Being a Dog, Fast and Slow

Got a dog who 90% pays attention and then 10% ignores you? A dog you think is stubborn or lacking in smarts? A dog whose ears seem to stop working whenever you really need them to? A dog with intermittent recall that’s sometimes brilliant and other times poor? A dog who can manage about 10 paces of heel walking and then it all goes to pot?

Are you facing some of the bigger challenges of living with a dog? Extreme predation where every leaf flapping sets your dog’s heart racing and you can’t trust them with the neighbourhood cats? Aggression towards people they see on walks? Fearful reactions in the face of completely benign stuff they come across?

Perhaps you’ve even got a dog whose behaviour is bordering on the pathological? A dog who chases cars despite having nearly lost their life to one? A dog who spins or chases lights and shadows? A dog who seems to border on compulsive, where they can’t be interrupted from unproductive and repetitive behaviours?

Despite having a good understanding of these problems and the canine brain, I’ve always struggled with how to describe the root of the problem to clients. Struggled, that was… until I read Nobel Prize-winning Economist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

He describes how humans have two systems at work in their brain: System 1 and System 2. Even he struggles to name these two systems and admits that neurologists would pooh-pooh his phrasing. However, his explanation is just perfect.

Let me give you an example and then explain how it exemplifies his two systems…

On Thursday last week, my kettle gave up the ghost. Since then, I’ve been boiling water on the hob and making coffee that way. The past three mornings, I’ve put the water on to boil, got a cup out of the cupboard, put freeze-dried coffee in the cup… and then picked up the kettle and tried to pour cold water in it instead of using the water boiling on the stove.

What’s up with that?!

Kahneman gives many examples of such habitual behaviours, as well as other emotional behaviours and cognitive biases in his book. They’re all ways of thinking that we fight every day.

The way he describes it is that we have two systems at work. Roughly, if you’re down with brain anatomy, they’d correspond to the limbic system and the cortex. Roughly speaking, of course, since neuroscientists don’t all agree about the names, let alone what goes where. If you’re not down with brain anatomy, think of it as the white gelatinous mass inside the brain, and the wrinkly grey matter on the outside.

Now you don’t need me to tell you that humans have very advanced brains. We can get stuck ships out of canals. We can do long division. We can calculate the distance to the sun and the weight of Neptune and how big the universe is. We can make rockets that go into space and drills that go deep into the earth. Better still (in my opinion) we can create literature, music, poetry and art that moves the very soul of us and transports us to other worlds.

But we also have very defective and irregular, irrational ways of thinking. We take mental shortcuts. For example, we judge people more kindly if we’re holding a warm drink than a cold one. We decide that one thing is better than three other absolutely identical things and then, when we’re told they’re absolutely identical, we won’t believe it and we argue the toss. We hold prejudices and stereotypes. If we’re sitting in judgement over somebody, we make ‘fairer’ decisions after lunch than before. We think it’s okay to steal a few paperclips and pens from work but not to steal a fiver from the drawer of our boss. We’d think nothing of taking a cookie from an unattended tray, but we’d probably not dip our hands into an unattended cash box.

Kahneman, like many others, wanted to explore why we humans act so irrationally. Having taken on board literally thousands of psychology studies, he details various ways we think in bizarre, counterintuitive or biased ways. By bias, by the way, I simply mean ‘system errors’ – ways of thinking that are in violation of logic.

His explanation is that we have two thinking processes at work. The first is System 1. This roughly corresponds with the limbic system if you’re looking for labels. Kahneman says System 1 operates automatically and quickly. It doesn’t take much effort and there’s no sense of voluntary control. It does learn – of course it does – and it does so mostly through association as well as practice.

System 2 is our grey matter, our neocortex, our thinking brain. This bit of the brain is very much about choice and voluntary action. It’s about inhibition and learning rules of living in social groups. It’s about moderation and self-control.

Needless to say, when I poured cold water from a defective kettle into my cup, my System 1 brain was in the driving seat. System 1 is instinctive, emotional, often innate. It’s fast but it’s sloppy and it makes a lot of errors. It’s the seat of our fears but also of the rewards we get from learning. It learns associations – it’s the Pavlovian bit of our brain. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ brain that Malcolm Gladwell explores in Blink. If you want to know more about the crazy contrary behaviour of the human System 1, neuroeconomist Dan Ariely’s books are filled with the quirks of human thoughts and behaviour. I’m fascinated by System 1 – not least because it’s the bit we share with all other mammals, but also because it’s in charge of the weirdness of the human experience. It’s our dirty little homunculus, our inner toddler, our simian brain. It’s as likely to be our Mr Hyde as it is to be a star athlete or a super-skilled tightrope walker.

System 2, on the other hand, is good at identifying anomalies, at critical thinking, at doing tax forms, at maths, at playing musical instruments, at learning languages, at figuring decimal points and taking voluntary actions. It’s what makes us able to live in enormous groups. It’s Mozart and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s Archimedes and Aristotle, Locke and Hume, de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Kahneman explains that both System 1 and System 2 are always running. It’s not like one goes off-line when the other comes online. That said, System 1 runs automatically and System 2 needs to be engaged more consciously. When scientists debate animal consciousness, what they’re really debating is System 2 stuff. Are animals really just instinct machines, going blindly through the motions, following millions of years of evolution of behaviour, or are they in any way aware of what they’re doing and able to voluntarily adapt and modify their actions?

Of course, in his book, Kahneman is talking about humans. However, I think the same is very true of animals. Systems 1 behaviour can often get in the way of Systems 2. Sometimes, it not only gets in the way, but it derails it completely.

For your dog, System 1 stuff is all the stuff they were born knowing how to do. That might be broader animal behaviours like sleeping, drinking and eating. That could be species-specific behaviours that all dogs can do, like barking. It could even be more likely related to their breed, like pointing or digging for critters. Breed might also modify species-specific behaviours, for example making some breeds more likely to bark than others. System 1 is their default setting. It is of course affected by their age and development: male puppies don’t cock a leg to pee, but many, many male dogs (and some female dogs) will cock a leg without you – or anybody else – every teaching them to. I’m going to call the dog’s System 1 their Inner Dog Voice. System 1 seems far too system-y.

The System 1 Inner Dog Voice is in charge of your dog’s likes and dislikes, the things they find rewarding and the things they find scary. You don’t need to teach your dog to bark, nor to hump, nor to sniff other dogs. It’s all stuff your dog is born knowing how to do. Did you teach your dog to like liver? To eat rumpsteak? To love bones? System 1 is hugely affected by socialisation, which can switch on certain behaviours or leave them switched off pretty much forever.

If you think about it, early social experiences are all about teaching the dogs to manage their Inner Dog Voice. It’s about teaching Aussie shepherds not to stalk children, cattle dogs not to nip children’s feet, shepherds not to bark at strangers, terriers not to chase small furries into holes and dig tank traps in the lawn, shepherds and collies not to chase cars, bikes, joggers and cyclists. Early social experience is about exposing our dogs to the right stuff to help their System 2 override their Inner Dog Voices.

In particular, I love the way Kahneman explains how System 1 makes system errors. I think this is so true of so many dogs. In his book Influence, psychologist Robert Cialdini calls System 1 behaviours ‘click-whirr’ behaviours. Like a pre-programmed piece of software, the world presses a button, and the brain’s internal software clicks into play, whirring into motion. This often happens before the System 2 brain has had a chance to say, ‘hang on… false alarm’.

In his book Principles of Learning and Behaviour, Professor Michael Domjan explores the evolutionary utility of these ‘click-whirr’ System 1 behaviours. He discusses ways in which ethologists have tried to identify the precise environmental and contextual stimuli that trigger System 1 behaviours. For instance, if you’re a Mister Turkey, what is it precisely about Missus Turkey that floats your boat? If you’re Mister Stickleback, what is it about another Mister Stickleback that triggers your aggressive behaviour?

Sometimes, ethologists can identify the very precise and narrow criteria known as sign stimuli that trigger a behaviour. For instance, for birds, chick-feeding behaviour is often triggered by both the movement of their parent’s beak, but also by a visual cue like a spot. If you’re a stickleback, then it’s the red belly of your foe that triggers territorial aggression.

As I understand it, System 1 is what’s in charge of knowing and understanding these environmental signs and telling the body ‘do this now!’

Whether these are innate and instinctive sign stimuli that we don’t have to teach a dog to understand, or whether they’ve learned them through association, they’re often largely involuntary, speedy and often without conscious thought.

System 2, on the other hand, is responsible for inhibition, control and rational decisions.

So, not unlike us, dogs face a daily battle between doing what is easy and relatively intuitive, and doing what the Big Brain tells them to do.

The Dog Inner Voice and the Voice of Reason.

The Voice of Reason is everything that you do have to teach a dog. Like how not to jump on Auntie Vi, how to wait for their bowl to be put on the floor, how to walk nicely on lead, how to follow every damn one of those ridiculous human cues to do stuff like sit or lie down or stay put without destroying the house to get out. It’s the stuff they definitely aren’t born knowing. It’s most of the stuff that should come with a manual called, ‘How to Get By in a Human World’.

Going back to those original scenarios – the dogs whose ears sometimes don’t function, the dogs who can’t stop chasing cats, the dogs who bark at strangers, the dogs who snap at invisible flies – a lot of these things are where System 1 is working overtime and System 2 is asleep at the wheel.

All this said, we shouldn’t get too judgey about our dogs’ lack of ability to be reasonable, to follow instructions, to behave in ways that help them survive and thrive in a human world.

To be honest, knowing exactly what I know about the Human Voice of Reason and how often it fails, I think it’s a bit rich to expect our dogs to have a bigger and better Voice of Reason than we do. Seen anybody be rude on social media today? That’s a Voice of Reason Fail. Put cold water in your coffee? Voice of Reason Fail. Expect your dog not to pull when you can’t quit your 20-a-day habit? Voice of Reason Fail. Couldn’t resist the chocolate bar? Voice of Reason Fail. Got mad when someone stole your parking spot? You know my answer. Perhaps not so much as a Voice of Reason Fail as your automatic System 1 kicking into ‘click whirr’ mode when your own System 2 is asleep at the wheel.

I see a lot of System 1 errors with the dogs I work with. Dogs who chase cars, for instance. Coming back to Domjan and his discussion of those very specific sign stimuli that press play on a dog’s default software, what if a flash of light and motion is a sign stimulus that says, ‘Chase Mode: On’? Before System 2 has had a chance to say ‘Dude, it’s just a car,’ I think some dogs definitely have a disconnect between the behaviour they’re doing and reality. I see this most often when the dog is doing stuff to the wrong thing: humping legs, chasing bicycles, barking at snowmen…

System 1 is also in charge of emotional responses and emotional behaviour. When I see, for instance, someone asking their dog to sit as something scary approaches and passes, what I see is a dog who is being asked to have better willpower than me in front of a takeaway menu. My System 1 voice is much louder than my System 2 one saying, ‘Have the steamed broccoli’. You’ve guessed I end up with the food that’s not good for me, despite my best intentions

How does this knowledge affect how we might think about dogs and how we might train them.

First is to give them space and time for the System 2 voice to click in. If we want our dogs to make rational decisions, we have to put a bit of thinking space and physical distance between them and the stuff that presses their System 1 buttons. We need to give them time to make their mind up. We need System 2 to have time to say, ‘That’s a car, dude! They are zero fun to chase.’ Remember, too, that when System 1 commits to a course of action, it’s very difficult for System 2 to even chip in once it realises a system error has taken place. I see this so often with dogs who are caught out when startled. They behave aggressively and afterwards, their guardians say, ‘they looked really sorry’. Of course they did. That Voice of Reason with the manual to surviving in the human world, that System 2 voice, got to say, ‘Dude, are you insane? You’re guarding an acorn and now the humans are mad! Better throw out some appeasement behaviours…

Second, we need to stop asking our dogs to have great and ultimate control over their System 1 unless we have actively taught it, tested it in safe surroundings and generalised it so that it is absolutely automatic in all circumstances. Unless you can restrain yourself from making a correction every single time you see something wrong on the internet, take a step back, human, and remember it’s really hard to have self-control. And even if you manage to keep your fingers or words to yourself when someone makes an egregious error, if you can’t stop the dirty little thoughts you’re having about why they’re wrong, don’t judge your dog for counter surfing, for guarding a plant pot or for barking at a scarecrow.

Third, the bigger and more complex the taught behaviour, the more challenging it will be to do it, especially in situations where System 1 Inner Dog Voice is shouting and screaming. In my view, recall and walking on a loose lead are two of those very complex taught behaviours that we need to stop expecting our dog to just be able to do automatically. You might also add jumping on guests and barking in excitement to that list. Start by asking yourself whether the dog was born knowing how to do what you’re asking. Then ask if it takes people in general a really long time to train it. If the answers were ‘no’ to the former and ‘yes’ to the latter, you’re asking for a complex, taught behaviour. Ask yourself if what you are asking your dog to do is more complex than asking an average 8-year-old to do division when it’s just started snowing. If it’s hard, if it’s complex and if it requires System 2 to use a lot of energy to run the software, then when circumstances get challenging, the Voice of Reason software will crash and Inner Dog Voice factory installation is going to kick in.

Fourth, we need to consider how complex and demanding it is for our dogs to ‘have manners’ or ‘be polite’ when they’re fearful, frustrated or excited. That level of control takes a lot of effort and self-mastery. If I tell you that in virtually every single bite case I’ve ever done, I think the dog was fairly restrained under the circumstances, perhaps we’ll learn to respect dogs a little for barking when they could have bitten, for inhibiting their bite when they could have caused enormous damage, then perhaps we can see that there’s a lot of control being exercised in circumstances where humans under the same pressures might not be so circumspect.

Fifth, we need to truly appreciate the need to teach our dogs System 2 stuff rather than just expecting it. Want them not to bark at strangers? Teach them strangers are safe and what to do instead. Want them to cope with people coming into your home? Teach them that it’s normal and what to do instead. Want them to recall perfectly when in a world of scent? Teach them a recall that is so automatic that System 1 doesn’t end in a scrap about it. We also could do with stopping using tools to enforce control rather than teaching dogs to control themselves from within.

Most of all, we need to have better control of our own System 1. You know, the Inner Human Voice that says, ‘Sure! Go pet that strange dog you don’t know!’ That Inner Human Voice that wins the battle when your dog has jumped on you for the nth time and you end up shouting rather than sticking to your extinction protocol. That Inner Human Voice that says, ‘Dogs should just respect us!’

