Using Free Work to Build Frustration Tolerance

We all want dogs who can cope with life’s minor setbacks and who can manage their emotions when they’re expecting something to happen.

When our dogs can’t regulate their own emotions and they can’t cope if they don’t immediately get what they want, they’re often living miserable lives in a state of semi-permanent irritation. They’re at risk of overarousal and difficult to train. It can lead to impulsive behaviour like door dashing and risk taking.

Worse still, it makes them hard to live with and it leads us to take shortcuts that are unsafe.

For instance, the other week, I was getting my dogs back in the car and another guardian pulled up at the secure field we use. She had three dogs in the back who were going bananas. The car park is safe but I hadn’t got my dogs back in the car just as she parked up and I know that she could see that. Because of the racket her dogs were making, she got straight out and opened her boot without checking if it was safe to do so. Just as she did, a car went past on the main road and one of her dogs ran off out of the car park.

I know why she hadn’t closed the car park gate. I know why she let her dogs out. I know that red-faced look and the sense of embarrassment.

I’d managed to get Lidy in the car, thankfully, because there’s no way she’d have coped with two over-excited dogs body slamming her as they did to Heston. He fell over and I had to help him stand back up again. The woman didn’t apologise. To be fair, I didn’t need her to. Apologies don’t change the fact that my boy had been knocked over by two large dogs.

Frustrated dogs mean that we make errors in judgement because we’re rushing to give them what they want straight away. Frustrated behaviours like jumping up, barking, and even grabbing or biting, can end really, really badly. The worst bites I’ve ever seen have been fuelled by frustration as the dog jumped and bit repeatedly because the guardian wouldn’t let the dog off lead to do what they wanted.

In 2019, Kevin McPeake and colleagues published a paper on frustration in dogs. It introduced a Canine Frustration Questionnaire from the University of Lincoln which you can find online and download. This is a very useful scale to help you unpick your dog’s behaviour. I would say that it’s sometimes better to drill down into the score and look at responses for the individual questions rather than simply looking at the average score.

Just as an example, when I rated one of my dogs on this scale, she fell within normal range… this from a dog who tried to eat her way out of my car once and tore all the rubber seals off the windows. Drilling down into the questions helped. If I were using this with a client, I’d be interested in the partly agree/partly disagree column: when does the dog do this behaviour?

Heston, for example, would happily fall way below average for most things. That dog copes magnificently with frustration.

All except one thing. Number 19. He’ll wait patiently for bowls being filled, for doors to be opened, to get in and out of the car… and he’s filled with joyous delight whenever there’s a walk on the cards. Question 19 was 5/5.

Lidy copes extremely well with most frustrating things as well. She scored more highly than Heston on average, but it was her response to other animals getting petting that tipped the balance. Not that hers is an offensive response… she just comes and politely nudges anyone petting another dog. It’s not like she shoves her way in.

The questionnaire is a very, very useful starting point for anyone concerned that their dog can’t cope when they’re restrained from getting what they want. It’s also useful to think about how your dog copes when expected rewards aren’t delivered in a timely fashion, or at all.

I firmly believe that frustration and impulse control are not the same things. I also believe that frustration and self-regulation when our expectations or desires are thwarted is a skill that is taught, not inherited. I also believe it’s tougher for some dogs because we’ve been breeding for looks not behaviour, and we’ve got a lot of dogs who just can’t cope when they don’t get their needs met.

And I also believe that giving in to dogs’ needs and letting them wear themselves out in doing whatever they want to do the moment they want to do it is causing us huge problems. It doesn’t create healthy or robust dogs if we just meet their needs all the time.

Take frustrated destruction for example. If we just cater to the dog’s needs all the time, all that happens is that they get more and more frustrated and destroying things becomes more and more addictive. I know dogs who destroy all kinds of balls, tyres, chews and tug toys. These are the dogs who live with people who ask on social media if anyone knows any destruction-proof toys.

The problem is that letting our dogs destroy things or vent their frustration is that these are the dogs who end up in A&E because they’ve ingested toys. They also end up doing an enormous amount of damage to their teeth and sometimes to their own bodies. These are the dogs who can’t cope on lead so their guardians let them off to go and run up to all and sundry. They end up in fights. They destroy things when they have to wait for anything. They often gobble their food and harass guardians if they’re not quick enough providing it. They can’t cope if their family members get something they don’t and get in fights with doggy housemates because they’ve shoved their way in to get petting one too many times. They’re often policed or schooled by older dogs who are often exhausted from having to constantly manage the frustrated behaviours of another animal. These are dogs who end up in fights over trivial things and haven’t got the skills to modulate their reaction. They lunge on lead, pullling guardians over. Or they pull on lead so the guardian lets them off even though the dog has poor recall. If you’re so used to getting your own way, you’re not going to come back when your guardian calls you away from stuff you’d rather do instead. They eat their way through leads, doors and crates. They bite the lead. They grab. They can’t cope at all if they don’t get their needs met and often resort to loud, obnoxious or annoying behaviours when they depend on others to deliver.

Have I convinced you sufficiently of the inherent problems of letting your dog constantly get what they want? We’re just shaping more and more problematic behaviours.

This notion that if dogs let off steam or let it out is known as the hydraulic model of emotional regulation. Vent your spleen, feel better.

The trouble is that it was proved wrong in the 1940s. Some things build up, for sure. Like if you don’t drink for ages, you’ll get thirstier and thirstier. If you don’t eat, your hunger will build up over time.

Frustration may well result from unmet physiological needs like hunger, thirst or social needs like the need for play, contact or attention. We need to make sure that what the animal can’t access is not something that is a fundamental physiological, emotional or social need. That’s the first port of call. Analyse what’s going on and make sure that the dog is not unduly deprived of having their needs met. Do that and you may not get the ensuing frustration.

On the other hand, misunderstanding things like the need for physical activity or looking at dangerous and uncontrolled destruction as an imperative biological need leads us into tricky ground. You know… ‘I’m sorry, your Honour. I did a bad rape because no-one would let me have sex with them’… ‘I’m sorry, your Honour. I admit I blew up the Parliament buildings because I was just so frustrated when my MP ignored my emails.’

Likewise dogs. ‘I’m sorry, Laura. I ate your couch because you wouldn’t feed me at 2.30pm like I demanded.’

‘Sorry that you have to take me to the vet again because I swallowed a load of plastic packaging. Explain to me what irreversible neurological damage from ingested toxins is again?’

We need not to conflate basic physiological needs and rights with dangerous or antisocial behaviour. That’s self-regulation. It’s all about learning how to cope in ways that are not destructive or damaging to the self or destructive or damaging to others.

This is not to say I advocate bottling it up. I’m not asking for our dogs to become quivering wrecks because we deliberately torment them. I mean I tried to do a video of how well my dogs coped with frustration by offering them a treat and then withholding it, and their poor, disappointed faces made me so ashamed that I immediately gave them three times as many treats to make up for my cruelty.

We do need to know how to cope with frustration. Like children, our dogs need to be taught how to self-regulate and how to cope. This needs to be done in a careful, structured way so that we don’t cause any more frustration. It’s a fine art.

Nor is it simply a case of what’s sometimes called frustration inoculation. You know – giving dogs stuff that they deliberately can’t get, or can’t get easily – to build up their coping skills. This is sadly sometimes advocated for puppies who just don’t have the brain wiring to even contemplate coping. We need to teach coping skills for moments when we don’t get what we want or when we need to wait to get them, but we need to do so in a way that doesn’t involve flooding young puppies whose brains aren’t ready for it yet. This is also true for adolescent dogs whose brains are a bit scrambled as sex hormones kick in and social skills sometimes lose their edge.

I know because this is exactly why Heston struggled with Q.19. I shaped some pretty obnoxious pre-walk behaviours in my boy as a teenager.

I also know that there are reasons why Heston and Lidy scored so low in general on the Canine Frustration Questionnaire…

… I taught them that too.

Since frustration behaviours are often so big and often so noticeable, it’s pretty easy to shape them into something spectacularly annoying, like the lady with the three dogs in the boot of her car; I’m betting she also broke the speed limit on her way and that if she slowed down just one fraction, her dogs would have had an absolute meltdown.

Today, we look at using free work with frustration.

I’ve written in this post about other ways to teach self-regulation and build up coping skills.

You can also read in this post about why ignoring behaviours is not a helpful strategy.

In today’s post I take you through the first in applying strategies we looked at in the last post, building on Sarah Fisher’s application of free work in ACE Connections.

#1 Teach dogs to move away or disengage

A dog who you can’t remove toys or feeders from is a liability. If you can’t get your hands near the items you’re using, then you’ll also not be able to remove them from the dog should they start to destroy them or ingest them. If your dog struggles with frustration, don’t start free work until you have made sure they’re able to move away.

Chirag Patel’s Counting Game is an absolute gift for this. Not only can you use it to move dogs away from toys they’re beginning to destroy, you can also use it to build voluntary interruption.

Like all Skinnerian methods, this is a cued behaviour. What that means is that the dog has a choice. Either they can carry on with what they’re doing, or they can choose to interrupt and come get extras. I find it invaluable if the dog is becoming more and more aroused by the items in the free work session, it cues them to move away and calm down.

Quite often, I’ll add in the Counting Game, count out three or four and ask the dog for some other behaviours as well. I’m big on biofeedback at the moment, so teaching the dog to take a breath, to shake off, to stretch, these are all mechanisms that can lower arousal levels.

I want a secure and automatic response when I say ‘1… 2… 3…. ‘ because I need it to be a reliable and well-proofed activity that can mean I can move the dog away from food toys if these things are causing frustration or the dog is destroying.

#2 Start when the dog is calmest

Building in free work not long after the dog has had a walk or they’ve just eaten can make the most of that still small moment of calm. I try and make sure that it’s irregular, so it may be after breakfast on one day, or after dinner on another. Expectation is the mother of frustration and so doing things in a regular and predictable way can cause more problems than it solves. You don’t need to keep it unreliable: just make sure that you’re not building reliability in the first five sessions or so if your dog struggles to cope when waiting for things. Quite often, I’ll prepare the activities when the dog is otherwise occupied because trying to arrange free work sessions can take some time and frustrated dogs are quick to realise the signs that you’re setting it up.

Be mindful of overfeeding in one go, especially if your dog eats quickly. Also avoid doing free work right after a walk if the walk has raised their heart rate. We shouldn’t be contributing to the likelihood our dogs will suffer from a stomach torsion just to make the most of that tiny window of calm. I may even have been doing other exercises to build frustration tolerance before we even get to free work.

You can build up to putting in free work sessions to lower arousal levels when your dog is a master at self-regulation, but if you try to do it when they’re overaroused right from the start, you’re missing a trick. It is usually very calming in itself and if you structure it in this way, beginning free work may actually generate feelings of calm that can be really beneficial at lowering arousal.

#3 Don’t ditch the bowl completely

Frustration depends on knowing what you’re supposed to get. When we don’t know what is supposed to happen and all our basic needs are met, then we’re not frustrated. Frustration depends on expectation. If removing a bowl would add to frustration, make sure you still put the bowl in there. No dog should have to work for all their food. Make a good portion of it stress-free and keep it that way.

If you eventually go to a majority of food use through toys, training and feeders, great. However, if your dog expects a bowl, then make sure they get one.

#4 Start with scatter feeding

I can’t tell you what a gift scatter feeding is for the frustrated dog as long as you set it up carefully.

Firstly, make sure the dog doesn’t see you preparing or doing the scattering. Make sure that you scatter feed on clean grass that hasn’t just been cut but is a clean space. Use strong smelling food to start with in relatively large pieces. I tend to use a tiny centimetre cube of sausage or cheese cut into quarters or eighths. On the first trial, I’ll put them where they’re clear, visible and relatively densely packed.

Then lead the dog to the place with the food.

Foraging in this way has built-in periods of frustration following the consumption of one morsel and the finding of the next. Also, if you use strong-smelling food then the smell will linger and you won’t find that sudden burst of annoyance when the food is all gone.

If your dog is likely to eat stones or grass because they are frustrated around food, then by all means use a large foraging mat or snuffle mat, but put the treats so that they are visible on the top. Do not bury them in the fabric. I’ve known dogs who couldn’t cope with frustration and whose guardians felt concerned that their dog might suddenly turn into a dog who eats stuff off the floor (they don’t, but I understand concerns aren’t always logical) who used a snuffle mat only for the dog to start grabbing and eating the fleece fabric in frustration. Grass is much better for that and it’s not likely to cause a blockage in the same way.

Once you’ve had a few trials, make the pieces smaller and further between. Finely grated and thinly distributed cheese tends to be much more of a challenge, particularly if you use cheese that doesn’t have a strong odour.

Graduate to a much larger area with a small handful of less odorous food that is distributed very finely indeed. You can even start then to leave in other items like t-shirts or towels that your dog might previously have struggled to cope with.

#5 Pack the food loosely and distribute heavily at first

Whatever toys or feeding methods you’re using, if you pack them hard at the beginning, your dog will struggle. For dogs who’d chew, I use a black Kong of an appropriate size, fill it with dog biscuits and plug the opening with cream cheese. I mean you really want it so the food will spill out.

I find silicone snakes too much of a challenge and too easy to destroy to start with.

Kong wobblers can be good although you may need to kickstart it by pushing it around. They’re robust and they’re hard to carry about. Start with small, hard, round biscuits that will fall out easily.

Snuffle mats can be introduced by putting the food on top.

If you’re going to build up to wrapping treats in a towel, start by a treat under each corner. Then you can start scrunching up the towel and hiding treats in the ripples. Then loose wrapping. Then tight wrapping. Again, if you’re liberal with the food and it’s easy to get at, you’ll notice much less frustration

#6 Start with large pieces of food

It can be difficult for dogs, especially those with long noses, to locate food that either doesn’t smell strongly or isn’t big enough to see easily. We can also run the risk of giving them so much rich and smelly food that we end up giving the dog pancreatitis or colitis. Though I’m never usually a fan of floury biscuits with a long Best Before dates, adding a few in at the beginning can lower frustration instead of giving frustrated dogs ten tiny pieces to find.

Like everything for a frustrated dog, you need to stretch out the distance between anticipation of food and consumption of food gradually. Maybe the first time I start with ten large dog biscuits and two small pieces of chopped sausage, and over the next ten sessions, I move gradually to no large dog biscuits and ten tiny pieces of chopped sausage. You need to manage the levels of difficulty at each stage.

#7 Move to sparse distribution and more tightly packed food

If you’re using scatter feeding, pickpocket or snuffle mat, start heavy and work towards thinning that out. If you start with a hundred pieces over five toys and move to twenty pieces over fifteen toys, you’re shaping your dog’s ability to cope with decreasing reinforcement. Remember that frustration isn’t just about thwarted desires but also about reduction and delay in reward. Start high and reduce. Make it easy and stretch out the work the dog needs to do between each station.

For this reason, tightly packed feeders can be frustrating because it’s difficult to get the food out. If you’ve started with a Kong that was loosely packed with round dog biscuits and then plugged at the top with cream cheese, peanut butter or mashed banana and you gradually make it harder to get food out, that can help your dog naturally build up the skills to cope.

For instance, adding a little cooked meat to the biscuits will make the biscuits roll around less. They are more challenging to get out. Adding a half teaspoon of cream cheese as you go will also make biscuits stick together and become more difficult to remove. As you make it more and more complex, you can build up to more sticky and liquid contents that you can also freeze. My dogs won’t tolerate a frozen Kong, but plenty will. Unsugared apple juice, unflavoured gelatin, kefir or onionless gravy can easily be poured in over biscuits or meat if you temporarily plug the bottom hole, and then you can freeze it if you wish. Just make sure you unplug the hole at the bottom before the dog gets it, so that the Kong doesn’t injure the dog.

#8 Build up to robust and noisy toys

Since these activities are designed to give your dog a structured programme that builds up their ability to cope when they get less than expected or when they can’t get it immediately, you should leave out noisy or robust toys at first. Some dogs absolutely love slamming around a Kong wobbler or an empty plastic bottle with treats inside and if you have one of those dogs who likes to destroy things, this can be a lot of fun. However, putting them into the programme too early on can be disasterous. Skills first, then challenge.

#9 Build up to more complicated puzzles

One of the toughest dispenser toys I have is a Nose-it.

It’s not smooth and round like a Kong Wobbler toy. The opening has some kind of silicone lip. It’s noisy and it takes a lot of work. My spaniel Tilly once spent two hours trying to get a single cube of ham out of one. That is some tenacity. My other dogs would have long since given up.

Toys like this can be great for the final stages where your dog is coping with everything, not least because some toys like this might encourage them to give up, for a while at least.

It reminds me that I was trying to build a new website the other day. My computer was slow; The site was slow. It wasn’t intuitive. I couldn’t find the code I needed easily or quickly… I got up, took a break, left it and came back. That’s the stuff of self-regulation. I didn’t throw my laptop to the floor. I realised (a bit too late, admittedly) that I was getting angry and I took time out. Toys that don’t give out everything and are robust enough to handle being thrown about are the ultimate test in frustration.

They aren’t for beginners. This is Final Boss level frustration tolerance.

Mitigate it by putting easier toys around with less high-value food in, so that this naturally encourages the dog to gravitate first to the smell of the tough toy, move away to lesser value items, then come back.

I guess Final Final Boss level is where you can tolerate five challenging toys, but while that might be an exercise in zen level frustration regulation, it seems a bit mean to me.

#10 Build in interruption

Mostly I let my dogs just get on with free work. It’s free. The secret is in the name. But it can be useful for dogs who struggle to self-regulate to be asked to move away for a brief period of time before they are released to come back to it. It’s also a good way to build up your recall and release cues. For our average dogs, they have zero need for us to do this, but we need to remember that coping with frustration is a skill like any other and that it gets better with practice. Most dogs will not need us to ever get to this level, but it’s always a useful skill to have for ‘just in case’ moments.

Since Heston has been on medication, he has become somewhat of a stomach on legs. As a result, he discovered at the ripe age of nine that animal faeces are a magical impromptu buffet. Having used a few free work sessions to build up his recall skills around food items, it’s helped me enormously with being able to ask him to leave the fecal buffet table and come eat stuff that won’t give him a week of colitis and worms.

A final word

As I wrote that last paragraph, both of my dogs reminded me of the importance of these coping skills. It’s 14:20. I’m not doing dinner until 16:00. He’s just come to tell me that he’s pretty sure I’ve forgotten to feed them and he thinks it’s 18:00. I’m going to go and give him something to occupy him for a couple of hours. He is always hungry these days as a result of his medication and being overweight does his joints no good at all, so I have to be strict on his behalf.

I petted him and Lidy had her task of Hercules to complete: coping when another dog gets attention and she doesn’t.

Both of them went away disappointed. I’m a hard woman. I’ll end here so that I can take their minds off their needs since they’ve both gone to lie down again and that makes me sad that they’re such masters of coping.

However, I end by reminding you once more that some frustration is inevitable in life, but dogs who live in a constant state of frustration would do better to work with a qualified behaviour consultant to help them learn how better to cope. If your dog scored highly on the Canine Frustration Questionnaire, definitely ask a professional for support.

Just a reminder that if you’re a dog trainer, you can pick up a copy of my book in paperback or ebook form here. Thanks to all those of you who’ve left such kind reviews. I’m about 80% ready to get the follow-up to the editor.

And if you are a dog trainer, you may also be interested in the new course I just finished for the DoGenius. It’s titled Revolutions in Reactivity and it’s the business. 15 hours of material ALL about reactivity including practical guidance and new strategies to help dogs move on and find safety. I’m mad proud of it.

Using Free work for Behaviour

One of the greatest gifts to dog life in the last twenty years has undoubtedly been the explosion in foraging toys and feeders. From the simple anti-gobble bowls to the humble Kong, there can’t have been many dogs who didn’t have some kind of food toy in their Christmas stocking last year.

One way that you can start to use these is in free work sessions. Sarah Fisher pioneered the use of free work in her ACE workshops. Since then, it’s gone on to be a really useful diagnostic tool for looking at a dog’s posture, balance, proprioception and movement as well as for helping dogs learn how to move better on the lead.

Although I also use free work for education in this way, I use it a lot for behaviour work too. Not only does free work help the dog learn really valuable skills like persistence and optimism, it also helps the guardian learn loads about their dog.

