more she needs to control the moving stuff around her.

Heston is way easier and truth be told, his triggers have come and gone in his life. He’s way less bothered about stuff than he was. Chasing – well, we got past a loose flock of chickens the other day without raising our pulses, but cats set him off these days, although he lived with cats and was well socialised with all my kitten fosters over the years. Hares, yes; rabbits, no. Deer, definitely yes. It’s all about the thrill of the chase across open ground for him. He reminds me that what once did not trigger behaviours may come to, and also that dogs may get used to certain things other than others. I don’t know why he’s okay with chickens and not cats – he grew up with both and I’ve had cats in his life much more recently that he never showed an inclination to chase. He’s a very empathic dog and was always very sensitive to the kittens I had here.

And he’s still not always able to cope with people who run at him. Fair enough. Scary things.

Ah, Lidy, where to start? She is nothing but a hot mess of hair triggers. The firstlings of her mind are the firstlings of her mouth, to misquote Macbeth. There’s a reason she’s here with me and not with some unsuspecting member of the public. Chasing is good. Everything from flies and lizards upwards is good to chase. And where Heston just enjoys the thrill of the chase, Lidy enjoys the thrill of the kill. So there’s that.

Then she has stuff that makes her scared. She’s on a bite-first, ask-questions-later kind of protocol. Other predators – whether they’re people or bigger dogs – scare the bejesus out of her, but she’ll fight to the death if necessary.

She’s not a fan of storms, but she habituated to gunshots and road noises and people outside the gate. She’s also less sensitive to loneliness and time alone too.

So when you’re thinking of what sets your reactive dog off, think multisensory, and start with smell. Then sounds. Then sights. Think about experiences and feelings too. Don’t get too trapped by thinking of what once triggered your dog’s emotional responses as those things may have changed.

If you like, you can categorise it as “stuff to chase” and “stuff I hate” but sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.

A stimulus gradient is the most essential part of a desensitisation programme where you’re gradually exposing your dog to those things that trigger an emotional reaction. You’re absolutely aiming to start at a point where your dog notices the thing, but where you can still get their attention. That magical threshold. But it’s not hard…. well, depending on the sense they’re using. Nose down, tail up is definitely a smell worth investigating. But this…

… generally means “I’ve spotted it.” It also means “I’m fine with it at that distance.”

Tongue out, mouth open, body still means “I’m not going to do anything about it just yet.”

Do I need to be bothered? Not quite yet. Mouth closed, eyes focused and Heston and Lidy are in “deciding” mode.

This is the point I want to work at. Deciding phase. Thinking is still happening but give it a second, should said thing come any closer, I might not be able to get their attention any more.

Useful if you’ve got a dog who thinks with their mouth closed. Tilly usually had her mouth closed, which was not helpful at all. She had a little ear twitch and eyebrow crinkle. That was her deciding face. Know your dog’s deciding face and you’ll get to know how near is acceptable. The fewer the body parts involved in “deciding”, generally speaking the better I find it. When the whole body is involved and you’ve got a lot of energy involved in keeping them away from the trigger, then you’ve got a problem, Houston. The first thing to do though is understand your dog’s body language and make sure you’re not working too far over threshold.

Trainers usually work in two main ways around triggers: using distance and using duration. They increase the distance your dog is at related to the trigger, and then gradually decrease it. Or they start with very small amounts and then gradually increase.

But it can be so much more subtle than that, and for my mind, the more we’re aware of those subtleties, the less likely we are to write these two processes off as inefficient.

Of course we understand the basics. We understand that you need to start with the smallest amount of the thing (and yes, that includes scent).

We know that dogs don’t generalise well and we need to teach them to do what we ask of them in more and more challenging circumstances. Like if I do one lesson of loose leash walking, I’m not expecting my dog to get it straight away. Or to be able to do it in the middle of a Venetian carnival. Start small and easy, work up through multiple trials to the big stuff. We know this.

We know how to do it. Start with the smallest dose possible for your dog that the dog notices but is not showing whole body emotional responses to (like nose to tail kind of reactions). Keep under that threshold. And gradually move up that difficulty/exposure gradient without too steep an increase. That’s basically it. It’s not complex. Slow and steady wins the day.

You can see that in this link here. I massively encourage you to watch this marvellous video not least because it wasn’t an option to work under threshold with the dog, although I would say the dog isn’t massively lost in an emotional whirlwind there. Worthwhile reading the description in the post too. Really useful.

Here, the guy is working closer and closer at proximity.

You can also add another gradient: duration. That means you’re gradually exposing your dog to longer and longer periods where they can see or smell or hear their triggers.

A stimulus gradient is not just about working from low doses to high doses. There are so many ways you can alter the difficulty of the trigger. I’m going to run with my Keira Knightley example to explain. And then Miss Flika with her car chasing.

  1. Frequency and Rate. How often do I see the po-faced one, especially in a given period? Maybe I’d cope with once in a month, but five times a day would be too much. Fifty times in an hour would be intolerable. We can decrease the frequency or rate our dogs see their triggers for if that makes it easier. For instance, if I’m working with cars for Flika, I may only do one or two views in a day. And then I can build up to seeing lots of cars. One or two on a walk would be fine. Fifteen and I think she’d meet her limit. A steady stream and I might as well give up and go home.
  2. Duration. How long am I exposed to Keira? I could perhaps cope with an accidental flash of her in a Chanel printed advert if someone turns the page really quickly, but 2 hours of Anna Karenina and I’d be a gibbering wreck. And a weekend movie festival of all her most Serious Acting? Waaay beyond my skills right now. This works for dogs too – how long is a dog is exposed to things for. So you can start at the easy side of the scale. Flika can cope with short bursts of cars that come and go, but asking her to cope with really long arrivals and really long departures is just too much. When I started working with Lidy on people, the people were in view for literally a second. Then two. Then four. Then eight. When you take something the dog would like to chase, you work around that thing for a really short time at first, like the time a hare shot across the path. It was so fast, Heston was all “Was it?”. Bit different than twenty wild boar running up a 400m pathway in view for at least four minutes. A millisecond is low down on that sliding scale. You just build up to more challenging durations. But don’t push it, I will say. Coping with people for an hour when you’re not a people-friendly kind of a dog runs the risk of trigger stacking and pushing dogs over the edge.
  3. Interresponse time. How long between the Keiras? Back-to-back Keira-thon? Not in my lifetime. Sometimes having longer periods between seeing our triggers can give us time to get over them. Say for instance I’m on a walk with Flika and we see a car, then we have 60 minutes without one, that’s easier to cope with for her than seeing two cars with a minute break. If you know about trigger stacking, then you understand why that break is useful from a neurotransmitter and hormonal point of view, but it’s another gradient I can mess with. Building up to a minute between cars might be something we’re working on if brief intervals between occurrences are the problem. Like Heston. He tends to cope with a steady stream of neighbourhood noises, but when the gap between them is too small, he’s not truly finished coping with the last one yet.
  4. Response latency. How long between seeing Keira, assuming she stays at a steady distance and level of wooden-faced acting before I’m gritting my teeth and itching for the remote? How long between seeing the car, steady in the distance, and Flika starting to pull on the lead? This is another gradient I can work on – creating longer and longer gaps between seeing, smelling or hearing a trigger and then acting on it.
  5. Magnitude. How much po-faced Keira can I cope with? I can cope with less intense acting from Ms K, such as Bend it Like Beckham but the more she dials up the Acting and Serious Face, the less I can cope with it. The same for dogs. Lidy is really, really impossible with cats. Desensitising her to the smell of them is a start. Visuals are too much. I might have had to do this with Keira if the smell of her Chanel set me off before I’d even seen her. Work with scent if you need to. So I’ve got a slept-on set of cat blankets for Lidy. I can alter the intensity by: using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for a minute > using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for ten minutes > using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for an hour > using blankets that have touched the cat for a single stroke > using blankets that have been slept on briefly > using blankets that have been slept on for longer > using blankets that have been slept on repeatedly.

    I can also alter the intensity of a smell by leaving blankets longer before using them. I’ve some I’ve left out for a week. Others are fresh from the cat.

    You can use intensity to start at lesser intensities with sounds (like starting on a programme for thunder or fireworks) and with smells, like the example above, and also with visual triggers too. It’s not so easy to find a hare who is willing to sleep on a blanket for 10 minutes just to desensitise a dog, and some of the synthetic prey scents that are used in the gundog world are too synthetic for Heston for example. The synthetic hare smells were not interesting to him. But you may also find dogs who need the real life sounds rather than synthetic ones on a laptop or phone (or ones created by humans compared to real sounds). For instance, Heston knows the difference between manufactured sounds of dogs barking and real dogs barking for real on my laptop. Only your dog will be able to tell you.

    Making the intensity of the sight, sound or scent less is a very easy way to start at the lowest point of the gradient.
  6. Proximity. How close am I to Ms Knightley? I might be able to stomach being 500m away in a drive-in movie, but unable to cope with sitting on the front row at the National whilst she plays Portia. We use this all the time in training programmes. How far are you away from the scary/exciting thing? Distance is your friend. I’ve written about this at length here, so I’m not going to labour the point, but I always start with the baseline that my sixteen-year-old one-eyed girl can see a car 350m away and for some dogs, working at a proximity of 750m – 900m may be necessary at first. Most humans understand gradual exposure to scary/exciting stuff really well. What we don’t understand is the distance we might need to work at to start with. I find a lot of my clients have already started these kind of things and instinctively know “ok, my dog is fine at this distance, but as soon as we get here, they snap!”. It’s about understanding the nuances of those earlier signs in many cases and also about working further back. Most of my clients’ dogs are okay up to about 20 – 50m but some need to work further back if the other stimulus gradients are at the steep end. That’s to say if they’re too intense, if they’re too fast or slow to approach and disappear, if they’re too frequent, if the rate is too high etc.
  7. The topography of the trigger. How’s it moving? For Keira, if I see her suck her cheeks in and gawp, that sets my teeth on edge. I can feel my buttocks clench and my fists curl. The more she looks like Munch’s The Scream, the worse it is. So smiling is easier than pouting. That’s true of dogs too. Lidy can cope with dogs who ignore her. Can’t cope at all with dogs who posture – you know, who stand there looking all hard eyeballing her. So if dogs are eyeballing her, I want to make sure the other gradients are really mild – the dog is really far away, that it’s a really brief exposure. I saw this in the vet yesterday with Flika and a very statuesque streetie from Guadaloupe. Every time Flika looked at the dog, the dog growled. When we can see that slow behaviours or inoffensive behaviours are acceptable but fast or more challenging behaviours like hard postures or direct stares are an issue, then we can mess with that gradient too. Lidy copes with squatting humans. If you’re low, you’re okay. Stand up and WHAT the absolute Devil are you Doing?!! I think I’ve had at least twenty dogs on my books who couldn’t stand people looking at them. So work with that. Not looking at all > slight look vaguely towards > more direct looking > head turned towards, eyes shut > head turned towards, eyes lowered… You get the picture. Build up to the body language that your dog finds a challenge. Like a lot of dogs are okay with cats until those beggars move. So you want to start with still cats and then slow moving cats and then … (and always, always put the cat first – if it’s not okay for the cat, it’s not acceptable to use them as a training trigger).
  8. Locus. Where am I most likely to react to Ms Keira? If it’s easier to cope with her in the home than in a movie cinema, start there. Similarly, dogs can be very sensitive to do with place – they know when you’re turning up the road to the vet. So start far away from where you normally see the behaviour and get gradually closer to the scene of the crime.