We need to control our own System 1 that sticks a hand out to an unfamiliar dog… that grabs a strange dog to put up onto a groomer’s table or into a car… that System 1 error that makes us think bad stuff won’t happen to us because our inbuilt optimism bias makes us think that we’re less likely than everybody else to get bitten or get hurt. System 2 is risk averse and does the calculations, but it takes much longer to embed that learning unless something actually happens to us to teach us a lesson. System 2 also gets sloppy. It’s the biggest reason I can think of why people work with their dogs to overcome problems and, in one poor split-second error of judgement, we do what we’d been doing that ends up with the dog biting us and default to our pre-installed software. Thus, people who’ve overcome their urge to chase their dog when the dog’s stolen something, to overcome urges to grab collars or manipulate dogs simply because it was posing a problem in the past are then horrified to find they accidentally slip into that behaviour 18 months later and the dog bites them apparently having ‘learned’ not to. It’s why I tell my clients not to slip into complacency if their dog has ever injured someone. It’s easy to think the dog is over it, but when human System 1 errors collide with canine System 1 errors, it can be a perfect storm of circumstances that end up causing a lot of misery all around.

Not only could we do with understanding our dogs’ System 1 better, knowing how their behaviour is influenced by emotions but also understanding their innate Inner Dog Voice, but we could also do with understanding our own System 1 voice better. But at the same time, I think we should also cut ourselves some slack. It’s hard to have a neocortex that’s built on top of some ancient brain structures and patterns that sometimes go astray. It takes effort for dogs and humans to run System 2 stuff, especially under pressure. Most of the time, it all functions very smoothly, but we do need to remember that fatigue, pressure, time constraints and hunger all play a role in System 2 falling asleep at that proverbial wheel. That’s as true as it is for humans as it is for dogs.

P.S. My System 1 was going to call this post ‘Dogging, Fast and Slow’ as a play on the title of Kahneman’s book. Luckily, my System 2 kicked in and told me that’d attract all the wrong kind of readers. Hopefully this word is so far down the post that the much more rational and logical search engine crawlers don’t end up thinking this post is about voyeuristic hanky-panky. System 1, be damned.

P.P.S if you are here for d*gging, may I point you in the direction of your System 2 and wish you good luck?

The Easiest Heel walk Life hack

Or: how Hagrid taught me to walk to heel.

This month, I’ll be sharing all my tips with you for teaching adult dogs to walk to heel or to walk without pulling on the lead. While puppy programmes are great for teaching puppies to walk without pulling, it can be really difficult to teach a 40kg adult dog not to pull when they’ve spent their whole life doing it, or they’ve not had the training they needed to help them.

Sometimes, that’s just because we’re not helping ourselves when we train our puppies. It’s not just rehomed adult dogs that could do with a back-to-basics course. I know extendable leads are still fashionable; alongside the danger of these devices, they’re absolute sods for teaching dogs to walk under constant lead pressure. They’re the first thing you need to ditch if you have a dog who pulls or lunges on lead, or who spends most of the time looking in the bushes and frantically vaccuuming up smells.

The first tip I have for you comes from a dog who taught me to walk perfectly to heel.

This is Hagrid.

Hagrid was a guest at our shelter for a couple of years, and he taught me very nicely to walk to heel.

Alongside health issues that made him very hungry, he was also a very independent spirit. The first time I saw him, he had a volunteer up against the wall and was helping himself to the contents of said volunteer’s treat pouch. I imagine him a little like a rather dashing highwayman, taking what he wants with latent menace but doing so with pizzazz nonetheless.

Helping himself was natural. I took him once to a photo shoot. That was fun. The student photographers asked me to let him off lead. I told them it wasn’t a very good idea. They insisted. I dropped the lead. Hagrid went to the buffet and ate all the peanuts. Then he went and found surplus in a duffle bag.

I think it’s important you have an understanding of Mr Hagrid and his ways before I tell you how he taught me to walk to heel. Mostly as I don’t want you to think badly about what happened next between us.

When I was walking Hagrid, he had a disconcerting way of giving me a look. A look that said, “Hey lady, give me a treat!” and also, “I’m being polite now… don’t make me mug you…” He was always just that little bit too close to me and I just did not feel relaxed with him right there in my personal space. It was disconcerting and a little unnerving.

He was very obliging and a very hungry, good boy.

I, however, did not like Hagrid walking so close to me. I did not want him up close and personal.

So I threw a treat into the grass.

He went to get it.

I sighed and felt momentary relief.

He turned at me and smiled that gap-toothed smile, then sidled right in again. That dog really did sidle. As unobtrusively as he could, gradually moving in as we moved forwards.

Now I knew this was backwards.

Throwing the treat out was shaping closer and closer behaviours.

It made him come back more, not less.

So I left it longer and longer before I’d throw that treat, figuring he’d just back away or give up walking in my personal space.

He never did.

By the end, he was loose-lead walking almost a kilometre – never begging. Just looking and being there… right at my knee. Just in case, you know.

I’d find him right at my side again.

‘Hullo… I don’t suppose you’d have a treat there for a small dog would you, lady?’

And just like that, he’d taught me the best heel-walk life hack ever.

What was happening was I was shaping him walking in my space. The longer I left it, the closer he’d get, so the next time, he’d just start walking at the previously closest point. So what started being a metre away ended up being 10cm away from me. And then I started to shape longer and longer periods of him being in my space. What started being a treat every ten paces or so ended up being a treat every hundred paces or so.

Hagrid’s loose lead & heel walking method

This is how Hagrid taught me how to walk to heel.

Start in a really easy, familiar space where your dog is relatively calm and able to take food. You can even start in the home if you need to. You can also start on the easy bits of walks – say for instance if your dog is calm(er) as you turn the corner to go home. If you’ve got multiple dogs, train one dog first. You don’t even need to do it on lead.

Instead of looking down and seeing your small, hairy steam train, imagine you have a very handsome but rather unnerving big dog at your side. You want to get them away from you. Every time they violate your personal space, you want to get them out of it. It’s actually helpful to imagine a physical circle or bubble around 50cm or the length of your lower arm from you. Every time they come into it, you’re going to throw them a treat just to get them away from you.

Without going further than the length of the lead, throw a treat 90° to the side of you. It’s best if you’re using a 2 or 3 metre lead. Any longer, and you run the risk of whiplash. Any shorter, and you won’t be able to really move the treat very far away at all. You keep walking slowly – slow enough that you’re still moving but they’ve time to find the treat without the lead going hard. If they’re finding it hard, do this on a clear, flat surface like asphalt, with very smelly and visible big treats. Throw it gently – excitement and loose lead exercises do not mix well.

What you should find happening is an immediate return as the dog comes back.

As soon as they’ve got that treat, they’re back for more.

Reward 20 or so invasions of your personal space every time they violate your imaginary circle.

Make sure you throw to the same side that you want the dog to walk on. Stick to one side.

Eventually, if you like, you can move to a 5 or 10m lead and use smaller treats in the grass so you can take more paces forward while they’re finding it. If they’re slower, you can also stop or slow down until they’ve found it and then start walking again.

It’s so simple: Dog violates your imaginary circle, throw treat sideways.

What you should find is that the dog becomes a real space invader.

Then you can only reward the very worst infractions. Make that imaginary circle smaller.

You don’t even need to mark with a clicker or a marker word like ‘yes’ or ‘good’ – just throw the treat. You can, of course, use a marker word, but marker words are not what make this effective – rewarding the dog with food for being in your personal space is what makes it work. To be honest, with a lead and with treats, I’m not a fan of having something else in my hand, though you can get clickers you operate with your mouth. I prefer a simple verbal marker though – it’s much less cumbersome when you’re on the move.

If you do add a marker word, you’re just moving to a three-step process: dog violates your imaginary circle, say ‘yes’ or ‘good’, throw treat sideways.

You can add a cue if you like. I say ‘ready?’ That just means ‘Come into my space – good stuff is about to start!’ Or you can say ‘heel’ if that’s your thing. To be honest, you could say, ‘Make like Glue!’ if you wanted. No reason it has to be formal.

Make sure it’s a clear word that’s different from all your other words though. If you do this, you’ve now got a four-step process: say ‘heel!’ as the dog approaches the first few times, wait for the dog to move into your imaginary circle, say ‘yes’ or ‘good’ and throw the treat sideways.

To be honest, I’m so lazy, I just keep it pretty loose.

What you do then is stretch out the time that the dog is violating your personal space circle. Do this slowly and incrementally, counting paces if you like. Go two paces with them in your personal space, then throw the treat. Do this six or seven times, then go three paces. Mix it up too and keep it unpredictable. Sometimes throw after one pace. Sometimes after ten. Sometimes five. Keep your dog guessing.

It’s also important to throw the treat when the dog is looking straight ahead. If you can, do it when the dog’s head is held high (as opposed to sniffing the ground) and looking forward, otherwise you’ll end up with the ‘stargazer’ walk where the dog walks next to you but looking up at you as if you’re a celebrity. I hate this. It’s bad for dogs’ necks and they can’t see where they’re going.

If you’re doing show walking for obedience, of course, you may want this.

But for us average Joes and Josephines, it’s better to reward your dog when they are in your space but not looking directly at you. Worse still is rewarding because they’re looking at your pockets or your hands. If your dog struggles with this, don’t engage eye contact with them, look straight ahead. Put your treats away and never touch your pouch or pockets when the dog is looking at them. You can of course do this pocket touching very deliberately. I do. It stops me having to say, ‘Hey, dogs! Make like glue!’ But if you’re going to do this, make sure it’s a choice, not an accident. I love it that I touch my pockets, and my dogs go: ‘Oooh, what? What?!’

You can also just reward the worst infractions and violations of your personal space. I did that with Hagrid. By the end, we were show-walking, shoulder to knee. This was not my intention.

Once you’ve got this, add in progressively more challenging circumstances.

It is perfectly possible to build up to very long stretches, I don’t like this as the dog might as well be on a treadmill. Tilly my spaniel once heelwalked for 5km as I’d left a pig’s ear in my jacket. This was not my intention and she did not enjoy that walk. I tend to use a cue ‘ready?’ or touch my pockets, do a little bit of training and then do an awful lot of dog stuff like sniffing, peeing and investigating in between. Heel work is hard. It also doesn’t allow your dog to do exciting dog stuff.

You can see the technique in action here. Just a caveat – the black dog is on medication that increases his appetite, so there is some stargazer walking here – I’m not that fussed about it because we don’t do loads of demos, otherwise I’d phase it out. The malinois girl is the one to keep your eye on for best technique’. You can also see from time to time, I reward from my hand. That’s fine too.

Why this works

The first reason is that it progressively shapes closer and closer walking. Forget about the lead, really. You can do this without the lead just as well. This is not about a loose lead so much as it is about teaching the dog that it’s worthwhile walking near you. You’re like a walking cash machine that sometimes spits out money. It’s worthwhile hanging around to be there when that happens.

The second is that it teaches your dog where to walk. So many people try to lure the dog in position or use very stilted heel positions that the dog has to concentrate really hard. This method is zero fun. I have never, ever had fun or success teaching a dog to do this. All your dog is learning is the concept that, if they’re near you, they get food.

Throwing the treat sideways is just a test and allows them to reset. It also really helps them understand that it’s being near you that’s valuable. Who knows what dogs are learning if you’re just feeding at your knee or heel? Maybe they’re learning when you bend over, food comes. Trainers do this all the time. I throw treats away when I’m grooming or petting dogs so that I know, if they come back, then they’re okay with what we’re doing. If they eat the food and stay away, then that tells me such a lot. If I want dogs to stay on a platform, throwing the treat away or rewarding off the platform is a crucial step to help dogs realise what it is that they’re doing that’s getting the food. As we always say, the position of the reinforcement is essential. I think this method is better than reinforcing at the side of us because we never can tell if the dogs really understand it. This way, we test all the time if the dog is with us or not. And if they disengage or spend longer getting the treat, that gives me information to slow down and let them investigate.

It’s also a very casual technique that you can practise over time. I tend to reward all violations of my space over a walk with a dog who isn’t that interested in me. Give it a month and you’ll see much more focus on you and much less of the kind of walking you don’t want. This works for me. They sniff and do dog stuff as they like, and when they’re finished with that, then they come back close in and we interact. I’ve found dogs who were completely checked out and never interested in their guardians at all are much more focused on their guardian after a month or so of this technique. It can be very frustrating (and fattening!) to try to teach an adult dog not to pull by doing it as you would with a puppy – not walking them until they’ve mastered heel walking or loose lead in the home, the garden, on easy walks… It could easily be three months of very heavy treat reliance to get that far and that’s frustrating for both dogs and guardians. This way gradually phases out pulling and phases in walking in the proximity of the guardian. It’s not an all or nothing approach and you can do it with ten or twenty high-value treats a day rather than getting through a kilo of cheese and giving your dog pancreatitis. The irony is that the more they’re in your personal space, the leaner and more demanding you can be with rewards.

So, thank you, Mr Hagrid, for having taught me to walk to heel. Your hack helps me daily in so many ways.

This post is the first in a series over the month helping you train your adult dog to walk nicely on lead. If you don’t want to miss a post, hop over to Facebook and ‘Like’ the page, making sure you hit all the right buttons to see posts. Or sign up on this website to get every post delivered to your inbox!

a lifetime of correction?

Recently, the dog-training social media world has been once again in dispute over punishment. I hate this. Nobody ever really falls out over using toys as a reward.

The arguments are always the same. Some people claim that punishment works. And it may – with many, many provisos. First off, you need to be a great trainer to punish dogs effectively. You need great timing. Most people’s timing is really sloppy. I watched a video of me training Lidy the other week and I was embarrassed how poor my timing was. I’m surprised she ever learns anything. We’re lucky most dogs are intuitive.

Second, you need to understand that punishment simply suppresses behaviour. It doesn’t change the underlying need to perform the behaviour, it just might stop the dog doing it again in future. The need to do the behaviour doesn’t go away. So if the dog’s pulling or jumping or even biting, then punishing it might stop the behaviour in future. But the dog’s motiviations, emotions and underlying need to do that behaviour are still there. Bear this consequence of punishment in mind because it’s going to be really important in the rest of this post.

Third, punishment can cause frustration and aggression. It causes frustration because your dog doesn’t know what you actually want them to do, just that you don’t want them to do that. It can also cause aggression – partly because of the frustration sometimes and partly because it doesn’t do anything at all for your bond with the dog. Will your dog trust you if you punish them? Hell no. This is one reason some trainers are so fond of shock collars because it at least might not seem as if it’s coming from them. This disintegration of trust is also is going to be a really important factor in the rest of this post. Herron et al. (2009) did a study of the consequences of punishers on aggression. You won’t be shocked to realise that certain types of punisher (including a hard stare) increased aggression by up to 40%.

Fourth, punishment reduces all behaviours of a certain type. Dogs just stop doing stuff. If you’ve ever seen people playing the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ game using shock, you’ll see the same there: they just stop moving in the end. A bit like me in my A level English Lit class. We got told we were wrong so many times, we just stopped answering or responding. What you get are dogs who are afraid to try to do anything.

Fifth, punishment increases distance between the dog and the person responsible for punishing them. Again, why some trainers like shock because it seems as if they aren’t doing the punishment. This might seem seductive until you realise that the sixth potential consequence of punishment is that dogs can generalise wildly during punishment and are apt to learn to connect all kinds of unconnected events to the punishment – an odour, the time of day – you don’t get to pick.