In this post, I’m going to explain a little about how I use free work within behaviour work, pointing out where Sarah’s guidance has helped me construct these sessions. Over the next five posts, I’m also going to share with you some ways that you can use free work if you have an anxious dog, a frustrated dog, a noise-sensitive dog or even with a dog who struggles to be independent. The final post will look at how you can use regular household items so you don’t have to spend a fortune on toys. Free work needn’t be expensive. These posts will differ in many ways from Sarah’s work on posture and movement although they can also be used for that work too. Free work has been an absolutely invaluable way to put those foraging toys and feeders to good use, using them to educate ourselves about our dogs. It’s also a good way to build in a little enrichment for your dogs too.

Today, I’m going to share ideas on general set-ups and the importance of observation as well as what to look out for. I’ll also give you a little about management.

Setting up the space

You can use a room in your house or a space in the garden. I’ve used mini stations in and around cars for some dogs. I also use free work out on walks as part of Steve Mann’s ‘Rucksack Walk’ – 10 minutes in, we stop, I dig out a load of stuff and we spend 15 minutes out and about. I’ve used it in secure dog fields and in lots of other spaces which I’ll tell you about, particularly when I tell you about how I use free work with fearful dogs.

I would say that the space needs to be a Goldilocks space: just right. Not too hot, not too cold. Not too noisy, but not so quiet that the slightest sound startles the dog. Not too small, but not so big that you can’t see what the dog is doing at the other side of the space.

If you’ve got more than one dog, you will need a way to be able to separate the dogs so their behaviour isn’t influenced by what the other dog is doing and so you don’t end up with fights on your hands as they both make a beeline for the same item. For my dogs, Heston has his in the kitchen usually, and sometimes in the living room, and Lidy has hers in the living room usually and sometimes in the bedroom.

Sarah highlights the importance of having water available, and suggests the use of two different waterbowls, one on the floor and one on a raised surface. I use a child’s bathroom step to put my raised ones on because it’s higher and non-slip, or the Petweighter bowls are also good for that if you want to make that a permanent choice.

I’d also say that it’s important to include two different types of water bowl. Although there can be hygiene issues with some surfaces, there’s nothing sadder than seeing a dog struggling to drink out of a noisy but hygienic bowl that their tags catch on or they are scared of approaching. If you have that type of a dog, by the way, the post about free work with noise sensitive dogs will hopefully help you. I usually remove my dogs’ collars as well before free work, just to remove any influences of jangling tags or sensations of tightness.

You’re also going to need some different floor surfaces in the room. I use rugs of different textures but I also make sure there’s a bed available if they want to use it and that they can access their usual sleeping spots in that room. For instance, Heston likes to eat his Kong on one particular chair, and so I try to make sure he has that chair available or a bed. For dogs who like to take their time with particular items, then having somewhere they can lie down can be really useful. Lidy lies on her snuffle mat. It was Lidy and Heston who taught me the value of having somewhere to lie down and the importance of choice in that. He goes on his chair, and she’ll quite often lie on her snuffle mat.

It’s not always included in free work sessions because they’re about movement, but how dogs lie down is as important for me as how they stand. It can also tell you a lot about how they move from lying to standing. Although I said I’m not going to focus on free work from a postural perspective, that can be really useful information.

Especially if you’re going to include items the dogs can pick up and move with, then you can learn a lot about where they choose to go. This photo was taken with the dogs’ evening meal Kong which is why they aren’t separated, but both choose to lie near each other, lying in a kind of parallel even, near the water, in the shade, outside. The door was open. This choice is purposeful. Every choice they make has a reason, and although we might not be able to tell what those reasons are, the more options we can offer our dogs, the more free work becomes their time.

Even seemingly trivial choices like this can tell us something: perhaps the shade is more valuable than space; perhaps they feel comfortable with each other; perhaps proximity to the water bowl is important; perhaps the follower likes the security of the one who chose.

As Sarah Fisher says, it’s not one-off things that are important, but patterns. Repeated choices can be so insightful.

Though we also do free work inside in closed rooms, there’s still choice. I even include bare flooring space as well which might not be exactly what the vet or the physio order, but Heston often chooses to lie on the laminate flooring rather than a rug and that’s his choice. I can’t deprive him of it just because I’m trying to help him out. He finds it much harder to move on rugs or carpet and it takes more effort, so I have to be mindful of that.

Observing your dogs

The main purpose of free work is observation. It’s our time to watch our dogs and learn from them. You can, of course, use these things as enrichment and occupation. Free work can be a real boredom buster.

That said, it is such a valuable time to watch our dogs that it’d be a waste not to use it. Enrichment is the by-product, not the purpose.

I find it useful to set up a couple of different cameras from different angles, or use my camera and my phone on secure tripods. That helps with wobbly hands, which are not your friend if you are trying to look for postural anomalies. It also helps to make sure the cameras are out of the way of the dogs. I probably don’t do much more with the videos than give them a quick look through afterwards, but I can focus on specific things and really learn a lot.

But what are you supposed to be looking for?

The first thing I do is take a baseline observation over five days. I use the same five bits of equipment. I put them in the same places. I want to see how the dog works around the room.

Do they always go in the same order? Are they working clockwise or anticlockwise? Do they revisit? Do they completely finish one item and move to the nearest next?

Then, after the baseline observation where I’m picking out patterns, I can then vary the order and see if the pattern is about position or if it’s about preference. I do this over five days too. I use the same five items and place them in different orders.

What do I learn from these?

First, I can see patterns. You can’t see a pattern with one observation. You can’t even really see it with two. Three and you can start to see commonalities.

For those five toys, I used a Kong, a SloDog slow feeder plate, a stuffed snake toy, a large snuffle mat and a towel with treats wrapped in it. To be honest, it doesn’t matter what you use as long as it’s things your dog will enjoy.

Heston goes: feeder plate, snake, snuffle mat, Kong, towel.

Lidy goes: feeder plate, snake, snuffle mat, Kong, towel.

Isn’t that funny?

Once I’ve done the five toys in the same position over five days, I then vary where I put them. That enables me to see if my dogs do the same thing. And they do. No matter where I put them or in what order, that’s their preference. From this baseline, I can make observations about order.

When we get to the post about how you can use free work with fearful dogs, these object preferences are going to be really important as well.

I’m not just looking at order, I’m also looking at duration. How long do they spend on each item? Do they leave it and revisit it? How long do they spend with each single bit in total?

I’m also going to think about frequency. Do they revisit things? Which do they revisit? How many times do they revisit? Lidy revisits a lot and will even abandon something half way through. Heston never does.

I can, of course, look at their body language. That may give me information about how relaxed they are, but also I can use it in the same way that Sarah Fisher does to consider posture, balance, proprioception and movement.

I can look at latency. How long does it take them from entering the space to get to each station? What do they leave until last, and why? This has been so interesting when I’ve been using free work for scented items with Lidy to help her learn about the smell of people, cats and dogs. It’s been very telling to see how long it takes her to get to certain items if they’re near something that smells unfamiliar, that she’ll abandon her usual order if the tray is near something that smells of others.

I can also look at the intensity of their eating: how quick do they eat? How do they interact with the objects? This becomes much more important the more items you add in to your free work sessions. After the first ten sessions, I tend to add in one new item a time and cycle through things so that I can build up an idea of how my dogs respond to about thirty or so different items and which they prefer. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to know that Lidy was much more involved with and destructive of a t-shirt that smelled of a strange man than she was with a t-shirt of mine.

Here, I’m using scent as part of our work. Look how Lidy leaves the strange t-shirt until last. Again, a one-off isn’t important. What’s important is knowing if she always did this, particularly if she had only five t-shirts to work through. I could easily use a clean t-shirt, two t-shirts with familiar smells, one with the smell of an unfamiliar woman and one with the smell of an unfamiliar man.

Her choices, by the way, are very different if I include a cat blanket in there!

This isn’t just for curiosity. It really helps us understand our dogs more.

Prepare your dog

This sounds like a really dumb thing to say, I know. However if your dog wouldn’t be able to cope with five food toys, if they’re destructive or they’d start to pull at things if they got frustrated, then teaching them Chirag Patel’s Counting Game can really help. It’s also useful if they have a history of guarding things from you. If they get a bit too involved, I simply start counting out treats and refocus them on something else.

I teach this out of context first. No point trying to use it while Rover is dismantling a lickimat. You’ll notice I only included robust toys at first as well. That’s important. I need my dog to be able to engage calmly with the items and not end up ingesting things or guarding the items I’ve put down.

Using something like the counting game can move your dog away without confrontation.

Setting up the stations

I tend to use five activities as I said above. For the first session, I’ll need to make sure the toys are not too frustrating for the dog. That might mean using kibble and low fat paté or soft cheese to block the end of a Kong. It also might mean using the right toys in the first place: Kong black toys are more robust than red ones, for instance. A lickimat would never be my go-to either, unless I knew my dog wouldn’t pull it apart. Solid-based lickimats are more robust, but even those can splinter. If in doubt, I go easy and I go robust. As long as the dog knows the Counting Game, it should get us out of any difficult spots so I can set it up better next time.

It’s also important to use different surfaces and different heights for the toys. I didn’t in the video above, but I do usually. I’ve got a Caitec ‘Chase N Chomp’ sticky silicone bone which sticks to walls, and that can add some height, but I also put things on steps and platforms, making sure they are not likely to slip about. Non-slip surfaces and steps for children are ideal. I also use an old aerobic step from Step class. I have some under-rug fabric that helps secure them in place if they’re likely to move.

I often start with a few days with the same food or similar foods in each item. Then I might start varying items. Lidy likes soft. She does like chews, but they take her ages. Heston doesn’t mind crunch, despite his teeth. He likes chewing things as well. Because he’s quicker than she is, I often include more solid chewables for him. There should be variety in texture, smell and taste. That’s another way to increase variety even if you keep re-using the same toys.

I would say that we need to be careful if we’ve got a fearful, frustrated or noise-sensitive dog to make sure that we’re picking the right toys as well as where we position them. Some toys are incredibly noisy and it’s really important that the experience shouldn’t scare your dog. You can certainly use it to build up your dog’s tolerance of scary stuff, and I’ll take you through ways to do that, but don’t stick them in front of the vacuum cleaner if your dog is scared of the vacuum cleaner for example.

A final note is that I use free work to help fearful dogs become less fearful, frustrated dogs learn some resilience, noise-sensitive dogs learn to cope with some noise, spooky dogs cope with the world outside and hyperattached dogs learn that life can be fun on their own too. That said, it’s always a progressive programme and I never, ever use food to entice or lure a dog closer than they would normally get to things they’re afraid of. It’s really important that food isn’t used as some kind of magnet to speed up natural cognitive processes.

Lastly, all free work should be supervised. These toys aren’t dog sitters to help you get through five hours of zoom meetings with a teenage dog in the other room. Having been the person who’s had to rush dogs to the emergency vet services, I promise I’m speaking from experience.

Join me next time to look at some free work in action with fearful dogs, looking at how you can use it to build resilience, coping skills, problem-solving skills and optimism as well as giving your dog full control over the decision-making processes. You’ll see how to build in items for desensitisation and for counter-conditioning too.

If you’re a dog trainer and you’re looking to use more cooperative ways to work with your clients rather than enforcement and compliance, why not check out my book?

Don’t just take my word for it. One reviewer said: ‘For those starting out on their professional journey, this is like an Aladdin’s cave of wisdom and knowledge, all in one book.’

p.s. it might also be useful if you’ve been a dog trainer since time began. You can teach old dogs new tricks after all!

Help! My dog barks at people from the car!

Many people contact me to say that their dog struggles to cope with people they see from the car. Sometimes, that can be people the dog sees from a distance, and other times, when the people pass close to the car. It might not just be people who are the problem, but other animals. Dogs might also have problems coping with passing cyclists.

These people, animals or cyclists are what’s known as triggers.

My first question is to ask how the dog usually behaves outside of the car with the same triggers. For instance, both of my dogs have been known to bark at things outside the car when they’re inside. Heston used to struggle hugely with pedestrians and also with cyclists. He still has his moments. Lidy also has hers.

Both of my dogs would bark at certain people or at dogs even if we weren’t in the car. The other morning, we were surprised by a man and his Aussie shepherd at 5.15am. Heston yipped. Lidy glared. We all hurried on our way.

In other words, the car isn’t simply the problem. My dogs struggle with pedestrians and dogs whether we’re in the car or not.

However, when he was young, Heston really, really struggled with pedestrians, cyclists and dogs outside the car. That behaviour was much, much worse than when we were also outside.

If your dogs are barking at pedestrians, at animals or at cyclists when you’re not in the car, then working outside the car will make your life a whole lot easier, I promise.

Other dogs’ behaviour is much worse when they’re in the car. Some guardians tell me that their dog is guarding the car or that they’re guarding them. Nothing is impossible. A quick rule out to make sure it’s exactly this is to set up a camera and video what the dog does if the guardian isn’t present. If the dog still goes nuts, then they aren’t guarding the guardian. If I suspect the dog is guarding the car, a quick rule out is to see how the dog does without the car when people pass at the same distance. And if I suspect that the dog is protecting their guardian as well as the car, then I will test the dog with a pedestrian when the dog is being held by someone other than the guardian and we’re not in the car.

I‘ve never yet found a dog who is actually protecting either the car or the guardian. Even so, it’s a useful rule out to do. One day, I’m sure I will find that.

Often, what I find is that in actual fact, the dog is likely to bark when they’re in the car or out of it, when the guardian is present or not, and when they’re behind a gate or window. In other words, the car is just one place the dog barks but it’s particularly embarrassing or loud or annoying.

And, like Heston, it may actually be louder, more frequent or more easily triggered if they’re in the car. I mean he’d go absolutely nuts at cyclists and passers by and it became very difficult to work with him.

Sometimes, if I’m working with a dog who does bark and lunge at people, dogs or cyclists, the place where the dog lives is so full of triggers that we need to get the dog in the car just to drive somewhere quieter in order to do a little bit of work at least.

It’s not just protective behaviour that you will need to rule out. You’ll also need to rule out how the dog feels in the car. Many dogs are anxious in the car and often, seeing triggers that scare them tips them over the edge. In other words, if your dog doesn’t normally bark outside the car, but they do when they’re in it, you may actually have a dog who’s nervous of the car and you may need to start on that first. A good behaviour consultant will help you identify the exact nature of your problem and give you a protocol to help your dog feel better in the car.

It’s also really important to understand what your dog is doing. That will mean understanding any vocalisations such as barking. Heston has two barks: the excited yip and the angry, lower pitched ‘back away!’ bark. Lidy only has one: the ‘back away’ angry bark.

Heston’s excited yips tell an interesting story. The car is very exciting to him. More exciting than anything else on the entire planet because it means walks. Thus, he’s amped up before I even put him in the car, and it doesn’t take quite as much to set him off.

Say, for instance, he could cope with seeing a person walking a dog at 50m when we’re just on a walk from the house, seeing a dog and person walking at 200m when we’re in the car would be much more likely to make him bark because he’s more excitable in the first place.

He’s not, however, yipping all the time. Sometimes, he’ll give a very cross bark indeed, but that’s very rare. Mostly, he’s excited. He’s more excited because he’s in the car, and then there’s yipping when other stuff goes by where normally, he wouldn’t be likely to.

The car worsens his behaviour.

Lidy actually copes much, much better when she’s in the car. I mean, she did bark at the Eurotunnel guys walking past, but we’d been driving ten hours. She can usually cope in car parks even if people or dogs walk right past us. In fact, the car has been a really useful way to work with her because she seems to feel safer in the car. She’s right. She is safer.

The car improves her behaviour.

In a way, it doesn’t particularly matter whether it’s excitement, fear or anger, though it might slightly affect the kind of work you do. For instance, you may choose desensitisation over respondent counterconditioning with food if your dog is more excited. You can read here about how I choose which method to use. What it won’t affect, however, is your need to go gradually and to build up slowly. That’s the same for all training you’ll do.

If you’ve got a barker who responds to noise in the home and alerts you to every passerby like some kind of furry motion sensor and burglar alarm, starting with my protocol to reduce alert and alarm barking will really help. Simply put, if you’ve done that and it works in the house, then it’ll work in the car too, though you’ll still need to work at a distance and you may need to increase the value of your food for a while.

A ‘Thank you!’ is all it takes now for my dogs to stop barking completely. I did nothing other than teach them to stop when I asked in the home and garden. We then took it on the road for walks. Then we trialled it in a careful setup in the car. One simple cue, ‘thank you!’ and all my noise problems are dealt with.

Even so, there are some other steps you will need to take.

#1 Management

If your dog is barking at anyone they see, then you can’t keep driving down the high street every day hoping they’ll get better. When you’re training, you’re going to need to make sure that your dog doesn’t keep practising the barking or lunging.

One way to do that is to put a crate in the car and then cover it with blankets. You can also put up screens and even put up blackout fabric as long as you stay legal as far as road safety is concerned.

However, crate training may be more challenging than simply training your dog not to bark, so if your dog isn’t used to a car crate and you’re struggling to train them to go in, don’t worry.

You will need to make sure, however, that your dog is safe and appropriately restrained. I watched a car drive through the village the other day with a huge Newfie with his head sticking out of the car window. Cute he may have looked. Having the time of his life, he definitely was. Safe, he wasn’t. A truck came along and on the narrow road, that huge dog nearly had his head taken off. You may still find that sticking up sunscreens and clever use of fabric can make it much more difficult for your dog to see triggers they’re not capable of coping with. Yet.

Management isn’t forever.

But don’t expect your dog to change if you keep putting them in the same situation over and over.

If you need to drive down a busy high street, leave the dog at home. Get a sitter. If you’re struggling with separation-related behaviour, that might make you need to take your dog with you on the drive, but with so many businesses offering delivery, you might need to stop taking your dog out until you’ve dealt with the separation issues first.

Of course you may have a dog with separation-related issues AND barking issues who can’t be left with a sitter if they can’t cope with other people easily… it happens. Again, for a short time, reducing the number of compulsory journeys you need to make will help you manage until you’re ready. Living with an epileptic dog who I don’t leave alone has its challenges if I’m trying to restrict myself to journeys where I know he won’t get to practise barking, but going out at off-peak times can make life much easier. In other words, should I need to take my dog in the car and I can’t block out what they can see, going out when there are fewer triggers around definitely helps.

#2 Plan

You’re going to need to be able to park up for five minutes where there is a steady but intermittent flow of triggers. Let’s use dogs as an example, imagining my dog is barking at other dogs outside the car.

This sounds easier than it actually is. Firstly, you need to go to a place where you can get there without setting your dog off. Secondly, you need a steady but intermittent stream of triggers. For instance, parking opposite the canicross meeting point is not intermittent: there are dogs everywhere for about thirty minutes, all barking and going nuts themselves. On the other hand, parking near the local park, I might wait two hours and not actually see anyone walking a dog.

So you need venues.

You also need a gap between triggers. If it’s just dog-dog-dog-dog-dog, there’s no way for your dog to learn to connect what you’re going to do next with the appearance of the trigger.

I’m a big fan of several places: industrial parks and off-peak very large supermarket car parks if my dog barks at people; across the road from groomers or vets if my dog is barking at dogs.

You need to have a few venues, because the last thing you want your dog learning is a very strong connection to that single place. You want them to understand that what you’re going to do works in all places.

So plan for your venues. Do a reconnaissance trip. Scope it out at the time you plan on doing the training. Park up for five minutes. Count the number of triggers you see. Note within those five minutes at what point the triggers arrive and leave. Ideally, you don’t want them in view for longer than three or four seconds, but that’s not always possible. I have used other parked cars as a way of blocking out some of the view, using a vista rather than a panorama, so that can help.

My tally might look like this:

0.08 man and dog arrive

0.14 man and dog enter clinic

1.17 woman and two dogs leave clinic

1.47 woman and dogs get in car

2.30 man and dog arrive

2.50 man and dog enter clinic

4.00 woman, child and dog leave clinic

4.38 man, woman and dog arrive

4.59 man, woman and dog enter clinic

5.17 woman, child and dog get in car

This would be a perfect time to do some work with my dog, except I may find we’re a bit near, or I don’t have choice to park where I need to, and another morning, it’s simply a dribble of one or two people with cat carriers over a 15-minute period.

Reconnaissance is everything. I ask my vet when they’re doing vaccine clinics, as they tend to do a lot of dogs in a short time. I also check for days when they’ve got three vets on. There’s no point going on a day when they’ve got one vet doing nothing but pre-planned surgery.