So when you’re thinking of your dog’s problems, those triggers (or even your own!) it’s often easy to think about what sets it off. It’s not just about distance or duration.

If we’re just thinking about how near stuff is to us or how long we’re asking dogs to cope with it, we might be missing a trick.

Imagine fireworks, for instance. Sure, I can get far away and I can try with firework sounds on tape for very short periods. But I could also try having fewer fireworks on the tape at first, and building up to more in the same timespan, having progressively shorter gaps between the fireworks on the tape, having less loud fireworks on the tapes and building up to the screamers, or considering what specific type of firework sets my dog off. Thinking about subtleties of stimulus and planning a careful and gradual gradient

In the final post in this series, I’ll talk you through how all these posts fit together to give you everything you need to help your dog problems – be it pulling on the lead, reacting to the doorbell or barking at construction workers outside your dog.

Threshold

I’ve got a confession to make. I talk about threshold all the time. I can’t think of a training session I’ve done where I’ve not talked about threshold in the last four years. And yet, I know I talk about it as if it’s just self-evident, when I know it’s not.

When we’re working to habituate, socialise, desensitise or countercondition our dogs to various things in the environment, we’re looking for an optimal training level. A teaching zone. There’s zero learning going on if our dogs don’t even notice the things we’re supposed to be exposing them to and yet at the same time, we don’t want to tip them over the edge. Before you start reading, I also need to confess that I’m intending this to be a full primer on threshold, so get yourself comfortable or break this up into small doses. I didn’t want four or five posts all on the same topic, so it’s all in here. I make no apologies, but don’t feel you have to digest in one sitting.

It’s easiest to think of threshold on a spectrum like the one below. Green would be that state where everything is fine and you’re humming along happily through life without any stuff to bother you. You start to move to yellow when you’ve seen something that excites you or frightens you or you’ve noticed it and you’re coping with it. There comes a threshold – and that may be related to closeness or length of time you’re exposed to it – and other stuff as well that I’ll talk about next week – but at some point, we’ll start feeling uncomfortable or stressed, or on the contrary, excited and over-aroused.

So you might be freaked out by scary clowns… it’s normal. You might just about cope with seeing a tiny picture on a screen on the other side of the room… and then not be able to cope with Pennywise up close and personal. There’s a threshold at which you go from coping to not being able to cope at all.

The same is true for dogs. Imagine your dog has a thing about other dogs…

There are subtleties to the not coping at all – it’s not just all about how near or far a thing is from you, but I’ll explore those in the next post when we’re looking at those exciting things known as stimulus gradients. For now, I’m sticking with simple as this is probably the most common scenario that many of us know.

Some of our dogs may have a very low threshold. These are the hair trigger dogs like my own dog Lidy. She’s going into that red zone within microseconds. She’s not only super-sensitive to things but she’s also got a very narrow green-yellow bit.

She sees the scary thing, she is supersensitised to the scary thing and she goes right into biting. Or, at least this was her when I first met her. I’ll tell you about how we can mess with these thresholds later.

Other dogs may be sensitive to certain things. Heston is sensitive to people running towards us. He notices them quickly. But he takes a really long time to escalate through behaviours. So we start with a “I’ve seen them” and it takes a really long time for him to build up into grrrs and then a really long time for him to build up into barking.

Except this morning. He yipped at a person getting out of a car next door. We’d just left for a walk and he was already very excited already. You see, these spectrums are SO not set in stone. Trigger stacking and flashpoints play a crucial role.

But that’s what dog trainers are talking about when they talk about reactivity and thresholds and even red zones.

When you know that spectrum though – even for those exceptional moments like this morning – you can find the teaching zone.

The teaching zone is that period from noticing the stuff and then throwing out ‘loud’ behaviours like growling, barking, airsnapping and biting as well as those other fear responses such as trembling, cowering, trying to escape and so on. You’re always working sub-threshold in that ideal little ground between “Seen It – Coping “and “Woah, not so fast there Buster!”

It’s that sweet spot between noticing things (and remember, that can be scents and sounds too) and being hijacked by emotions or predictable behaviour patterns. You should always be working where a dog can be distracted and is still able to switch their big brain on rather than just getting carried along on a tidal wave of emotion.

It can be really hard to find that sweet spot and stay in it. But when you find it, for reasons I’m about to explore, you will make amazing progress. Where you will make less effective progress, especially if you want the dog to listen to you and follow cues like ‘Watch Me’ or ‘Look At That!’ as we looked at last week in the two taught behaviours every reactive dog owner should know. It’s less bad to be a bit orangey if you’re still using counterconditioning. But you may find that your dog is not even interested in food, for reasons I’m about to explain. If you’re working on desensitisation, though, ALL the exposures should be in that teaching zone. If they’re not, and especially if you have your dog on a lead or in a small enclosed space, then you run the risk of flooding them. The only thing they’re learning there is to suppress their behaviours or practising existing ones until they’re really good at them. There are a lot of dogs who’ve had a lot of practice at barking or growling.

What I wanted to do today is talk about that threshold from the bottom up. Neurons to Biting. Neurobiology to Barking. Anatomy to Escaping. Threshold means different things you see depending on who you are, but they kind of all sit together in the end. If you’re a neurologist studying action potentials, threshold means something different to you. If you’re an endocrinologist studying the threshold for activation of the sympathetic nervous system, then threshold means something different to you too.

For those little grey cells, they need a bit of stimulation to make them fire. The firing is called an action potential, and cells have a threshold at which a stimulus will make them fire.

From: Moleculardevices .com

In order to fire, our neurons in our brain need stimulation. That can be so many things, of course, but could include sensory stimulation for sure.

Lidy’s nose recognises a cat is in the neighbourhood. Her eyes confirm it with a visual. They send electrical and then chemical impulses to various parts of the brain, not least the dopaminergic system of her ventral tegmental area, the reward and learning centre of her brain that says, “Now would be a really good time to chase that cat!”

The first threshold is at a neural level. Every neuron needs a certain level of excitement to get it to send a signal to its friends. Whether that’s an electrical communication like we find in the eye, or a chemical communication like we find with things like serotonin and dopamine, neurons are pretty much sitting around doing their own thing automatically until something excites them. Psychiatrist John Ratey says it’s a bit like the staff in a department store. Just because it’s not open for business doesn’t mean all the staff aren’t working, but as soon as someone walks in, some of the staff will notice you and start to change their behaviour. I like that notion that neurons are just kind of doing stuff right up until that moment when something appears to change their normal routines.

So that’s the first threshold – the level of stimulation needed to make your neurons start firing. If you’ve not seen the excellent Hank Green explaining action potentials for the Crash Course series, you can find it here. Definitely worth a watch if you want to start understanding thresholds at a neural level.

Around 2.10, he says something that is hugely familiar to most dog trainers, and most owners of reactive dogs: “it just needs an event to trigger the action”… same for the whole animal as it is for a neuron. You’ll see also later that he talks about a threshold that action potentials need to be triggered (oh, another word dog trainers know!) and boom, a signal is sent.

As Hank Green explains, a weak stimulus (oh, more words dog trainers know!) might not set off very frequent action potentials, whereas a strong stimulus sets off intense action potentials. As dog trainers and as their guardians, what we’re doing when we’re working below threshold is working with weak stimuli that are not setting off frequent messages to the rest of the brain in a “hello, boys!” kind of a way.

Green also talks about myelin sheaths that coat the axons turning them into supereffective and efficient neural pathways: myelination we know is a process that takes place during early socialisation (only weeks for puppies) meaning that some neurons are hardwired to send action potentials down routes our dogs learned long ago. That means good socialisation and habituation is vital for puppies – a post for another time, for sure.

But neural connections – and a massive oversimplification from someone clearly an interested laywoman not a neuroscientist – work on a “Use it Or Lose it” kind of process. If you don’t use it early in life, then the brain just trims the connections and neurons die a lonely, unused death. And if you don’t keep using it, the same. However, the more you use it, especially in those critical periods as our puppies grow up, those neural pathways become superhighways insulated with myelin making those signals superefficient. The brain even pushes certain actions down into automatic behaviour. Like you don’t still have to think about Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre every time you drive the car, and all that effort you put in to learn to ride your bike gets pushed into automaticity. You just do it. That said, if you leave it 20 years between your first tentative experiences of driving, you’re probably not going to want to get in on the Le Mans 24 hour race or try to navigate Milan in rush hour. Automaticity can get rusty. If our dogs learn early enough that barking puts people off coming any closer, and it’s myelinated not long after, as well as repeated, what you’ve got there is a bunch of neurons that are not only sensitised to that particular stimulus or trigger, but also really, really efficient at doing it. But if their early learning was only superficial and they never really learned to cope, then it may not be as automatic or well learnt as you assume.

Puppyhood and early learning count very much indeed, and habits are really tough to break, especially if you learned them at an early age and you’ve had history of practising them. This is why knitting came back easily to me after a twenty year hiatus, but learning to crochet was like learning Ancient Greek because I’d never done it before. Sure, I didn’t start off knitting complex things, but gradually easing myself into it got me on to multiple thread, double pointed needles kind of stuff in no time at all. Whereas I’d never learned crochet at all. No wonder it was hard. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.