Of course, you don’t get to know if any of these six things will be a consequence until you’ve done it. Great. Totally unpredictable and you can never know whether or not the dog will learn totally the wrong thing.

You can read more about the fallout of punishment here, and in the interest of balance, also about the fallout of positive reinforcement training here.

These six factors are the logical, rational and scientific reasons I don’t use punishment in my training. Not least because most of the dogs I work with have aggression histories and – with no judgement intended on my lovely clients – they’ve already tried punishment already and it failed them. Sometimes it has worsened things. Sometimes it has even been responsible for causing the problem in the first place. I don’t use choke chains, head halters, prong collars or shock collars. I don’t even largely use flat collars any more either. I don’t use ‘no!’ and I don’t use water sprays, training discs, shake jars, compressed air sprays, air horns, citronella collars, spray collars, invisible perimeter fences, stern looks, standing over dogs, rolling dogs… I’m kind of lucky that I don’t have to because most of these things are things people have already tried them.

That brings me to the ethics of training. I don’t use punishment on dogs for two reasons. The first is that I like to hold myself personally to better standards. I don’t use it with people and I won’t use it with animals. You could tell me positive reinforcement was only 20% as effective as punishment and I’d still use reinforcement in my training. The second is that dogs often let us punish them, which is largely to their detriment. They don’t deserve us to use aversives just because they tolerate it. Cats largely don’t. I’m a cat person at heart. My cats would have moved out of the house and voted with their feet if I’d used punishments with them. Positive reinforcement in life works on all creatures from single celled ones up to human beings, if you like to think of life organised in that way. You can train bees to play hockey and fish to do agility courses using positive reinforcement. But you can’t punish a bee. A bee would just sting you. A wasp would sting you repeatedly. Most animals would avoid us completely if we punished them, or they’d avoid the situation. Go try punish a wolf! I listened to the very great Jean Lessard in discussion about punishment with a trainer who uses aversives. He made the point very clearly that wolves wouldn’t tolerate it.

Free animals don’t come back for seconds unless… they really want something … or they forget because the punishment lapses. That’s the thing about punishment. You’re committing yourself to a lifetime of aversives. If you use deer scarers to keep deer off your crops, then expect to find them coming back when the thing runs out of gas. Or, if there’s nothing else to eat and they are desperate. Punishment is a lifetime commitment. You can hope that your dog will ‘forget’ the behaviour you don’t like, or that they’ll ‘remember’ the punishment, but if they happen, those are by-products. Punishment needs you to always correct what you see as an error.

Remember that. It’s important. Every time you see the behaviour, you’ll have to correct it.

If you don’t, you’re doing some complicated stuff, learning-wise. Firstly, you’re putting the behaviour on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. That sounds like stupid science waffle, I know. What it means is that because the dog sometimes gets what they want, they’ll keep doing it. Behaviour that is sometimes rewarded is more resilient even than behaviour that is always rewarded. An example: one is a man using a whip (I know…) to keep dogs away from a big pile of food he’s put out in a hunting kennels. Some of the dogs keep running in and grabbing a piece. All that whip is doing is temporarily suppressing the dogs’ behaviour of running in and grabbing food. Second, some of them keep getting some food, so they’re going to keep doing it. Punishment is always a 1:1 thing. If it’s not, even if it’s 99% punished and 1% rewarded, there’s a risk you’re actually creating a bigger problem. I see this ALL the time with people who punish dogs for jumping up. All it takes is that one time the dog gets what they need – to say hello – and boom, the behaviour is back again. With knobs on.

A lifetime commitment to punishing error. That’s what you need.

There are science-y waffle conditions, exceptions and complications that you might want to explore if you’re a very geeky dog trainer, but in a nutshell, nobody has any need to really understand those if you work off the principle that punishment is a lifetime commitment to suppressing behaviour and punishing errors.

All this is nothing new. I’ve written about this so many times from scientific perspectives and ethical perspectives.

But where it intersects hugely with my work is in rescue and rehoming.

A dog who has been trained with all the good stuff – great food and great toys – can be switched to what we call a lean schedule of reinforcement. What that means is that you don’t need to keep doing it. Unlike punishment. Thus, once I’ve taught a dog to walk loose-lead with treats, I can phase them out. Hoorah. Sure, I can keep it fresh by occasionally bringing the treats out and freshening up on skills, but I don’t need to keep doing it.

When my clients ask, therefore, “Do I need to keep using treats?”

No. Absolutely not. It would actually be better to thin them out.

That is not the same with punishment. Guardians should ask, “Do I need to keep using punishment?”

The answer is, “Probably. Most likely. Especially for problem behaviours.”

It also means that other people can take over the training. I was working with a really sweet reactive girl the other week and she’s had nothing but good stuff since she was adopted. She was throwing out lovely behaviours left, right and centre. She was happy to sit for a biscuit from me (though I don’t encourage strangers to use food with reactive dogs and I really prefer the guardian to do the treat bit) and once she realised that her behaviours also worked on me, well, her world made sense.

It means that, should I ever need to rehome Heston or Lidy, their new guardians would just need to say ‘sit!’ and they would. If they went to people who believed in praise and petting (traditionalist cheapskates!) rather than food, then that’d be fine. I do need to teach them to respond to others asking, but it doesn’t take much to switch from one human to the next.

This is not the same with punishment. When a dog comes from a background of punishment, then it requires the shelter, the fosterer, the adopter, everyone involved in that dog’s life, to continue using punishment to suppress behaviour – whether they agree with it or not.

Take off the bark collar, and it’s likely barking will come back again.

Take off the shock collar you’ve been using to stop the dog running off on walks, and the behaviour will likely come back again.

Teaching your dog using punishments passes that punishment on down the line. It requires everyone else in that dog’s life to also punish the dog. And because you’ve never dealt with the underlying emotion, especially behind problem behaviours, that behaviour is likely to pop right out again if the new family don’t want to use punishment.

Worse still, if you’ve been using direct methods of punishment like hard stares or alpha rolls, water sprays, compressed air, hard words, choke chains or head halters, then a person who has no history with that dog is then put into the very dubious position of having to punish a dog they don’t know. As you know by now, the risk of aggression in such a case is huge. There’s none of the learning history, none of the bond, none of the trust. And when you punish a dog, you absolutely need to have those things in place for it to work if you want to avoid repercussions that are likely to end in aggression.

You, for instance, might control your dog with a choke chain on a walk. But when you pass your dog to a new dog walker who has no history with your dog and you ask them to do the same, well, you’re putting a lot of faith in your dog not turning round when the walker yanks on their neck and saying, “Oh will you f@*k off pulling me!”

None of us want to think that our dogs will ever need to be re-homed, but in reality, it happens. People get ill. People divorce. People marry. People die. People move. People go into homes. People suddenly find themselves having to live with a relative. When that happens, if you’ve passed your dog on to someone else and you’ve got a history of punishment to suppress unwanted behaviour, you’re handing over a time-bomb. And you’re doing it when the dog’s bonds are weakest, when the dog is most vulnerable and when the dog is most stressed.

One example I had recently was a dog of a breed known to be suspicious of strangers. He arrived with a shock collar, which the new guardians put in the bin. They didn’t know why he’d got the collar on, or even what type of collar it was. They certainly hadn’t signed up to use punishments on the dog. The first few times the dog saw strangers, he seemed perfectly normal. Seemed. A couple of weeks in, and the dog gets caught out by a postman coming on the property, and boom, barking and lunging freely as he’s always wanted to but never been able to. The new guardian grabbed the dog and the dog turned on him. Without a conditioned history, we don’t have the permission to grab adult dogs who we don’t know. Two weeks doesn’t give our new dog time to understand our idiosyncrasies.

I’ve heard arguments before from trainers who say positive reinforcement training ends with dogs in shelters. This drives me nuts. They say it ends with dogs being euthanised and being unable to be rehomed. This is a lie. In France’s second-largest shelter, we are embedded in a punishment culture. One local trainer actually uses whips and chains and it shows him doing so on his website. His nickname is Mr Whip. We have positive reinforcement trainers too, but on the whole, France is filled with ‘dresseurs’ who use aversives. Some are mild, others are not. In eight years, we’ve never had a dog surrendered because positive training had failed. Let me say that again. Not one dog ever surrendered because their owner used biscuits to teach them to sit.

Not one.

We get loads of dogs who’ve had nothing at all. Fine.

And we get loads of dogs who’ve been hit, been shocked, been subjected to choke chains and prong collars. Loads.

For most, they go on to be great dogs. After all, it was only their first owner who was a knob, and other people seem quite nice. Some take months to learn to trust again.

Others are simply so unreliable and have generalised so much about humans being knobs that you’re literally rebuilding them from the inside out. But it’s not like you’re just starting from scratch. You first have to undo the damage that has been done.

It is never dogs who’ll sit for a biscuit who are the problem. They are barely a problem at all. Usually, they tell you that’s what they know, because they try it out on you, hopefully. We don’t get many of those.

When you take off the punishment – when you take off the shock collar – when you remove harsh punishments – that behaviour is apt to come back with friends. It’s also likely to do so with people who have either no idea that they would even need to continue punishments or engage in lengthy retraining. They’re also people who have no history with the dog.

When you have history, you can get away with aversive experiences. I’m not the type to pretend that I don’t say ‘no’ to my dogs from time to time. It’s layered on years of a trusting relationship where they are rewarded for the ‘right’ choices (read: things I’ve decided in my infinite wisdom that are ‘right’) and when sometimes I say no, they stop. I will often cue them to do something they can get rewarded for and we all learn to get along cooperatively.

But when I first knew Lidy, she grabbed a towel out of my hand. I said no. Her look right then was, “F@$k you, bitch, and f@*k your biscuits too.” It set us back for weeks.

Trust is hard won and easily destroyed. Especially with a stressed, vulnerable dog whose primary attachment figures have disappeared and whose world makes no sense either.

I don’t joke when I say that punishment is apt to cause all sorts of untold problems further down the line.

One was the dog whose kennels used a head-halter without telling his guardian. It caused him a neck injury that led to a bite when his guardian returned. He never truly recovered and he was euthanised three years later because his guardian could never rebuild his trust in handling.

Another was a dog who was surrendered muzzled, wearing a shock collar and a prong. Taking these off gave him the freedom to finally express how fearful he was in public. He bit a vet who lifted him into a car. Years of suppressing his feelings about being handled could never be overcome. You don’t get that with dogs who expect a bit of cheese when a stranger handles them.

Finally, a foster who used bark collars. The dog became neck sensitive – a common problem for dogs who’ve had aversives applied to the neck – and putting leads on the dog, handling the dog, moving the dog, even touching the dog turned out to be a nightmare.

I read sometimes of rescues who use aversives. These cases are all reasons why we do not. The fallout for new guardians can be enormous. They make dogs unreliable and unpredictable. From the mildest problems – my girl Flika who ignored her name because it had been used when she was in trouble – Amigo, who trembled when he saw a fly swatter and cowered when you put him on a lead and wouldn’t even go for a pee – Tilly, who was untouchable for months, who wasn’t house-trained and needed rebuilding from the inside-out – to the most severe cases where new guardians have been bitten… punishment causes all kinds of problems that rewards never do. My easiest dogs were Ralf and Tobby, robust old boys who’d happily sit for a biscuit, who never cowered, who never were afraid.

It goes without saying that nobody should ever use aversives on a dog that is not their own – from groomers and house-sitters to kennels and vets.

But I think we should also understand the complications of situations where the original guardian has trained the dog using punishments.

It puts the new guardian in a position where it can be tricky to live with the dog, not least if it obliges them to keep using punishers because it’s all the dog has ever known.

It also means they have to have a hands-off approach until the dog trusts them. No pulling out brambles, no touching the dog by mistake, no collar grabs, no helping the dog into the car, no putting on lampshades after surgery, no lifting dogs onto vet tables. That can be really tough for guardians who’ve always had a hands-on approach of their own and expect to be able to do the same. It is also tough considering how many rescue dogs require veterinary interventions straight away. It’s tough for vet staff in shelters and for unfamiliar vets working with new clients.

So to come back to dog trainers justifying the technical use of punishment… we really need to think of the life of the dog. We might not necessarily be training the dog to be with us all their lives. Heaven only knows what may happen to us. But pass on a dog who has been loved, a dog who knows humans are kind, who trusts humans, who has learned that life’s inescapable bad stuff is invariably coupled up with good stuff.

Don’t pass on a dog who needs a shock collar to walk past other dogs, or who only behaves because they’re scared of you. Punishment engenders fear. That’s all it does. It sets the dog up for a lifetime of that punishment unless you layer in alternatives and you’re an expert trainer who can 100% guarantee there will be no fallout.

And here’s the thing: no trainer can guarantee that. It’s not about whether punishment may work. It’s not about whether it’s ethical or not. Scientists and philosophers can argue the theory between themselves and let us know when they have an answer. It’s about the real-world fallout of punishment for dogs… the real-world consequences. It puts future guardians in jeopardy and it puts the dog at risk.

Consider the dog who has been kneed in the chest if they jump up. It may seem that they’ve ‘learned’ not to jump (usually in the presence of people who knee dogs in the chest) but put them in a new environment, where stress lowers inhibitions, and jumping up is going to come back again. Are new guardians also expected to knee dogs in the chest?!

And consider the dog who has a history of aggression, ‘cured’ by a shock collar. Take the collar off and the aggression is still right there, in a new home, with a new family who may not have even known it was there.

Whenever, then, trainers get clever and punishment and aversives seem like seductive short-cuts, remember the consequences.

For guardians adopting adult dogs, you do not have the privilege of trust. Maybe you used mild aversives with all your dogs before; maybe you are very handsy and feel you should be able to grab a dog. Know that if you do so with a dog you’ve adopted – even months into the relationship – they may not tolerate from you what your previous dogs tolerated.

For guardians raising puppies, know that you are possibly creating a time-bomb if you use punishers and you need to rehome your dog. None of us think that will ever happen to us, but if you rely on chokes, prongs, shock collars, sharp words and forced handling, then you can’t predict that the future guardians will feel the same or even be able to use aversives in the same way your dog’s trust in you gave you licence to do.

It’s not a debate about should we use punishment, how effective it is or whether it’s ethical. It’s knowing that there are real-world consequences that we might not be the ones who have to face up to.

how to cope with training set-backs

Most of my clients come to me with dogs who are fearful, reactive or aggressive. Some of their dogs are shy; others are confident and a little boisterous. Usually they have problem behaviours that are interfering with their own well-being or the well-being of those around them. Some have problems with their guardians or with dogs in the home; others have problems when out in the real world and faced with life at large.

Solving the problem is never the issue: there are no problems we haven’t seen before. There are no dogs who have problems that other trainers or other vets, other guardians and other dogs haven’t overcome. There is nothing new in the world of dog training. There’s nothing new in the world of dogs.