If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll even enlist my friends as well-timed accomplices, arrange a meet-up time, ask them to move at very specific times and avoid a pile-up, and make sure it’s as controlled as I can make it. The better I plan, the more clear it’ll be for the dog. The more successful the first time, the better it’ll be after. That’s not to say you can’t do it anyway – just that less clean setups tend to lead to less clean results. It can be overwhelming and confusing for the dog.

You also need to find the ‘Goldilocks’ spot: safe parking at a distance from the trigger where your dog can see the trigger but the trigger isn’t that close that you’re going to end up with a barkfest. You need the trigger to be noticeable. What you’re going to do in #4 needs your dog to be aware that there is a pedestrian, dog or cyclist present. At the same time, you also need to be far enough away that you don’t trigger your dog’s barking. For me, that’s the back of the supermarket car park if I’m working with dogs whose barking is triggered by people – and the other side of the road from the vet clinic if I’m working with dogs whose barking is triggered by dogs. Narrowing the vista can definitely help if you have little choice but to be too close.

#3 Secure your delivery system

Obviously, you’re going to start the work when you’re static, unless you’ve got an accomplice who can feed treats to your dog. If you’ve got someone who can do this, that is genius. However, it’s going to be important to fade those people out if you ever drive alone, because otherwise your dog will learn not to bark at triggers when you have a treat-feeding passenger, and that all other times are fine.

If you’re working with an accomplice, you can of course continue to drive around. Mostly, though, you may find yourself knowing that you’re going to be going it alone and that you don’t have an accomplice, or that eventually, you’re going to be alone and driving when your dog sees someone walking their maltipoo down the high street.

Eventually, you may be forced to deliver treats while you are driving.

This carries enormous risks for safety and legality. All in all, it’s probably not as risky as the distraction it causes if you can’t safely drive past a school without your dog going nuts, but even so, you do need to think about how you can deliver food when you’re on your own in an emergency.

The easiest way is to train a marker.

Markers, like my ‘thank you!’ mean the treat is on its way.

You can’t wait ten minutes from saying ‘thank you!’ to delivering it. Well, not at first. But you can build up to it, especially if you practise in the home. Thus, when my dogs fail to bark at the yappy chihuahuas who pass every morning, and I can say ‘thank you!’ and stretch out the time before I pay up for the non-barking, I can start with it being a simple matter of seconds and build up to being a few minutes. This is one way of helping your dogs learn that if the magic word is said or the clicker sounds, they will get reinforcements.

Marker words definitely help with that and you don’t need hands free for clickers.

Most of the time, you should find yourself doing at least three or four weeks of practise with 3-4 short 5-minute sessions every other day. They’ll start static, where passing a treat over your shoulder would probably work.

However, if you’re not very mobile, if you have a large car, if you have the dog in the crate in the boot, if you can’t actually get a treat from your person to the dog, then you need some other solutions.

One is a secure remote treat dispenser. These are quite cumbersome, but we did use one on top of a crate when the dog was in the boot. The treat dispenser was strapped over the crate at a slight angle. When the remote was pressed by the driver in the front seat, the treat rolled into the crate and all was well. We velcroed the remote to the door panel. Treat delivery made easy. The guardian would press a button and a treat would roll out.

Another guardian had the treat dispenser on a secured box just in front of the dog’s seat. The seat belt harness gave just enough flexibility on a harness that the dog was able to bend forward and get the treat from the bowl that’s part of the treat dispenser into which the treat was delivered.

It doesn’t have to be that high tech or expensive. I bought two plastic plumbing tubes and an angled joint for each. I taped one tube starting from the shoulder rest on the right hand side of the driver’s seat and taped the bottom to the driver’s side rear passenger seat. Then I taped another tube starting from the left hand side of the driver’s seat to the passenger’s side rear seat. I could drop a round treat down the tube and it would be magically delivered to the dogs in the rear. This stayed in place until we’d worked our way through the programme, just for emergencies.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of throwing treats into the back seat. I have two dogs. It’d be a free-for-all. Treats would get lost and within a week, my car would smell of mouldy dog treats.

#4 Train

Once you’ve managed it so your dog doesn’t end up barking when you’re putting training into place, and you’ve planned where and when you’ll do the training, and you’ve decided how best to get treats from you to your dog, then you’re ready to train.

As I said, you need that ‘Goldilocks’ distance. When you have that, all you have to do as soon as the trigger comes into view is mark the response with a marker word, and then deliver food until they go away. Repeat four times more in a very short timeframe (less than five minutes, ideally).

Plan to get closer and closer to the trigger, or to have more and more challenging triggers. Little old dogs toddling into the vet are not a challenge for Heston, but a load of loose scenthounds just before the hunt, or a load of loose huskies and collies before canicross, that’s a challenge. I’d also choose to do it at the end of our walks when he was less excited, and I’d gradually have more trials, more challenge, more dogs and a longer time. Instead of watching five slow people from 200m away for five minutes on a Tuesday lunchtime supermarket visit, we’d end up watching 200 teenagers come bursting out of school right outside the school gates over a ten minute period.

Eventually, as soon as you see your dog notice the trigger (and not bark!) mark it (I say good!) and then feed them.

You can add another word if you like: I say ‘Good job!’ just like I do for any non-barks in the house. It’s what my dogs understand happens when they don’t bark, and the thing they know I say before I give them a treat.

Then the next session, we just get a little closer, a little more challenging.

It’s that simple.

Finish on a win. Never ask more of your dog than they can take. If your dog barks, you’re not back at square one, but you may need to adjust your programme so that it’s less challenging.

The most difficult bits are setting up a delivery system for treats. Using an accomplice is very helpful but you will need to fade them out and pick up the slack unless you never, ever drive your dogs about without a passenger.

It can also be difficult to get those first staging areas set up properly. Get that right, and everything else is easy.

There may be times that you’ll have a bark or two – sometimes there’s just too much to cope with – and that’s fine. That’s life. But I wouldn’t keep putting my dog in that challenging position if they couldn’t cope with it usually. I mean, one or two yips when a team of Tour de France cyclists go past isn’t the end of the world. Telling a Eurotunnel guy to step away from the vehicle when you are very tired is also not the end of the world. But a little bit of training, marking them as soon as they see the trigger then feeding them until the trigger disappears can really help them cope much better with the world passing by outside their window.

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Help! My dog Can’t cope with The Family!

In a previous post, I wrote about dogs who can’t cope with strangers coming onto the property. Although it may seem odd, there are also dogs who also struggle to cope with their own family members. The advice I wrote in the first post still stands for those dogs who can’t cope with people living in the house, but I think it’s worthwhile adding some changes simply because it’s not the same for dogs living in the home.

Sometimes we see this with dogs who have been adopted and who are struggling to cope with certain individuals in the home, but it’s not unknown for dogs who’ve been bought or raised as puppies to start barking and growling at certain family members from time to time. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about dogs who have trouble with guardians moving around food bowls, trying to take toys or valued possessions from the dog, or dogs objecting to being disturbed or moved. Often, these dogs seem to struggle when certain family members arrive home, when they stand up or move, or sometimes even when they go out of the room and come in again.

Some examples:

An eighteen month Jack Russell, bought as a puppy, who barks for five minutes when the male guardian comes in through the door. The dog copes reasonably well with guests, manages admirably with the four children in the home and the busy household, but goes nuts barking uncontrollably when dad comes home, even though he often sits on dad’s lap of an evening.

A rescued Pyrenean shepherd who lives with two elderly sisters. When one of the sisters moves about during the evening, the dog will often run after her and nip her, though she does not do this to the other sister.

A rehomed two-year-old pointer who barks at the teenage son if he moves, often first thing in the morning or during the evening, even though the two have a relatively friendly relationship and the teenager plays frequently with the dog.

A rehomed three-year-old malinois who won’t let the male guardian stand up at night, and growls if he moves.

There are several common scenarios. These can roughly be divided up into flashpoints and hotspots.

A flashpoint is a time during the day when there is a change in energy. This may be a family member returning to the property. It may be a family member getting up and leaving the room, or returning. It may even be some point when the person has been sitting down and then stands up.

A hotspot is a place where the behaviour often happens. This might be the living room, the kitchen or a doorway. I’ve even known one dog who won’t let his guardian back in the car if the guardian has left and returned.

One of the fundamental things to do if you have a dog with these problems is to identify the location where the behaviour happens and to identify the time of day that the behaviour occurs. It’s also useful to notice what happens just before and just after the behaviour. What triggers it, and what happens next?

In my experience, hotspots tend to be more connected to anxiety, health issues and guarding behaviours, or the dog being disturbed when resting. For instance, if the dog is resting or needs to rest, being disturbed can be an issue for them. I see this often in dogs whose resting places are either easily disturbed, for instance if they are on the couch with the guardians, or their bed is on a commonly travelled route.

For instance, one GSD would run after his male guardian and nip him. The dog’s bed was in the living room. It didn’t matter if the guardian was moving away from or towards the dog: the dog would leap up out of his bed and then nip the guardian on the backside.

Another dog had his bed in the hallway near the stairs. Whenever the family would need to go up or down the stairs, the dog would growl and snap at them.

Then there was a little cocker spaniel who objected to her female guardian getting up from the couch.

It’s important to work with a behaviour consultant if you have a dog whose behaviour is very strongly related to a single location. You may also need to get your vet on board. While it’s easy to assume the dog has been beaten if they’re an adopted dog, behaviour is often related to men because men are less elegant sometimes at moving about. Men are more threatening than women simply because they’re bigger, they move differently and they smell different. Not all behaviour directed at men alone is a signal that the dog was abused by a man. As I often say, I’ve had Heston in my life since he was six weeks old. He finds men scarier than women. If we stay at my mum’s, he’ll often growl and bark at my step-dad. That’s not because Heston has ever been beaten by a man. He hasn’t. It’s just that most of my friends are middle-aged women like me who are used to dogs.

What we shouldn’t do is create narratives for our dogs. They’re unhelpful. Creating a fictional history for them to explain their behaviour doesn’t make much of a difference for the dog.

I would also say I’ve worked with a number of dogs who struggled with male teenagers who’ve suddenly hit puberty. Their voice deepens. They stink. They move awkwardly and have sudden growth spurts. A non-threatening child suddenly turns into a stinky, grumpy, awkward would-be adult.

It’s not that the dog has a history of abuse, simply that hormonal changes in humans can affect our dogs’ understanding of us.

This can be as true of pregnancy and changes related to health and medical treatment as it is to anything else. That may not simply be about the humans, either… changes in the health of other animals in the home can also be a factor that plays into changes in the dynamics of relationships in the home.

If there is a fairly sudden onset of behaviour and the dog has been in the home for a number of years, it’s useful to consider all the things that might have changed recently, including the dog’s own health, the health of the family and the health of any other family companion animals.

If you have a dog whose behaviour seems to be related to hotspots, it’s also worthwhile ruling out health issues, particularly earaches, tummyaches, toothaches and musculoskeletal pain. If you’ve ever tried to get some rest when you’re not feeling at your best, you’ll know why.

You should also rule out relationship issues. Sometimes, if we feel anxious in our homes, it’s about the relationships we have with people we share that space with. If you don’t feel safe enough to rest or sleep, then that perhaps says something about the relationships we have with other people in the household. It goes without saying that any and all punishment should be stopped. Punishment – even mild tellings off – does not contribute to a trusting relationship.

Finally, if the behaviour is related to a hotspot, you should also rule out guarding issues. Again, though, that can come back to our relationships. My guardy little cocker Tilly felt absolutely safe with Heston moving around, with Ralf, with Saffy, with Molly, with Tobby and with Effel. She absolutely did not trust Amigo or Flika, although they lived fairly amicably. There’s no particular reason dogs should generalise to all household members, be they dogs, cats or humans. A behaviour consultant will help you rule out guarding behaviours.

The first thing to do if your dog has an issue with hotspots is make sure they are safe in those spaces. I often find that these dogs live in homes where they are drawn into the family milieu of an evening and even if we think we’re quiet and relaxed, we’re actually not.

I find that the dog may well have a bed outside the family space but that they don’t use it. Dogs, like humans, are social beings. The draw of wanting to be in a space with your family can compete with our need to rest. A bit like my Gramps who’d never take himself off up to bed after a tough week of hard work and a week of late shifts in the factory where he worked, he’d nap on the couch. Most dogs are not unlike my Gramps: drawn by competing desires: rest and company. I don’t have to tell you how awkward it is when teenagers decide to spend all their free time away from the family hub, hiding in bedrooms and barely socialising… most of us would feel uncomfortable living in a home where a family member hides themselves away for long hours of the day. Social groups draw us together. We might not want to be right next to each other, but it feels a bit odd when one of us takes ourselves off.

Many dogs with these issues are expected to relax in the family hub and they are not given a choice as to where else they can rest. Other dogs have a choice but the warmth and security of the family group seems to appeal to them more than the silent isolation of another room.

Much like my Gramps, then, who would no doubt have taken exception to any of us climbing on him, fidgeting around him or making sudden bursts of movement, dogs can be compelled to come onto couches for a rest, or to sleep at our feet, and then find it immensely objectionable if people start moving about.

Especially if there are levels of noise or movement, this can be a real difficulty for a number of dogs. It’s not uncommon that these behaviours happen when the family settle down for the night, either.

For dogs who’ve lived differently from the way they live with you, it can also be the fact that they’re used to peace and quiet of an evening. Many dogs simply can’t cope with having to live in a social milieu for such an extended period of time. In the shelter, once the doors shut at 6pm, the dogs settle down. It can be odd, then, to go to a home where activity levels ramp up as people come home, as people move around the kitchen cooking, as they watch noisy TV programmes or play video games.

Good management can often help. Giving the dog a secure space where they will not be disturbed is one way forward. Giving them a comfy bed out of the way of traffic is one solution. Crating may help but can often exaceberate problems. The dog then has no choice to get up and move, and the metal framework can exaggerate the effects of movement around it. Baby gates can be another solution if the dog is happy to be split up from the group.

A careful arrangement of puppy pens can help too. One system I use is octagonal. We get two or three, so the dog has a large area to move in, and one gate. The gate is left open so the dog can come and go as they like. However, the opening is placed in the opposite direction from the one the dog usually takes to get to their target. That way, the dog has to move away from the target, come around the pen and then move towards the target again. It’s counterintuitive to move away when you’re responding to someone, and so I tend to find that the dogs don’t run back to the opening and then come around to the target. Supervised tethering can work to break habits as well.

If you have only one dog, a remote treat dispenser can be a godsend. For the family whose dog slept in the hallway, they had a remote sellotaped to the upstairs landing and to the doorway at the bottom. Anyone coming in or going out pressed the button and the treat dispenser, situated near to the back of the dog’s space, encouraged the dog to move away. It also counterconditioned the dog by pairing up food with the people moving up and down stairs. You absolutely must rule out the presence of food as a complicating factor, however. I worked with one spaniel who was guarding the kitchen space. Like many British dogs, the dog’s ‘room’ was the kitchen, which was a hive of food-related activity from 4pm – 7pm, and then the dog was left to settle as the family went to watch TV. Anyone coming into the kitchen from 7.30 to get snacks or a drink was met by a very cross spaniel who had complicated health problems that made food even more valuable. Things changed significantly when the dog was given a quiet sleeping place away from food sources and when their health was more stable.

It’s worth noting that many guardians say that these things happen more at night or in the dark and wonder if their dog has eye problems. Always worth ruling out. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not a problem at all. I think it comes from the fact we are visual monkeys and we assume other animals are the same. Smell and the way we move can be much more informative for dogs, so when dogs have this specific problem at night, it’s worth ruling out eye problems and low light, but remember too that dogs have more ways than one of knowing who’s moving about.

As well as the automatic treat dispenser, it’s also worth teaching the dog a cue that you’re about to move. More about that in the next two posts.

Dogs who can’t cope at particular times, like any time the guardian stands up from a sitting position, if the guardian returns (even from a room within the house) or if the guardian enters the home seem more frequently to have generalised anxiety issues or relationship issues. Often, they’re on edge and the flashpoint event just triggers an autonomic fight-or-flight response. Many times, these dogs are very sensitive to changes, and that often happens when we’re living on our nerves.

Sometimes I find that it’s worth doing a sleep diary for both kinds of dog, and making sure they are getting two to three hours of uninterrupted napping during the day, and a good hour or so of mental stimulation. In these cases, a life audit can help. Too much physical activity, not enough mental activity and not enough quality sleep can leave us on edge.

As I must have said hundreds of times, dogs are not a fusion-fission species like monkeys and humans. They don’t break up and come together again as frequently as we do, or with as little complication as we do. It’s not uncommon for dogs to find fission and fusion complicated. Fission would mean splitting up. Fusion would mean coming together. My dogs even ‘greet’ each other when they wake up and they’ve been in the same room! Even a nap can cause fission and fusion.

What do we do when we all wake up?

We do the rounds to say, ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’

Fission and fusion can both cause anxiety for some dogs.

Now I’m not a massive fan of strangers or threatening individuals giving the dog food. All it does it draw the dog into the space of someone they feel anxious about. All that does is leave us all much closer to the threat. So many bites happen this way that I can’t even begin to explain why it’s not a good idea.

If you live alone, an automatic treat dispenser can be useful. Place it away from the door where you’re coming in, or away from the couch if you’re going to stand up. Again, rule out any complications caused by the presence of food, and also make sure that the dog won’t try to destroy the machine in your absence to get to the treats. I’ve known very ingenious people put it on a shelf with a bit of plastic piping that drops the treat down the tube which can be ideal if you’re struggling and you wanted to use this method.

If you live in a family, let the other people who aren’t so much of a threat give the dog a treat when the scary person moves. Imagine my grumpy old Gramps having his Sunday afternoon nap. Should Gramps be the one giving the children chocolates for good behaviour? Or Nana in the kitchen? Anyone who can move the dog away from the threat is the solution, not the people who are the threat themselves.

Movement of individuals in the home can be a real threat to some dogs, whether that person is familiar or a stranger. My girl Lidy is a prime example. Once you’ve overcome her stranger danger, you face a different kind of problem: the movement nip. In many ways, she’s still saying she feels a bit uncomfortable about you. But if you start moving unusually, you may find yourself getting a nibble. It’s never offensive really – a nip to the butt or the hand is not the same as a small and very offensive burned toastie of a dog going on the attack – but at the same time, she can’t cope with faster movement. If these movements are very infrequent, management can be the most sensible option. Even if the ‘safe’ guardian stands up first to call the dog to a predictable spot for treats and then the non-safe guardian can leave, it can make things much more manageable. You need a reliable in-home recall and a pocketful of treats. If you’re going to restrain the dog temporarily with a collar grab or a hand across the chest, make sure your dog is used to this and knows that it brings reward. There’s nothing worse than seeing your dog is about to sprint after your husband and nip him, trying to restrain the dog to prevent that and getting a nip yourself.

When we’ve opened up our home to a dog, it can seem soul-destroying when you’re facing battles to get in the door without a volley of barking, or to get up and go get a glass of water without getting a butt bite or an ankle bite. For many guardians, the behaviour is a daily occurrence. Some feel like they can’t move because the dog is lying in their bed growling at them.

If you find yourself in this position, it’s essential you find yourself a professional who can help you solve this problem. Should said professional tell you that your dog is dominant, thank them and find someone else. I’ve never seen this with a dog who is dominant – only with dogs who feel insecure for one reason or another.

Having a good think about the situations and locations where the behaviour occurs is another essential step. You can’t treat what you don’t understand. When you understand it, then you have more chance of action plans actually working. Video can also help, but don’t put yourself at risk. It’s better to have a think about what you saw over the past few days than to try and video a truly uncomfortable dog who is trapped in an inescapable situation and is thus a bite risk.

Food can help, but it depends on the dog. Management will also need tailoring to the specific dogs. Crates are not for every dog and they can add layers of lengthy and complex training when you could have implemented a full plan without them. Sometimes training a dog simply to manage a problem can take longer than training the dog to behave differently where management won’t be needed.

Carefully located automatic treat dispensers can be an absolute gift for dogs who have problems with family members, meaning you can use food but you can do so by reinforcing distance-increasing behaviours, moving the dog away from humans and making it incredibly predictable. This depends on the dog not having a problem with you around their food bowl. You don’t need to test your dog by taking their bowl away: if you move slightly closer and a dog speeds up their eating whilst simultaneously keeping a beady eye on you, then you know they’re not that comfortable with you around their food. Automatic treat dispensers can solve many issues where the dog is an only dog. If you have more than one dog, it can still work but you’ll need two machines and each dog reliably trained to go to one spot.