It all means that our neural pathways can become more efficient or less efficient, can give way to automatic reactions rather than thoughtful conscious actions, and can also become sensitised.

Our thresholds for brain activity change, become more sensitive or even die off. The action potential threshold might not change, but when you’ve got a bunch of neurons firing really quickly, other bits of the brain listen – especially, and this is so important, when it’s the amygdala that’s shouting it. You know, those almond-shaped bits that are in charge of fear learning. The amygdala shouts really loudly to the hippocampus, in charge of the nervous system. When you’ve got a sensitised amygdala, your threshold for reaction is much lower.

We see this all the time with our dogs, how they become more sensitive to certain events. Especially if these events happen in puppyhood, our dogs learn quickly and easily and that myelin sheath lays down insulation so that it’s even easier for the brain to send messages from one part to another.

Triggering the threshold of a dog (and a human) works, then, at a neural level.

It also works at a behavioural level. At first, signals are weaker. Like me, when my brother harasses me. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it! Stop it!! Pack it in!! STOP it!!!! STOPPPPP ITTTT!!! And then the knives come out….

There will be a threshold at which whatever irritating, annoying thing he is doing will trigger me to say “Stop it!” and the more he does it, the more sensitive I’ll get. Plus, I’ll learn that “Stop it!” doesn’t work and I need to stab him with a fork much earlier, since that’s effective.

For our reactive dogs, that’s the same. And just as some people are very tolerant of aggravation, and some are set on a hair trigger, the same is true with dogs. That threshold – the stimulation you need to set you off – will be higher or lower depending on loads of factors. And each trigger – or type of trigger – is different. I’m super tolerant of children and animals. Very, very intolerant of grown ups. I’m also bound by social conventions, just as dogs can be, and I’ll give warnings before I explode.

That’s essentially what threshold is, from the neurons upwards: the level of excitatory stimulation I need before I react. Complicated as it is, that’s why my dog Flika needs a certain volume of low-flying aircraft before she needs to bark at it, why Heston needs a certain proximity of people to the property before he needs to bark at it, and why Lidy has five hundred triggers for her super-sensitive neural networks.

Impulses – like my desire to stab my brother with a fork – can be mitigated and suppressed by punishers, like my parents hanging around. Also by social convention that says you shouldn’t stab your brother with a fork. Also by cognitive processing and rationalising that says although it would be fun to stab him with a fork for teasing me, that in actual fact, it would be a very inefficient way of getting him to stop and I’m likely to look like a crazy woman. Those things alter our thresholds too.

Dogs have things that mitigate their impulses too. Just like us, good socialisation can help us learn how to deal with grievance without stabbing people with forks. Rules and restrictions can be inculcated just as they are when we teach dogs not to bite us or that it’s not acceptable to draw blood and so on. Lack of practice can help neurons die off. Habituation and habit building create other patterns of behaviour that we learn are very effective, like telling Mum that the brother could do with some Time Out, thank you very much.

Pain also affects thresholds for reaction – you know yourself if you’re having a bad day, you’re more likely to be reactive to stuff that doesn’t normally trigger you.

Collective triggers can also push you over the edge. You know this too if you’ve been working all week and you’ve had to cope with innumerable stressors. Trigger-stacking 101.

Hunger, lack of sleep and other basic physiological needs can also make that threshold more sensitive to triggers. Basically, the whole system is set up to make us more sensitive, not less.

But essentially, those triggered action potentials are not very much of a problem for us unless they trip the autonomic nervous system.

I’m sure you remember the autonomic nervous system from high school biology. Those automatic actions our bodies just get on with, kind of like the software humming beneath the surface of your laptop or phone that just happen in the background. Virus checking and temperature monitoring and input analysis. And if something should trip that parasympathetic nervous system from rest-and-digest, feed-and-breed, then we’re into life-or-death sympathetic nervous system stuff. You know, pulses racing, digestion stops, lung capacity changes, large muscles gear up for flight or fight. This fight-or-flight response is well known (and don’t forget flirting and fidgeting for dogs too, especially if you have social dogs who may be using these behaviours to signal their discomfort). That trigger – the switch from parasympathetic to sympathetic – is what OUR threshold in dog training is all about. Not triggering emotional responses that demonstrate the dog’s sympathetic nervous system is at work.

Hank Green gives another really useful explanation of the autonomic nervous system here:

And the bit you’re really interested in NOT triggering… the sympathetic nervous system.


It’s just useful to bear in mind that when that threat system is triggered, digestion is not the primary focus. That’s a sensible reason to keep under threshold when we’re training with food. Don’t forget too that things like twisted stomachs can be linked to stress and the engaged sympathetic system – that food isn’t being digested; it’s just sitting there if your dog is even eating at all. I know a couple of dogs who’ve had stomach torsions as a result of eating big meals too close to their sympathetic nervous system having been triggered by things like grooming or vet trips. You should be alright with small pieces of highly digestible food, but even so, it’s a stark reminder of why we need to stay under threshold. As Green says, the frequent triggering of the stress response can have nasty consequences. That’s not just for people, but for dogs too. If your aim is that they get used to or habituate to stressors and triggers and stimuli – whatever name you’re sticking on them – then keeping putting them into stressful situations can cause all sorts of health complications. Cushings dogs are another type of dog who definitely don’t need the cortisol of a stress response, thank you very much. But you don’t have to be a deep-chested dog or a dog with Cushings to suffer the consequences of triggering repeated stress responses. Another reason why we need to stay in the safe zone under threshold.

If your food isn’t working and your dog is normally pretty food motivated, then you may want to work out if you’re too far over threshold or not. Clue: you probably are, and it’s not just going to hurt your ability to train your dog, who is in fight-or-flight mode, or ready to chase some small critter, but you also may run the risk of long-term health fallout. A small amount of positive stimulation is good; a prolonged or acute amount of negative stressors is incredibly bad.

For most of our dogs, we just don’t realise that they’re close to threshold. We miss the quiet signalling and the occasional behaviours. We miss the lip licks and the shoulder turns and the yawns and the eye contact. We only listen to the shouty, arsey behaviou

Here’s a video of the Baby-faced Killer, Miss Lidy La Moo, playing with Heston. Or attempting to. Let’s look at those various behaviours and discuss thresholds a little.

I usually don’t let her attempts to engage him go on this long. He doesn’t like it. I shall tell you why. Not loads of signalling, but he doesn’t reciprocate. He’s just tolerating her. There’s a couple of moments of whites of eyes and a little lip licking, a few looks to me to reassure him that I’ll step in. He stands and there are very few bodily parts involved.

The more she pushes, the more muscles and limbs are involved. At first, it’s just his ears flat back, a bit of turning away, a bit of a lip lick, a shift in body weight. Single body parts, small movements, quiet communication. Then he steps in as she moved away. More body parts, bigger movements, louder communication. Another lip lick. Some concerned whites of eyes. Not sure if her scratch is displacement or a real scratch as she had a bit of an itch at the same spot earlier off video.

Around 20 seconds, he neatly steps away. There’s some amazing and incredibly subtle communication after that. She stands, he looks at her, her tail position drops from big old rudder tail to slower, lower less offensive wagging, That little twitch of her ears before she pounces on him… so subtle. Single body parts and quiet communication. She then forces him into moving because her behaviour gets bigger, forcing him off his spot, involving all those body parts. Bigger behaviours. She triggers his threshold for movement with that little head going to his manly undercarriage (oh, that’s what makes the big black dog move, Lidy may realise!) and a behaviour has been made to happen – not unlike my little brother keeping up with low level tormenting until he gets what he really wants – the Emma Explosion. Small to big, single body parts to whole body, quiet to noisy.

This, of course, is just something fairly innocuous. I don’t let her keep pushing him because it never ends well. But recognising all those little signs are absolutely vital. Know what your dog looks like at the bottom end of the spectrum. We focus too much on the top. I can’t begin to tell you how many clients have wanted me to “see” their dog reacting. I promise you I know what barky, growly or bitey dogs look like, as well as dogs who are afraid. What I want to see is what do they look like when they’re not reacting and what behaviour marks that change that the neurons are starting to get excited and what marks the moments before your dog will have an emotional reactions. Really, in my opinion, we focus far too much on what our dogs look like when reacting and we’re not thinking about those moments when they’re figuring out whether they need to or not.

Knowing the way your dog looks when they’re in that ‘teaching zone’ – ie they know the scary/fun stuff is there but the big brain is still switched on and they’ve not tripped the fight-flight-flirt-fidget sympathetic nervous system – is essential. This photo is exactly that.

This is Heston’s teaching zone behaviour: still, head and eyes looking at the thing (in this case a departing dog and his minders). Ears alert, head following, mouth open, is vital. In that teaching zone, you’ve got a tiny teachable moment when your dog is still deciding what to do about stuff.

Here, you can see Lidy move from green zone – just scoping – to yellow. Ha-ha. Noticed you! Mouth closed. Head pointing in the direction of the stimulus. Even for my dog with the tiny, tiny teaching zone, there still IS a teaching zone. And by keeping within it, over time it has – miracle of miracles! – got bigger. She moved from yellow to biting as quickly as you or I might move if faced by Pennywise. Seen You – Bite You. Now there is a teensy tiny reflective moment between Seen You and the next bit. A tiny moment where decisions are made. Growls sometimes come out. You don’t know how glad I was to hear those teensy growls! Sometimes she does barks now. Lidy is literally learning the stuff in between green and red behaviours.

Dr Kendal Shepherd’s very useful ladder of aggression is a good tool to see those behaviours in a gradient:

Kendal Shepherd Ladder of Aggression

It can be tough for us to recognise those low level behaviours and I’m yet to be convinced that they happen in a continuum, but I think they’re absolutely bang on in terms of the seriousness of the level of stress they communicate, even if I think they don’t follow on from one another. You can see in the video those tiny microcommunications Heston gives, the lip lick, the turning away. There are loads and loads of other useful signals you can find on Silent Conversations

So with Lidy, I’m just filling in the blanks and stretching out the yellow bits, shrinking the red. It’s not easy and it’s not fast, but I didn’t adopt her thinking it would be.