Finding a way to solve the problem that fits your specific circumstances is a little tougher. All training needs time to acquire the skills you need and time to proof them in progressively more challenging circumstances. It’s that heady mix of slowly and surely, systematically and thoughtfully.

Good grief… you just mean I have to keep doing it over and over, and that’s all?

I’ve said before that there are no magic bullets. It’s just getting the little stuff right and practising until you’ve got it. Start way easier than you could ever imagine you need to and take the tiniest, baby steps until you’ve got it sorted.

Two things happen along the way though.

The first is that you worry it’ll never be right, that your dog will never be over their problem. You worry that they’ll never be ‘better’ and that you’ll never be able to cope. You worry that you’ll never be able to do X or Y. You worry that you might not get around to being able to do A or B, let alone X and Y. This generally happens about four to six weeks in, when you’ve forgotten the great progress you’ve already made.

You might, for example, have gone from worrying on every single walk that your dog was going to bark or lunge at someone. You might have gone from regular jumping, digging or humping to practically none at all.

But you’ve been managing the situation and you’ve been carrying the burden of making sure you never put your dog in situations that were too hard for them to handle. It’s all been on you.

Don’t get me wrong – they’ll have been great. You’ll have worked on focus, on impulses, on manners. You’ll have been desensitising like mad and counterconditioning like a fool, and you’ll have got your u-turns and your hand touches down perfectly.

You should have had a month of great experiences.

But in the back of your mind is the nagging doubt as you move to more challenging situations. The nagging voice that says, ‘What if?’

What if someone appears out of nowhere? What if a guest encourages my dog to start humping again? What if the delivery guy sets foot on the property?

A lot of this comes from having kept your dog safe during the early stages of training. That burden has been on you and it’s been tough. It’s hard to think of every single thing that could go wrong and plan it so that it doesn’t. It’s an emotional strain – just as it is living with dogs who have any kind of problem.

As you move out into the real world again and you start to put your dog and your training to the test, it’s bound to be nerve-wracking. My advice is to get a trainer to help you with it. However, they can’t be with you every single trial you’re going to do over the next three months. As you place your dog in more and more challenging situations, two things will happen. The first is that you’ll begin to have faith in them. The second is you worry they’ll relapse.

Heston is my go-to demo dog these days. He had 8 years to prepare for it, where other dogs carried that burden. Ralf, Amigo, Flika… they’d all done their share of helping guardians and their dogs. Heston, not until last September.

To be frank, Heston missed out on some stuff I should have taught him and I didn’t know enough then to raise him as thoughtfully as I should have done.

Oh well.

We trained. I kept him safe. Gradually, we met the world again. Vet surgeries and human contact, he’s come to tolerate if not enjoy. We learned how to cope around livestock and we learned not to go mental if we see wild boar sunning themselves. We learned not to chase swallows and not to bark at crows.

He has been the best demo dog. Mostly because he’s made the journey my clients’ dogs are making. He’s moved from barking at joggers and shouting at hikers to impeccable behaviour around all kinds of scary, strange humans. We found ourselves once in a masked parade by accident (don’t ask!) and our former worst nightmare turned out to be a walk in the park. He’s stopped over-reacting when he sees dogs and he is an absolute dream with dogs in the vets.

This is not to brag. This is to say, ‘Have Faith’.

Those As and Bs you don’t think you can do today will be Xs and Ys that will be a breeze in the future.

You don’t only need to have faith in your training and in that slow and repetitive process. You also need to rebuild your trust. I remember the day Heston lunged at a jogger who didn’t give us a wide enough berth, despite him barking like a maniac at her. That slow and steady process rebuilt my trust in him and his trust in me.

Every walk with Lidy, every car journey, we’re building trust. I get to watch her horizons broaden, little by little.

Lidy is never going to be my demo dog. That’s fine. I never expected she would be. She will be safe and her world will gradually get bigger, month by month. We might end up with some Cs and Ds instead of As and Bs.

Having faith, rebuilding your trust and respecting hard boundaries is all part of the process.

There will be days it will fail.

I remember about 18 months into working with Lidy. She’d not had any confrontations for those 18 months. One Saturday (coincidentally the Saturday I met Flika!) all her nightmares came at once: Saturday walks in the shelter, darkness, too many people, too many visitors, a man lumbering towards her. She couldn’t cope. Nothing much happened other than me getting a new set of holes in a coat. But it felt like everything had gone.

When it fails, we tend to think all has failed. It’s all been for nothing. Everything was wrong.

What we need to do is realise two things: what we were doing was working and we’re never back at Square One.

Repeat that like a mantra every single time you have a set back. You are never back at Square One.

You are NEVER back at Square One.

All your work counts.

Those 18 months of training and trust didn’t get wiped out in one fell swoop.


We re-set. We re-calibrate (thanks Frances!).

We take a deep breath and we keep doing what we were doing.

I’m now 3 years past that last incident with Lidy. I have no new holes in my jumpers. We’ve seen very muscular joggers running at us. We’ve had dogs appear from nowhere. We’ve crested the hill of what we would do when an off-lead dog was going to come bounding over to us. That bridge has been crossed and the water has well and truly passed beneath it.

We crest new hills all the time. She isn’t the dog she was. Heston is not the dog he was.

None of this is magic bullet stuff. If you read my articles, you know it’s patience, training and working with the dog at their pace. That’s all.

But it’s not just about the dog. It’s about us.

We need to remember to have faith. We need to trust in the process. We need to remember that we’re never back to Square One on the Snakes-and-Ladders board called Life. All that work counts.

So if you’re just starting out with your training plan, remember it’s as much about you as your dog. It’s about you remembering that progress isn’t linear and that life is what happens when you’re busy trying to hold it at bay.

Don’t waste your worries on whether you’ll be able to take your dog to the beach in two years’ time, if they’ll cope in kennels, if they’ll survive yet another off-lead dog running up to you, if they’ll ever stop humping Auntie Kitty.

All your training counts.

It can be hard to keep the pessimism at bay when you’re dealing with dogs with problems. There’s no good reason, though, that you can’t achieve at least some improvement before you compromise and settle on a life that suits both you and the dog.

Grit your teeth, make your training plan and keep going!

Teaching Parameters

Life is all about balance. We want our dogs to be free to investigate the environment, but we don’t want them to pull us along through the mud. We want our dogs to be free to make their own behavioural choices, but we don’t want them to make choices that are injurious to them. We want to walk our dogs off lead, but we want them to come back when we call.

I’m a fairly laissez-faire guardian. I don’t micromanage my dogs and I’m too lazy to do obedience with them. Plus, I can’t see the point of drilling my dog to gaze at me as we walk as if I’m the hottest star on the planet. My cocker would do that for 5km if I had an accidental pig’s ear in my pocket, and after the first kilometre, it gets a big tedious to be honest. Plus, I’m walking them for them not for me. I would like to go eat cake and drink coffee. So if I’m out on a walk, this is my dog’s time. I don’t care for them heeling for 5km in the hopes of pork products. I want them to enjoy their walk and be dogs.

Yet the truth is that it’s never been possible for dogs to live in the human sphere without rules. If Lidy didn’t have rules (and doors, gates, fences and leads) she’d have run into the cow field opposite and either been kicked to death in her efforts to bring down a prize beef bull, or been shot by the farmer. If Heston didn’t have rules, he’d have died of starvation in the forest after spending his life chasing creatures and investigating. I don’t think it would have crossed his tiny mind to even go rooting in dustbins or eating the creatures he found even if he was very hungry.

Even street dogs and feral dogs, those who live in spaces between the human world and the wild world, are bound by rules. You don’t chase traffic, you don’t harass humans and you don’t harass other animals. Strict penalties, including the death penalty if you do.

It’s a balance for those of us who live with a dog – trying to find that magical world between a ‘full’ life for a dog and a life limited to one of sentient cuddly toy.

The truth is, though, when many of us give our dogs liberty, they don’t know how to cope with it. Just yesterday, we had a run-in with an off-lead dog who couldn’t cope with his liberty and charged up to us in a completely inappropriate way. And when we deprive them of their liberty, we’re faced with the need to teach them to walk nicely on lead, to accept being enclosed all day and to accept the frustrations of not being able to fulfill their most basic urges.

Some dogs struggle with achieving balance and when given liberty, make choices that put themselves or other individuals into harm.

One of the responsibilities, then, of entering into a relationship with a dog is to manage the balance between giving them freedom and helping them cope with restriction. Our lives with dogs are all about that balance. If we do the former, we have happy, fulfilled dogs. If we do the latter, we have dogs who cope with the frustrations that come along with living with humans.

What we need to do, then, is teach them how to cope with frustration and how to make good choices.

This is much easier with a puppy, of course. We can habituate them to small amounts of frustration, of not being able to get what they want immediately. We can inoculate them against the stresses of frustration by very, very gradually putting them in situations where patience, settling and calm are rewarded. We can teach them how to cope when alone. We can help them cope with frustrations of not being able to get to us or not being able to access play or petting or food when they want it. We teach them that all good things come to those who wait.

There are many ways you can teach dogs to wait. It doesn’t have to be painful. Most of this is basic manners: don’t mug me for your bowl; don’t jump up on me for affection; don’t charge my legs as you run out of the door; don’t paw me or nudge me because you want me to stroke you. We can teach our dogs nice ways to ask politely – I always teach my dogs that they can have as much petting as they like if they rest their chin on me. It beats being clawed to death. My dogs know that if they wait patiently, they’ll always get what they want. And I never ask them to wait patiently if they’re too young or I haven’t taught them how yet. No mugging is an absolute basic starting point:

You can also do ‘slow treat’. Once you’ve mastered ‘no mugging’, you can use slow treats to help your dog cope with their impulse to grab.

I love Deb Jones and I love this slow treat procedure. It’s been an absolute Godsend for so many other dogs. I used it with a big, grabby malinois x GSD who was reactive to other dogs. ‘Slow treats’ was his favourite thing to do with me other than getting aggressive with on-lead dogs around him. Some dogs – particularly the confident ones I find – like this focus game and it helps build up that concept of good things coming to those who wait. Shy dogs find it tougher, so you can start at the elbow. It’s a really good game as a prerequisite to ‘watch’.

Some trainers don’t like teaching dogs to watch or asking them to check in with us, but if you see something they’ve not seen yet that would end in a battle, if your aim is distraction, it can be a useful tool. I used it on Thursday when a deer stood stock still in the path ahead of us for a good couple of minutes trying to decide if we were a threat. I prefer nose down to the ground for real distraction, and many dogs find it hard to keep visual focus for a long time, but it’s a useful tool that has its place. Lidy really struggled with this game at first. No surprises there. The big surprise was that in starting it, lots of her other impulsive behaviours lessened without teaching. Lidy likes leaping on things in bushes. Leaping on things in bushes seemed to be massively reduced through playing the ‘slow treats’ game, and I often use it to calm her if she gets a little manic. Not being impulsive is a learned skill: dogs aren’t born with it. That’s especially true for certain breeds hardwired for dopamine fixes.

This is another Deb Jones one, and most of you will be already doing things like waiting for your dog to chill out before going to their bowl. Don’t overlook this skill though: it’s important for what comes later.

So you’ve done ‘no mugging’, you’ve done ‘slow treats’, you’ve done ‘zen bowl’… you can then start ‘chuck the cheese’ for dogs who are very chase-oriented. Tony Cruse’s activity is great to build up from the slower activities you’ve already done. You don’t need to do with with a collar hold – you can also put a bit of pressure on their chest.

Deb Jones also teaches ‘Get it!’, as do I.

You might overlook the importance of ‘Get it!’

Jane Ardern of Waggawuffins and Smart Dog makes the very valid point that we don’t want our dogs to get most things in the universe. If we teach ‘Leave it!’ on its own, then all we’re doing is setting ourselves up for a lifetime of ‘Leave it…. Leave it…. Leave it… Leave it….’

Isn’t it better, she says, if we teach ‘Get it!’

Honestly, I think dogs need both. When you understand ‘Get it!’ and ‘Leave it!’ then you have parameters… what’s out of bounds and what’s allowed. Along with ‘Wait!’, you’re teaching your dog what to get, what to leave and what to leave for a little while if they’ve got impulse control. I’d be remiss if I didn’t put Susan Garrett’s It’s Yer Choice in here.

You can, of course, make it as complex as you wish then. Instead of asking for their name or a sit, you can ask for any other behaviour. If you want to practise heeling around a pile of biscuits or toys, that’s your choice. Fill the space between the exciting thing going on the floor and you saying ‘Get it!’ with whatever your dog can manage. You can shape progressively more challenging behaviours and longer periods between the placement and the ‘Get it!’ You can clearly play this with toys as well.

Leslie McDevitt uses a flirt pole with her dogs in Pattern Games, and Kristen Crestejo uses one here too.

Of course, many of these things are seen as typically obedience-based or manners-based. But for dogs who do not make good choices under pressure, like Lidy, then learning to stop and voluntarily control your behaviour is a much higher-order brain skill. I find that with a lot of these impulse control games, the dogs are learning to space out what they want to do with actually doing it so that you can add direction or so that they can make better choices. It’s a core element of gundog training and works heavily on the Premack Principle. Premack basically pairs up a behaviour the dog would do less with one they would do more of. Make the favoured behaviour a consequence of the less favoured behaviour. Sit, and you get to run. Wait, and you get to chase.

Once your dog has control over themselves and they’re coping better with frustration, you can then add in something I refer to as ‘Mother, May I?’

When I was a small thing, I did a lot of those activities that get your parents some time alone. We also spent an inordinate amount of time out on the street playing with everyone else in the neighbourhood to the extent that I’m surprised I’m not entirely feral.

One of the games we played in Brownies and out on the street was one called ‘Mother, May I?’

Basically, one person plays Mother. They stand about 10 or 20 metres away from the rest of the kids. The aim is to get to Mother. You think of a way to get closer to her, like hopping, and say, ‘Mother, May I take five hops forward?’

Mother may say yes. She may say no. If you don’t ask nicely (Mother, May I?) you go back to the beginning.

Basically, it’s a permission game. Ask nicely. I may say yes, I may say no.

This is another really easy one to do with dogs.

Position a lot of interesting items around your garden when your dog is not present, or use an empty field or pathway. Make sure there is plenty of space between the items, and include stinky things as well as food. Put your dog on a lead, preferably using a long line where you’ve given the dog 2m or so of the 10. If they try to pull forward, stop dead. Your dog may then choose to do something else, like come back. In that case, you can let the lead out and say your marker word like ‘Get it!’. Whatever your dog offers may be the basis of a really nice ‘Mother, May I?’ request. Some dogs look back. That’s fine. You can use ‘Get it!’ if you want to shape and build that behaviour. Some dogs come back. That’s fine too. Some dogs slack off. Lidy sits. Ideally, what you want is some engagement with you. You’re the one with the lead. I’ve been shaping eye contact from Lidy. Sitting for permission to go chase cows doesn’t cut it for me.