Some people worry that they’re using food and ‘rewarding’ aggressive behaviours. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, so if using food makes the behaviour worse, then stop. In most cases, all it’s doing is reinforcing the dog for moving away and creating distance. That’s not a bad thing. It certainly beats throwing food over a dog’s head – a movement that, in itself, can be very threatening.

You can also train your dog to get used to you moving using a word that makes your behaviour predictable. Again, this should be taught using food that is delivered away from you. That will need someone else to do the feeding, or an automatic treat dispenser. You can, of course, simply keep the treats away from you so that any movement changes the dog’s feelings. If Lidy had, in her infinite malinois wisdom, decided to lie next to me and also growl if I moved (as my adopted cocker spaniel Tilly used to do!) then teaching her our ‘snack time’ cue to jump up and go to the dresser for a treat can make this into a fun activity. Teaching the dog ‘on’ and ‘off’, or ‘up’ and ‘down’ can help here. Predictable games are so useful when you’re dealing with a dog who’s sensitive to your movement. Of course, you also need to think about the law of unintended consequences here: are you building a dog who moves every time you do? Make sure that behaviours like this are very clearly cued, otherwise you may find you’re reinforcing your dog for ‘velcro’ behaviours. This is another reason why a session with a behaviour consultant can really help. It’s all dependent on your own dog as to what balance of training and management that you might need. Again, a dog with generalised anxiety may benefit from a trip to the vet to discuss psychopharmaceuticals, and it’s always wise to rule out common issues that may make dogs more sensitive than usual.

Building up trusting relationships can be really crucial here. Tilly really struggled at first when she was first adopted. Not only would she choose to sit on or near us, she’d also then growl or wet herself if we moved. The more comfortable she got and the more she trusted us not to do remove her physically, to touch her or to take things from her, the less these behaviours happened. Sometimes, however, it’s not necessarily trust but an instinctive reaction to movement or being disturbed. Dogs who’ve not been used to human movement or who’ve never lived a restrained life can find this hard. My old girl Flika’s reaction to me sneezing told me she really didn’t know humans that well: she never habituated to me sneezing or coughing. There are many clues our adopted dogs might have lived outside the human sphere, and an experienced behaviour consultant can certainly help you understand if this is the case, and to help you build a programme to help your adult dog learn how humans move.

My book for dog trainers is out now on Amazon. Thanks to all the kind people who’ve left reviews so far.

Switching from Respondent to Operant Learning

In the last two posts, I’ve been taking you through respondent conditioning and respondent counterconditioning. Big terms indeed. The key question we’re looking at today his is perhaps the biggest one in working with highly emotional dogs: when do you switch?

Honestly, it makes me despair when I see people who are still trying to use respondent counterconditioning alone and they’re 8 months into a programme but they’ve seen so little progress that the dog is practically over threshold the moment they step out of the door. Something is profoundly wrong with their timing and their understanding that’s leaving their dogs stranded as emotional jetsam, tossed about on the tides of life.

If dogs live such short lives – and some bigger dogs have perhaps only 8-10 years with us – then spending a year of their life where you’re making so little progress as to be negligible means that a very long section of your dog’s life is spent facing triggers on a daily basis and still feeling pretty icky about them. I don’t think I can live with that.

We owe it to our dogs to make progress as quickly as possible. Spending portions of their life too uncomfortable to even pee outside because they’re that anxious is no way to live.

If you’re really, really struggling, please consider medication. This is a welfare issue. Medication won’t help your dog overcome their issues without concurrent training, but it will help you work faster once you get the right medication.

Stop thinking supplements, as well, please. I supplement my dogs’ diets. I use herbal remedies. I have no beef with using non-pharmaceutical products. I use them for physical support and emotional support.

What I hate is seeing dogs who are floundering being left without medication because we’re worried it’s not ‘natural’. Stupidly, people would rather pay a small fortune for herbal remedies that are unproven and untested, often where the product is not held to the same scrupulous standards as pharmaceuticals, and we owe it to our dogs who have severe anxiety to consider how we can help them better. Remember also that there are many behavioural medications and you may not hit on the right one the first time. You may need a combination. Don’t stop until your dog has a baseline of relative stability that means they’re not spending vast portions of their day feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes, training and supplements can be like trying to hold back an emotional tide with your hands. We owe it to our dogs not to let them suffer. Please also check that your dog does not have underlying health issues. So many times, ‘reactivity’ is driven by ill health, especially when it’s sporadic.

If your dog needs desensitisation because whatever flips their switch is exciting, you also need to on-board frustration tolerance activities and impulse control activities. These are not the same. The former is about learning how to tolerate life’s frustrations when you can’t get or do what you want. The latter is about learning to control your own body. A month of these in the home and in low-arousal spaces outdoors can really make a huge difference.

Counterconditioning should not take long. We can’t talk in one breath about single event fear learning, where dogs learn in one single episode to associate a trigger with something unpleasant, and not understand that counterconditioning shouldn’t progress at glacially slow speeds. It makes no sense. We know so much about fear conditioning and counterconditioning from laboratory and applied settings that we can say that it shouldn’t take that long.

If it does, then the previous post will definitely help you up your game.

I’m looking for such high value food and such well-controlled, straightforward set-ups that we’re talking a few 5-minute sessions over a week or so for the dog to truly know what you’re up to. That’s the moment to switch to operant conditioning.

There’s another reason that you should also switch to operant, Skinnerian methods. Remember, these are driven by the learner.

Pavlov is about how the world works on us. We are jetsam on life’s tide. The light turns green and we put our foot to the pedal. The light goes red and we stop. We sniff pepper, we sneeze. We get a puff of air in the eye, we blink. We chew sour sweets, we salivate. The cute boy in class talks to us, we blush. We’re weak little response machines bobbing around on life’s ocean.

It’s powerful stuff, but it’s not empowering. All we’re doing is learning new things that make us respond in particular ways.

Pavlov is one-to-one. One trigger. One response.

And it’s an all-or-nothing or a graduated response, but it’s a helpless kind of response. You can’t do anything about it. Trigger, response.

Unless, that is, you bang in some support in the form of desensitisation and/or respondent counter-conditioning.

Skinner is about how we can change the world. We are in control. We behave if we want access to reinforcers that are valuable to us in that moment, including escape from aversive situations. We don’t behave if we want to avoid aversive situations or if we understand that good stuff gets removed from us. It’s about our needs and desires in the moment. We have choice. Choice is hugely empowering.

One reason I switch as soon as I can to operant methods is because of the effect on the learner.

My old girl Tilly was a prime example. When she arrived with me as a five-year-old, having bitten numerous children and seen a legion of specialists for her behaviour, she was an anxious hot mess. When my partner at the time stood up, she’d pee on the floor. She’d growl if anyone touched her.

What made a difference for her?

Showing her how to work the world. You want to go out? Tap the door. You want to be petted? Come and sit near us. You want it to stop? Move away.

I can’t ask her how these things made her feel. The world was predictable and it was safe. She worked us like a finely tuned instrument. Soon, she was scraping the water bowl if it was empty and she was telling me she wanted to go out in the middle of the night instead of peeing on the floor. Five years of incontinence and she finally found a way to ask for what she needed. Five years of biting and she finally felt safe enough to keep her stuff and hand it over when asked.

Skinner turns triggers into questions.

Instead of being forced to respond, because Pavlov gives us no choice whatsoever, Skinner says: ‘Would you like to?… It’s up to you!’

Now I’m making this sound more thoughtful than it is. Learners don’t need to be conscious of that question, but we learn that we have choice.

That choice is the bane of our lives if we’re searching for the perfectly obedient dog. Only Pavlov makes us perfectly obedient to the world. Skinner says, if you want the paycheque, go to work. Skinner says, press the lever if you want a seed right now.

So much so that he had to keep his animals at 80% body weight because when that light came on to say that if the animals pressed the lever at that moment, a seed would pop out, if the animals were not hungry, they’d just opt out.

Not so good for a behaviour scientist if your mice won’t run mazes and they’re all, ‘not today, thanks!’

Operant training is a choice that depends on how much we want the stuff or want to avoid the stuff that happened in these circumstances in the past.

It’s not an obligation to respond.

Where you’re turning former triggers into things that are simply cues for other behaviour, it’s mightily empowering. You’ve got choice. The triggers make predictable things happen.

Operant training is an absolute gift for many anxious dogs. This weekend, I was working with one old dog who’s got a few issues related to being as old as dirt, and we pretty much had NO training on offer simply because he’d lived life in control of his own stuff. My girl Flika was like that. Clearly, nobody had ever met her needs and she would take life into her own paws. Door closed? Open it. Door locked? Chew through it. Or find another door. Hungry? Go in the kitchen and help yourself. Bored at a meeting? Rifle through handbags and find some snacks. Both dogs had lived life on their own terms. It may be a struggle and it may not always be rewarding, but you’re the master of your fate.

For other dogs, especially anxious dogs, the world is unpredictable and the world works on them all the time. These are the dogs like Lidy, the first time I met her. She was a head-butting, bitey, circling, frantic, snatching, grabbing out-of-control piece of work. Operant methods have been the absolute making of her.

The first time she realised, ‘oh! That’s how you make the monkey do stuff!’ when she got food for a behaviour … it was a revelation. She looked at me like, ‘I could take your bag and run off into the woods, lady!’ but she cooperated and she worked out how to make me spit out treats. Operant training builds a partnership between the guardian and the dog.

Years ago, the shelter rescued a number of animals from some incredibly grim circumstances. There were three timid collie siblings in the mix. Two of them went to live in incredibly loving homes with wonderful, lovely people. One went to live with a Swiss dog trainer who does heelwork to music. The difference between the three dogs couldn’t be more marked. Two can’t cope well outside of their small social group. Joey, well, Joey performs heelwork in front of huge crowds, travels across Europe and is worlds away from that nervous little guy found cowering in a room eight years ago. He’s not the same dog. He may look like the same dog, but he’s not the same.

What caused that difference?

Well, I think operant training did.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not a fan of training for training’s sake. I am lazy and I’m somewhat ethically opposed to dogs having to perform for the stuff in their life. I think the ethics come from the laziness to be honest.

Operant training builds confidence. It builds reliability and trust in the world around you.

It builds a bond between dog and human.

Joey, when he’s with Sylvia, he’s in her world. All the world, all the crowds, all the games… it’s all just background noise. When he’s with her, the world is predictable. They do their routines and it’s comfortable. All she’s really been doing these last eight years is proofing his trust in her in a variety of diverse and challenging circumstances.

I do the same with Lidy, just on a smaller scale. Mainly because I’m lazy. I do as much as we need to. But four changes in home this year and she’s shown me what that means. When I am there, I am her safety cue.

There’s fallout, for sure. She’s not so hot at coping when I’m not there. But we’re working on that.

Operant training makes her life predictable. It builds her trust in me. It also does in others. Whoever holds the training pouch is now good people. Whoever holds the paté pot is also good people. Including the vet. In a foyer surrounded by barking dogs and moving people. Operant training helps me trust her too. This is one reason that I so completely fell in love with Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games. They just work so well.

It’s for these reasons that I switch to operant as soon as I can. Choice. Predictability. Empowerment. The learner has ultimate control over their environment.

I’m going to let you into a dirty little secret… most of the behaviour I see with dogs is actually not respondent.

Or, it’s not as respondent as all that.

It’s definitely subject to consequences.

Well, sometimes.

Poor Loupi the pointer, aged 10 weeks, saw a sleeping kitten and went into full point.

Not so operant.

Lidy couldn’t have cared less about cats until she was in a new environment, one shot out and she caught it. That woke up every predatory urge in her body.

More operant.

Predatory behaviour is an urge that needs scratching. When it’s being scratched, we can put parameters on it and make it stop when we ask. This is often about the games we play with our dog and giving them opportunities to scratch itches as well as learn to stop. Lidy was not so hot on play at first and there was a lot of grabbing, frustration and lack of impulse control. Now, she’ll sit and wait before I toss the toy. Now, she’ll release and lie down when I ask. She’s in control.

What’s happned to her predatory behaviour?

Well, it didn’t dry up altogether!

But there are glimpses where things become a game again.

The other day, we’d been practising a middle before chasing. It’s pretty simple. She sticks her head between my legs and sits. I throw the toy and we play tug a bit. Then the toy goes dead and we repeat.

What happened when she saw a cat? Well, no word of a lie, she did a middle. ‘As if,’ says I, ‘I am going to let you chase the cat just because you sit pretty, my girl.’

But I saw a glimpse of the operant. A fracture where a bright Skinnerian light glimmered through the fissure.

Not a glimpse, actually. Not a fracture. Not a fissure. A huge great gully. A gully where instead of taking advantage of my weakened state (I was bent over bagging up a turd…) and pulling me over as she made for the cat, she took control of her own body and did a predictable thing.

I did reinforce her with a few games of chasing the food. Predatory behaviour is completed where food is consumed. Ten treats thrown in the grass are not that much different than a cat in a bush. We need to remember that. Predatory behaviour is about the action and about eating. That’s why food and toys are your friends here. They can quite often substitute for predatory behaviours, if that’s what you’re dealing with. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that, in adding more interactive play with rules, you’re helping the dog cope with frustration, learn to control their bodies and building your relationship, as well as scratch a biological itch. A quadruple whammy.

If you’re dealing with dogs who don’t feel safe, much of their behaviour has been put there operantly, I hate to say it. They’ve been placed in situations where they’ve either been forced to respond, and they’ve learned that reactivity and aggression keep stuff away. Or they’ve been placed in situations where they just passively learned to sit it out. Food and toys are not your reinforcers here. The behaviour has been maintained by safety and by distance. You can of course add food into the mix, or even play or toys. However, you’re dealing with something very different.

Much of that behaviour will also become superstitious; the dog feels the need to react. Skinner defined superstitious behaviour as any the dog feels the need to perform in order to get a particular consequence, where the consequence was not contingent on the behaviour. In other words, the consequence might be completely unlinked, but the learner feels they need to do the behaviour to get the consequence to happen. One prime example is barking at postal workers and passers-by. Their leaving is not contingent on the behaviour.

Behaviour is in itself very lazy. I’m a perfect example of that. I do as little as I need to to meet our needs. Behaviour does the same. If we can break the chain for superstitious behaviour so that the dog realises they don’t need to do X in order to make Y happen, then the innate laziness of behaviour will eventually take over. If the postal worker goes away anyway whether you bark or not, then what’s the point of barking? All we need to do is set up enough experiments where the dog can see that happen. It’s one reason I think my alert and alarm barking protocol is so very effective. The dog may well simply be learning that they don’t need to behave to get strangers to go away.

Still, it may also be inherently reinforcing for the dog. Heston, for instance, does love a bark. However, he doesn’t actually like strangers passing. He likes to do fanfare barks and excitement barks and other barks of joy. He doesn’t actually like barking at annoying pedestrians or people who come too close to the house.

How do I know?

Because he doesn’t bark like that at other times.

Thus, I can’t control all his barking (and neither would I want to… his joyful big barks are his celebration of life’s glory) but I can minimise his need to bark at passers-by in operant ways.

You’re still here to find out when you can do that, I know!

When you are doing a clean set-up of respondent trials with great stuff, you should find that, if you’re at the side of the dog or behind the dog, there’s a moment when the dog sees the trigger and then turns to you in expectation. If you delay just a tiny moment, you should see them look to where the food is delivered.

That’s the moment.

At that moment, when they disengage from the trigger, you can shape that turn to you.

That’s to say, you can make it bigger. You can turn that fissure into a gully and then into a canyon. You can stretch it out.

I’ll just say here that you do not want to strain that shaping. You don’t want to decide you’re going to count to ten before you give the dog their food for turning to you or looking at you and disengaging. Many dogs will just go back to what they were going to do instead.

Instead of TRIGGER > BEHAVIOUR within a millisecond, you should now have… TRIGGER > MICROPAUSE > BEHAVIOUR.

That micropause can be shaped into something bigger.

If you get a TRIGGER > PAUSE > BEHAVIOUR, you can then insert a prompt just after the pause:

TRIGGER > PAUSE > ‘TOUCH’

This way, you are substituting another behaviour. Same trigger. Different behaviour.

In fact, a small but philosophical thing has happened. It’s no longer a trigger, it’s a cue.

Let’s take a typical Lidy example. At first it went like this:

SCARY PERSON > LUNGE & SNAP & FLIP ABOUT ON THE LEAD

Then, we did a nice, clean set-up where a person came into view for a short period at a controlled distance…

SCARY PERSON > CHICKEN RILLETTES > SCARY PERSON LEAVES.

Within three trials, she’d sussed it. I left a micropause:

SCARY PERSON > MICROPAUSE > CHICKEN RILLETTES

Within two more trials, she turned to me really briefly:

SCARY PERSON > MICROPAUSE > TURN TO EMMA > CHICKEN RILLETTES.

Now, if you’re a hot marker trainer, you’ll be able to capture and shape this or simply shape it. Capturing would look like this:

SCARY PERSON > TURN TO EMMA > ‘GOOD’ or CLICK > CHICKEN RILLETTES.

Shaping would look like this:

SCARY PERSON > PROGRESSIVELY LONGER TURNS TO EMMA > CHICKEN RILLETTES

You don’t need the marker, in other words.

When would I use a marker?

When it’s meaningful to dogs. Skinner works without marking – shock, horror! If I’m working with a dog who hasn’t got a history of marker words, I may not use a marker at all. How unconventional of me, I know! Markers can make dogs reliant on us, however, to tell them when they’re doing right. That’s my opinion. No marker means the behaviour itself is working it out. If you’ve done my Hagrid method of loose lead walking, I often don’t use a marker word as the dog is waiting for the marker and focusing on that, not what they were doing.

I’d also use a marker if I’ve got a dog who needs a lot of guidance. In my opinion, malinois need a lot of guidance. They freelance terribly if they don’t get it, and immediately revert to the behaviour they’d wanted to do in the first place. German shepherds are much less reliant on the click. Just my experience! I also use a marker if the dog has a number of triggers. It’s efficient.

I don’t use a marker if I have a dog who doesn’t know markers or if they’ve only got one trigger. They know what you’re up to, believe me, if you set it up right. Markers can also be challenging for clients who aren’t so hot at timing. In short, we don’t need to always mark behaviour. It can, in my opinion, put the human more in the driving seat than the dog.

Whether you capture or shape, you’ll also be able to cue other behaviours, or let the dog lead you with a self-selected behaviour.

SCARY PERSON > TURN TO EMMA > ‘TOUCH’ > DOG TOUCHES NOSE TO GUARDIAN’S HAND > CHICKEN RILLETTES

You can cue whatever behaviour you like here. I’d go for something your dog likes doing and they’ve a good history of doing. This is why I’ve often been teaching a behaviour discretely. I may start with that weeks before doing the respondent set-up. You can cue a ‘Look at me!’ or a ‘Wait!’ or a ‘Watch!’ or a u-turn or a sit or a down or a hand touch or a middle or a peek-a-boo – whatever floats your dog’s boat. However, I would say that moving behaviours are better than static. I’m not a fan of asking dogs to sit and stay while stuff goes past. I’d prefer to be mobile so we can get the hell out of Dodge if the situation makes a turn for the worse. I’m a huge fan of u-turns, since they offer safety, relief from the cue and distance. Since this is what reactive dogs are seeking out anyway, it provides more reinforcement than simply getting yummy food.

Ironically, it was also Hagrid that taught me the beauty of these strategies. We’d been doing u-turns and practising faithfully when one day, he saw two bouncy labradors about 200m away. He turned to me as if beginning a u-turn. We turned around, got out of the way, did our own thing, let the labradors go past and I had a lesson in how dogs tell us they’d rather not bother being reactive or aggressive, thank you very much.

Eventually, you will fade out the second cue:

SCARY PERSON > DOG TURNS AND TOUCHES NOSE TO GUARDIAN’S HAND > CHICKEN RILLETTES

This is the ultimate goal. The dog sees their cue, does a behaviour that tells you they’ve seen it and you reinforce. As I said, lazy.

Whatever behaviour you choose can go in there:

SCARY PERSON > DOG U-TURNS > CHICKEN RILLETTES

In that moment, then, where the dog turns to you for whatever you’d been doing, wait for that millisecond of recognition that you’ve not yet delivered the food that you’d been doing before, and stretch the hell out of it. Insert other behaviours when you’ve done that and experiment.