Case in hand: I had to go away briefly recently and I needed to depend on a very lovely friend to look after Lidy. They’d met once for a test on site and things went swimmingly. The day I was dropping Lidy off, I took off her lead – and she went bombing over to my friend as if to do a full-on Malinois take-down. My amazing friend crouched, made nonthreatening and did a mammoth “well, Lidy! How are you?!” and defused that bomb in the time it takes a Malinois to go 10m at full pelt. You know when you see superheroes change in mid-air? My little Jekyll and Hyde girl went from Hyde to Jekyll within that 10m run. The fact that she can even change from one tactic to another at hyperspeed is testament to how far she’s come. At the same time, it’s also an example of how hair-trigger some dogs can be. But also how you can work on that. What you end up with – eventually – is a much bigger teaching zone and being able to move those red zones back to much less sensitive yellow and green zones. Said friend reminded me about PTSD last night too, and it really does make me wonder if I need to reframe Lidy’s behaviour a little. I’m glad to be able to offer you her story though as I know it’s very easy for trainers to talk the talk with their purpose-bred, carefully reared showdogs and agility dogs. I’m walking the walk, I promise. Her journey has been an education for both of us. But it makes a difference when people can send you photos of your chilled out dog having an absolute blast with someone who is not you. Learning to love humans is not easy, but she does have a good number of friends among the staff and volunteers of the refuge where she lived for 3 years.

Her world will always be a small one. She is never going to be able to cope with all of life’s triggers. Her green zone will always be small. That’s fine. Unless you are a fine and robust person yourself, you probably can’t either. Spiders, scary clowns, flying, public speaking… there’s probably something in there that does it for you. I’m a pretty robust person myself but I can’t stop myself being creeped out by ants crawling on me, by spider webs and by bats. And I love all creatures. Expecting Lidy to cope like an assistance dog bred specifically not to have that very tiny green bit of the spectrum is too much of an ask.

Despite that, a number of clients start off with the notion that they can turn their nervous Nelly or their bitey Betty into a dog who will cope with all triggers and whose threshold will never be tripped. A dog with a huge green zone. One of the most important things I can say about that is to reassess what your dog is capable of.

The other is to remember that these behaviours serve a purpose for our dogs. Sure, I don’t want Heston to bark at joggers. We’ve moved that threshold very nicely and made that teaching zone so very, very large to the point that it’s almost a non-issue.

At the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, if the jogger turns out to be a purse-snatcher and for Heston to bark and make them think twice about stealing his handbag. Or mine. Heston seems to be of the opinion most joggers might do this if you don’t keep an eye on them. But I’m happy it’s just a watchful interest rather than dressing down people breaking into a sweat some 200m away. Do I need him to be able to cope with the London Marathon? Nope. Not in this lifetime.

So let’s be kind to our dogs when we think about their triggers and their thresholds. Let’s be realistic.

Let’s also remember that engaging in desensitisation and counterconditioning should be below threshold but that you’re still asking your dog to do stuff that ultimately wouldn’t be their choice.

YOU may know that the long term goal is a net gain where feeling good is concerned, but what mostly feels good to scared dogs is stuff being far away, and what feels good to dogs who like chasing is doing exactly that.

We’re asking them to change their behaviour without them understanding that they may be able to lead a more full life that may be infinitely pleasurable. You know that. They don’t. They didn’t sign up for this, to have to you take the fun out of chasing sheep or to have to take the safety out of scary stuff being kept far away. So we need to remember to do it in the most innocuous ways we can – for their sake.

And let’s remember that we may have to compromise. I won’t take Heston to the London Marathon and he promises not to bark at the occasional jogger. I won’t expect Lidy to be a social butterfly when “Us” being Good and “Them” being Bad is part of her very dodgy DNA that her former owner did absolutely nothing to address that in her early life. And I promise that she doesn’t have to learn to cope with people who don’t really understand dogs – even if they like them. I promise nobody will hurt her. And that means accepting she needs a much smaller, safer life than I would really want for a dog. In turn, she’s learning to put trust in me that the world I offer her is a safe one. It means I need to accept that green comfort zone may always be relatively small compared to the average spaniel’s and will be minuscule compared to a super socialised labrador. And that is perfectly acceptable.

If you’re VERY interested in neurons, sympathetic nervous systems, triggers and learning, the eminent Robert Sapolsky is well worth 90 minutes of your time. I think I’m responsible for at least 100 of the watch count on this video.

Next week: stimulus gradients – what they are and how they can help you train your dog.

two skills every reactive dog owner should know

Over the last four posts, I’ve introduced you to the concepts of habituation, desensitisation and counter-conditioning. You’ve also had a proviso about flooding.

The limits of counter-conditioning are well-known. One of the limits is that you pretty much need to be doing counter-conditioning all the time to keep the pairing strong. Especially with emotionally salient stuff. You know, the things that make your dog fearful, reactive, agitated, annoyed.

Back to Ms. Knightley.

You remember me saying that if I wanted to get over my learned aversion to Keira Knightley, I’d need something good to reliably follow any sightings of the poker-faced one?

You remember me saying that the pairing needs to be reliable and proximal? That it needs to be a predictable vending machine that delivered within seconds of seeing her?

You also remember me saying that it needs to be gradual and planned? I need to start with a quick photograph of her looking her least offensive (to me)

So smiley Knightley at a level I’m comfortable with, so the full-on grrrr response isn’t prompted, building up gradually to po-faced Keira, building up to a few seconds of Bend it like Beckham before building up to a few minutes of said film, before paring back to a few seconds of something mildly more likely to set off my puckered lips and clenched fists and only – only then – a few seconds, then minutes, then hours of Anna Karenina.

Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to build up to Pride & Prejudice but we have to know our limitations.

And systematic desensitisation programmes (like the gradual exposure I described to Mademoiselle Pouty Face) coupled with counter-conditioning programmes ( like reaching for a bit of chocolate) work. They work. No two ways about it. Next week, I’m going to give you some ways to make them work better. But they work. That’s the best thing about them. Slow and steady they may be. Magic bullets and panaceas they are not. But they work.

However, counter-conditioning relies on the pairing. It relies on Ms Knightly always being paired up with something yummy. And if she’s not? I’ll soon find myself avoiding her films or grimacing every time I see her. This is why we do need to revisit our dogs’ bêtes noires. In other words, don’t expect your dog to keep remembering the sudden appearance of scary stuff like cars and bikes and joggers and people and other dogs and men in flak jackets is a good thing unless you keep that pairing relatively fresh.

This is where we need trained behaviours. It’s also why trained behaviours don’t work if you haven’t done the emotional bit yet. I see so many people trying to train dogs when the dog isn’t able to cope with the situation. I don’t think humans should be judgey about animals not being able to cope. Try teaching 7-year-olds on a snow day (or a rainy day, or a windy day, or when it’s too hot, or when it’s too cold, or when there’s a bee in the classroom) and you’ll see humans aren’t much better. If you can’t manage being hungry without getting angry at people, don’t expect your dog to be able to cope with scary stuff and still remember how to sit.

The brain works on a first-come, first-served kind of basis. Brain stem stuff first. All the automatic stuff like temperature regulation and balance and being able to run if you see a car hurtling towards you. Then the limbic system – the emotional system. Finally, the outer bits, the rational stuff like executive function and rational behaviour and cognition and all that marvellous thinking that says , “No, silly! The postman doesn’t want to kill you!”

Until you’ve dealt with the emotional stuff, your obedience training will go to hell in a handbasket if you keep placing your dog in situations where they can’t cope.

“But he just won’t listen!” is more “But he just can’t listen!”

The big brain switches off in fight-or-flight mode because what use is the ability to perform advanced trigonometry if you’re being faced down by a rampant highway killer in a truck like the madman in Duel?

It’s not any different for dogs with their scary stuff – or their exciting stuff – or stuff that just takes their last bit of ability to cope. It’s literally a matter of life-or-death. That big brain thinking like learning and inhibition and rules and sits and not pulling on the lead just gets lost in the shouty amygdala saying, “What the actual F&$# is that? Bark, you muppet, before it thinks you’re afraid!”

What I advise my clients to do is train two behaviours: an L-turn and a U-turn. An L-turn is a 90° turn and a U-turn is a 180° turn.

Part of the problem is facing things head on. Dogs generally don’t, unless we make them. A scary-looking thing coming towards you straight on can only mean one thing: attack. I mean, you know this, right? A strange bull or a bear starts moving towards you in a straight line and you don’t think they’re coming in for kisses, do you?

But humans are strange in our fusion-fission behaviour and our ability not to fight with all the strangers we meet. And also to move in straight lines towards other members of our species. We split up, we come together. We split up, we come together. We manage crowds of thousands of people without bopping them on the nose or causing aggravation. We’ve forgotten what walking up to someone straight on feels like to other animals. In fact, if we did like other animals and took our time or stood our ground or hid, then people would think we were very weird indeed. We forget that strangers moving in a direct line towards us probably have the worst intentions. Until, that is, a bull starts running towards us. Then we remember somewhere back in our primal brain that this Not A Good Thing.

We’d never see most animals being able to do this for example:

I mean all that walking confrontationally up to one another is beyond the scope of most other animals we share the planet with. Especially in these numbers and keeping our cool like Morpheus. But most people aren’t ready to understand that yet.

L-turns help you get out of the way, particularly if U-turns are not an option, or if you just want to politely let stuff past that doesn’t have bad intentions. You turn to the side, you get out of the way and you wait until they’ve gone past before resuming.

U-turns can be temporary or they can be permanent. Only humans think stubbornly that we absolutely must get past by going head-to-head and we can’t possibly take a couple of minutes to make the situation a little easier. Teaching your dog L-turns so you can get out of the way temporarily, or U-turns so that you can move away completely, are really useful. L-turns tend to be shorter – just a few paces out of the way of the scary oncoming stuff. You can add a sit or a stand or a watch me or something else if you like. The more reactive your dog and the less training and practice you’ve done, the further that L-turn will need to be. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your L might only be a metre or so out of the way of oncoming stuff.

A u-turn might be much longer or bigger. It might just be a way to get you into safety. U-turns are also good practice for loose-lead walking too.

A hand touch or watch me are really helpful when you’re changing direction. You can use these to move your dog and to prompt a turn to the side or a u-turn. You can also teach a ‘Let’s go!’ and do that as either a 90° turn or a 180° turn.