At first, you can navigate the course with ‘Get it!’ cues. Then you can add in ‘Leave it!’ cues (you don’t get to get it at all) and ‘Wait!’ cues (you can have it in a second).

What you have are parameters and a dog who knows to ask if they can go forward and that lunging does not work. Technically, you’re replacing lunging with a ‘Mother May I?’

Dogs who have frustration issues will find this insanely hard. That’s why you absolutely have to start with the simple stuff like ‘no mugging’ and to make sure they’re really good at waiting and leaving items. You can also add in other cues like ‘Go Sniff’.

Using these isn’t a matter of a robotic military drill on a walk…

‘Heel… Leave it… Heel… Wait… Heel… Get it… Heel… Go sniff…’

You’re not a helicopter parent micromanaging their every behaviour.

What happens though is impulsivity slacks off. It is not rewarded in any of these games. Patience is rewarded. Waiting is rewarded. Checking in is rewarded.

The other day, a bird flew out of a hedge right near Lidy’s head. Did she leap on it? No. Did I have to say ‘Leave it!’. No. She moved forward as if to leap on it … and then she stopped. She didn’t sit and look at me as if I am a cruel beast for not letting her try to chomp birds. She just went back to what she was doing. The bird didn’t set off her primitive ‘leap on it now!’ brain circuitry. Well, it did a little. Then her fully exercised self-control and thought muscle kicked in. No point chasing a bird who has gone. The moment was over.

What you find with impulse control activities is that your dog is building up some space between thinking and action in order for training to kick in. They’re also learning to defer to you if they don’t make good decisions. For those of us trying to break superstitious behaviours where the dog impulsively barks or lunges and we can’t make headway because we can’t break the link between the thing appearing and our dog lunging, impulse control often gives us the wiggle room. This is so important for dogs who are impulsively aggressive or reactive. The big, slow neocortex can kick in and take over with its ability to rationalise and to control voluntary movements, rather than the zippy limbic system and reptilian bits of the brain making impulsive decisions first.

If you want to move from impulsive actions to a zen calm, teaching your dog about parameters is essential.

Dog Training secrets #1

Dog Training Secrets #1: there are no magic bullets.

You want to make money? Market a product for dogs that claims to solve problems instantly. By the time you get caught out, you’ll have made your money and be sitting at a bar surrounded by palm trees somewhere much warmer and less muddy than you are now. Better still, design five products and sell them a couple of years apart from each other. Pay a world-class marketing team and your job is done. Sit back and watch the profits roll in. Warning: this is not a job for you if you are at all afflicted by a conscience or any sense of shame.

It seems that everyone on social media these days is after the magic bullet, the panacea, the cure-all, for their dogs’ behaviour.

The Quick Fix is everything.

You’d have thought we’d be wise to snake-oil salesmen by now, but it seems Barnum was right when he said there’s a sucker born every minute – if he said it at all. And we all know fools and their money are soon parted.

Sometimes, we’ve sat back and watched our dog’s problems develop over months if not years. We’ve let them grow and grow. Perhaps we tried to ignore them and that made things worse. Those problems fester and metastasize. Sometimes, that’s just because life got in the way. Jobs got busy. Kids took priority. Pandemics ran rampant. One day, we wake up and we find that the itty bitty problem we had months ago is now a colossal beast and our dog’s behaviour is seriously impacting everyone else’s well-being, including their own.

Most of my calls and contacts come from people who can’t live with problems any more. Maybe they thought the problem would work its way out eventually. Rex would stop jumping up on guests, surely, when arthritis set in? Rover would stop barking like mental at the neighbours playing football, surely, by the time deafness and blindness took over? Lacey would stop biting people if we took her to a café, surely, by the time all her teeth fall out?

The trouble is that this is not what happens. Dogs don’t grow out of problems. They grow into them. They get better at the behaviour. They can do it for longer. They specialise. They do it in ways that get results more quickly.

For whatever reason, the behaviour works. Like an ugly and unwanted weed, it flourishes. It sends down roots that make it hard to unseat. It sends out shoots. It blossoms. It sets seed and raises a family. By the time clients get in touch with trainers, what they often present us with is an enormous triffid of a behaviour that is swallowing up all their energy.

What the snake-oil salesmen promise is a scorched earth approach to those problematic behavioural weeds. Burn it. Zap it. Concrete on top of it.

The trouble is that, like DDT, some of these promises are dangerous. Some of them destroy everything else too. You know… the important stuff like trust and friendship, choice and agency. Others don’t work. The fields around me are lurid orange right now and smell like burning rubber. I wouldn’t mind, but whatever this vile stuff is designed to kill seems to be effective for about five weeks. That’s what a lot of these Quick Fixes you can buy from any number of companies do. They work for a while and then the problems come back with a vengeance. Not only that, you’re left with a nagging feeling that what you’re doing isn’t good or right, but if the company says lurid orange rubber-smelling herbicide is what works, they must know?

And sometimes, the behaviour is resistant to those promised cures to all problems. Sure, it might work for a short while, only to find new ways to spread, to mutate, to find a way to flourish.

Anything in the dog world that promises you instant results is a bit like all those other ‘instant’ products we fall for, so reliably and so credulously. Great abs in 8 minutes a day. Five kilos weight loss in a month. Quick house sales. Immediate happiness. A better job in two weeks. If the aim is improvement, someone somewhere is making a profit out of the gullible fools who want instant success. You buy in. It fails. You leave 0 stars on their feedback and the company bosses cry into their margaritas in Tobago.

The truth is that we want a magic bullet. We want jumping up to stop immediately. We want our dog to instantly stop barking at the post van. We want our dog to stop pulling on the lead right this very minute and never pull again.

The reality is that there are no magic bullets. Hard work, repetition, creating good habits, building foundations, they all take time.

After all, the problem didn’t usually happen overnight. It’s not going to disappear overnight either.

So what can we do, other than give in?

In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao talks about something she calls SMART x 50.

SMART simply means, see, mark and reward training. In other words, every time you see the behaviour you want instead, mark it (say ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’ or use a clicker) and reward.

She tells us to reward our dog fifty times every day for doing something useful or cute. If you have heard Kathy speak, you’ll know right away that’s her speaking. I’d settle for rewarding them for anything they’re doing better. Remember: rewards can be anything the dog finds valuable at that moment in time. That could be food, toys, praise (if your dog finds it rewarding at that moment) petting (likewise) or even functional rewards like being able to move forward on a walk. You are not advised to use fifty sirloin steaks. But small cubes would be just marvellous.

I do a lot of my own dog training this way. I don’t even know what they’ll do well that day. I’m just ready to mark and reward it when I see it.

Mostly, my dogs have it nailed good behaviour in the home, car and the garden. They stop barking when I ask and bark hardly at all any more. They’re patient and calm. They don’t stress when I’m getting food out. If I say “tea time!” they trot into the kitchen and they hang about quietly and unobtrusively when I’m doing my bit. They travel perfectly. They sit waiting for me if I need to nip into a shop. They’re happy to be groomed and have nails trimmed and take all the tablets I throw at them. I still reward them for ignoring the various comings and goings of my neighbour and his joyfully barky pointer. They are the least amount of effort of any dog ever born and I get to be the laziest dog trainer that was ever born.

Walks are different. Heston likes chasing stuff and he also has previous where it comes to barking at joggers, hikers or cyclists. He’s still prone to pull from time to time towards powerful smells. Lidy seems to divide things into ‘Can I kill it?’ and ‘Can I eat it?’. I’m not massively sure it’s a division as such. There seems to be a lot of crossover. But when my little firestarter first arrived after three years in the shelter, she had a lot of previous. If it moved, it needed to be dealt with. Her pulling was shocking. She walked like a small velociraptor on a lead randomly pouncing on things in bushes.

For a year, I walked her by herself. Frankly, she was pretty manageable as long as nothing surprising happened like we saw an unpredictable crow or a random cat. Then, when my old girl died, Lidy and Heston got walked together.

That first walk in new territory with the two of them terrified me. I forgot how sensitive Lidy is to novel stimuli and environments and how long she takes to acclimitise. I joke about her behaviour but in all seriousness, there are moments where I know that it’s taking everything I’ve ever learned to give her some quality of life without jeopardising the lives of other animals or risking injury to any humans she comes across. She pulled constantly for 4km. Less velociraptor and more Tyrannosaurus Rex. If we’d have come across anybody or anything, I ran the risk of losing control of her completely.

Behaviour like this doesn’t have a magic pill to cure it. I could have thrown everything that’s ever been claimed as a magic pill at her arousal levels and it still wouldn’t have been enough.

So where do you start, when it’s all wrong?

It reminded me of that saying: ‘how do you eat an elephant?’

‘One mouthful at a time.’

How do you solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem?

One small step at a time.

Kathy Sdao’s SMART x 50 is how we’ve been doing it.

If she pulled less, ‘good!’ and treat.

If she gave me eye contact, ‘good!’ and treat.

If she did a u-turn when I asked, ‘good!’ and treat.

We did other stuff too. I don’t want to make it sound as simple as all that.

But most dogs are not as complicated as all that.

And simply through that ‘one mouthful at a time’ approach, I think I’ve managed to at least eat a good bit of that elephant.

There are other tips too. Setting your dog up for success where they can do little but succeed is one of those things. Eliminating as much of the unpredictable while you embed new behaviours is another. Cherry picking the very best of what the very best trainers have to offer is another. We have a bank of five core skills that we practise every day.

This weekend was tough. Saturday was miserable. There were hunters literally everywhere and by the time I found a sensible place to walk without getting shot at in mistake for a boar, we’d been in the car for almost thirty minutes. Between the floods and the hunters, we’re a bit stuck. We got out. We played a few games. I used up some of those 50 rewards simply by playing some games and helping everyone chill out (including me).

And then… a muscular guy clad entirely in black lycra came running up to us. Not jogging. Like a serious, hardened runner. In terms of PREDATOR level of threat, this is surpassed only by a team of muscular guys clad entirely in black lycra running at you. We got out the way, we played some more games, I watched Lidy. Every time she watched him without anything more worrisome than a stare, I marked it and fed her from my hand at my side. If she went back to watching him, I said ‘yes’ and gave her her treat. Watching was fine. Lunging and leaping and grabbing and flopping about like a great white shark on a fishing line are not fine. That would have been my failure to work at a safe distance. We had watching and deciding and marking and rewarding. All was well.

Needless to say, a lot of my rewards got used up on that jogger. And that was fine.

As if this weekend couldn’t have been more challenging, yesterday, we saw two deer leap across the road. To be fair, they participated in my set-up perfectly. They were just far enough away to keep her under threshold and just in view for a lovely, narrow time so I could reward copiously without having to deal with watching them for 5 whole minutes.

This time, we played ‘get it!’ and ‘catch!’. The first allows her to visually track a moving treat. This is kind of like playing a cheap fair shooting game compared to going after big game, if that’s what floats your boat. No, it’s not the same. But it’s better than no shooting at all. I’m pretty sure Lidy would be one of those individuals posing proudly with some giraffe she’d killed. Here I am asking her to have a go at a fairground shooting gallery. ‘Get it!’ is the only way at that moment that she’ll get to chase and catch anything.

The second, ‘catch!’ allows ‘grab-bite’ behaviours on a moving target. Again, not in the same league but at least it’s catering to the same bits of her reward system and answering those primitive needs.

So it’s not just about SMART x 50.

It’s about how and when and where you use those rewards. You can use them to encourage focus by getting the dog to come back to you for the food or toy. You can use them to meet primal needs of being a dog, namely chasing and grabbing stuff for Miss Maligator 2015. You can use them to disrupt visual locking and fixing on a target (which is what I did) or you can use them to disrupt olfactory locking and fixing on a target. The latter is what I do with Heston when he’s nose-down-tail-up in a scent. What do I want? To disrupt the lock and fix on the scent. Throwing him a treat to find in the grass can do that, and caters to his olfactory needs. Or disrupting and rewarding from my hand is a good way if his tracking is in danger of pulling me into a bush.

By rewarding the behaviours we want to see little by little, day by day, we get so see unwanted behaviours die out. We’re starving those weeds of anything nourishing. No, it doesn’t happen overnight. No, it’s not a magic bullet.

Well, not one that works in 24 hours.

Over 12 weeks, sure.

Now we’re 12 weeks into Lidy’s SMART x 50 outdoor training and I’ve bags more focus and less arousal. She listens more and recalls more. She pulls much less, sometimes going several hundred metres without a tight lead, and she almost never lunges. Because her arousal levels are lower, she’s less predatory. She’s less likely to pounce on birds in the bushes, or mice in the hedgerows. She’s stopped alerting on distant cars and vans. Is she ready for the next steps? Sure.

The question then arises about where we stop. It’s not my aim that Lidy becomes super docile and passive, that she copes with Venetian costume parades and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Chasing the impossible would be an exercise in frustration and futility. I just want to know we can go for walks and she will cope. Next up is livestock, because they’re much more of a challenge for us and our walks are severely limited because she seems pretty willing to show me you can eat a full cow in one sitting despite my telling her it’s one mouthful at a time.

Variety is not just the spice of life. Variety in behaviour gives us something we can capture and nurture. But I can’t do that if I find myself treatless and unprepared. The worst behaviours are those that never vary. But as Lidy demonstrates, even if you can pull at one constant pressure for 4km, there’s still hope. The thing is, it’s never one constant pressure, not really. Where we have variety, we have the potential to coax evolution. And if we can do that, we might find that our weeds turn out to be flowers after all. Capture that variety when it’s at its best, and you might find that Death By A Thousand Cuts is more effective at killing off problem behaviours than some Magic Bullet anyway.

You don’t have to have a specific goal in mind. My lovely, perfect Mr Heston is lovely and perfect. I’m just rewarding him for the lovely stuff he does. With Lidy, I dd have a specific goal in mind. I wanted her to learn to walk, not trot (and heaven forbid anything faster!) on lead. I wanted her to check in with me unprompted. So every time she walked a couple of paces on a slack lead, I said ‘good!’ and gave her a treat. Every time she checked in, I said ‘good!’ and we moved forward to sniff the bushes. Now, walking is what we do, and checking in if we want to go sniff is also what we do.

So tomorrow morning, pick up your treat bag and count out your treats for the day. Every time you catch your dog doing something you like, mark it and reward it. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Very soon, those great behaviours will be default behaviours because it’s ‘just’ what we do now.

Running interference: how a team approach can help solve canine behaviour problems

Run interference (phrase):
American football:
move in such a way as to cause interference
intervene on someone’s behalf, typically so as to protect them from distraction or annoyance.

One of the toughest stages of training can be proofing, where you put your training to the test. You know the score: you’ve done the groundwork and the drills. You know it’s important to gradually reintroduce your dog to the situation that caused trouble in carefully planned and managed steps.

And then… Life gets in the way.

Let’s take some really common problem behaviours and look at where they can run into teething troubles.