Should you prompt?

What would that look like?

A prompt is a gesture or word that you’d use to encourage the behaviour if it’s not forthcoming:

SCARY PERSON > NO TURN TO EMMA > Prompt ‘TOUCH’ > DOG TURNS and DOG TOUCHES NOSE TO GUARDIAN’S HAND > CHICKEN RILLETTES

I don’t tend to prompt unless the dog gets stuck and the trigger is too overwhelming for them. Skinner is voluntary and choice-based. We can ignore prompts and cues. It’s likely that the prompt will fail. Nevertheless, if I see my dog getting stuck in that moment before they’re going to react, I’ll prompt. I was sitting on the step the other day doing some of this with Lidy and two guys walked down with two shi tzus. I could tell by how long it took her to turn away that she needed a prompt. I told her ‘in’ and she went in the house. Seconds later and she would have exploded.

I don’t prompt if I know the dog isn’t even aware of me at that moment. That is a lesson to me that I’ve failed them and put them in too far. I also don’t prompt routinely. The dog is still reliant on me to tell them what to do.

The other important thing about this is then you can also begin to mix in lesser reinforcers. I’m so cheap these days that Lidy does all this for rubbish dog biscuits and kibble, or even – and how cheap is this? – me telling her she’s a good girl. You can’t put respondent counter-conditioning on cheaper food or mix in other stuff or even phase it out. You can with operant.

One thing that I do like to do with dogs with multiple triggers is cue them to be aware of the possibility of the imminent appearance of that cue. Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That is a good example, but as you can tell from ‘that’, it’s not a specific trigger. Lidy know’s her ‘Where’s Wally?’ from her ‘Where’s the Dog?’

‘WHERE’S WALLY?’ > DOG LOOKS FOR PERSON > SEES PERSON > TURNS AND HAND TOUCHES > CHICKEN RILLETTES

‘WHERE’S THE DOG?’ > DOG LOOKS FOR DOG > SEES DOG > TURNS AND HAND TOUCHES > CHICKEN RILLETTES

Why I like these pre-cue cues so much is that in my opinion, they prepare the dog for what they are about to see. For reasons I’ll explain in future posts, this can help lower the aversiveness of an unpleasant situation and it can also prepare them, making the world predictable. It turns the world into a predictable game. We know from some work by Adam Miklosi’s team that dogs are surprised when their expectations based on scent are not met. From this work, we can extrapolate that dogs do expect things from scent. If they have expectations of who or what to expect based on one environmental stimulus, there’s no reason that they can’t learn to expect different things. Of course, this adds an unnecessary layer of complication for most dogs, but it’s a gift for those dogs who have multiple triggers and I believe it can work to reduce anxiety about what generalised cues like ‘Look at That!’ might mean if the dog has different emotions or different intensity of emotions related to different triggers.

Other times, I’m really just letting the dog process the world themselves. If stuff is under threshold and well controlled, food has no value. In this way, I’m working more with BAT 2.0, where you’re just letting the dog make their own decisions and make sense of the world. For Lidy, for example, all she’s doing is making sense of stuff, and often, if I give her time to make sense of it, she’ll make good decisions on her own.

In this video, you can see that moment really clearly. There were some dogs barking outside (I think!) and she was listening to them. You can see up to 0.22, she’s focused on the sounds outside the house. At 0.22, she looks to me. That’s the switch. That’s my gold. That’s when I know she’s switched from a respondent brain which is jetsam on the tides of life to an operant brain that is able to do things.

What is ‘Good girl?’

A marker that says treats are available.

Where are the treats kept and delivered?

Well, the dogs tell you.

We move away from the dogs barking and we get food.

Dogs barking, here, are no longer a trigger that causes my dogs to bark.

Dogs barking are simply a cue that says, treats will be made available from the cabinet near the door.

As I said, behaviour is lazy. It takes the least unpleasant course and the least effortful course to get to satisfactory outcomes.

Here’s an annotated video of the above:

It’s that moment at 0.22 that I want.

This comes back to why I want clean set-ups. The above video is not a clean set up. I have no control over how long the dogs will be outside the property for. It’s not clean. I don’t know how many seconds it took me to find my phone, switch it on, switch to video and record, but even if it only took me three seconds, that’s almost half a minute of exposure to a trigger.

That’s too long for good respondent counterconditioning. The longer the exposure, the more likely she will be to bark back. Also, as you can see, I’m not counterconditioning. I’m just letting her process it. We move then into operant. We do a lot of ‘just processing’ – I want her to make good decisions and decide that things are nothing to be bothered about without me telling her so. If I were counterconditioning, I’d be feeding her from 0.01 right until the dogs stop. I’m letting her make sense of stuff.

All we’re really looking for, then, is higher latency. Latency is just the amount of time between a stimulus and a response. Low latency is great for computers and the internet… Instant reactions. Low latency is not great for dogs. Instant reactions are not a good thing. When we’re switching from respondent counterconditioning to operant methods, we’re looking to stretch that latency to a high latency. We’re looking for a lag between noticing and reacting. When we’ve got lag, when we’ve got high latency, when we’ve got SCARY STUFF >>>>>>>>>>>>>> REACTION rather than SCARY STUFF > REACTION, we have something to sculpt…

Time. We have time to stretch and sculpt.

We’re also looking for less intense behaviours. Listening intently and tracking is less intense than barking and jumping up at the window. We can sculpt those too.

I did try and find a video where I switch from respondent to operant, only to realise I don’t have that many. Respondent counterconditioning done well means a handful of careful trials that give way easily, naturally and quickly to operant work. It’s probably 2% of my time with a learner. Once your dogs know what you’re up to, you get that head turn whenever you are working under threshold with savvy dogs, whatever the trigger. I don’t have videos because respondent set ups are delicate things, and I need my eye on the dog, not on the camera.

You should end up with moments like this, where something salient happens and your dog looks to you:

The one that follows is an annotated version where I outline the processes. It’s sloppy. It’s chatty. It wasn’t done for professional showmanship – a bit like my training. It’s impromptu and casual and it’s on the spot – a lot like my training.

You’re looking for that tiny moment of ‘Hey, you’re slow with the stuff!’ where the learner turns to you.

At that point, they are beautifully conscious of what’s happening to them and the processes that are affecting them.

They’re no longer jetsam on life’s tide of offensive stimuli. They are dogs who think that offensive stimuli mean treats.

They’re no longer at the beck and call of predatory behaviours. They are dogs who are learning to disengage and do other stuff instead. In the end, a thousand reliable repetitions of ‘find it!’ or ‘get it!’ will always win out over something chaseable that they never get to catch. With predatory behaviours, what we’re essentially doing is putting it on cue, not unlike gundog trainers might. Only our dogs don’t get to chase cars and bicycles… so we need a substitute to pop in there instead. You’ll find lots, I know, on predation substitute training, that will help your dog scratch itches and cope better with moving stuff.

The key is in waiting for that millisecond where the dog becomes conscious that you’ve not delivered the expected unconditioned stimulus. When you’ve got that, you are ready to switch. It might take a few more repetitions, but a dog who is conscious of the game you’re playing is a dog ready to switch.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful moment because you can extend the time your dogs take thinking and processing rather than reacting. You’re stretching the time between the trigger and the response. That latency means you can insert other things if you like, such as another behaviour. It means you can turn triggers into simple environmental cues that tell the dog to do something else instead of what they used to do. It helps the dog make sense of predictable sequences of events.

Of course, where Skinner goes, Pavlov goes too. They’re shackled to one another. Just because you’ve switched from obligatory responses to triggers to optional and voluntary behaviours subject to consequences does not mean Pavlov has packed up his kit and buggered off. He’s still there, helping your dog feel good about you, about the world and about what’s happening to them. If you opt for an incompatible behaviour instead of whatever the dog had been doing instead (you can’t chase AND recall… you can’t lunge at a target AND touch your guardian’s hand) then you’re not only doing an incompatible operant behaviour, you’re also doing an incompatible respondent behaviour – the very essence of both respondent counterconditioning. Thus, you enter the world of operant counterconditioning – the most powerful tool of all.

If you’re a dog trainer looking for ideas on how to work more effectively with your clients, why not check out my book?

What is Respondent Counterconditioning?

In the last post, I took you through the essentials of respondent conditioning. We looked at how our brains streamline sequences of events to help us predict what will happen next and prepare us for these events. I took you through some common examples and explained how these associative learning mechanisms help our bodies prepare for things that will happen next.

Just to recap…

By and large, the method of respondent conditioning is how many troublesome behaviours start in our dogs in the first place. A certain feline smell comes to predict the presence of said animals, perhaps preparing our dogs for an exciting game of ‘spot the cat’ or ‘chase the cat’. When I had cats, Fox and Bird would often turn up miaowing. That miaowing came to predict yummy cat food leftovers for my dogs, and so my little cocker spaniel became delighted by the sound of my two ginger reprobates showing up first thing in the morning. Later, when I lived with a house-bound blind cat, the sound of him scraping his litter box, and, inevitably, the scent of freshly laid cat turds meant the all-you-can-eat hot cat turd buffet had just opened, and my irrascible little cocker high-tailed it to the litter box, as surely as if a bell had rung to say it was lunchtime.

It wasn’t all about food, either. Neutral signals like a cat miaowing or a scraping of litter came to predict the presence of food, for sure, but they also come with emotional valence. That’s to say if you find freshly-laid cat cookies yummy, then the sound of scraping will come to elicit a positive emotional response too. And if you are trying to stop your cocker spaniel eating cat turds and harassing your blind cat, then the sound of cats scraping in litter will come to elicit a feeling of dread and disgust.

Much of the work of dog trainers is about reducing the effects of this respondent conditioning. Dogs who are over-excited by a walk or by a food bowl can be troublesome. Being ruled by our emotions makes us forget our learning, and so it’s not unusual to find dogs struggling to cope with very basic instructions when their heart is ruling their head. Likewise, the sign stimuli that provoke predatory behaviour like absconding to chase a deer or a hare can be the very bane of your existence if you’re working on recall.

Other times, the emotions elicited by those stimuli can be negative ones like fearfulness. A dog who has learned to be afraid of car journeys or muzzles because they predict vet trips, a dog who has learned that the sight of the lead predicts a loss of freedom or a dog who has learned that hands coming towards them when they are restrained is a dog who knows exactly what will happen next, and may take some evasive action to avoid said events.

As we know from the previous post, these emotions are elicited. That’s to say there’s as much chance of your dog being able to switch off those emotions as there is for me to switch off happy feelings when I eat cake or see blue skies or smell suncream or to switch off bad feelings when I see an email from the tax authorities. Whether they are simple reflexes or they are more complex action patterns, the power of an unconditioned stimuli is not just hard to ignore: often it’s impossible to ignore. Likewise, conditioned stimuli can be just as powerful. You can’t tell someone with a PTSD response not to have an attack; you can’t tell someone having a panic attack just to calm down. In fact, much of the continued work on respondent conditioning in humans is looking at its role in overdoses, in addiction, in PTSD and in phobias or panic.

Overcoming respondent conditioning

Human therapies can move on in ways that animal therapies cannot because of one simple fact: language. We know humans can use language to elicit memories in others and we can also use language with ourselves to change things. Some of the work on reconsolidation of memory, for instance, asks you to recall a time when you felt one thing or another so that then the therapist can work with you on reframing that memory. I do a lot of this with dog bite victims. I can’t ask dogs to remember things and I can’t work in the same ways and with the same breadth as I do with humans.

This means that those of us working with species with whom we cannot communicate are stuck working with some techniques that seem a little dry and dusty to human therapists. That’s not to say these are not useful techniques or that animal emotional and behavioural modification hasn’t moved on, just to say that the communication barrier makes it harder to change how animals feel about stuff that excites them and about stuff that makes them afraid.

Respondent counterconditioning found its beginning with a student of John Watson’s, Mary Cover Jones back in the early 1920s. She worked with a number of children who had fears, including one boy who had a fear of rabbits. She paired up the rabbit with food, gradually moving the rabbit closer to the boy as he ate. Originally, she called this ‘direct conditioning’ but it later became a foundation stone of what counterconditioning would become: taking something that had already been learned by respondent conditioning and pairing it up with an unconditioned stimulus of the opposite valence.

What does that even mean?

Well, as you learned in the last post, there is stuff we’re born liking, usually that meets our basic physiological needs like food and safety, and there is stuff we’re born not liking, such as pain, nausea-inducing stimuli and disgust-inducing stimuli. Some stuff, as you read, is actually fairly easy to condition.

You simply pair that up with things we’ve learned.

For instance, and I kid you not, when I was an early dieter back in the nineties, some therapists were working with forms of aversion therapy to make food less yummy. One thing to do would be to imagine your favourite food, and then to imagine something disgusting straight after. Like pizza? Imagine it with slugs crawling on it. Like bacon? Imagine the scenes of slaughter that put it on your plate. Like chocolate cake? Still feel the same if you know it touched dog turds? Honestly, I was put off Weetabix for good by the boy over the road telling me they were made with elbow scabs and crusty snot.

Aversion therapy sadly still has its fans in the human world and has been used in long-term captivity and brainwashing as well as in so-called conversion therapies. It also still has its fans in the dog training world, with people who try to use shock or pain to stop dogs chasing things. One old-fashioned treatment to stop dogs chasing creatures was to tie the dead creature around the dog’s neck. I’m guessing the principle at work was trying to make the dog feel nauseated by the smell in the hopes they’d never chase the thing again.

Do they work?

Not often.

Why can respondent conditioning be so tough to change?

The problems with respondent counterconditioning are manifold, not least that we don’t actually really know what it is doing and we also know that respondent conditioning in many circumstances can be surprisingly resilient, as many addicts will attest.

For instance, respondent conditioning can be spontaneously recovered. What that means is that if you give it a gap between extinction or counterconditioning protocols, it’s likely to pop back up. I had many years of extremely healthy eating after learning to rely on chocolate and junk food in my teens when I needed a pick-me-up. What happens when an unpleasant situation re-occurs after years? Boom. Back to relying on chocolate and junk food. Healthy eating is a conscious process for me; eating junk food is an unconscious habit I return to time after time when my brain is occupied by other things. Time is not kind to attempts to remove that original conditioning.

Respondent conditioning can also be renewed. What this means is that if you go to a new place, the old associations can pop right back up again if you did all your behaviour modification in a different place. This is especially relevant for animals whose learning is so much more contextual than ours. In other words, if you are working on processes with your dog to change their behaviour towards cats, bikes or human beings, don’t expect that learning to be as solid in a different venue. Really, what I’d say we’re doing when we engage in processes to change a learner’s feelings about stuff is we’re teaching them exceptions to the rule, little by little. Oh, not that one. Oh, not that one either. I’ll explain why I think this shortly, but suffice to say that respondent conditioning can easily be renewed when you go to a new place. My dog had a phobia of one vet to the extent of I went to another vet. He was absolutely fine in the second vet for years and years until they did the same thing: lifted him onto the table. And that phobic, panicked response was right back again. You might, therefore, think you are in a new environment – and you may well be! – but if the dog doesn’t have the same stimulus – in this case, being lifted onto the table – there’s no reason for the emotional response. And another vet was ruined.

This may actually be a better example of a reinstated response. The dog met the unconditioned stimulus again and the uncontrollable fearful response popped right back up again.

Respondent conditioning can be very, very hard to kill in many circumstances where emotions are involved, especially if those emotions were particularly pleasurable or not.

Why does this have relevance?

Problems in application

Well, let’s take an example of an aversive counterconditioning programme I would never use myself but is used to cause conditioned aversion towards things. Say for instance your dog has been bitten by a venomous snake and you want your dog to find snakes so aversive they don’t chase them and try to bite them. You might pair up the snake and follow it with a shock. Likewise, you could do the same with chickens or cats or whatever. Chickens = shock. Cats = shock.

The first thing is that the unconditioned stimulus (shock, in this case) needs to be so powerful that it will outweigh the positives of chasing things. I know dogs hit by cars who enjoy chasing cars that much that they’d run through the pain of it. I know dogs who’ve arrived in the shelter with three shock collars on. I’ve worked with dogs who found biting so pleasurable as part of bite sports that the handlers had used two shock collars AND a prong collar…. it’s pretty hard to know how aversive something would have to be for it to outweigh the positives.

The second thing is that I’d argue the brain is learning exceptions. Oh, not that one? So every time you have a gap in your training, you’re going to have to know that the behaviour will likely come back again. Thus, you may think that your dog now finds snakes aversive, but after a delay, that pleasure can come back again. Likewise if you change the context. Also likewise if they find the snake again without the shock.

Obviously, this works the other way around. I may be using food or safety with a dog who is fearful of humans. I shouldn’t be surprised that I may feel like I’ve made loads of progress one session, but then the next, the emotional response is right back up there. Or, we go to a different venue and – boom! – fearfulness all over again. Or, we hadn’t really got to the true problem, such as the dog not liking people moving towards him with their hands out, and we might have done loads of work with people moving towards the dog, or standing, or putting their hands out, but none with all of them, only to then find we’d never really, truly, addressed the problem in the first place.

So respondent conditioning is surprisingly durable and treatments notoriously open to failure unless you know the pitfalls.

What is respondent counterconditioning?

So what is respondent counterconditioning then, and how do we use it with dogs?

At its most simple, it’s just pairing up bad stuff with good stuff.

Scary person appears > predicts the arrival of yummy food.

Scary dog barks > predicts the arrival of yummy food.

Scary vet visit > predicts the arrival of yummy food.

Unpleasant car journey > predicts a great walk afterwards

Scary person appears > predicts a great game.

That’s all there is to it. Pair up the bad stuff with the good.

It doesn’t involve clickers, reinforcement, marker words or anything more complicated than bad stuff > good stuff. That’s all.

Some people believe this causes an incompatible emotional response. In other words, play is incompatible with fearfulness. Eating is physiologically incompatible with fight-or-flight responses. Other research suggests that during counterconditioning activities, the neural pathway which stores the memory in the first place is re-opened and re-laid, a process called reconsolidation. In other words, when we remember stuff or relive stuff, we’re actually in the process of rewriting our memories about it. For instance, my brother reminded me of an event some years ago and I struggled to recall the details of it. Later, as we recalled the events, we were actively in the business of making those neural circuits work again and this reconsolidation is actually when the neural circuits are weak and open to being laid in a slightly different way. Imagine, if you will, a piece of countryside with a train track laid across it. Imagine that in the process of the train going across it, shortly after, the track itself becomes easy to relay, so that you can push it ten metres to the left, add a kink or a bend, even, gradually, relay it completely. When the track hasn’t been in use, it’s just fixed and solid, needing a team of twenty to come in, remove it and relay it. When the track has just been used, it’s malleable and plastic. Normally, under normal circumstances, the more that train runs over the track, the more fixed it becomes in position. This is why, when I changed the password to this site, I accidentally chose a new password with the same starting letter, and even though my brain was saying ‘WRITE THE NEW ONE!’, because that first little letter cued me to write the old one, my fingers followed the pathway of the old password. Things become fixed the more we use them. The more we remember something, the easier it gets to do it. Likewise with memories. Those often recalled become more fixed the more we remember them. What the science of reconsolidation suggests is that just after we’ve remembered it, there’s a short window where we can mess with the circuitry. These techniques are used frequently in treating PTSD and also phobic responses to situations.

Consolidation and reconsolidation of learning

Now we can’t ask dogs to recall a time they felt afraid when a big scary teenager appeared on a scooter. We can, however, put them back in a situation where there are teenagers on scooters. As they relive the experience slightly differently, it makes that neural circuit malleable and plastic for a short time, allowing us to change how they feel. With humans, this alters how they felt about the initial event. We can’t know that this is the same for animals, although lots of work on the reconsolidation of fears in animals has been done and would suggest that the same thing is true.

So whether it’s the reconstruction of memories or whether it’s simply an incompatible emotional response, something is going on during this process that affects how we feel in the moment.

Years ago, I had a pretty bad car crash where I was shunted into a junction by a lorry who crashed in the back of me on the way to work. For a good few months, I was having panic attacks when driving, and my panic was starting to generalise to other roads and other times. I started a course of medication, and like all good behavioural medication, it also needs a concurrent modification programme. I worked with a psychiatric nurse and we almost did exactly this process… remembering the event and reconstructing it, remembering the journey and pairing it up with positive feelings of safety and control. We were, neuroscience might suggest, rewriting the memory itself. What that body of work might suggest is that animals also do the same. We aren’t unlearning… We are reconsolidating.