You can see me playing around with Lidy here, using touch to keep her at my side and to change her direction on the move. You can see me stringing together three touches for one treat as we’ve been moving away from 100% reinforcement, which is why we’re practising in a small space. Really, it’s just all about engaging with me and moving around me. A “middle” can also be a fun behaviour if your dog likes doing it – Lidy does, which is why I gave her food for doing it unprompted. I like her throwing out behaviours sometimes – it lets me know the things she likes doing or finds reinforcing. You’ll also see her avoid my hand twice when I don’t cue her with “touch” – that’s purposeful too. We’re just playing around here whilst I was making a drink. 2 or 3 times a day, we do a short two-minute burst in various places around the house. We’re sloppy – it’s fine. We’re not in robot mode.

You can also use a hand touch then to prompt a “Let’s go!” like this video here.

You start teaching these in the comfort of your own home, in the kitchen or living room, in a safe space like I was doing with Lidy. Then you add a bit of challenge, taking it to the next safest space, using leads if necessary. Planning in your training so that you’ve practised these a gazillion times in a gazillion gradually more complicated situations is vital.

What also helps is finding screens. Screens are things that just disrupt or break up the whole “I’m coming for you!” head-on walk.

Today, I got to use both the L-turn and the U-turn in real life. No barking, no lunges, no pulling, no dogs overwhelmed, no shouting, no frustration, no eyeballing. I didn’t end up being dragged along and my dogs didn’t show me up. Hoorah.

Let me tell you how it happened…

So the wheat and corn fields have just been harvested round my way, so we have miles and miles of farm tracks and empty fields. Usually, walks are pretty uneventful on the one I chose – little wildlife, no cows, no traffic, no dogs, no people. Today, the world and his wife decided to take advantage of the sunshine and cool temperatures.

So, the scenario. 550m farm track with an empty field on one side and a fenced field on the other. I’m walking my two dogs – 55kg between them and more than enough to pull me over. One is fine with other dogs but she’s less tolerant of poor greetings with unfamiliar dogs as she ages as her old bones are leaving her grumpy. The other is super-excited to see other dogs, also compounded by shepherdy genes (in-group, good; out-group, bad) and some territorial behaviour and also by my own lack of proper experience when he was young. We are what we are. Mostly okay. Probably as sloppy and casual as the video with Lidy – fine for us both. We’re not machines.

We were about 150m up the track when I saw a couple with an off-lead dog turn onto the track from the top end, heading towards us. They were about 400m away at that point. I see the couple walk on about 100m or so, and I’ve tentatively done the same. The path is about 2m wide, max. Also, we’re all still social distancing and I don’t have a mask. There’s no real sense of anything at all to screen us. I can’t get into one field because of the barbed wire. The other field is just stubble. If I turn around and walk back, Flika will struggle. We’re already walking at about 2.5km/hr for those old bones. She also hates u-turns with a passion. No doubt the people will catch us up and I’ll have added another half kilometre on to our walk if I back up to the safest passing point. If we can even get there before they catch us.

So I decide to make for a small hay bale. It’s just off the path, about 4 or 5m or so. It’s not going to block the dogs off from each other completely, but it means I avoid 150m of collective eyeballing and posturing and discomfort. I can see the couple are agitated and slowing, speeding up – you can see them making the same decisions I am. Are these dogs safe to pass?

Heston, Flika and I have a “Let’s Go!” and we make an L onto the stubble.

We veer off into the empty field, and I use the hay bale to break up the arrival of the other dog a little.

It’s not massively off the path – just enough. I’m not avoiding the other dog, just letting them pass. The hay bale is low but breaks up the sight-line. It’s enough. Heston is so used to this process that he automatically goes into “Look At That!” mode as soon as I say “Where’s the dog?”

We watch the dog go past – a very fine malinois, which I feel obliged to add just because you know my feelings about these mighty dogs – and his owners are relaxed, their dog is relaxed, Heston is relaxed, I’m relaxed. Flika doesn’t even notice there is a dog.

And they walk off down the track.

Just one example of using a number of taught behaviours to help manage a potentially tricky situation. I don’t know those lovely, polite people and their very handsome boy, but from their stop-starting, I reckon they felt like I did.

That L-turn along with a couple of other taught behaviours are perfectly possible when dogs aren’t overwhelmed by emotion and when it also promotes safety and good canine communication. My two immediately went back to much nicer ways of gathering information about strange dogs: sniffing where they’ve been.

What I knew, though, was that we were on a circuit. I was going anticlockwise and they were going clockwise. We had another passing to get through. I knew, too, that it was going to happen on a blind bend. Because, sod’s law, of course it was. No matter how slow or fast I went, or how slow or fast they went, that blind bend was inevitably going to be our Waterloo.

I knew it was coming though, so I started practising Heston’s heeling, got us to a space where I could do a U-turn and they could pass safely, and all the dogs and all the people escaped without pulses being raised. Of course it happened on the blind bend. But because I knew it was coming, all the shepherdy shoutings and bargings and inappropriate greetings were nicely avoided.

L-turns and U-turns using hand touches or other focused behaviours can be a real life saver. Teaching other things like watch, engage-disengage or “Look at That!” alongside are the most useful life skills your dog can possess if the world freaks them out. Remembering that everything moving in a straight line towards you probably feels like Keira Knightley riding an angry bull as far as your dog is concerned can really help. Some dogs deal with this by flirting and fidgeting, or by over-the-top friendly behaviours (Flika normally does). Some dogs deal with this by feeling like they want to run away. Not so easy on a lead. Other dogs like to shout and engage in a bit of noisy, big behaviour to say “Go away! I Mean Business You Big Scary Things!”

Giving them the ability to step off the track, to get out of the way, to find safety is vital. Not easy to do in places where dogs are not on leads. Some of our French hunting dogs pop up from time to time, but in general their social skills are so refined and they meet so many dogs that they don’t engage in poor behaviours. They’ve been bred for fusion-fission, as have some gundogs. Hence, the off-lead viszla we often run into is happy to just keep barrelling past us as long as we step out of her way. We’re just doing our thing. She carries on doing hers.

I know, however, that there are far too many people who let their dogs off-lead who would run up to other dogs, particularly those on leads, and honestly, I avoid places where people do this. Parks and beaches are not my scene. If you’ve got a reactive dog and you’re trying to work with them when dogs keep running up to them, then your progress will be much, much slower. Your dog may eventually be able to cope with this nasty habit eventually – both Heston and Flika can if I don’t ask it of them all the time and the dog is flirting/over-friendly rather than aggressive – but don’t expect them to be able to do it when they’re still a novice.

I’ve found these L and U turns can actually resolve a lot of problems with other dogs running up to us as well. Once dogs see that you’re not interested and you’re walking away or you’re not even engaging with them, a good number of well-socialised dogs will take that as their cue to disengage. I don’t like putting it to the test, but where I have, the whole process has worked really nicely. I find places with occasional traffic to be much more likely to have dogs on lead rather than off, as well. Roads are your friend. You may need to do some work around moving vehicles first, but that opens up a whole load of options for you.

Moving to learning like this, where you ask for a behaviour, like “Let’s go!” and where your dog’s big brain is still maintaining a modicum of control over the emotional bits means also you can switch to a less food-heavy schedule, or that you can start to use safety and distance as reinforcers as well. Two crossings today cost me 10 biscuits for 2 dogs.

How to teach a hand touch:

How to teach watch me:

I confess, there were a lot of kissy noises this morning!

How to teach Look at That:

Teaching turns and pivots can also really help

Just remember to teach these behaviours at home, in the garden, in quiet places, in non-challenging areas and then in areas of increasing complexity. What you don’t want is your dog realising that treats and training only happen when the scary stuff is present, as it can become a massive cue that the scary stuff is about to arrive. I only used ten biscuits on this training because we practised a bunch of other stuff on our walk too.

I guess what it boils down to is avoiding head-on confrontations when you can’t 100% guarantee that both dogs can cope with it. Teaching behaviours you want to see when this happens – like L-turns and U-turns – needs to happen out of context and a very large number of times if you want it to be reliable out in the real world. Do those two things and you’ll find your dogs can cope with whatever the world throws at them.

If you’re really stuck, find a good force-free trainer to help you with these behaviours. You will probably find Grisha Stewart’s excellent Behaviour Adjustment Training 2.0 an absolute must-buy. If you’re looking for something more involved and you’re fairly comfortable training your dog yourself, the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has two courses by the most excellent Amy Cook: Dealing
with the Bogeyman, and Management for Reactive Dogs. Whenever I’m working with reactive dogs, I’m not doing much differently than these. Amy has some particularly nice videos on her course for L-turns and U-turns as well as a whole load of other taught skills that are super helpful for people who have really challenging dogs.

Next week, I’ll be looking at stimulus gradients – ways to make learning easier for your dog.

FLOODING

So in the last three posts, I’ve been looking at three key concepts for dog guardians: habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning. Today I’m going to talk about flooding, which can be an accidental by-product of all three.

Let’s get into what flooding is exactly and make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. What do I mean when I talk about flooding? First, I want to talk about what it is and what it isn’t, and then we’ll consider the ethics and the fallout of it once we’re all clear on what flooding is in psychology.

Flooding is the deliberate exposure to inescapable negatively conditioned stimuli at a strength that elicits the full emotional response. So that’s a textbook definition.

First off, flooding is purposeful and deliberate. I do think there are accidental moments when we’re flooding our dogs, but I’ll come back to that distinction later. It’s also to things that the dog thinks are aversive, unpleasant, even frightening, painful or scary – that’s the negatively conditioned stimuli bit.

And it is also at full strength.

Let me just focus on that word inescapable, because it’s crucial. The dog cannot escape. Either they’re in a confined space or they’re trapped. They’re on a leash or behind a gate. It may also be inescapable without a confined space or being on a leash because of the caregiver bond. We sometimes use our dogs’ trust in us and put them in situations that they could escape from but they just don’t, because, well, it’s us.

There’s a bit of a myth in the dog training world that if you’re habituating a dog to an experience, or even if you’re desensitising them, then if you accidentally go over their threshold, you’re flooding them. Well, this may or may not be true: it depends on whether or not the dog can get away.