1. You’ve been working with your dog to stop them barking at people who arrive at the property.

2. You’ve been working with your dog to stop them jumping up on guests or on people out on walks.

3. You’ve been working really hard on your dog’s recall.

4. You’ve been working to stop your dog chasing _______________ (fill in the blank!).

5. You’ve been working on loose leash walking skills with your 50kg dog who you’ve switched to a harness after years of trying to control him with prong collars and shock collars, but you’re not confident enough yet to take him out in places he might lunge.

6. You’ve been working hard to help your dog cope in the vet surgery but they still get a bit overwhelmed by the noise and the other animals.

7. You’ve been working with your reactive dog to stop them lunging and barking at other dogs.

8. You’re rehabilitating a dog with serious aggression issues.

We can all find our best laid plans going massively astray the first time something goes wrong and our dog resorts to their previous problem behaviour.

You know how it goes. You’ve spent 6 weeks teaching them a new behaviour, controlling and managing the situation so they don’t get to practise their old behaviour. You think you’ve got it cracked when BAM, right out of the blue, your worst nightmare rears its ugly head and your dog goes right back to jumping, barking, chasing, ignoring you, pulling on the lea, lunging or fence fighting.

What you need is someone to run interference for you! Someone to take out all the people who threaten to derail you. Someone who can block any distractions and stop them so that you can get on with what you’re doing.

None of you are old enough to remember the days when self-propelling machines needed men with flags to walk in front of you, I’m sure. You have probably heard of these apocryphal tales, however. What you need is a red-flag-waving person to help you out.

Why you need a team mate to help out with dog training
Having someone to navigate the obstacles and give out warnings is ideal before you take off on your own

Having a team-mate to run interference when you’re training your dog can be so helpful. This is someone who’s read the game plan and knows your aims. They know how you intend to carry it out. They know your plays and your purpose. They know you’re trying to stop your whirling dervish pointer from headbutting everyone they see when they’re running off lead. They know you’re trying to turn your whistle training into rock solid recall. And this is as true for serious misdemeanors as it is for the things most of us just try to cope with: serious fearfulness, reactivity or aggression when out in public.

The purpose of this team-mate on the pitch is to clear your path and help manage the environment so you can reach your goal. They’re going to work with you in the same way in real life too. They’re going to stop any potential obstacle derailing your progress so that you can reach your dream goal, be that the dog who keeps all four feet on the ground or the dog who can cope with off-lead dogs romping around without feeling the need to tear their face off.

Let’s take each scenario and see how a team player might help you out.

The alert barker

You may well be implementing the plan from the previous post and your dog may be coping admirably with things that pass by or make noise outside the house, be they tractors, pedestrians or neighbourhood dogs. But what happens when those threats stop outside and ring the bell? Under normal circumstances for planned visitors you may well be controlling visitors by putting the dog in another room with a few food toys. What happens though when some random Tuesday lunchtime, a guy stops to ask if you want your roof tiles cleaning or your paving re-laying? If you’ve not yet moved on to pairing up the doorbell or a knock with the good stuff, having someone who can step in and keep playing games with the dog while you go out and deal with the uninvited guest is a good way to deal with it. Either you send them out to deal with the unwelcome and unplanned arrival while you play games, or you go out while they play games, if they know what you’ve been doing. You can keep your dogs at a distance and they can deal with what needs dealing with.

Use your team mate to ring the bell and knock at the door when your dog’s got used to the ‘thank you – retreat – treat’ protocol from last week. A few trials a day and you’ll have a dog who lets you know someone’s at the door, but who stops barking when you ask.

And if you’re home alone or live alone? A Manners Minder or automatic treat dispenser that you’ve introduced your dog to well before the event can be set to a variable rate of spitting treats out. You can go out and your dog can keep getting paid while you’re not there.

Got more than one dog and suspect a war would break out? Separate them with gates and give them all something to keep them busy while you go out to deal with the inconsiderate sod. And then ask your mates to drop around at scheduled times to play knock-a-door-run so that you can practise ‘thank you – retreat – treat’ with your dogs in carefully planned trials so that when a carpet salesman finally drops round, you’ll be all ready for them.

The over-enthusiastic welcome committee

For dogs who jump up in the house, having a team mate who can welcome guests in while you keep control of the dog to stop them practising is really useful in those early days. Your team mate should be able to explain to your guests that they’re not to give the dog any attention for jumping, but if the dog does a shoulder touch, a hand touch or a high five, then they can say ‘hi!’

While you make sure your dog is able to cope with the drama of new people, your team mate can make sure the new people are able to cope with the excitement of seeing a dog. A spare pair of eyes to stop your guests saying ‘oh good boy! hi!’ and accidentally reinforcing the jumping up won’t go amiss. I find that where things go awry, it’s when we’re overwhelmed, trying to look after our own dog, family and home and we’re not able to adequately manage all the complex pieces. Having someone who can take the dog to another room, play with them a little while you sort everything out and then bring the dog out when energies are lower is another way a team mate can really help you out.

And if you’ve no-one to run interference? Put the dog away with treats until energies have calmed down so that you don’t risk your guests inadvertently reinforcing your dog for jumping all over them.

Proofing your recall

You know the drill. You’ve worked on recall in your home, in the garden, in empty supermarket car parks, in closed fields and with a dropped long lead on quiet, clear walks. You’re gearing yourself up for the real tests when you take your dog to your favourite place, they race off before you and by the time you get round the corner, they’re frolicking with harassing a flock of sheep. Having someone who can go out five minutes before you on your exact walk and then send you a message with an all-clear is really helpful. It also gives you time to put your dog back on the lead should something happen.

Last week, I was working with a young gun-dog who has been charging up to people on walks and had knocked one of them over by jumping all over them. If there had just been someone running interference beforehand who could have been five minutes ahead and said ‘there’s people coming!’, the guardian could have put the dog on the lead way before the dog saw the wildly exciting new friends that he just had to jump on. The trouble was that the dog’s recall was great in most circumstances, but as soon as he saw anyone out on a walk, his recall failed completely. A team mate would definitely help with control and management here.

The diehard chaser

Most of the pedigree and mix-breed dogs in Western countries have been bred to chase to some degree, with the exception of a handful of lapdogs and livestock guardian breeds. From sight and scent hounds to gundogs, cattle dogs, herding dogs to terriers and bull terriers, chase behaviours have been selected for over many generations. This can be really tough if you’re proofing a recall or even if you’re walking a large dog on a lead. I still remember the time four dogs dragged me on my arse through a cowfield…

Having someone to go on ahead and let you know if there are deer, boar, livestock, ducks or wild-roaming joggers, hunters or cyclists can be a great way to make sure you’re not exposed to any unpleasant surprises and trying to live down a ‘Fenton!’ moment while your labrador rampages through the park chasing deer and heavily reinforcing themselves in the process.

The partially reformed lunger

Maybe you read my post about retractable leads a few weeks back and you’ve decided harnesses are the way forward. You’ve got yourself a great new lead, a solid harness and you’re weaning yourself off using a choke, shock or prong collar because you know it’s bad for your dog and it’s probably not even controlling them very much any more if they’re dyed-in-the-wool pullers. Maybe you weigh 60kg and you’re walking a dog who’s only just a little less than you. Perhaps you’ve got two smaller dogs who add up to some hefty tension.

Having a team mate to walk with you is ideal. Pulling can be socially contagious – it can be a bit of a competition to be the husky at the front. And it can be hard to walk two or more dogs and do some real training with both of them. It’s almost as bad if you’ve got a great dog who knows the ropes and one who needs a bit of work. It’s nigh on impossible to train two or more dogs simultaneously so if you need some one-to-one time, a friend is always welcome.

Maybe you’ve done loads of work and they’re almost perfect except they lose their mind on one tiny but essential part of the walk… having a friend to help with another lead is so useful. I know there have been times at the shelter where we’ve got a dog who’s mostly great but who struggles to get out of the shelter grounds because it’s stressful. If you’re trying to manage 45kg of German Shepherd, having a friend to help you on the tough bit means you can put down all your aversive tools which weren’t working anyway. Sometimes, it’s just because it’s muddy and slippy that you need a helping hand. It might only be for 100m or so, but if that means you can get rid of the heavy weaponry, then it’s well worth it.

The not-quite-ready-for-the-vets dog

Maybe you’ve got a dog who you’ve been working so hard to desensitise to the vets, but that heady combination of other dogs, cats, smells, vets, chemicals, barking, squealing, grabby hands and long waits in tiny waiting rooms is likely to set them back six months in progress, having a team mate to run interference is just the ticket. You can stay in the car and do nice stuff with the dog. They can be your substitute in the surgery until your time is ready, and then can act as a great team mate running interference would do – keep their eye out for the old lady who really doesn’t have a good grip on her poodle – avert the very large mastiff-with-attitude standing in the corner and make sure you can get in and out without drama. Not only that, they can help you in the surgery so you can talk to the vet, help manipulate the dog and keep running counter-conditioning while you get the vital information and have grown-up conversations. Perhaps your vets take the dog from you… the same thing is true. Having a friend to run interference can be a dream way of getting into the surgery without subjecting your dog to the miscreants hanging around in there. Your team mate is your wing-person, helping you navigate the complex obstacle course with a cool head. By the end, all they might be doing is humming Mission Impossible music with your dog who had no idea what the bodyguard was for, but if it stops you having a bad experience in a delicate and fragile stage of your progress, all well and good.

The almost-reformed reactive rover

So you’ve been working through a programme to help your dog cope with reactivity. You’re just about ready to go and spend your first five minutes proofing it in the toughest conditions: outside the dog park or at the cani-cross rendezvous site. It’s Murphy’s law that someone won’t have control of their overly-social Donald Trump of a dog who races over to subject your girl to a bit of light humping and who sets you back to square one in your training. A team mate can either take your dog and walk away while you occupy the offender, or you can walk off leaving them to do the same. Given that you will need to practise in some challenging conditions before you are truly able to say your dog can cope, knowing you can do so without derailing everything you’ve done is a true gift.

Truly effective rehabilitation

When you’re working with a dog who has bitten a member of the public or another dog, even if it was only a nip or a grab, it can be nerve-wracking to take them out in public. So what are you supposed to do? Keep them in forever? One of the hardest things to do is build up really positive experiences and make sure you’re keeping people and their animals safe. A team mate who goes out before you, runs interference with stray dogs and wandering humans, who acts as your spotter and your guide, who can help you work through the awkward bits, well, they’re invaluable. Of course, you may have had to use them as a stooge too at the beginning, so that your dog gets used to them. But if your dog is such a risk that they’d bite any person they see, then you definitely, definitely will need some friends who can act as a stooge so that you can control what they do, how they move and where they go. It’s no use trying to rehab your dog using unsuspecting members of the public. That’s a huge liability.

You may, of course, have partners, parents, adult children, neighbours or friends who are willing to help out. If not, don’t worry. There’s an army of professionals who can help you, from dog walkers and trainers to behaviour consultants. I can’t tell you how useful it is to pay a dog walker a tenner to let you know their schedule so you can follow them around for half an hour every day and desensitise your dog in a low risk situation. There are many professionals who might help out if you bung them a bit of cash. Maybe you know exactly what you need to do. Maybe you’ve been working with a great behaviour consultant and you just need some people to practise on who don’t charge quite so much.

In any case, find yourself a team mate. They won’t just inspire you and challenge you, but they’ll also enable you to bridge the gap between ‘nearly!’ and ‘touchdown!’

How to put a stop to alert and alarm barking

Many of our dogs are typical ‘watch dogs’, whether they’re a huge Pyrenean Mountain dog or a tiny Lhasa Apso. If you’ve got a dog who drives you nuts by barking at every pedestrian, cyclist, jogger, car or truck that passes your house, or who barks in the garden in response to all the other dogs in the neighbourhood barking, read on and find out a really simple way to put an end to your dog barking to alert you to everything outside the door that offends them.

Why dogs alert bark

The simple fact is that most dogs on the whole bark much, much more than wolves, which gives us a clue that their barking has served a purpose. Indeed, many of the earliest recorded accounts of dogs include stories about dogs who were kept to alert the home-owner to potential intruders. The watch dog was probably one of the earliest roles dogs played in our lives.

Today, the simple fact is that many dogs can’t distinguish between an intruder and a passer-by. It becomes a superstition for many dogs that they feel they need to bark in order to make the offensive stuff outside the door or gate leave. They don’t realise that it’s not their barking that has made the offensive individual go away, but that they went away anyhow and they always intended to.

Recently, a big family and business moved into the house across the road from me. They also have a very noisy dog who likes to bark every time the cars pull up. The dog is outside most of the day and it’s easy to tell when people are coming and going.

The problem is that my dogs also like to bark at cars that pull up and also bark at dogs who are barking in the neighbourhood. You can imagine what a challenge it could have been for my dogs to cope with vans coming and going all day and with their dog barking every time they do.

So how do we stop this?

Step 1: identify triggers

Make a list of all the things that make your dog bark. Take a sample over 72 hours. Note how long they bark for and what they’re barking at. Even if you don’t know precisely what, because you can’t hear what they are, make sure that they’re reacting to things outside the property, not inside. Recognise patterns and also recognise the most challenging parts of your dogs’ day. For me, that was early morning and lunchtime. The triggers were generally neighbourhood noise which is worsened as people come and go. The post van is also a challenge. Note whether those things are visual or auditory.

Step 2: remove perches and vantage points

Many of our dogs use the backs of sofas or even coffee tables to stand on to keep an eye on the outside world. Who knows – they may even think that’s their job!

Your first job is to make it more difficult for your dog to see out of the window, to stand on couches or tables to look out, and to block up their access points. Move your couches, use screens, add stick-on filters, put plants in strategic places or even relocate to another room in the house temporarily. All these are temporary measures until you have things under control. Don’t worry – you can put your couch back in its rightful spot in a few weeks.

If your dogs are very sensitive to noise, you might even want to make sure you can give them a sound-proofed space with some inoffensive ambient music at busy times. But be careful you aren’t just adding to their problems by making it difficult for them to rest.

Remove vantage points and viewpoints outside too if your dogs bark at things beyond the property line.

Gates like this are perfect for encouraging barkers. If you want to have a fighting chance, it’s important to block off those vantage points. Here, some bamboo panels would be an easy solution, as long as we remember to block off the space around the solid panels too.

Step 3: give them something to do at critical times

My neighbour goes out to work at anywhere between 7.36 and 7.47. I know because his dog goes nuts. It’s winter and he also leaves his van warming up for ten minutes, so it tends to be a prolonged barking session just outside my window until he’s gone.

At 7.30, we have our breakfast. The dogs have Kongs, a bit of Classic FM, some highly offensive (to me) but highly valuable dog swag and a snuffle mat. At 7.50, we’re finishing up our breakfasts. Not a bark to be had.