Before we even start to think about respondent counterconditioning, we need to bear these things in mind.

It’s not just SCARY STUFF > GOOD STUFF.

Contingency and contiguity

First, the good stuff has to be contingent on the scary stuff. In other words, the dog has to be aware that the good stuff IS ONLY happening BECAUSE OF the bad stuff.

Second, the good stuff has to be linked in a timely manner to the bad stuff. It should lag slightly behind the bad stuff, overlapping or having a tiny gap of less than seconds. Let’s not get into the fact that Mary Cover Jones’s experiment with the boy and the rabbit actually was backwards conditioning…. that’s a whole enormous contrary bag of unpredictable science to wrestle with… let’s keep it simple and say that it’s very useful indeed if the bad stuff is followed almost immediately by the good stuff.

Contingent and contiguous.

Third, the good stuff has to be exceptionally good stuff. It has to be more powerful than the feelings elicited by the bad stuff.

Improving your respondent counterconditioning

There are two ways you can really help this. The first is ridiculously clean set-ups and staging. Why do I find remarkable success with respondent counterconditioning when other trainers have already tried it? Because I manipulate the situation so that it is incredibly clear to the dog that BAD STUFF > GOOD STUFF. There is a very, very clear connection for the dog between the two things. Nothing else is going on. It’s not sloppy. I’ve not got hundreds of competing variables. My sessions are constructed so that the training is so flipping obvious to the dog that they get what’s going on in a couple of trials.

Here are two posts to help you with that:

Set-ups

Panoramas and vistas

I want no other distractions. Just the bad stuff and the good stuff.

I have exceptionally good quality good stuff. Paté usually. Black pudding. Tripe. Stinky, yummy, amazing good stuff that I know is the highlight of the dog’s life. Lidy doesn’t like crunchy stuff. She likes easy to swallow yummy stuff. Heston prefers meat to cheese. You’ve got to know this stuff. Don’t, please, start with carrots, even if you could.

Also, keep the sessions short. Respondent processes aren’t hours long. We get in. We do 6-7 trials. We leave. We finish on a win. I want the whiplash head turn within a couple of trials, so I’ve got to know where and how the dog reacts, and work under that threshold.

I’ve got to have a good understanding of threshold. Camhi (1984) points out that reflexes are a gradient response and action patterns are an ‘all-or-nothing’ thing. That’s to say that if my dog starts salivating when I get their bowl out, they’re not at 100% salivation mode straight away. It takes time to amp up to full drool. If there’s pepper spray in the air, you might feel your nose being a little itchy as the pepper intensifies or as you walk further towards the source, only then to do your sneeze. Action patterns, on the other hand, are all or nothing. We don’t know enough about how to divide these seamlessly into two piles, but it suggests that if you’re working on predatory behaviour, if you’ve triggered it, you’re in the full thing. You can’t be a little bit chasey. We don’t know enough where emotional responses sit to know if they’re ‘all or nothing’, but a rough survey of my colleagues who deal with separation-related behaviours suggests that might well be ‘all or nothing’ – it doesn’t kind of build up as time goes on. Your dog isn’t a little bit panicked. This is important because we might feel like we’ve been changing our dog’s emotional response to stuff when in fact, they just weren’t triggered before. We need a good understanding of how thresholds work.

We also have to have a good understanding of when to switch to operant mechanisms – something I’ll share with you next week. Knowing the moment to switch is crucial.

Other posts about respondent methods

I’ve written extensively about improving your respondent counterconditioning techniques because I’m often dealing with emotional dogs or predatory dogs. It’s important to know:

How to set up training scenarios cleanly

How to use a stimulus gradient

How to work under threshold

When to use desensitisation (a form of respondent counterconditioning, where the unconditioned stimulus is calmness or safety) and when to use respondent counterconditioning. They are not the same thing. I need desensitising to the number of times trainers are implementing a stimulus gradient and thinking it’s desensitisation. It’s not. Desensitisation is particularly useful when your dog is sensitised to particular triggers that you need them to ignore. I use it most often with predation but it has its uses with fears too.

How to use a conditioned safety cue with fearful behaviours.

You also have to have a good understanding of what ‘good stuff’ means to your dog. That’s very much up to your dog. I use food because it’s convenient and it also works on the autonomic nervous system where play doesn’t. Play can also increase arousal and sometimes I don’t want that. Food can too. That’s another reason I need to know the dog I’m working with. Keep sessions short, clean, clinical and efficient with a carefully constructed stimulus gradient and a pairing that is so obvious to the dog that it gets their attention. Repeat often. Repetition in different contexts is how you get over the challenges of spontaneous recovery, renewal and reinstatement. You’re not unlearning. You are reconsolidating. Yes, there will be set-backs, but you are never back at square one. There are days when behaviour that I thought to be long dead comes back and I’m all Really? Really? This? Now??! But why??!

When to use respondent counterconditioning

Another thing we’ve still much more to learn about is WHEN respondent counterconditioning should happen in relation to the original event and then any recovery, renewal or reinstatement. What we know is that those memories have a short window in which they can be reconsolidated differently.

Lidy gave me an excellent example a few months back. She’s never been much of a car or bike chaser, thankfully. Plenty of malinois who can’t resist the lure of the wheels, along with their herding brethren. Given her predatory and aggressive behaviour, this is somewhat astonishing to me. However, we were caught out by a rogue cyclist who whipped past us on a pathway in the forest and she lunged at him.

What did I do?

Well, we had a thirty minute break and we drove to a place I knew I’d see cyclists in ordered and neat distance. We drove to a popular lakeside walk and we watched cyclists from the car. We ate snacks contingent on the cyclists and we did so for a brief ten minutes. We saw six cyclists. We ate six bits of chicken. Then we went home. Yes, it took us an hour to get there and back… the set-up is so important. It was worth it.

When she had a reaction to a lorry that drove past too close and too fast (and, I have to say, nearly headbutted the stupid thing and surely would have sustained some terrible injuries) we did the same thing… we went and we watched cars for ten minutes in very controlled circumstances. We ate sausage. We went home.

Not only that, we then had a sleep on it (guardians need respondent counterconditioning too) and then before we went out into the real world the next time, mindful of the knowledge we have about spontaneous recovery of behaviour after a time lapse, we went and we did the same thing we’d done the day before in a different place. We watched the cyclists. We watched the cars. She got chicken or sausage. We then went on our walks. I’m not taking a dog right back into the world the next day without a carefully-constructed trial first.

Be mindful of the bounce-back. Be mindful of what memories you want your dog to lay down from one session to the next. Be mindful that sessions should be controlled and sharp.

Working with multiple triggers

One thing people often ask me when they have a dog with multiple triggers is which do you countercondition first. Actually, what you want is a dog who is savvy to the process, as mine are. You also want to start with the trigger or stimulus you can control the most cleanly and to which your dog has the least response. If I have a dog who is fearful of multiple things, I’d also be thinking about a chat with the vet about behavioural medication to run alongside the programme. But if I had to choose between the stuff Lidy is afraid of – people and dogs, on the whole – I’m taking people first. People are way more predictable than dogs. I can co-opt them into the process as a stooge. Quite often, I ask my clients who are doing respondent stuff with their dogs to be the stooge. Nothing makes you understand the needs of your dog better than watching the needs of another dog. But it depends. Her response to dogs on walks at the shelter was so pronounced that we started with people and dogs as a unit. At least people walking dogs on leads are predictable, not least in the shelter where they’d happily walk another way. I’m pretty aversive, I know. So you work on one thing. When you do it with the next, it’s easier. All the dog is learning is Oh, that works HERE too? With THIS?

In those conditions, I feel like we can really use respondent conditioning much more powerfully.

Troubleshooting

There’s a lot we’re still learning about what respondent counterconditioning actually is and how it works at a neural level. We’re still learning about the precise triggers that elicit responses from dogs. We’re still learning in real life because these are not often things studied in the lab or in applied scenarios. We’re also navigating the ethics and the fallout of such methods because no behaviour change protocol is without consequence. In any case, where clients have already tried it and it doesn’t seem to be working, I need to ask:

Is the unconditioned stimulus strong enough?

Is there a suitably gradual stimulus gradient in play?

Is the situation clean enough?

Is the set-up short enough?

Is the dog at the right point of finding the stimulus salient and noticeable, yet not responding to it?

Does the session finish positively and allow the dog to rest, play and sleep in order to ‘fix’ or consolidate these new memories?

In the case of multiple triggers for impulsivity, fearfulness, aggression or reactivity, has the guardian discussed the appropriate behavioural medication with a specialist who understands that fear and impulsivity may need treating differently?

Has the trainer or guardian picked off a trigger that does not cause too strong a reaction and that can easily be controlled?

Has the guardian or trainer practised in different contexts, remembering to lower the difficulty each time they begin again?

Has the guardian prepared the dog for the next session in a fresh, well-prepared, controlled environment?

Answering no to any of those questions shows me the area where I need to work.

Respondent counterconditioning is also helped by having an operant dog. But that is something I’ll leave for the next time!

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What Is Respondent conditioning?

AND WHY IS IT RELEVANT FOR DOG TRAINERS?

Over the next three posts I’m going to be looking at all things Pavlovian and consider what their relevance is for dog training.

What’s the problem?

Pavlov is hugely relevant for dog training and yet I so often see mistakes in literature and on social media about what various concepts mean. It’s like it’s this whole mystical thing that almost nobody seems to really read about and so the myths perpetuate, thickening and strengthening each time they’re passed from one post to the next. If you’re working with an emotional dog, an over-aroused dog, a fearful dog, an aggressive dog, Pavlov isn’t sitting on your shoulder, as Bob Bailey would say, he’s actively messing with your training, interfering, making it less or more effective. I mean that dude – or the knowledge he unleashed on the world – is practically the reason your dog training life is not some neat little Skinner box where a click here and a treat there leads to impeccable, robotic behaviour.

What’s in a name?

Respondent conditioning is partly confusing because it has so many names. Classical conditioning, for one. AKA Pavlovian conditioning.

Why three names? Why not? Russians do, you know. Perhaps it’s just following on in the footsteps of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Perhaps we should really call it Pavlovian classical respondent conditioning.

It deserves a noble name, maybe.

It’s called Pavlovian conditioning sometimes after Pavlov, who investigated it. I guess others call it classical as a nod to stuff that came after, that it suggested a foundation, a cornerstone.

You know the story. Bells, meat and saliva.

Trying hard to do some work on the digestive system and the damn dogs kept dribbling when his assistants would walk in with a plate of meat… it fascinated Pavlov so much (having vexed him completely) that when he went to give his speech for the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, he kept going on about this new form of learning he’d discovered and didn’t bother to talk as much about the digestive system that had been the topic of his study.

Worse still, some people call this type of learning associative learning. It’s also, just to be massively confusing, sometimes known as learning by association. I like this, but it kind of dumbs things down. I’m not a fan of dumbing things down or watering things down. It confuses things. It’s okay. You’re smart. I know you can cope.Like it’s helpful to have four names…

I call it respondent conditioning because it’s the science of responses. I’m going to stick with that throughout. It helps me remember that it’s about responding. Pavlov is all about our minds and bodies being at the beck and call of the world around us. We’re flotsam on the tide of life, helplessly responding even when we don’t want to, borne about by the currents around us and even within us.

What are unconditioned responses anyway?

So… respondent conditioning…

You know the drill. You take something your body can already do, like vary your pulse rate or your breathing or your salivary production. There’s going to be some science jargon here, but these are called unconditioned responses. Also, just for the sake of clarity, known as unconditional responses. What’s a suffix between friends?

Conditioning just really means learning. These are unconditioned because you’ve not learned them. You didn’t come out of the womb and have a lesson on how to breathe in and out, contrary to the things my sister and I told my brother. You didn’t have to learn how to salivate. Nobody runs classes on getting goosepimples. You can’t sign up for a TED talk on blushing. There aren’t Udemy courses for cats on how to right themselves as they jump. Prenatal classes aren’t teaching future mums how to have leaky nipples when the baby cries. You can’t buy Yawning for Dummies or An Idiot’s Guide to Gagging. There aren’t GCSEs and A levels in Better Allergic Reactions.

At first, Pavlov thought these were glandular or physiological responses only, but John Watson soon followed with some work about fear, and we started to realise it could be emotional responses too. You may not be able to buy Yawning for Dummies but you also can’t buy How To Feel Fear: A Book for Psychopaths.

Largely, these unconditioned responses are either reflexes, action patterns or emotions. A reflex isn’t actually the muscle or the eye blink or the saliva or the pupil dilation. It’s the relationship between the thing that causes the salivation (the unconditioned stimulus – you can handle the jargon) and the response (the unconditioned response).

This works for emotional responses too. I’m not going down the rabbit hole about whether emotions are real in animals or not. There haven’t been 70 years (and more) of abusive experiments cutting out bits of animal brains, giving them drugs, attaching printer cables to their heads and submitting them to fMRI scanners for us to say that animals don’t have emotions. They have the circuitry. I’m in the camp that is now asking if you can prove that animals don’t have emotions, not the one saying ‘but they can’t tell us they have emotions!’

Now of course, you may feel that snakes are actually not an unconditioned stimulus, and you’d have some legway in an argument. However, it’s very easy to condition fears to certain things. For instance, in experiments where researchers were seeing how easy it was to teach monkeys to be afraid of snakes or flowers, and how long those learned responses lasted, it turned out that monkeys are very good at learning to be fearful of snakes and it’s really hard to teach them not to be, and it’s fairly easy to teach them to be afraid of flowers, but really easy to stop them fearing flowers too. You can see the work of psychologists Susan Mineka and Michael Cook from the late 1980s on this and it’s fascinating.

You can see here an unconditioned response to a shedded snakeskin that freaked Lidy out. It doesn’t have the same effect on Heston, who’s in the ‘can I eat it?’ phase of life and isn’t fearful of anything except vets.

As you see here, we’re crossing into the realm of learned responses, though. The point of unconditioned responses is that they are highly stereotypical and they are found in most members of the species. If I want to know if something is an unconditioned respondent behaviour, I ask myself if most members of the species do it.

Of course, these unconditioned responses are age-dependent. Some fade as we get older. Others appear as we age. A pre-pubescent person doesn’t (usually) produce milk. That’s an age-dependent response. Your reflexes get slower as you age as well, which is why you need to re-take your driving test when you hit a certain point (and, maybe, as discussed by my brother and I on Friday, why older people – including us – drive slower as an instinctive awareness that our lightning fast reflexes are fading…)

While respondent behaviours – particularly the simple ones like reflexes – are highly stereotypical across a species, that’s not to say they don’t vary. They can be more intense. They may look a little different. They may be quicker in some members of the species and slower in others. They might appear when we’re different ages. Puberty does not hit us all on the first day of our 13th birthday, does it?

These behaviours are often adaptive. That’s to say, they help us survive better. Being able to right yourself as you fall has clearly adaptive value to a squirrel and a cat, just as instinctively sticking your hands out to break your fall (and save your indispensible head) does for humans.

Often, the only reason that we won’t have a response like this is because we’re physically unable to. That’s to say, we don’t have the right hormones at the right moment, or we are actually and physically unable to do so because of injury. Think of David Bowie’s irregular eye, for example, where his pupil was incapable of much dilation or contraction as the result of a condition called anisocoria. Most of us human beings, though, have pupils that dilate in certain conditions and contract in others. There may be lots of stimuli that cause that behaviour, from internal ones like hormones and neurotransmitters, to ingested ones like drugs to external ones like light conditions. Take amphetamines and your pupils will dilate, whether you’re thirteen or fifty, male or female, no matter where in the world you come from.

Just like our appearance, our reflexes can also be inherited. I don’t have much of a gag reflex (weird, I know) and although I’ve not checked out my siblings or parents, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my parents didn’t either. Just to be clear, I don’t like things being stuck down my throat but it doesn’t make me have a pharyngeal reaction. By the way, pharyngeal reactions are adaptive: you’re a hell of a lot less likely to choke to death than I am. Perhaps that’s why I’m convinced I’ll die alone having choked on a scone. You may also have a very sensitive gag reflex – you’d know if you’ve had a lot of Covid tests recently – or you may also have desensitised your pharyngeal response. Let’s not go there, shall we? I don’t care what you do in your private live with other consenting adults.

Other behaviours are more complex than these simple reflexes. Such behaviours in animals (and humans) may involve mating, mothering and eating. They’re not as rigid, partly because they’re usually a behaviour chain, but also because they need variation. We’re not birds dancing some weird mating dance or trapdoor spiders who always get food in the same way. Survival benefits from adaptability in terms of reproduction, parenting and eating, among others. Thus, the mate-attracting behaviour of the male Mancunian at his sexual prime may not be exactly the same as that of the refined Parisian, but larger behaviours are more subject to environmental influence. Dudes do what works. And dogs do what works. What works will largely depend on the circumstance. If covering yourself with fake tan, pumping up your muscles and growing a man bun gets you dates with the kind of girls who float your boat, then that’s what you’ll do. We aren’t as free-minded as we like to think we are. In tests of attractiveness, people shown photo sets where the subjects had dilated pupils rated them as more attractive than photo sets of the same subjects with contracted pupils. So much for choice, hey?

So… to recap so far, reflexes are:

  • relationships between a stimulus and a response
  • relatively simple
  • present at birth, or
  • appearing at relatively predictable points in our development
  • evident across a whole species
  • adaptive
  • usually only absent in those physically incapable of producing them
  • inherited

And some unconditioned responses are more varied and more complicated, but still a relationship between X stimulus and Y response.

Where does conditioning come in?

Through life, our brains happily busy themselves in the proeess of associating other stuff with those unconditioned stimuli. This is learning. For literally no good reason I can see, Pavlov decided to call this conditioning and not learning. Well, he didn’t, because he wrote in Russian and there weren’t agreements among his translators, so we’re left with words that don’t facilitate ease of understanding.

However, conditioning means we’re learning. We become selective and we narrow down, on the one hand, and on the other, we learn more things that cause the same response.

Perhaps it’s good that he stayed away from any Russian words that would easily be translated as learning. We humans think of learning as a conscious, voluntary process. Pavlovian conditioning might not be that at all, necessarily.

Largely speaking, though, we become more selective about certain stimuli that cause particular responses. Thus, we might end up with a very narrow little peccadillo for tall men with dark eyes and sharp cheekbones, or eyes that have a certain naughty twinkle, or women with flaming locks of long auburn hair. It could be something as weird as the turn of an ankle or the shape of a wrist. It could be a smell or a movement or even a sound. Don’t believe me? Find me a Canadian or a Cumbrian saying ‘oceans’ and watch me start batting my eyelashes. Sean Bean’s Sheffield accent? Hello, Mr Sharpe! As soon as we see, hear, smell or even feel certain stimuli that float our boats… Bam…. response. Biologists call these things sign stimuli or, in the spirit of science, innate releasing mechanisms. Are you really science if you don’t have two names?

Thankfully, humans are built with a powerful override that helps us control ourselves in the presence of such sign stimuli. Not as much as you’d think, which is why a handsome tall man will usually find life in politics or business easier than any other, but just enough to stop us all throwing ourselves at people whenever anyone over 6 foot comes a-striding in. Not as bad as some poor creatures though. Poor male turkeys who’ll try to mate a female turkey head on a stick, for example…

For dogs, they have plenty of sign stimuli, from pheromonal ones that signal a female is in season to the presentation of meat that elicits dribbling and, perhaps, the flash of light and movement that signals the presence of prey.

Those are the ones we’re born with. The unconditioned ones. But animals also learn to become more discriminatory and their unconditioned responses might weaken. For instance, my dog Heston is an intact male. He doesn’t get excited by all intact and in season females. We’ve had two or three in-season female guests who definitely did not float his boat.

Others, we acquire as we go through life. We learn to love the taste of Marmite (or not) and the sounds of Sean Bean saying stuff in purest Yorkshireness and the smell of our nanas and the touch of a loved one….

For our dogs, they might acquire a taste for certain things but they also might learn new stimuli that also cause a physiological or emotional response.

For Lidy, she’s learned more things that cause her to feel afraid:

As Minecka and Cook point out, some of those will have been easily learned because they’re typical things that threaten a dog’s survival, including predators running at you, loud noises and other dogs.

Unfortunately, easily learned equals hard to lose.

Many people will point out that during a particularly sensitive period of our development, we have the opportunity to habituate or get used to unpleasant or threatening stimuli. A well-socialised dog will learn that loud noises are not life-threatening, that joggers will pass you by, that fireworks are not the world imploding and that vets aren’t going to kill you.