As soon as we enclose a dog in a space or we get the leashes out, though, we’re in potential flooding territory. Flooding is about removing choice. It’s about removing consent.

I’ve heard several voices in the dog training community discuss flooding in human terms, and you know I like to give you human examples. In this case, I can’t, as it would be completely unethical to deliberately expose someone to things they are afraid of. Now some therapies in the past, such as conversion therapies for homosexuality or aversion therapies have deliberately exposed someone to inescapable shock or nausea-inducing drugs paired up with homoerotic images in attempts to cure them. I think we’re a good 50 years into realising this is unacceptable. If I have a fear of spiders and your therapeutic solution is to lock me in a room with spiders until I get over it, you’re not creating a therapeutic setting, you’re creating something out of a dystopian work of fiction.

Whilst I’ve no doubt that some disreputable therapists may flood patients on purpose, you sign up for it (usually). So you can escape. You know it is going to happen and you consent. Even if that means you know it will be inescapable.

When we flood dogs, they do not consent. They do not know what is going to happen and they have no option to sign up or not.

So for kind of the first time in my life, I cannot make an analogy that you would understand because for the vast majority of us, we have no concept of a therapist forcing us against our will to face up to our fears in an inescapable situation.

We, as humans, mostly have no concept of what that is like. If it did happen to us, it would be abuse. Hands down. Both morally and legally. If a therapist seized you against your will or without your prior consent and deliberately exposed you to levels of things you found unpleasant at full strength, that’d probably be a prison sentence. That would definitely be a prison sentence if they did it to a child or to a vulnerable person.

This is why I can’t justify its use as a training method with animals.

Flooding is not just habituating a dog past their coping levels in the hopes that they’ll realise things are okay. It’s the inescapable element of it. So for instance, I watched one dog owner forcing her terrified dog around a local fair because a trainer had said the dog needed to get used to social events. Well, first, habituation does not involve flooding. Or it should not. But the dog was on a lead and clearly could not cope. And what happens when our sympathetic nervous system is engaged and we are unable to escape? There are lots of Fs, here: fight and flight being two of them. When we take away flight, we remove one of those options. But be aware that some dogs may fidget, may seem to be over-excited, may get over-friendly and may fool around. So for example, once, when I had to trap a stray dog to catch her and stop her getting squashed, first she tried flight until we removed that option. Then she got fidgety. Then she froze. Then she tried fighting. Working your way through all the remaining Fs is one thing dogs may do before they eventually give up.

Many, many dogs will try aggression in this circumstance. And they learn it can be really effective.

Flooding is not just about inescapable exposure, though, but exposure at full strength. No attempts are made to mitigate or soften the stimulus. 

So having set out my stall, let me explain why I feel the way that I do and why flooding – whether purposeful or accidental – should be avoided at all costs. Also, please notice that I used “as an ‘education’ method”. That was purposeful.

We, as enlightened modern human beings who’ve never been subject to inescapable stimuli in a therapeutic setting, have very little understanding of what it’s like for an animal. We can understand habituation and desensitisation, counterconditioning and so on, because these are human therapies too. But we have no concept of flooding in educational or therapeutic settings, which is why we’re less aware of its fallout. 

First, its fallout is learned helplessness. In the 60s and 70s, psychologist Martin Seligman used dogs to learn about why people don’t take help when it’s offered or why they don’t seem to be able to get themselves out of certain situations. In this case, it’s not admissible to say dogs don’t experience learned helplessness because they literally were the subject of the experiments Seligman conducted using inescapable shock.

Some dogs were placed in a sling like this one and subjected to inescapable shock. Others had a way to switch the shock off. Some were no shocked at all.

Then the dogs were placed in a shuttle box like the one below, and subjected to shock. Those who had previously learned there was no way to stop the shock did not even try to hop over the wall. They just gave in. Just by the by, some psychologists gloss over the fact that the shocks administered in the shuttlebox were enough to induce muscle seizure…. and still the dogs wouldn’t even try to escape.

That’s how being flooded works. You are subjected to inescapable aversives and you learn to shut down. It stops our problem solving and a lot of our other behaviours.

All reactions are muted. We stop reacting because we’ve learned we cannot escape. Thus to the untrained eye, it may seem like the dog is ‘coping’ when in reality, the dog has simply learned that there is no point trying to escape.

Honestly, flooded dogs are a nightmare. Especially those who’ve been purposely flooded by other dog trainers. It enrages me, quite honestly. One local trainer who held a dog down to be petted by strangers… 40 injurious bites later and the dog finally “submitted”. Another who repeatedly alpha rolled fearful dogs and demanded their euthanasia if not. Vets who don’t understand fear free handling. Groomers who think their ‘still’ dogs are a sign of calmness.

It’s the absolute antithesis of my work. Dogs who are flooded often lose all trust in their guardians and trainers, or in humans full stop. I can feel a lot of sympathy for guardians who have accidentally flooded their dog because they didn’t know better, haven’t seen their relationship as one of consent and choice rather than compliance, dominance and force. After all, our media has often been complicit in promoting these myths because they make good television. No wonder people believe in miracle cures and 30-minute turnarounds!

But what I can’t forgive are other professionals who do it. You’re basically stealing a living if you deliberately and wilfully use flooding with a dog. It is ethically worse for me than using punishers like shock or chokes because at least there, if they’re cued and the dog is clear about their use, then they can avoid the punisher. The whole purpose of flooding when done by trainers as an ‘education’ method is to subject dogs to such levels of inescapable aversives that they have no choice but to submit, perhaps having worked through the whole gamut of aggression first.

The problem comes when we consider the ethics – and this is where it gets complicated. Imagine I hit a stray dog by accident when driving my car. The dog is panicking and I use a blanket to stop them struggling and to put them in my car. If they didn’t like strangers or cars, what I’m doing is deliberately subjecting them to inescapable stimulus at full strength. Likewise, if I have to trap a dog who has been running loose for weeks, even if I use a humane trap and sedatives. The second is thankfully not frequent, but in working for the pound, it’s something I might have to do. I just can’t work to desensitise a dog to myself over weeks and weeks if the dog will starve in the meantime. So it depends. Sometimes we knowingly flood animals and we know that the damage we’re doing is likely to be significant. Likewise, for new arrivals in the shelter, there are times we flood the dog simply by cleaning their kennel or even by bringing them their food. These real life situations are not training, however, and hoping the dog will just “get over it” is like putting money on a coin toss – you just don’t know which way it will go. 

Real life situations means we have no other choice other than leaving the dog to roam about or die of their injuries. It’s a knowing choice but one that I’m fully aware of the consequences and try to avoid wherever possible. But it’s not a method I’d choose if there were any other options available to me.

If you think that gives you free rein to use it as a training method, it doesn’t.

People get hit by buses, get struck by lightning or drown in swimming pools. I don’t include them in my teaching repertoire.

Just because something happens in real life does not make it a fit tool for use in teaching. Abuse happens in real life and perpetrators of domestic abuse use flooding on their victims. That’s real life. I don’t see those as educative situations, and I hope you don’t either.

We need to stop using this Appeal to Nature fallacy to say that just because it’s natural and it happens in real life, it must be okay. It isn’t. It wouldn’t be okay for a therapist to deliberately prevent you from escaping from something you’re afraid of,. It wouldn’t be okay for a therapist to do this to a pre-verbal child. It wouldn’t be okay for them to do it to a non-verbal adult. It’s not okay to do it with animals, either. Not as a training method.

This is why, when we use habituation, we need to be careful we don’t overdo it and tip-toe into flooding territory if our dogs are trapped by walls or a leash.

It’s why, when we use desensitisation, we need to make sure we’re in the “I know it’s there, but I’m coping” territory.

And likewise for counterconditioning.

The problem is that it can be very hard to know if your dog really is calm or whether they’re shut down, so you absolutely need a good understanding of canine body language to know the difference. Understanding stress signals is absolutely vital. Whenever you’re working within four walls or you have the dog on a leash, be mindful of the fact you may accidentally be flooding your dog even if that’s not what you intended.

So make sure you stick to the easy, the gentle, the minimal, especially if you’re working with a leash or indoors. Whilst I understand accidental flooding – I know I definitely did it by accident to Heston when I was new to the whole world of dogs – and Tilly’s sensitive bladder was a really good indicator that we’d pushed her over the edge – it’s something I should have been told about. Sadly, few people in animal training talk about it.

But, as Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we do better.

Let’s take purposeful flooding out of our repertoire and stop conning ourselves that “getting over it” is a valid reason to cause the complete suppression of behaviour. After all, our dogs are not okay. They’ve just learned not to show that they’re not okay.

Three concepts every dog guardian should know: counterconditioning

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at skills that would really help every dog guardian out. The first of those is habituation, that process of getting used to the world around us through repeated exposure. The second of those is desensitisation, the planned and gradual systematic process by which we break connections between exciting or fear-eliciting things in the universe that freak us out.

Today, we’ll look at the third skill I think dog guardians should have in their toolkit: counterconditioning.

Like desensitisation, counterconditioning is a process by which we work on things dogs find exciting or fear-eliciting. It should also be working at a level that the fearful or exciting response is not elicited. Sometimes, these two processes are confused because dog trainers and behaviourists often do them together, so people don’t always know which is which. That’s fine – I argue that this is usually the best possible process but there are times when I’m just desensitising – usually on things my dog would like to chase.

Counterconditioning is the process by which we take an emotionally charged conditioned stimuli (so we already have learned to like it or not) and remove the emotional charge so that the stimuli is neutral once again.

We can also change the emotional response. Usually, we’re working with dogs who are afraid of things in the world. When we work on counterconditioning, we work to change that emotional response from a negative one to a positive one.

I guess you could do that also with exciting stimuli – and this does happen – where you accidentally or even purposefully change their response to a negative one instead. I’ve seen a lot of dogs who’ve been inefficiently socialised and habituated to other dogs then walked on a choke or prong and then learn to fear the dogs or people they see rather than feel excited by them. I don’t think anyone really does that on purpose unless they’re completely unethical. I guess mostly that happens by accident because our dogs are too close to others, we don’t have room for them to escape or avoid the other dogs since they’re on the lead and then the dog has no choice but to react.