Now I could give my dogs their breakfast at 7am and spend 10 minutes telling them to shut up at 7.36. I could give them a bowl at 7.30 and spend 10 minutes telling them to shut up at 7.36. If my dogs notice the comings and goings (they do) they’re more invested in eating breakfast than barking. Don’t make it easy for your dogs to bark at the most difficult times simply because they’ve nothing else to do. What stops me curtain twitching and cursing my neighbours? Occupation. What stops my dogs waiting around for stuff to happen? Occupation.

Step 4: prepare yourself to put an off-switch on your dog’s barking

It’s not realistic to expect your dogs never to bark. They’re dogs. Also, if you have a burglar, a bit of barking probably wouldn’t go amiss. But we can’t easily teach our dogs to distinguish between intruders and passers-by. All we really want is our dogs to stop when we ask and perhaps to start barking less frequently. After all, that’s probably why we tell them so many times to stop!

To prepare yourself for the off-switch, you need some high-value treats, preferably freeze-dried. It’s no good using fresh meat or cheese unless you have a cooler, because you need to keep the treats to hand. But you want high value treats – not just big brand floury biscuits. Your dogs will stop so much more quickly if you make it worth their while.

Step 5: cache your treats away from the scene of the crime

My dogs like to bark near the window in the living room, since that is closest to the road. I store my treats in a jar on the mantelpiece which is on the opposite side of the room. This has two purposes. One is to establish clear patterns about what happens when they need to bark. The other is to move them away from the window and create distance. Yes, it’s annoying to get up every time to go there myself. No, it’s not more annoying than yelling at them to stop barking for ten minutes. Look at it this way: you don’t have to get up off the couch and give them a treat, you get to move and get some exercise in return for their immediate silence.

Step 6: thank your dog and mean it

The next time your dog barks because something offensive to them is happening outside, with your most sincere and well-meant, heart-felt gratefulness, thank them!

Say, “Thank you! You are the best dog in the whole of the universe!”.

Say, “Well done, you magnificent creature!’

Say, “Good job, my loyal and most excellent bodyguard!”

Tell them they are wonderful and give them a treat away from the scene of the crime. Really mean it. Remember they save your from burglars, intruders, debt collectors, vagrants, hobos, would-be marauders, insurrectionists, odd-bods, religious acolytes, ne’er-do-wells, anarchists, miscreants, errant SWAT teams, hired assassins and warmongers on a daily basis. Thank them and feed them. They do not know you are not Halle Berry in John Wick and they are not Belgian Malinois. As far as they are concerned, you are their most valuable asset and they are the Best Guardians in the Known Universe.

Don’t worry the first ten times or so if they don’t stop instantly, or if they keep popping back to have the final say. Thank them anyway, sincerely, and from the bottom of your heart.

Remember, too, that the higher value your treats (at least at first), the more surprising this will be and the more amazing your results will be.

Feed for the entirety of the time the offensive thing is in radius of the house or garden. It’s better to use five or six treats and go slightly longer than the intruder is in range than hope that one will do.

Make sure you pick a phrase and use it every single time, like ‘thank you!’ or ‘good job!’

This phrase will become your off-switch. It tells the dogs they don’t need to bark any more and they’ve done what they were designed to do. They can bark, and as soon as you say the magic phrase, all is well. Partly, this is about your response to the scary stuff. If you’re silly and relaxed, your emotions will be as contagious as your previous hostility and anger. You can of course say, ‘Stop!’ or ‘That’s enough!’ but most of us have tried that already. Also, they don’t tend to be filled with nascent pride that our fierce dog has actually, for once in their life, followed our directions.

Step 7: add in some other stuff to stretch out the treats

You can ask your dog to ‘get it!’, to find the treat, to ‘watch!’ or play slow treats, where you’re practising impulse control. This way, you can spend two or three minutes with only a handful of treats. Keep them moving and busy, rather than asking them to sit for five minutes while a man chainsaws trees outside your home. Being still in the face of threat is hard. Keep your dogs busy and occupied until the offensive individual or machine has well and truly gone.

Step 8: practise until your dogs are 100% reliable

When your dogs are completely reliable, when you know you could say ‘thank you!’ and they would stop instantly, then you’ve cracked it. Would you put money on being able to say ‘Well done!’ during a work zoom call and your dogs stopping barking straight away? If not, you’ve got a bit of work to do yet.

You’ll find by this time that they are less sensitive to noise because you’ve also been getting them used to the noise or the offensive passer-by and pairing it up with good stuff. But never cheat your dog before they get to reliability. If there is a scary noise or intruder, ALWAYS thank them and ALWAYS give them a treat. Do this every time they bark. It’s a 100% thing. If you’re in and they alert, bark or otherwise notice something outside, then you give them a treat until you’d put money on them running straight to the treat spot when you tell them how magnificent they are.

Step 9: add in praise or petting occasionally

When your dogs are 100% reliable, you can swap in the simple ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Good job!’ or ‘Well done!’ without a treat. Your cue to stop will have been learned as a conditioned reinforcer: praise. You can add a game if you like. You can give them a bit of petting or attention. Start varying what good stuff happens when they’re quiet when you ask. Start with the minor offences, where it’s a slight growl or a head looking towards the window.

Never phase out the treats completely. Remember that the stuff outside your window or your gate IS a threat to your dog if that’s what they think it is. If you stop the treats, expect the behaviour to return. Keeping an occasional treat every so often, even going back to 100% treats for stopping barking for a short while, can help keep it fresh and exciting. You may find that barking drops off so much that you can keep to 100% treats. I do, simply because barking is so extremely rare that it’s a small price to pay for the quiet. If I get through 10 treats a month, it’s been a crazy week. That’s down from 10 treats an hour. I’m happy with that.

Step 10: thank the smaller behaviours

So what do you do if you hear or see something?

If you see your dog look but not bark, thank them and give them a treat. If you hear them growl, thank them and give them a treat. If they were resting and they open their eyes slightly, thank them and give them a treat. Switch in the praise and petting if you barely get a reaction. What you are doing is shaping smaller behaviours so they don’t need to bark to tell you several SWAT soldiers are rappelling down your house front and you’re going to have to take your diamond stash to the safe room.

So, in essence:

When there are offensive things outside:
* say ‘Thanks!’
* go get the dog a treat away from the gate, door or window
* keep giving the treats until the offensive things go away
* repeat until it’s a well-established habit.

In this video, my friend pulls up to drop something off. Neither of my dogs bark. I wanted them to. I even ask them, ‘Who’s there?’ hoping one of them will. They don’t even then. That’s how good this technique is. There really is someone outside — my girl looks at the window on the right a few times, but not a bark was uttered between the pair.

Lidy, the malinois, notices the car door opening and the car running. Heston, the groenendael cross, is still my huge fanfare barker and even he doesn’t utter a peep. He doesn’t even look out of the window. I videoed it for you because I’ve been trying to catch them barking for 3 days and they haven’t barked once. There have been multiple disturbances of cars, vans, dogs barking, cyclists parked up outside chatting, post vans, the kid over the road playing kick-ball against the side of their house, gunshots, hunters, hunt dogs and even fire sirens. And I’ve waited. This was the one moment where I thought I would get some lovely barking. I got none. Heston looked out of the window and looked at me. We went to the mantelpiece anyway because it’s always worthwhile topping up with the challenging moments. We play until my friend leaves. Then the treats are gone.

If you are worried that your dogs will start barking to get treats, I’m happy to say this activity does not work like this. Because the dog only barks when there is something to bark at (and you can, by the way, do this if you suspect the dog hears something you don’t) then they only do it then.

Please note: this activity is not suitable for dogs who are barking AT you to get your attention or if they ever bark at you for food. It’s also not suitable if people are going to come into your home, though it may work in the same way. You can also do this with doorbells or if your dog barks when the phone rings.

So if your dog is alert barking, it’s well worth trying this simple technique to reduce the number of times they bark, and how much they bark as well as putting their silence on cue. It’s made my life much more bearable, especially as noise has increased outside my home. And I like to hope it has made my dogs’ lives more bearable too because I’m not yelling at them to stop or hoping they’ll just stop of their own accord.

When should I use an Extendable Lead?

If there is one piece of kit that I wish I saw less of, it would be an extendable lead. These leads, which retract into a plastic handle and are sometimes controlled by a ‘stop’ button that stops the lead spooling in or out are mired in controversy.

Perhaps the question is more in line with when we shouldn’t use an extendable lead.

When shouldn’t you use an extendable lead?

  1. If your dog pulls at all. Extendable leads exert a constant low-level pressure. This habituates a dog to pulling and teaches them that walking with a lead means accepting a low level of pressure. You will never be able to teach your dog to walk without pulling if they don’t understand that to move forward, they need to move without putting any pressure on the lead.
  2. If your dog ever chases or is likely to chase things in the environment. These leads can spool out incredibly quickly and the longer the lead, the more momentum your dog can build up. They can very easily whip the lead out of your hand before you’ve even had time to react.
  3. If you are ever passively supervising your dog on a walk. By this, I mean you check your phone, you watch the birds, you’re talking to a friend, you’re looking at the path. Walking a dog on an extendable lead means constantly and actively supervising your dog. If you don’t do this, the split second you take your attention away from your dog becomes a potential moment when your dog can spool out the lead without you being aware and can potentially end up in trouble.
  4. If you are ever closer to bicycles, pedestrians, other animals and moving machinery than the maximum length of the lead. It is very easy for any dog on a retractable lead to end up cutting in front of a car, a bicycle or racing up to another dog and getting in a fight. You are reliant on the ‘stop’ button to stop the lead spooling out. If this fails, you are left without any way to prevent your dog getting into trouble and potentially causing injury to others without having to attempt to grab the very thin retractable cord.
  5. If you don’t walk your dog with every single piece of skin covered, particularly lower arms, hands and legs. Or, if you walk around other humans who haven’t covered all skin. Or, if you walk around other animals who have exposed skin. You don’t even need to risk grabbing the thin cord to cause yourself injury. Friction burns and abrasions caused by the retractable cord are well documented. A simple search engine image search for injuries caused by retractable leads should be enough to put you off for life. Don’t look if you haven’t got a strong stomach.
  6. If you walk your dog with a neck collar. The potential for your dog to build up a head of steam and either rip the handle out of your hands or cause injuries like whiplash are enormous.
  7. If you walk your dog with a front-clipping harness. The potential for that cord to cut your dog’s legs or shoulders is significant. Also, front-clipping harnesses are designed for flat leads , not the semi-constant pressure of an extendable lead.
  8. If you use a choke or prong collar. Both of these are designed for a quick jerk or yank, known by people who use these collars as a ‘correction’. You can’t ‘correct’ a dog when you can’t exert immediate pressure. The pressure from an extendable lead is at a semi-constant if the dog never reaches the end of the lead or you never press the ‘stop’ button. That habituates your dog to a semi-constant, mild pressure and habituates them to the aversive that should be stopping them pulling. Instead of becoming deterrent, it means the dog gets used to a semi-constant level of pressure. Ironically, the pressure of a retractable lead, even pressed stop or at the end of the spool is not enough to put true pressure on the choke or prong so that they function as they should, unless the dog runs into them and builds up a head of steam. The added choke or prong worsens the likelihood of damage in this case. Chokes and prongs were not designed to be used with retractable leads. You might as well not use the choke or prong.
  9. Head halters. Again, for the same reason. The extendable lead puts a constant pressure on the dog. These are aversive in the first place unless the dog has been habituated to them over a period of time, so adding a low level of pressure to them makes them even more aversive. And like chokes and prongs, using them with a retractable lead never allows you to put pressure on the head halter properly, unless the dog builds up momentum. The risk of injury to your dog in such circumstances is huge.
  10. If you ever walk more than one dog.
  11. If you will ever be in a situation where you might need to grab the lead to stop your dog getting into bother.
  12. If your dog eats things they find in the street, such as other animals’ feces or discarded food as you don’t have the control to be able to stop them or pull them away if necessary.
  13. If your dog is at all fearful, as the likelihood you will not be able to control the lead if they spook is significant.
  14. If your dog is at all aggressive or likely to bark, growl, lunge, grab or bite another human or animal.
  15. If you can’t get your dog’s attention when you call them. Whenever you call them. If you’ve got a dog who hoovers up smells or fixates on things in the distance, then a retractable lead is not the tool you want in a battle with the environment for your dog’s attention.
  16. If your dog is a puppy. An extendable lead should not be the first lead you introduce your dog to. It is not a training tool. All it teaches is the young dog to get used to constant pressure on the lead and that they can go wherever they want if they pull.
  17. If your dog has any problem with recall. If you ever lose your dog to the environment, then an extendable lead is not for you. Even if you are very vigilant, if you can’t always get your dog’s attention when you call, then an extendable lead is a liability.

The only time I’d ever use a retractable lead is with a dog under 5kg or so who can walk perfectly on lead and never spools out the cord so that the lead bit is always loose. I’d have to be actively supervising the dog, make sure I’m not around other humans, moving machines or other animals and know that my dog is 100% unlikely to want to interact with them, or anything around them. In such cases, I might as well get a flat lead.

It begs the question as to why people use extendable leads. I think the answer is that they want to give their dogs more freedom to interact with the world and allow their dog to run a little or trot, keep their own pace. Ironically, these are two very good reasons not to use them. Dogs who follow smells or who run on the lead are dogs who can easily build up momentum and end up jerking the lead out of their guardian’s hand.

They are also not good leads for moving to off-lead work. If I’ve been working on recall with a dog, then I’ll often include a ‘trailing lead’ moment where the dog is free but they’re still trailing a lead so that I can intervene if necessary. We sometimes do this when we’ve introduced dogs in the shelter too, as we are less likely to risk a bite if the dogs get into a fight and we can use the leads to control the dogs a little better if we need to by picking up the lead again. Using a dropped lead is often a really good way to move to independence with dogs who have a history of chasing, of not paying attention, or of fearful or aggressive. You can’t do that with a retractable lead.

As you can see, then, barely any single good reason why an extendable lead is the right choice. I accept there may always be exceptions. Normally, I’m fairly relaxed about the kit my clients turn up with bar the heavy artillery like choke chains or prong collars, but I am never okay with an extendable lead. It’s the one time I’ll always swap it out for something more reliable. That said, nobody’s dog is having sessions with me because they’re super obedient. However, all that’s done is made me even more conscious of the problems extendable leads cause and give me all the more reason never to use them.

In the next post, I’ll talk you through using a long flat lead, so that you can work safely with the 17 different kind of dogs who shouldn’t be using an extendable lead. They can carry some of the same risks if you’re not careful with them. And in the post after that, I’ll be looking at ways to teach your dog to walk without pulling.

Is my dog protecting me?

Along with separation anxiety, protective behaviour is the one behaviour that guardians most often contact me to say their dog is exhibiting where I often think this self-diagnosis has been made in error.

Much as I hate labels, many guardians mistake certain aggressive behaviours as motived by a desire to protect them. Some of those include territorial behaviours, a high degree of suspicious behaviour concerning unfamiliar dogs and humans, or resource guarding. In the past, vets and behaviourists may also have labelled these behaviours as dominance too. So today, I want to iron out the wrinkles, to clean up the confusion and tidy up the misunderstandings.