Don’t judge dogs if you won’t get your shots, are phobic about needles, hate the dentist, hate flying or won’t speak in front of people.

Dogs have typically learned to associate these novel stimuli with bad stuff like pain or fearfulness. Or, perhaps others might argue that dogs haven’t learned not to associate these novel stimuli with bad stuff.

Bad stuff can be so powerful that I know dogs who have associated logs crackling, microwaves beeping, wasps and flies buzzing about, car journeys and even the sound of cans opening with negative experiences. These conditioned stimuli come to predict bad stuff, like pain or negative emotional states.

Again, don’t be judgey. I used to drive home and work from home when I saw the car of a bully in the car park, I’d walk another route if I saw one particular dog in the yard, and I’d happily avoid certain people who have come to predict a feeling of disgust or fear.

This type of learning – respondent conditioning – needs two things to happen.

The first is contingency. The first thing needs to reliably predict the second.

The second is contiguity. The first thing needs to be relatively close in time to the second.

It’s not all bad, though.

We also learn to associate neutral stuff with good stuff too. We go through life picking up tips that good stuff is about to happen, and that makes neutral stuff feel good too.

That’s what life is about… learning more stuff that creates those same feelings. Life would be pretty lame if only Sean Bean could make me sigh like a schoolgirl at a boy band concert… and thus, Keanu Reeves and Jim Caviezel and Dave Grohl and Bob Mortimer all still get my heart beating. And some actual people in actual real life too, just in case you think I only live in TV land. Thank goodness.

Likewise (and unfortunately) it’s not just Marmite that makes me salivate, but onion rings and hummus and stir fry and a good curry and syrup pudding and caramel ice cream… and they don’t just make me salivate. They make me feel better. For a moment, anyway. It’s not just a buttered scone but a mouthful of comfort.

And I wonder why I’ve so little willpower!

These things are known as conditioned stimuli: things we’ve learned through life that elicit some innate reaction that nobody ever had to teach me how to have. Nobody needed to teach me to learn to salivate. I, luckily, was born knowing that. But I did need to learn that churros were yum and anchovies were not yum. Also, some things grew on me more slowly.

Behaviour scientists use the word elicit when they talk about respondent conditioning. The stimulus elicits the response. It’s not a very good word because it doesn’t really suggest the power of those stimuli to really cause that response. I mean, it’s not an ‘oh well, might as well!’ from your body. It’s a ‘You said jump, I said how high?’ thing. Your body doesn’t get much of a choice. Take amphetamines, your eyes will dilate, kind of thing.

It’s not just that you can will yourself to stop responding just because you want to. I mean, send in Keanu if you must and even if you give me a million pounds, I’m not sure I would be able to stop myself a) giggling if he looks at me b) batting my lashes at him c) blushing when he speaks to me and d) flirting like it was going out of fashion.

Respondent conditioning is some powerful stuff.

These responses are complicated, all right.

Our dogs also have these responses. Heston gets sexy ears when certain lady dogs flirt with him, and he has learned a flehman response to a number of lady dogs’ urine. Both of my dogs get excited when they see a harness, a bowl, a Kong, a brush, a lead, the car keys, my boots. Both get excited when the alarm goes, when I go to the toilet first thing in the morning, when I move my handbag. Lidy hides when things bang and there are fireworks or gun shots or thunder and Heston hides from nothing except the vet.

Learning by association is a powerful thing.

It’s also super easy. You just need to pair stuff up. It needs to be relatively timely and the second thing needs to depend on the first. Contingent and contiguous.

Walks depend on me having been to the toilet first. They depend on me putting my boots on. Car trips depend on me picking my handbag up and my car keys. Brushing depends on me holding the brush. Games depend on me picking up a toy. Dinner time depends on me getting the bowls and feeders out.

These things in themselves come to elicit the same bodily reaction, or frustration, or even anticipation.

Then there’s something called second-order conditioning, where the thing before the thing comes to predict the other thing. Like seeing the golden Arches predicts MacDonalds predicts Happy Meals for kids which predict salivation… and me going to the toilet predicts I’ll put my boots on predicts I’ll take the dogs out for a walk.

Life is a chain of associations.

However, sometimes those associations can be over-exciting. The smell of cats is intensely exciting for one of my dogs. The smell of deer and boar is for my other. The smell of other dogs can be a threat. You can read all about why this is problematic in my post about dogs thinking fast and slow. The flash of light or the flash of movement of a car on the horizon can set off the same behaviours as a dog chasing prey.

Those sign stimuli that can elicit a response can be surprisingly brief and surprisingly powerful. I can’t blame dogs for feeling the urge to chase a car when I get goosepimples within two words of Unchained Melody and I’m weeping by the end of the first verse.

Often, these associations formed by respondent conditioning are just stuff that helps us get through the day. Other times, they can become phobias or responses that interfere with our welfare. For our dogs, they can be so powerful that they can disrupt training and derail a ‘normal’ existence, whatever that may be. If your pathological response is to be hijacked into barking in a frenzy for ten minutes just because you think you might have seen another dog, that’s one response that is definitely not adaptive. If your pathological need to control motion is so strong that it will force you to run into a stream of traffic, that is not adaptive. If you can’t rest for hours because a microwave binged, that is not adaptive.

Luckily, we have ways to help us overcome those conditioned responses. Respondent counterconditioning is a powerful tool we can use to help us move towards a more healthy response if we’re feeling like flotsam on the tide of life, unable to choose our own more adaptive behaviour, at the beck and call of the universe and whatever it tells us to do. Next week, I’ll take a good long look at respondent counterconditioning and explain why it’s such a useful tool for anyone looking to help their dog (and even themselves) cope better. If your dog is at the mercy of the world around them, hijacked by fear, forced into reactivity, overly sensitive to the stimuli they’re surrounded by, desperately trying to chase anything that even hints at moving, then respondent counterconditioning will be your powerful ally.

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Help! My Dog is Struggling With Guests!

Whether you’ve got a young dog who’s struggling to cope with people coming and going, or whether you’ve adopted an older dog who is having issues, it can be pretty common for dogs not to like strangers coming on to the property.

One thing I find really sad is that many people overlook ‘friendly’ behaviour like jumping up or running round in circles as meaning that their dog is fine with visitors. The grimace, the over-friendly behaviours, even taking toys to the guest can be ways that some dogs cope with arrivals into the home. Other behaviours are sometimes seen as harmless if not amusing, like humping. Nobody is looking out for those dogs who aren’t coping as well as they might seem to be on the surface.

For instance, many people would probably think this dog here is coping okay. He’s not jumping up, he’s still, he’s ‘calm’.

Of course, we can never really look at a decontextualised still image and say ‘this dog is X’ or ‘this dog is Y’.

Yet you can tell from the coat and trousers the person is wearing that it is not warm. Panting when the dog hasn’t been engaged in aerobic exercise or when it’s not hot is often a sign of stress or pain. How do I know Heston isn’t feeling so good this morning? Because it’s 16°C and he’s panting. How do I know Lidy couldn’t cope with the fireworks on Saturday? Panting.

The dog may not actually be breathing heavily or panting. That spoon-like tongue is another signal that the dog doesn’t feel comfortable.

A grimace in itself isn’t very meaningful: context and other body language tells us everything, but where I can see wrinkles on the edge of the dog’s mouth, that’s a good sign they are holding some tension, especially with a spatulate tongue. Just a reminder too that not all dogs will do this, and not all of these signs relate to stress.

Here you can see Lidy’s spoon-shaped tongue and her grimace.

Look at her eyes, though:

Those puckered eyebrows and the hardness of her eyes tells a different story from her mouth.

So just because a dog is sitting, as Lidy was, or still, as the labrador was, does not mean they are coping well.

It certainly doesn’t mean they feel any better than a dog who is barking ferociously at you as you approach them.

Yet often these signals are overlooked as a sign the dog is ‘happy’ with strangers or that they enjoy social greetings. I will forever remember a ‘friendly’ labrador I was working with who I had loose in the garden. His guardian told me that he was friendly and sociable. He stood about 30m away from me, spatulate tongue, grimacing, head turned away, shoulder turned away. This was NOT a dog who enjoyed meeting strangers, not by any stretch of the imagination. Left to his own devices, it took him two hours to engage with me at all. No wonder he was ‘holding’ the hands of strange people with his mouth when they got too close!

For that reason, I think dogs who are uncomfortable with strangers mostly go unrecognised and unsupported. It’s a massive fallacy that dogs enjoy the company of strangers and I see many dogs who are not okay at all.

Whether your dog is still and grimacing, whether they’re fearful and they’re cowering, trying to hide or even urinating when guests arrive, or whether your dog gives a low growl, none of these behaviours are that much different than the dog who won’t stop barking or even lunges for and attempts to bite guests. They’re all behaviours on a spectrum of discomfort. Some dogs cope with people coming and going by excessive friendliness. Others by fearfulness. Others by throwing out appeasement signals. Others by shutting down and throwing out stress signals. Others still by overtly aggressive behaviours. Regardless of how your dog behaves, it’s all showing you one single thing: your dog does not feel comfortable around guests.

One of the main reasons dogs are like this is because they are dogs living in a human world. We’re apes, a fusion-fission species. We live in pretty big social groups but we don’t stay all day in them. We break up, we come together. Recently, scientists have documented chimpanzee and bonobo behaviour at greeting and exit, showing they too use eye contact, body contact, holding hands or butting heads gently when they reunite with others. Such eye contact, engagement and physicality is not what wolves do.

Really wolves just stick to their extended family group. When they come of age, they may be forced to leave or they may feel the call of nature and leave anyway, but they rarely come back together as a larger group. If and when they do, greetings are fraught with tension. Less fusion-fission, then, and more simply fission. They split up and they stay split, on the whole. Dogs, like wolves, are more about getting on with the family group and staying away from outsiders. Fusion is bad. Fusion is stressful. Fusion risks your life.

Arguably – and this is totally my own thinking here – some breeds of dog are better at handling splitting up and coming back together again. Hounds who live together as a group, for instance. The level of sociability required to live together in big groups and also handle being split up and integrated into new groups to avoid in-breeding requires social skills that go beyond most dogs. Likewise, many huskies seem to cope admirably with a variety of canine friends. Gundogs can be very similar, often living one or two to a home where they are kept for working purposes, but coming together for group hunts. Of course there are outliers… the shy Anglo-Français, the unsociable husky, the labrador who can’t cope with other dogs… but on the whole, you need these breeds to be sociable. They’d be useless at working if they weren’t able to cope with the fission of social groups.

Livestock protection breeds, mastiffs, herding and protection breeds? Not so much. They’d be useless at working if they were able to cope with social fission. Lap dogs and bull dogs? Not so much either. Who needs a lap dog that can accept other lap dogs? Nobody. You have one lap and that’s got one dog on it.

I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that a dog’s genes play a part in their sociability, their fearfulness, their ability to cope with threat.

Add into this the vital need for appropriate socialisation and you’ve got a potential problem for a huge number of dogs. When we consider that territorial behaviours have been specifically selected for in some breeds, it’s no wonder they have issues with people coming in and going out. In some countries, that’s going to have been worsened by inexperienced guardians buying dogs during lockdown.

One thing that you may want to do is rule out territorial behaviour or the influence of the guardian. Many people think their dog is ‘protecting’ them, even though this is usually not the case. A quick way to rule this out is to see how the dog behaves when their guardian is not present. Video both with the guardian present and without the guardian and compare the difference. For some dogs, they may show more fearful behaviours when the guardian is absent, especially if the guardian was bolstering their confidence. When I do this with most dogs, it’s pretty easy to see that the dog was fearful of strangers in the first place, at least to some degree. I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of dogs who can’t cope with visitors to the property can’t actually cope very well with unfamiliar people they see out beyond the property either.

Guardians can inadvertently reinforce behaviours, even those where aggression is involved. Perhaps we might actually not be involved in contributing to the dog’s problem, but we might not be doing anything to protect guests onto the property and managing the situation so that the dog doesn’t feel like they have to. This is another thing a quick video with and without the guardian will demonstrate. Sometimes, again, confidence is bolstered by having the guardian present, where the dog is quiet when alone. One dog walker once said she thought a dog was protective with her guardian, since when she entered the property, the dog was ‘calm’ when alone and would bark if the guardian was present. In reality, what a video showed was a dog who felt vulnerable and was offering lots of inoffensive appeasement behaviours when the guardian wasn’t present to bolster her confidence. It’s really important once you’ve videoed what happens that you discuss the dog’s body language with a professional. As I said, even excessively friendly behaviour can be a coping mechanism.

Ruling out territorial behaviour is relatively easy: if the dog is approachable off-site and in a novel environment, then territorial behaviours can be a factor.

My boy Heston is a very good example.

When he was 11 weeks old, I failed to adequately protect him from a neighbour who came into our home without invitation while Heston was eating. Heston was startled and took a few minutes to recover. Ever since that moment, deep in his early fear period, the GSD/Belgian shepherd and dog bits of him woke up and that single event proved to be difficult to overcome.

Approach Heston without me, and he’s just the same. Just because I’m there doesn’t change anything. He’s not ‘protecting’ me.

Approach Heston off the property and you’ll get more fearful behaviours. He’ll move away if he’s off-lead, or sometimes he’ll keep running back to me. He’s anxious and uncomfortable, but he doesn’t bark or pin people in corners like he does if they come onto the property when he’s not well-managed. Conclusion: breed and lack of early positive experiences at home have contributed to both a fear of strangers and also territorial behaviour. Thus, his behaviour is worse when people come on the property, but keeping them in a holding position by barking at them is pretty successful for him.

I could be tempted to think that he is okay with people off-property, but he really isn’t. He copes better with them, where his territorial behaviours aren’t so much of a factor, but he’s not a Hail-Fellow-Well-Met kind of dog. Like many good shepherds, trust is earned.

Like many dogs, Heston’s struggles with guest depend on the guest. Small women are generally more acceptable than big men. He wasn’t beaten or abused. This is not a trauma response. No man has ever beaten him, threatened him or intimidated him. The offending neighbour was a small female. He’ll cope much more quickly with my tiny mum than with my tall and confident brother. The bigger the man, the bigger the response. If anything, it’s lack of experience with a variety of men, though he did meet lots of men off the property and has always known my dad since his smallest days. It doesn’t stop him barking at my dad though.

So some dogs struggle with more intimidating people. Tallness, posture, masculinity, facial expression, hormones… they can all interfere with how our dogs feel. I’ve known a number of dogs who were okay with household children suddenly become wary around the teenage son. All that stinky testosterone, gangly and ungainly movement and those sudden growth spurts can really unsettle dogs.

I mentioned before about ape-like eye contact. This is not good dog etiquette and is easily interpreted as a threat. That’s why sometimes, some dogs may seem to be okay as long as the offending guest doesn’t look at them. Plenty of people are familiar with the line: ‘Come in! Don’t mind the dog… just don’t look at her!’

Likewise hands coming towards them or even bending over them.

All are big no-nos and Heston will pretty happily tell people that he’s not a fan.

Like many dogs who struggle with guests, still guests are better than mobile guests. A man who comes in and sits down and doesn’t move is easier to cope with than a man who gets up to go to the toilet.

Heston’s all: ‘Hey, dude… you were fine when you were sitting there and still, but what the hell? I never said you could stand up!’

This is not ideal, is it? I can’t tell people to come in, be small, sit down, don’t move and don’t look at my dog.

Not only that, but I’m actually flooding my dog (and potentially the guest!) My dog can’t escape. He just has to tolerate said guest until said guest goes out. Many dogs seem fine until the guest moves. Clearly, they weren’t fine, but the movement is just the tipping point that reveals how they really feel.

So often, we keep inviting scary people into our homes and hoping our dog will come to learn that they’re okay. Sometimes this happens, but more often than not, all we’re doing is teaching our dogs that their home can be violated at any point and they have no say in it. They become sensitised, not habituated.

So if you can’t just go around finding big men to come and accidentally flood your dog, what can you do?

As always… consider your dog’s health and the progression of their behaviour first. There are no medical conditions where territorial aggression or fearfulness are known symptoms across a large percentage of sufferers, but it stands to reason that if your dog is in pain or not as mobile, they may not be happy to have people on site where they once were. If your dog is extremely fearful in many other areas too, then behavioural medication may be the most appropriate form of treatment. Remember, though, that all events have learned elements and that as Jean Donaldson says, dogs do what works… you will almost always need a behaviour modification programme alongside a medical one. All psychogenic medications strongly recommend a concurrent behaviour modification programme alongside them. Medication might be essential, but it won’t solve everything.

The second thing is to set up management. I do not mean a crate in the living room and a ‘well, the dog will go in if he feels afraid’. We’ve bred dogs to kill boar and fight bulls and go down holes and get into fights with cornered badgers. Many dogs will choose proactive behaviour rather than escape behaviours. If there’s a choice between retreating to a crate where they’d easily be cornered or holding someone in place by barking at them, many dogs will choose the latter.

Crates in the living room where you’ll be sitting metres away with your guest are not the answer. Again, it just floods the dog because they have no choice but to tolerate things and they just end up helpless to do anything and shutting down, tolerating things until they can’t cope any longer.

Make sure you keep your dog and your guests safe. That means tested baby gates, double baby gates (with one upside down over the top of the first to form a kind of baby gate stable door) or it means closed doors. You can’t allow your dog to keep practising behaviours that work for them, and nor can you flood them. The dog needs to be away. Kennels, secure pens attached to the home, stays with trusted family members, day care, trusted dog walkers… They’re all ways you can manage keeping your dog separate from your guests until they’re ready to cope with them. Increase enrichment and make sure your dog doesn’t associate the arrival of a food toy with the potential presence of a guest. Remember that some of the worst bites happen to friends of the family on home turf. Bolstered by territorial feelings, by being on home turf and feeling deeply uncomfortable about intruders, overfamiliar guests can end up getting a real shock. It’s a significant bite risk.

Be aware that because you are occupied with guests, you cannot actively supervise your dog. That means you will need to add an extra lock to doors, especially if you have numerous guests. Locks out of reach of the nimble hands of children are important. Many very serious bites happen where visitors and family friends – especially young children – accidentally go into the dog’s territory. I don’t need to explain how that can backfire with tragic consequences. Even a sliding bolt or a hook-and-eye catch out of reach of young humans can make it much safer for both your dogs and your guests.

Medication and management play their role, but unless you plan on keeping your dog apart from guests for ten years, you’ll need more. Management is fine, but it is likely to fail at some point. Modification and training does most of the heavy lifting where fearfulness around guests is concerned.

If your dog is fearful around strangers in general and it’s worse in the home, then starting outside the home on neutral territory and doing a few training sessions there will help. This will make it easier on the dog. Remember, you will need a stimulus gradient. That’s to say: start with the least offensive individuals and work up to the most offensive. Start with small, dog-savvy women, preferably those who have some skill in acting as a stooge, and build your way up to large and confident guys. Until your dog is reasonably happy with strangers outside the home, they’re not going to be happy with strangers in the home.

I say strangers and people often assume I mean people they don’t know. Remember, anyone who doesn’t live permanently in your home is a stranger, even if they’ve come to your home 42,000 times. I know dogs bought as puppies who aren’t able to cope with the male guardian or a larger teenage son and bark frantically for five minutes whenever the guardian goes out of the room and comes back in again. If that’s the case for you and your dog is generally fine with strangers on and off the property, working to rebuild the relationship will be crucial. Bear in mind that people coming in and out of a room may well be treated by your dog as if they’re someone completely new.

You may get to the point where your dogs are generally fine going into other people’s territory, like mine are. Or, at least, they aren’t as loud. That’s normal too. Dogs may at least seem to cope better going into other people’s homes, but remember you still need to look out for signs of fearfulness. Just because they’re barking less doesn’t mean to say they feel okay about it. They might just not have the added confidence of home ground.

From here, you can then work your way up to people going into the home. Generally, I want my dog to be happy on and off lead with people in neutral territory. I then want my dog to be happy on and off lead around our own territory, but perhaps not the actual home. That also depends: some dogs are more territorial about their garden, or the garden has been the scene of the most intruders and there is a strong learned history there. Finally, we’ll work in the yard or garden as people come in and go out of the door, and we’ll also let them go in first and sit down.