Counterconditioning breaks existing associations just like desensitisation does. It’s also used to form new and different associations, so that conditioned stimuli no longer elicit fear but elicit joyfulness, and so on. In such cases, the stimuli stays the same but the conditioned emotional response is changed. It works by pairing that scary thing with something we love to return them to a neutral state and then to reform and reshape emotional responses. Usually, and just to be clear, I often find myself using a food-less approach and desensitising a dog who likes chasing (or I also throw in a bit of groundwork) whereas I use food and other stuff like safety for dogs who are feeling fearful.

I often give the example of Keira Knightley as I have a very strong negative reaction to her – not least because she’s in many adaptations of my favourite books, and they’re films I really want to see, but I find her acting insufferable. Even just a flash of her makes me feel quite grrr inside.

In order to countercondition this, a strong pairing with something lovely would need to be made – say for instance that every time I saw Keira Knightley, Keanu Reeves would appear with a box of chocolates, some kittens and a fine French rosé. Or a dog.

Eventually, with enough pairings, Keira Knightley would come to become a reliable predictor of something wonderful and lovely. I might even start to look out her movies and her images in the knowledge that she cues the arrival of wonderful things.

As you can see, I’m never going to become a great lover of Keira in  herself but it will make her wooden acting much less painful. That we cope with stressful, aversive or unpleasant experiences by turning to alcohol, food or other pleasant stimuli is not a new concept.  Who doesn’t treat themselves after doing something they didn’t want to?

So… just to be clear…

… must reliably mean…

And it has to be in that order too.

Keira… THEN … Keanu

Do it the other way, which is known as backwards conditioning, Keanu Reeves just becomes a reliable predictor that Ms Knightley will appear, kind of like when your mum appeared to call you back in off the street when you were a kid, and your heart sank because you knew what was coming next.

Order is important. Food does not come out until the dog has seen the thing it doesn’t like or that it’s scared of, if you’re counter conditioning.

Counterconditioning on its own is sometimes called ‘contrived’, often by trainers who primarily use clicker training or operant methods and don’t always see the benefits of it. They argue that we don’t ever really change our emotional response to the negative stimuli. The irony is that we did learn to dislike a conditioned stimuli – I wasn’t born hating Keira Knightley. I learned to. In fact, I liked her in Bend it Like Beckham and I like her in movies where she smiles.

This just doesn’t have the same effect on me. I think she seems quite lovely here. That tells us something too in relation to our dogs: it can be very dependent on a very narrow set of circumstances. Know the circumstances and it’ll help you desensitise and countercondition.

So I did learn to feel all grrrr about Keira. It really came off the back of associating her with one of my favourite literary characters, Elizabeth Bennet, and it was very much a learned response. Of course my feelings to her have been conditioned. That initial learning wasn’t contrived. It wasn’t deliberately created. Why should unlearning it be considered as contrived or in some way false?

Conditioning is all about perception. Here’s an example. Last night, I stood in the garden watching nesting swallows swoop in and out of the barn. It was almost twilight. It felt quite magical watching them. All of a sudden, I became convinced it was actually my two friendly nesting bats. I shuddered. I actually just shuddered now – quite literally – just imagining the bats. The way they were moving was no different. They nest in the same spot. The bats actually give me as much joy as the swallows to know I’m a custodian of their home. But even the thought that they were bats freaked me out. And that was all perception.

In that example, we can see we are born with a tendency to have innate fears of things like snakes, mice and bats. Where we have what Goulding called a biophilia or an innate love of the natural, it is true that it’s easier to teach lab animals to fear certain things than others. For instance, you can teach a monkey to fear snakes by pairing them up with a shock, and you can teach them to fear flowers and bananas too in the same way. Just it happens more quickly with snakes and it’s much harder to erase. Be mindful for your dogs that if you have a dog bred for particular behaviours like guarding or protection or chasing stuff, then you’re going uphill in counterconditioning them to cope with unfamiliar people or unfamiliar animals who pose a threat, or to help them feel comfortable with people coming and going on the property. That is a job for early social experiences and habituation, and it is certainly harder to do it remedially, no matter what some trainers may have you believe. Be kind to your dogs and understand which fears they’ve got an innate sensitivity to – and if you’re getting a puppy, make sure you understand those innate tendencies and get in early with plenty of great quality habituation to normalise it whilst they can cope. You need to be mindful not to flood your dog too, and you can read about that next time.

So is counterconditioning contrived or fake?

The problem is where there is no true counterconditioning, there is just learning that the disliked item is a cue for positive experiences. If I’m heavily reliant on Keanu Reeves to help me cope, then that’s an issue. Weaning me off him by desensitisation to Keira at the same time will be necessary too. I might need Keanu Reeves and a full box of Belgian chocolates to get through Never Let Me Go, but if you start with a brief image of Keira smiling – my least bad Keira image – and you pair it with a chocolate, you’ll be able to repeat that and build up gradually to sitting through Anna Karenina without me needing a full emotional support team.

Another thing to bear in mind is that pairing: the good stuff absolutely has to be more powerful than the bad stuff. This is again why you need a gradual and systematic programme of gentle exposure alongside it. It goes without saying that a reaction should not be provoked. Of course my fear of a photo of a mouse is not the same as my fear of an actual mouse. A very brief exposure to a friendly, happy mouse at a distance should not elicit the same experiences as sitting in the dark with a room full of mice. A photo of Keira in a magazine is not the same as sitting through Atonement. Of course I’m going to need Keanu Reeves for the whole of the movie and I’m probably just going to try to distract myself by looking at him. But if I just have a flash of a Chanel advert, I’m probably going to be able to cope with just a photo of John Wick right after.

So…

… will eventually become

But if you start me off on the full 108 minute Anna Karenina experience, you’re going to need a lot more to make it barely tolerable for me.

And that is why you need the benefits that desensitisation offers too. Especially that planned, gradual, systematic and gentle approach. Otherwise, you’re going to need the heavy artillery of good stuff – and let me tell you, if it was a fear rather than a mild dislike, your heavy artillery might not be anywhere near powerful enough if I think it’s life or death. And when our dogs are afraid, that’s what their nervous systems are telling them.

If your absolute best of the best stuff – dog stuff, that is – paté, liver, steak, stinky cheese – if they aren’t more powerful (ie the dog isn’t choosing them) then you’re a) in fight-or-flight mode and it’s too late or b) working far too close or c) both. If the conditioned stimulus is truly fear-eliciting, then my sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight mode – is switched on, and digestion is NOT high on a list of priorities. If food isn’t working then you’ve got to consider whether you’re too far gone.  You need to back up, add space and lower the intensity.

Counterconditioning should never simply turn a conditioned stimulus into a cue for good stuff. You need the desensitisation too. Otherwise the bad stuff doesn’t stop being bad. It just starts being a cue for good stuff. Kind of like a dentist with a lollipop afterwards. We all know the dentist doesn’t stop being a dentist. We just start expecting a lollipop afterwards.

You may also think about what other stuff you can offer will also help the dog out. What we are seeking when we’re afraid is safety. I’ve called it here ‘safeness’ because you can be safe and not feel safe. Safety may allow us to feel safe, but not always. Of course our dogs are safe when they’re around things they’re scared of. Of course my dog’s fears of the vet are completely irrational as I would never allow him to be unsafe. I know that’s not true for all dogs, and we’ll have clients who do put their dogs at risk, but I don’t do that. My dog has no logical reason to feel scared at the vet’s. But safeness isn’t dependent on what the environment does or does not do. It’s an internal state that depends on our own subjective experience. Only Heston decides if he feels safe. But I can use that feeling of safeness to pair up with emotional stimuli.

Performing emergency u-turns are a key way we can allow dogs to desensitise safely and learn that they are safe. Thousands of safe exposures to other dogs, where we’re deliberately pairing that up with a feeling of safeness elicited from a u-turn, maybe with food involved too, is a good way to learn that nothing bad will happen. Many people don’t like public speaking. But you don’t have those same sweaty feelings of fear and panic the thousandth time you face your fears if those thousand audiences have been kind and gentle. In fact, for humans at least, that sense that you have conquered your fears can be powerful indeed. We can’t say the same for dogs, of course, but I know my feelings of pride that my dog has conquered his own fears translates into praise, to my own congratulatory attitude towards him, and I know that my feelings of relief at least are socially contagious. 

Don’t ever underestimate the value and role of safety too. For dogs who are fearful or relying on aggression to avoid the fearful stuff, safety is way more powerful than food. Make sure you’re using that too!

The power of the things you are using don’t need to be as amped up if you start with small doses. Of course I’ll need an emotional support team to get through a full pouty movie. No, I don’t need that if I’m just casting a quick glance through a magazine and I see an advert for Coco Mademoiselle. It might even be enough if I always turn the page to see Mr Reeves with a puppy. The same is true for our dogs. If we start counterconditioning at full strength, of course, we’ll need immensely good stuff to follow. We don’t need to do that if we dial it back a bit and work with systematic desensitisation and gradual exposure at the same time.

So… keep your distance. Plan your counterconditioning and keep it small, manageable, regular and brief. Use good value stuff. Remember the vital role that safeness plays when we feel afraid. Keep the pairing ‘aversive’ then ‘positive’. Of all the three concepts, this one is the toughest, but once you’ve mastered it once, you’ve got it. A good trainer or behaviourist should be able to give you a class to start you off.

What happens when you know how to do this is that you’re armed with a strategy that will help you with so much: pill taking, grooming, nail clipping, being lifted, being handled, wearing a muzzle, wearing a harness, being bandaged, having treatments, having mouths inspected, being handled by strangers, seeing scary joggers, seeing cyclists, being scared in storms, coping with fireworks, dealing with tractors or noisy machinery, coping with loud traffic, coping with new experiences, coping with people coming on and off the property, going in the car, being alone, coping with strange people, coping with cows and sheep and geese and ducks, coping with dogs on walks, coping with people in the vets……. once you’ve got this in the bag, you have the most useful tool of all. If there was one thing I wish all my clients could do already, this would be it. Forget learning to sit or giving a paw, this is the one skill I wish we taught in puppy class because it’s the one thing that most dogs will need. Even those bombproof dogs need it. I’ll never forget our first dog, Molly, and her fear of snowmen. Molly was such a great dog – scared of nothing. Except snowmen. Now if I could have counterconditioned her to them, I wouldn’t have been quite so unprepared come winter.