Usually, clients will tell me their dog is behaving aggressively or their dog is reactive when out on a walk. They tell me they stopped to talk to a neighbour and their dog barked at or lunged at the neighbour when the neighbour came up to shake hands. They tell me that an off-lead dog ran up to them in the park and their dog attacked the off-lead dog. They tell me that a cyclist went past and the dog bit them. Sometimes they tell me that their dog bit someone who came into the house or garden, even if they’d been invited in. Or they tell me that their dog growls at anyone who approaches them when the dog is sitting with them in the home.

Very often in these scenarios, guardians tell me that the dog was just protecting them. Like separation anxiety, an umbrella diagnosis for a lot of behaviours, emotions and motivations, I want more information first before I agree. Invariably, however, I arrive at a different conclusion. Is your dog really protecting you, or is something else going on?

Protective aggression is usually something I end up ruling out all together. Largely because protective behaviour is very different from the behaviour the guardian is describing. Although I don’t like labels, certain behaviours also require certain treatment plans – and that may include veterinary treatments or behavioural medication – and it matters what the dog is doing. After all, you don’t treat a sore throat with stomach medication. It would be completely ineffective, unless the sore throat was caused by acid reflux. Likewise, treating territorial, guarding or aggressive behaviour towards strangers as if it is protective behaviour is very likely to be as ineffective as treating most sore throats with Gaviscon.

Many dogs have been specifically bred for protection. Mainland European herding dogs from the Great Northern European plains were bred to work to not only keep the flock together, but to work in unfenced multi-purpose agricultural land. The predecessors of German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, Briards, Berger de Picardie, Beauceron, Dutch shepherds and some Italian herding dogs were bred to keep the flock together, keep the flock off crops and also to protect the flock from predators – both animal and human. Sometimes we call this the ‘living fence’ where the dog seems to act like a fence keeping the flock in, keeping them in situ and protecting them from threat, just as a fence would do. Some German shepherd owners erroneously attribute the ‘living fence’ notion to this manufactured modern breed, when in fact it is a behaviour we see in many other northern European flatland dogs, particularly the berger de Beauce and the berger de Brie. Being able to keep the flock together is a key aspect of this behaviour, and that means a certain level of independence – as the dogs may be left without the shepherd – but also a degree of stranger danger. Anything that approaches the dog is seen as a threat. It is little wonder that German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, French shepherds and Belgian shepherds are most often seen as guard dogs. They’re very different from the British herding dogs like the collie, and the herding dogs of the English-speaking diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Another group of more ancient working dogs also have strong instincts for flock guardianship, albeit without the herding tendencies: the livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. From the Caucasus, through Asia Minor, into Eastern and Southern Europe, where there are mountains, there are livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. Since there are few crops in these areas, you don’t need dogs who can also act as a living fence, keeping sheep from grazing on unfenced crops, but you do need dogs who can keep the wolves away and protect the flock in the absence of a human. All the big guardian breeds fall into this group, from the Akbash and Anatolian shepherd, the Carpathian shepherd and the Mioritic to the Maremma, the Pyrenean mountain dog, the Portuguese Estrela mountain dogs and the Spanish mastins, these dogs can often be found in European mountain areas along with an accompanying sign to remind hikers to leave the dogs to their flocks and not to make any approaches. Many of these breeds are also making their way into the Western world, where guardians are troubled by behaviours they don’t understand and that are out of place in urban areas, but that the dogs resort to particularly in times of stress when they’re more likely to revert to their ‘default’ settings and inbuilt behaviours rather than relying on learned experience. Recent work has shown that livestock guardian breeds like these are actually less motivated by territorial behaviour than they are by protective behaviour. In other words, they are bonded to the sheep and have imprinted on them. This behaviour, from a very early age, makes them very protective of their flock, seeing them as kin.

It’s less unusual therefore to see protective behaviours from these dogs than it is from other dogs. And of course other dogs can be protective. All dogs are born knowing how to be a dog. Just in these two different types of dog we have selected for very particular behaviours that careful socialisation should address. What I would typically expect to see from dogs in this category would be that ‘suspicious until they know you; loyal when you’re a friend’ kind of behaviours. It’s not unusual for shepherd and livestock guardian owners to report that their dogs have problems with arrivals and departures from the group, and with strangers. Certainly, my own reprobate Belgians are highly suspicious of people and dogs until they know them. And then, they’re your very best friend and would guard you with their life. I always think of them of dog versions of the Robot in Lost in Space: “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”

So protective behaviour for these kind of dogs would include aggressive reactions towards strangers and generally biddable behaviour with people and animals they know. It’s often directed towards strangers who they perceive as a threat. However, these dogs would also be fairly biddable away from their flock. The true test of protective behaviour for me is if the dog is friendly when they’re not with their flock or family. Or that their reactions are much milder, at least. If the dog is as aggressive or reactive with strangers as they are when they’re on their own, it’s not protective behaviour, is it? They’ve nothing to protect. And most dogs, in my experience, are as aggressive or reactive on their own as they are when they’re with their humans or animal companions. My dogs are not protecting me: they’re as wary of strangers when they’re alone as they are when they’re with me. And stranger danger is very different than protective behaviour.

Protective behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a stranger approaches the dog who is with their guardian or another family member/animal. This would intensify the closer the threat comes to the guardian, family member or family animal.
* The dog does not behave in this way (or much more mildly) when the guardian, family member or family animal is not present.
* The context is always in the presence of the guardian, family member or family animal, whether on familiar or unfamiliar territory.
* The purpose of the behaviour is to keep threats away from a protected target.
* Rule out stranger-related behaviours, sexual behaviours (where the dog is protecting a dog of the opposite sex from same-sex dogs), territorial behaviours, resource guarding.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as a down-stay. Treatment will always focus on the dog-guardian pair. There would be little point in training the dog without the guarded family member present.

There may also be hyper-attachment to the guardian, family member or other animal in my experience, and the dog may not cope well without their presence. Remember that this behaviour may not be seen in isolation: it may be that the dog also presents other behaviours too. You can be both territorial and protective!

Stranger-related behaviours:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches whether out in public, on home ground, whether in the company or the guardian or whether alone.
* The dog consistently behaves in this way with strange humans and dogs despite removal from territory, removal from resources and removal from familiar humans and dogs.
* The context is consistent every time strange people or dogs approach.
* The purpose is to stop the approach of unfamiliar animals or humans.
* Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour and resource guarding.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as automatic u-turns, games such as “Look at That!” and working both with the guardian present and when the dog is alone. Treat and Train machines which dispense treats and remote training would be possible treatments for dogs who are uncomfortable with all strangers. Treatment will focus on both the dog alone and the dog with their guardian.

There may, of course, be dogs whose behaviour is intensified when the guardian is present or when they are on ‘home’ territory.

Territorial behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches a space considered by the dog to be their territory ie home ground, whether fenced or not, cars, homes, dog parks, familiar walks.
* The dog behaves consistently whether the guardian is present or not, but only on familiar ground
* The dog is friendly and approachable (or more so) away from the territory.
* The dog may be friendly and approachable if they arrive last to new territory that is already populated by unfamiliar humans or dogs, but may behave aggressively toward newcomers who arrive after them.
*The context is always on territory that is considered their own, whether that is because they are resident or because they have spent some time there, even if only very briefly. The behaviour is also only evident when a threat approaches, such as an unfamiliar dog or human.
*The purpose is to protect the territory, not the people or dogs within it, though it may well be intensified by the presence of people or other dogs.
* The behaviour may intensify if doors, gates and other barriers are introduced. Where physical barriers are not in evidence to demarcate the edges of territory, the dog may be less likely to intensify behaviour around the edge of the territory.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counterconditioning on the territory, but may also include behaviours using remote devices and things like Treat and Trains where the guardian is not present.
* Rule out protective behaviour, stranger-directed behaviour and resource guarding.

Although the jury is still out as to whether dogs truly mark territory with pheromones in the same way as other canids do, it may be that these dogs are more likely to investigate urine and fecal matter left by other animals, and to overmark by urinating or defecating on top, and sometimes by scratching using hind paws to indicate where scent has been left. Dogs who are territorial may also often seem to spend more time investigating the perimeter when arriving at a new space, where other dogs are less likely to do so and may spend more time away from the perimeter. They may also leave well-defined tracks around the perimeter. I’d certainly be expecting to see other behaviours that suggest the dog is very aware of the boundaries to territory, such as marking around the edges or patrolling. The dog may also position themselves at entrance points if a physical boundary is evident.

Behaviours may be intensified by the presence of familiar humans or other animals. It may also be intensified by the presence of valued items. For instance, it’s not unusual for a dog to ‘claim’ territory in a kitchen or sleeping area from other dogs in the house, but the behaviour is less territorial and more about the presence of valued food items or sleeping spaces than it is about the territory itself per se.

As I said, it’s more typical to see certain breeds arrive as clients with these behaviours. For my own dogs, Heston my Belgian shepherd mix is pretty territorial. He is fine if we meet people off site (well, he’s a little nervous as he wasn’t socialised as well as he should have been – definitely my fault!) but he is not protective of me. He’d behave the same whether I was present or not. Lidy my Malinois is not particularly territorial, but she does not like strangers approaching her, wherever she is. You can see why I’d see myself as a protected guardian if I didn’t know for sure that a) Heston would bark at anyone who approached his territory whether I was there or not and b) Lidy would behave aggressively towards anyone who approached her, home ground or not, whether I was there or not. Because we only see the behaviour when we’re there, and because we’re self-centred little monkeys, we often think it is our presence that is causing the behaviour when in fact, it’s definitely a higher order skill to be more bothered about protecting others than it is about protecting yourself. All that said about guardian dogs and guard dogs, the most extreme case of protective aggression I’ve ever seen is a griffon vendéen… so it’s important not to dismiss protective behaviours just because the dog isn’t a doberman or a rottweiler or a malinois.

So often, when guardians tell me the dog was protecting them, I think that the dog actually felt completely unprotected by the human and was acting to protect themselves since their guardian failed to pick up on their discomfort around people or other dogs that they consider to be a threat. There are two factors that also play into it: the dog was often on the lead and therefore unable to get away from the threat since they were secured to their guardian, or the incident happened at an entrance point to the garden or home.

Let’s move on to another kind of behaviour that is often diagnosed by guardians as protective: resource guarding.

Other than these rustic dogs, lapdogs can also be protective of their guardian, particularly in the home and particularly when they’re on couches or under the feet of their guardians. It can be tempting to call this behaviour protective aggression, but often the dogs who show it also show other behaviours in other circumstances away from the guardian.

Resource-guarding behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited includes barking, growling, lunges, snapping and biting both familiar and unfamiliar humans, dogs and other animals who approach an object.
* The context is always in the presence of a valued resource. Be mindful of the fact that human beliefs about value are not the same as those of dogs: dogs can guard the most innocuous of items. Most likely, however, are dogs who guard resting spaces (like beds and couches) who guard toys (or items considered toys) food or water bowls (and may only guard things they actually don’t want to eat at that time) and also may guard you as a resource if you are petting them. The target is more often a familiar dog or human simply because it’s more likely to happen in the home as resting spaces and food are not generally available on walks.
* The purpose is to prevent valued items or contact being taken from them.
* Treatment is particularly specific depending on what is being guarded. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are important, but taught skills like ‘drop’ or ‘trade’ may be useful for toys, but would be unhelpful for dogs who guard their beds from others.
* Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour, stranger-related behaviour.

In my experience, dogs who guard items tend to be fairly anxious dogs on the whole and it’s rare to find those who only guard one item. Tilly, my little guardy cocker spaniel, didn’t just guard me if I was petting her (she had no interest in guarding me if I wasn’t sitting next to her) but she also guarded food items, toys and space. She’d even guard them from me at first. She also had stranger-related behaviour, and you can see how I could construe this as Tilly not liking other dogs and people approaching me when in fact what she was doing was feeling unprotected and vulnerable. The behaviour disappeared when I did not put her into vulnerable positions.

It’s worth noting that we don’t get to decide on the value of the resource. Lidy guarded a piece of dry pasta from me yesterday and then ate it with a most disgusted look, yet she will happily relinquish a sausage if I ask…. like I said, we don’t get to choose, the dog does. She has never guarded anything from me before.

It is also worth noting about what is appropriate and what is not. A friend shared a super video on Facebook the other day. Her gorgeous little Amstaff was in a preferred bed and an older hound was approaching, barking and moving in and out, trying to dislodge the interloper. The Amstaff did absolutely nothing, but it was clear the hound was very upset by the dog squatting his bed. That is appropriate behaviour. Good management followed, where the guardian asked the Amstaff to vacate the spot (which is right next to the fire… hence why it is so valued!) and he did so happily. He got a snuggly blanket and a hot water bottle next to his guardian and the hound got his preferred spot next to the fire. What is not appropriate, however, is a dog on vigil in their bed who growls every time another dog moves.

The same is true to a degree for all the behaviours I’ve described. It’s normal for many dogs not to appreciate strangers – so many of them have been specifically bred to be suspicious of unfamiliar humans. It’s normal for dogs to be territorial. If you lock your doors and you put up fences, you too are territorial, and that is pretty normal for a human too. And it’s normal for some breeds of dog to need to be taught that it’s okay for strangers to approach their flock – even if that flock is human. It’s also normal to protect stuff from those villains of the home who might intend to interrupt your petting session, who might intend to steal your spot by the fire, or who might come and stick their head in your bowl. Like my friend, it’s up to us as humans to understand where tensions are likely to rise and to manage those situations.

Whilst it’s normal, it is not something we need to accept. Sometimes it is something we cannot accept if the behaviour is injurious to others or to ourselves. And whilst you will see desensitisation and counterconditioning as part of all treatment plans, to deal with the emotional aspects of how dogs feel about threat, that will differ depending on what the context of the behaviour is and what its purpose is. For instance, this morning, I was desensitising Lidy around cows. That isn’t going to do anything to help her with her stranger-related aggression. It’s for that reason that we do need to be specific about what the context and purpose of the behaviour is, as well as the underlying emotion, because if we don’t, we’re back to treating sore throats with Gaviscon again.

It can be very difficult to work out what exactly is going on, particularly if you have no idea what your dog would do if you weren’t there. I suppose most people who tell me their dog bit someone because the dog was protecting them are just equating their presence with the bite, without realising the dog would have done the same had they been there or not. In any case, if you’re unsure, since all of these behaviours risk escalation if you do not address them, it’s vital you find a qualified and experienced behaviour consultant to help you out. They’ll help you through management, support you with training plans and offer you solutions that should keep everybody safe and help you address your dog’s difficulties. They should also be able to offer you an insight into what your dog is doing, and why. You don’t have to live with these behaviours and in many ways, they can mean our dogs lead much smaller lives if we don’t address them.

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