Make sure it’s the one thing you truly know how to do and there’ll be so much more you’ll be able to do with your dog. It doesn’t mean being disrespectful of things they can’t cope with, but it will make both of your lives much easier if you can do the stuff you need to do without medication or sedation.

Next week: when habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning go wrong. I’m going to tell you all about flooding.

three concepts every dog owner should know: desensitisation

So last time, we were looking at habituation: that ‘getting used to’ factor that helps animals and humans cope with the overwhelming number of external stimuli that assault us every day.

The more canny among you may have noticed that I included things that were inherently aversive or unpleasant, such as wearing contact lenses or getting used to loud noises. Habituation happens, as we notice so often in the allegory of frogs staying in water that gets increasingly hot until they are boiled, where that gradual creep of unpleasant sensation is not even noticed. We might get used to traffic smog or air traffic or traffic noise just as much as we might get used to birdsong and clean grass smells.

Technically, getting used to unpleasant stimuli has another name: desensitisation. This technique, sometimes known in human terms as exposure therapy, is with things that we are sensitive to, that we’ve already had a reaction to and either find very pleasant or very unpleasant. I sometimes hear desensitisation bandied about as if it’s habituation. It’s not. I’m a linguist. I revel in clean definitions and those loose applications of meaning make me itch.

Habituation, then, is getting used to neutral stuff. Not actually like my contact lenses, which were uncomfortable to start with, or like bird scarers. You see, even I don’t stick to those clean definitions. It’s hard. But habituation just happens with fairly innocuous stuff.

Desensitisation, on the other hand, is literally that: removing the sensation, making something non-salient or non-important.

Desensitisation is a careful, gradual, planned, systematic exposure to events.

Let me delineate those adjectives.

Careful.

Gradual.

Planned.

Systematic.

Desensitisation shouldn’t be an impromptu, “Oops, got ourselves surrounded by a Venetian Carnival!” if your dog is working on desensitising to people.

It moves from very low levels of exposure, either at distance or shortened duration (or both) until the dog is ready to cope with more.

Let me outline those bits too.

Very low levels of exposure: that means without provoking a fear or aggression or excitement response in your dog. They should notice the scary or exciting thing, but they should not be pulling on the lead or barking.

If they are, you’re too close.

And the other part of that statement is until the dog is ready to cope with more. Notice there that it’s the dog who chooses. Not you. The dog says they’re ready to move on. You can of course test this with things like engage-disengage games or look-dismiss games. I did it this morning. I saw Heston noticed shadows moving in the trees. I’d noticed them before. You know, hairless biped with dominant visual senses. But I saw him notice. We moved forward and the shadows moved and he looked again. Both times, he looked away and carried on sniffing or doing other stuff. He looked, he registered and he dismissed it as not that salient.

That’s the vital bit.

I do it with Flika too. She needs a bit more encouragement around cows and she’s not as able to cope with them as Heston is, so if I were asking myself “how much exposure do they need?” Heston could have moved closer, but Flika may have found it hard to work just where we were. It depends on the dog. Only your dog decides if they can’t cope at 100m or at 10m. And that depends on the subject. Knowing your dog is vital if you’re going to do the essential bit of desensitisation, which is planning it.

So one example for Heston when he was but a babe with his barking at cows, we went and did some work around 800m away from the cows. Gradually and systematically, we got closer and closer over repeated sessions, with repeated exposure until we were right alongside a number of frisky cows and they did not elicit a fear response. It was gradual. It was at his pace. It was boring.

In desensitisation, an emotional response should never be triggered. That’s the golden standard – the goal. Does it always go like that? No…. this is real life. But that’s the aim, for sure. You aren’t just putting the dog into a reactive state and letting them work themselves out of it; I wasn’t just standing there with Heston barking at the cows until he stopped. You should never see that emotional response. In order to do this, you need a very good understanding of your individual dog’s body language. Part of the problem with desensitisation is that many people understand the principles but they’re exposing their dog to far too much of the stuff They’re too close, or for too long. Most people totally get exposure therapy and have been doing it – just not at the dog’s pace and not in small enough doses at first.

Desensitisation should go at the dog’s pace. That too can be frustrating for clients. Yes, you may have to start work at 800m away. I’ve seen – and this embarrasses me about our profession – so-called professionals trying this at 2m from the scary or exciting stuff. The tendency to use punishers in these cases to suppress emotional responses is huge. We just want the dog to get over it and get used to it. It seems unfathomable that we might have to do this for a month or so and do a little practice every day or so until they’ve got it. We’ve got to put our own frustration aside and realise that suppressing behaviour is not the goal.

Why don’t I just stick a choke chain on or a prong or a shock collar, or tell my dog to pack it in? Why don’t I just say, “No! No!” and tell them off?

Because even if it worked, punishment simply suppresses behaviour.

That means that if it’s something really important, it’ll just pop back out when I’m not there to punish or ‘correct’ it. Dogs are smart like that. No human, no punishment. And you can use a shock collar to try and overcome that, but you better hope that the collar never fails, which they do. You also have to know that if I’m faced with two competing consequences, I’m going to choose the fun one, hands down. You better hope your punishment is bad enough and strong enough to put the fear of God in me to suppress that behaviour permanently. If it’s something I’m afraid of and behaving aggressively to or fearfully around, punishers just contribute to the awfulness of the experience. This is where punishment fails. I know so very many dogs with predatory urges whose owners have been recommended shock collars only to find that if the dog gets out of range or escapes, they end up doing exactly what they wanted to all along. The behaviour was just waiting for the moment to get the chance. I’ve had a number of clients who arrive with dogs who’ve killed cats or other dogs, poultry, wildlife or even farm animals and they’ve all tried punishers in the past. Punishment and ‘interruptors’ don’t remove the urge; they just suppress the behaviour.

Another reason punishment (even things like saying “no!”) is not effective is because desensitisation is a process that isn’t about consequences. Punishment is all about consequences. It doesn’t deal with the relationship between the scary or fun thing and the behaviour that follows. If you want to consciously uncouple those behaviours, to steal a phrase from Ms. Paltrow, then you need Pavlovian extinction, not Skinnerian punishers. Punishment has no effect on emotional reactions other than suppressing the outward expression of those emotions. If you tell me off every time I make a run towards a patisserie, then you might suppress the outward expression of my longing and love, but I still feel it. If you tell me off every time I shriek when a spider crawls on me, I might stop shrieking, but it won’t stop being unpleasant. Punishment just leads us to suppress behaviour and think the situation is dealt with. It isn’t. It may, if you get out of the habit long enough, become extinct behaviour if you use punishers, but there’s no guarantee. Plus, we habituate to punishers, so you have to use stronger and stronger ones. You know my feelings on punishers already – from water sprays to citronella collars right up to the heavy artillery – so I won’t labour the point. I’m just not happy living with the uncertainty over whether a behaviour is suppressed or extinct. Those are two very big differences behind the absence of a behaviour. Suppressed behaviours are way more likely to emerge once the punishment stops. I can’t live with that doubt.

Using desensitisation properly and effectively means the dog isn’t practising the behaviour and that connection is phased out. It’s slow but miles more effective. For instance, should Heston get out and go wandering, I’m mostly sure – as sure as I can be – that he could go past or even through a field of sheep or cows without a problem. Lidy? Not a chance. Guess which one came with a history of punishers? It’s not a trust exercise and I always keep my dogs on leads around things they might chase or have chased in the past even if they don’t seem to want to now and if they’re very fearful, I’m going to be doing a lot of desensitisation gradually, systematically, carefully and with full planning so that they won’t feel the need to be aggressive or run away.

It can be really tempting to want to skip gradual and planned desensitisation that works at the dog’s pace. I mean it 100% works but it is not a magic pill. Desensitisation is not a quick fix. It can’t be achieved in a day. The main problem when it’s not working is that you’re too close, going too long or your dog wasn’t calm enough in the first place.

All you’re doing is scaling up exposures little by little, day by day, time by time, until your dog has had loads and loads of exposure without reacting. I try and plan in at least 50 of those opportunities. 50 exposures is not a lot really.

Desensitisation is perfect for chasing behaviours around cows, cars, cats, sheep, horses, cyclists, joggers and so on. It’s not perfect if your dog cannot disengage at any distance. I have one of those. We do other things alongside it, one of which you’ll read about in the next post, but if your dog can look away and dismiss the thing from 500m or so, then that may be all you need. Some dogs, once they get it, they get it. That does happen. Flika’s had 14 years of practice before she arrived and she now copes with most cars and knows what we do instead. She can cope with cows too, which is something I never believed would happen.

Your setups to do this are crucial. When using desensitisation with dogs who react to other dogs, we do 5 minute blasts at long distance where the dogs are only in sight for a second, maximum and then a 30 or 40 second break. Brief exposure, long distances, short durations. Those build up to long exposure, short distances and long durations. Eventually, you should reach a point where the stuff you notice just are part of the furniture like I did this morning when walking within a metre of a cow field and a cow stuck her head through.

A word of caution: ALL behaviour can be ‘spontaneously recovered’ meaning it can re-emerge when you thought it was long since dead. This is as true of behaviours trained without punishment as it is with it. You need to keep up exposure from time to time and make sure you do it in a careful and planned way to gauge reactions otherwise one day, that chasing or fearful or aggressive behaviour may pop right out again. That’s fine. You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve done this before and you’ve got this. Don’t change methods and think you’ll try something new. What you desensitised before you can do again in the same way.

Exposure therapy – or desensitisation for humans – is the single most effective way to overcome fears and phobias. There’s zero reason it shouldn’t be the most effective way with animals too. It’s also used with PTSD in virtual reality scenarios and with obsessive-compulsive disorders. It’s highly effective when it’s handled properly.

And just a note before we move on to counterconditioning in the next post… these two things are not the same although they are often paired up. Classic exposure therapy is simply that: exposure. If you’re using food or reinforcers, clicks or marker words, that’s great, and you may be desensitising as well, but desensitisation in itself is not about food or alternative reinforcement. It’s just about normalising stuff that your dog was sensitive to before.

You can see why this is such an effective tool for pet guardians to know: once you have this in the bag and you know how to do it (key: it’s gradual!) then you’ve got your own tool to work with your own problems as and when they emerge.

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