For numerous reasons, I’m not at all a fan of those people having biscuits and feeding the dog. I’d much rather do the feeding myself since I’m not a fan of the ambivalence it causes dogs to be enticed by food only to find themselves in someone’s space when they feel uncomfortable. The less able a human is to be calm around the dog, the less dog savvy they are or the less they actually like dogs, the more likely I am to insist on the feeding myself. I do a lot of that with mine, using either Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat, Grisha Stewart’s BAT 2.0 or Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That.

Thus, with my young nephew, Lidy and I did some Look At That and we kept the session short. He’s not able to move appropriately around her, and that is absolutely fine. Taking food from a four-year-old is not on my list of things I want to happen in Lidy’s life. Heston can be pretty intimidating to people who don’t know dogs, and also, because of his health and meds, he’s drooly and yucky. I don’t want people to have to put up with that if they’re not comfortable with it. Sometimes, I even forego food altogether, since it can lead to more intense behaviours than usual. The dog is more invested. That can work if you absolutely need to go quickly, or if you’re working on predictability, but I’d rather take things at the dog’s pace if I can. The dog’s pace doesn’t involve food.

That said, if I need to go quickly and I’m working with experts – lots of my friends are very dog savvy or are dog trainers – then I might let them feed the dogs, depending on the dog’s history and the person… It’s a fine call to say ‘never’. Sometimes, for the sake of the dog, we need to go faster than the dog would choose.

You don’t actually need a full toolkit of skills for this. I find Treat and Retreat works in many cases, but I’ve also taught hand touch where the guest has presented their hand, cued ‘touch’ and my dog has gone over to be reinforced by me some distance away. Treat and Retreat is a bit stealthy, where cues are cleaner. If my dog won’t do a behaviour like touch, then that gives me a lot of useful information that they’re not ready yet. Me providing the reinforcement myself is reinforcing the dog for moving away as well as for performing a behaviour. Cues are predictable and help reassure the dog about the things that will happen next.

As with all stimulus gradients, you should work gently up to more challenging circumstances. Managing any minor splitting up, even from things like going into the kitchen or going to the bathroom, and certainly managing exits and entries, can make things much easier for the dog. You can’t go from Aunty Mary to Uncle Phil in one afternoon. Nor can you go from your lovely neighbour to a house-full of party guests in a couple of hours. A steady programme gradually increasing the challenge your dog faces should start with tiny sessions of less then five minutes and build up to longer ones over weeks or months.

You also have to respect your dog’s limits and rely on management when you know they won’t cope. If I’m planning on having people around, Lidy goes in my bedroom with some toys and a baby monitor, and two doors between us, and that’s where she stays. If I need to have people in and out, I secure her in the car. There are likely to be people she’ll never cope with, though she does amazingly, and I need to accept that.

However, unless we plan to live with a dog who cannot accept any person on the property for the next ten years, most of us are going to be doing some of the training. Desensitisation, counterconditioning and cued behaviours can really help you with this. Distance, duration and difficulty should also be gradually phased in. Simple skills like Treat and Retreat can really help you here too.

It’s a really good idea to work with a skilled trainer or behaviour consultant if you are working through a programme with your dog. It can be really tough for dogs to accept people onto the property and given the high stakes, it’s vital we keep them safe and we keep our guests safe. Just because YOU understand that your friends have come round with good intentions for cake and coffee does not mean that your dog understands their intent. For all they know, your ‘friend’ might be planning on murdering you all in your beds and making off with the cake. We’ve got to stop expecting our dogs to just get over it and get used to it if we want to make real progress.

P.S. I’ve got a book out for dog trainers. You can buy it on Amazon in ebook and paperback format.

Responsible Shelter Practices: Part II

I’ve been having a very serious think about a problem recently. I said in the first of these two posts about responsible sheltering practices that these were probably the two most important posts I’d ever write.

Last week, I took you through the problems. Today, I take you through some solutions. Grab a brew and a snack – this is going to be long.

In the last post, I took you through some of the cultural and social practices that create specific problems in certain Westernised countries, meaning there is a demand for dogs and that would-be adopters are then pushed into adopting a puppy or adult dog from abroad that they can be ill-equipped to cope with.

Ultimately, animal adoptions are a supply-and-demand market like anything else.

There are so many problems that have contributed to the current problems as I see it from my own understanding of European shelter systems and our management of roaming dogs.

Firstly, the cultural and sometimes legal situations that mean there are high numbers of certain breeds that are often considered undesirable by the adopters in the area.

Shelters may be full, but just not with the kind of dogs that people want to adopt. That in itself is a perception issue deeply rooted in cultural beliefs. Shelters try and change this sometimes but all it leads to is mythologising about the ‘couch potato’ greyhound and the ‘nanny dog’ pit bull or Staffordshire bull terrier. These myths often contribute further to the problems that dogs have by making people forget that dogs are dogs.

Some US-based studies have therefore suggested de-branding dogs and stopping labelling them as This X or That X, and that this would improve adoptions. These studies are all very well but they run against common sense. They assume people can’t recognise scenthounds or shepherds or lurchers or staffie crosses or pit bull mixes when they see them. In my view it’s akin to people saying, ‘I don’t see colour or gender or sexual orientation’.

It’s like that Magritte image of a pipe under which he painted ceci n’est pas une pipe. This isn’t a pipe. Clever, artistically, but we all know it is a bloody pipe, if not an image of one. If you don’t bother saying the dog you have is a setter, people will know anyway.

Also, I’d argue very strongly that people do need to understand that human beings have spent a long time tinkering with canine behaviour. The in-breeding that has happened as a result has messed with dogs’ inherited behaviours. No good someone in a shelter saying, ‘Oh, he’s just a dog’ when you’re just about to adopt a working collie with a hundred generations of genes selected for controlling the movement of other things. In Europe, where few dogs exist simply for being dogs and where every country has its mastiffs and livestock guardians, its herders, drovers, protection dogs, hunting dogs and terriers, I’d argue hugely and strongly that it’s actually harming dogs’ welfare not to place such dogs with people who don’t understand that, although not all greyhounds are going to chase small furries, that they’re more likely than your average bichon, especially when they’re stressed. If you don’t understand that a couple of thousand years of loose genetic selection and then a couple of hundred years of very intense genetic selection went into creating a mastiff or a terrier, then you’re going to cause a lot of problems placing these dogs in homes with naive guardians who have no idea that a malinois may struggle with passing cyclists or with people outside the property.

For me, it’s dangerous to pretend all dogs are the same. Fine if they’ve been left to make their own reproductive choices in a free-ranging population for the last hundred years, but that’s not most of the dogs in our shelters in Europe.

Tempting as it is to get rid of breed or type labels, people will recognise they’re looking at a hovawart or a Britanny spaniel. Not only that, I’d argue that, as shelters, we’re doing both our dogs and our adopters a disservice to pretend otherwise. Sometimes, it’s part of careful adoption procedures with certain dogs whose breed-specific traits are very strong that they go into homes with experienced guardians who know what they’re getting. Breed-specific traits are all a bit meh until you get a dog having problems. Then, I’d argue that the way those problems are exhibited are very breed-specific. Most of the time, they’re just ‘dog’ like every other dog. When they’re struggling, they suddenly become much more German shepherd or podenco than they were.

Secondly, we need to accept that there are now social pressures that mean adoption is now seen as the ethical way of sourcing a dog. These social pressures are compounded by social media campaigns encouraging adoption as if it is the only acceptable way to acquire a companion animal. We like living with companion animals. We just feel uncomfortable about buying another soul. I’d even go as far as suggesting breeds and breeders have image issues themselves which is perhaps why so many people – including many very good friends of mine – have opted for modern hybrids.

The increasing costs of adopting dogs with kennel club papers or even just your average run-of-the-mill dog without a pedigree can also mean families are then pushed towards ‘cheaper’ dogs, be they from a shelter or from a backyard breeder hoping to make a quick buck. Again, those are social and cultural issues, since cockerpoos and £4000 pointers don’t exist in France. Well, there may well be cockerpoos, but they’re not a ‘designer’ breed… and a 4000€ dog would have to be really, really good at their job. That said, your typical non-pedigree bichon from a backyard breeder in France is now pushing 1500€ – hence why I have a list of about 50 people waiting for a ‘small, young female’. The cost of dogs reflects their increasing scarcity. You can only sell a puppy for £4000 if people will pay that.

Couple rising costs with increasing pressures about ethical ways of finding a companion, and you can see the issue.

These are not easy problems to solve. Some of them would involve systemic legal change at a governmental level and would be almost impossible to police. They’d also involve cultural change from the ground up, and that’s hard to engineer. Imposed change, like the UK 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act laws can be undertaken quickly; with a Parliamentary majority, they can be passed quickly. However, top down legal impositions that force citizens into compliance can’t always fight easily against culture. If it could, there’d be no banned breeds or types in the UK, as in the other countries where breed-specific legislation exists.

So there’s that. 30 years of BSL tells us that imposed compliance doesn’t work against cultural values.

We need both to make an impact: top-down laws and grassroots cultural change. Shelters can’t do anything other than mop up if laws are not in place and there are also overwhelming cultural pressures that work on the other human behaviour lever: social conformity.

There are huge demands in some Western countries for dogs, and a limited supply. Despite recent laws in the UK such as Lucy’s Law, now also finding an impact in French law too, cultural pressures mean that people still find it desirable to want certain types of dogs and dismiss others. Even though there are strict importation laws across Europe, the fact that there is a higher demand for dogs than there is a supply means backyard breeders will find legal loopholes or straight out break the law, and importers will do the same. Laws will never fight against cultural pressure.

On the other hand, where cultural tastes change, laws don’t need to be implemented. Take, for instance, the fact that many British people stopped eating rabbit and goat in the 1950s and 1960s, and no law had to be passed in the UK to make that so. Gradually we stopped eating bunnies. No laws required that. There’s now a bounce-back for trends in eating rabbit and goat in the UK as niche markets grow again. Culture matters hugely, much more than laws. Ultimately, conformity trumps compliance where humans are concerned. We do what other people do, not what the law requires us to do.

Given ethical, financial and legal issues in the ways in which dogs can be acquired, it makes it harder and harder for families to make the right choices when finding a family companion. With legal changes to make it more restrictive for breeders and importers, demand outstrips supply more than ever. With cultural pressures making adoption more fashionable, that’s another added problem, especially where local adoption practices are overly restrictive.

Couple these issues with problems in other countries and you can see how foreign adoptions intensify to meet market needs.

Shelters in Westernised countries can also worsen this supply problem by overly strict adoption policies with blanket policies regarding how long dogs should be left for or how old children in the home should be are often met with an outright ‘no’.

This too has complex reasons underpinning it. If the shelter is part of a franchise, sometimes they have to follow in line with franchise policies. There are legal issues to consider along with the social media storm that would inevitably arise should a dog from a well-known franchise be involved in an incident that catches the attention of the media. No shelter wants to be at the centre of a media storm involving one of their adopted dogs.

For us in France, most of our shelters are independent. That means, should the shelter change tune this afternoon on adoption policies, they can enact it this very afternoon. Franchises are often beset by complex issues that mean it’s complicated to do so. The advantage of belonging to a franchise is financial. It also provides a support network. The disadvantages mean supporting pessimistic and restrictive company policies at times, and risking losing your franchise licence if you don’t. But it’s harder and harder for independent shelters to stay afloat in an environment swamped by well-paid professional marketers from large franchise shelter chains.

Reputation can be a tension for all shelters, franchise or not. It may not surprise you to know that some franchises or large well-known independent shelters euthanise almost all dogs who enter simply because they daren’t risk a story about one of their dogs biting. Not only do they therefore have to be really selective about which dogs they adopt out, but which people they adopt to. Any risk at all is a barrier.

Reputation also affects marketing. Franchises usually have marketing and social media teams in paid jobs. Independent shelters rely on people donating their time and services. Thus, independents tend to be poorer and have less impact on social media, but at the same time, their reputation can also be affected by public opinion. The more staff you pay to be in the public eye, the more you need your dogs to be easy adoptions, your families to be easy to adopt to and the more the press matters. These all affect the shelter or rescue’s choices.

Where reputation matters to large franchises in the public eye and might lead them to blanket refusals to certain members of their community who rent, who don’t have much disposible income, who work out of the home or who have children, smaller independent shelters suffer from a lack of resources.

Having blanket policies is necessary if you don’t have the resources to ensure that you can manage case-by-case adoptions. If you haven’t time or resources to match up adopters to dogs, then you aren’t in a position to do case-by-case, and that’s fine.

Ironically, shelters or rescues in this position would probably rehome MORE dogs if they stepped away from blanket refusals, but at the same time, there are also independent shelters or rescues who rehome many dogs because they don’t have any barriers to adoption at all, and probably, as I explained in the last post, operate more like Ali Baba and Wish, making it hard to return dogs who aren’t fitting in. This isn’t helpful either.

Operating with no returns and no comeback is easy to do if you’re some kind of nebulous, faceless organisation that doesn’t seem to have any physical structure, and it’s easy to do if you’re abroad. It’s not so easy to do if you have a physical structure and actual people the public can make contact with.

If we have a ‘problem’ dog and the adopters want to make a fuss, for instance, they can simply come down to the shelter with the local press who are always happy to join in. Instead, where there are no returns, adopters are often left with euthanasia as their only option. There is very little data about how many foreign rescue dogs are euthanised, or the problems they encounter. We simply don’t know how big this problem is. Lack of data is in itself an issue. It could be a tiny problem and people’s perceptions about foreign rescues might be completely out of proportion with reality. Ironically, foreign rescues are often tarred with the same brush as foreign migrants. The media (and social media!) goes nuts when any foreigner transgresses, failing to see how susceptible humans are to ‘in-group/out-group’ biases. On the other hand, what behaviour consultants, trainers and vets suspect about the failure of foreign rescue dogs to integrate might be only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know and the sparsity of data is a real issue. This is an issue that actually has a simple solution, as you’ll see.

For many reasons, then, that are much more complicated than I could every say in some post here, shelters have blanket policies that end up with people looking elsewhere who are then exploited by less scrupulous organisations.

Ironically, if local shelter adoption policies were more liberal, there would be less room for exploitation of dogs from other countries, sold on to people thoughtlessly to fill a need.

It can feel like a Catch-22 for many shelters. You’re damned if you have a liberal adoption policy and you’re damned if you don’t.

How can shelters and rescue associations cope better then, so they have time to move to case-by-case?

First is for shelters to stop running around like your hair is on fire and helping when you don’t have capacity.

Most of us in shelters don’t have capacity. Most of us are indeed running around like our hair is on fire and we’re trying to put out fires in other people’s hair. We don’t have the money to have as many staff as we need. We don’t have the money for big enough kennels. We don’t have the money to hire dedicated marketing and social media presences or people to go round suggesting people leave us stuff in their will. We don’t have the money for vet bills. Yet we feel like we should do something to help if we can. Catch 22. The idea that we can help seems preposterous.

Building capacity can feel almost impossible for shelters.

Shelters can build capacity in two main ways. The first is to become a truly functional hub of the community. The more people who know about you, the more volunteers you get, the more donations you get, the more help you get, the more word-of-mouth you get.

Opening up to the community on your doorstep and working with them rather than cutting yourself off from them is vital.

Serving the community rather than saving their dogs actually ends up saving their dogs.

Sterilisation programmes run more effectively.

The shelter ends up supporting rather than mopping up.

It affords you the flexibility to be pro-active rather than reactive.

You have to be visible, friendly, open, caring, supportive and valued.

Good luck achieving this!

I say this knowing full well that it’s an aspiration.

Sometimes this means finding more central facilities in your local area to be more public. You don’t have to have dogs or cats present – that often ends up a liability. But you do need to be visible and to truly serve the community. Often, shelters are liminal structures, trapped on the outskirts of towns, hidden away as dirty secrets. That has to change. Walls have to come down, and I mean literal walls as well as metaphorical ones. Shelters have to be visible, and not just to people 5000 miles away on social media.

The other way you can build capacity is to work with other shelters, both near and far. I know a lot of shelters do this already. It’s one reason franchises can be popular if they encourage inter-shelter transfers. It really is a life saver. Being able to count on partners who can when you cannot makes a difference. Knowing that this type of dog or that type of dog will be adopted in an afternoon from X or Y shelter makes it a lot easier in many ways. If there are problems, the other shelter are there, on site, to deal with it. When you have reliable, trusted partners, you know that they won’t leave your animals in the lurch. Being able to hit a panic button one Monday afternoon and say, ‘We have ten dogs over capacity’ knowing that five neighbouring shelters will step up and say, ‘We can take three’ literally saves lives.

It can save you having to deal with problems with the community if you can send seized dogs 500 miles away. It can also help if you end up having to take on a lot of animals and you really do have your hair on fire.

It works even better if you know the other shelters and they know you. As a shelter, when you know that X or Y shelter is really, really good at moving on this or that type of dog, then freeing up space keeps things manageable. It stops staff becoming overwhelmed. It stops you using the kennel that really needs some maintenance. It stops you putting dogs in that kennel because you don’t have anywhere else, dogs that you then end up having to treat for injuries and keep longer because they caught themselves on some unfinished metal or something. Working slightly under capacity at all times makes things so much easier. Inter-shelter transfer can be a large part of that.

It’s ridiculous really. When I see all the lurchers and greyhounds in UK rescues, I know that many would be adopted in France in a heartbeat. I saw two whippets in a shelter the other day in France and I bet they went that afternoon. Also, I know that many dogo argentino are euthanised in the UK and are not subject to breed-specific legislation in France… sending dogs to places they are not stigmatised or overly-populous is one way shelters can support each other. We can all help with that.

It’s for this reason many French hounds find their way from French shelters up to German shelters. In Germany, there is no stigma to adopting a regal Anglo-Français hound, an Ariègeois or a Bleu de Gascogne. Shelters in France have the reassurance to know the dogs won’t end up in a concrete kennel outside and used for hunting ten times a year. German shelters have the reassurance of knowing our Anglos are robust, mentally sound dogs who take to German life as if they were born to it. They rely on us to send them detailed portraits of the dogs beforehand and they trust us not to send them dogs that will languish in their shelter for behavioural reasons. The Germans know what the French haven’t accepted yet: hounds make AMAZING house dogs on the whole. Our inter-shelter network depends entirely on trust, communication and collaboration shared by people chasing the same cause: the protection of animals, wherever they may have come from.

Having a good relationship with other shelters is vital. Thankfully there are hundreds of people behind the scenes oiling the machinery. Shelter-to-shelter, rescue-to-rescue, or well-educated foster networks are ideal. Actually, this is often the only totally legal way to act in Europe given the Balai directive and TRACES if you want to do foreign adoptions anyway. If we want UK vets to stop going nuts about the risks of leish or rabies or ticks or blah blah blah, then shelter-to-shelter makes that easier, since the shelter has the facilities to isolate the dog and should have disease protocols in place anyway. The sad fact is that one too many UK vets seem to think all foreign imports are bedevilled with disease or beset by behaviour problems. I know I’ve had UK clients whose vets have insisted on their French dog having thousands of pounds worth of tests for stuff that doesn’t even exist in France just because they were adopted ‘from abroad’ and all that was wrong with the dog was a food allergy. The Balai directive and TRACES is designed to function with disease management and clear pathways for animal transportation in mind. They are designed to function from institution to institution. This is another reason we need to step away from foreign-shelter-to-home direct adoptions, even if they are negotiated by associations who run without foster networks or physical structures. Obviously, this is a very EU-driven process, but other countries have similar import structures where shelters can perhaps act as quarantine kennels just as EU shelters sometimes do.

Another reason shelters should network is that when you have an influx of dogs, you don’t get overwhelmed. Having connections in-country and out-of-country is vital. We’re not working in isolation.

It’s not only the safe and legal passage of the dog from shelter to shelter, but also the passage of information. I can’t even begin to tell you how much work goes on behind the scenes from our multilingual supporters who make sure videos are passed on – nay, demand videos. They want inside leg measurements and the height of the dog and the dog to be measured up from every angle. I jest, of course, kind of. I’m not the only person to have a tape measure in my pocket because someone’s demanded measurements for a harness before a dog arrives in their country, or the transporter needs to know how big the crate should be. I’ve also translated veterinary documents, as have many of the other elves. Shelters hold enormous rafts of information on the animals in our care. Making sure the next shelter gets that information is crucial. It also helps them place the dog safely in their shelter.

When foreign rescues go from their shelter to a shelter in another country, it’s not just data about the dog in themselves, but the population of dogs. Shelters collect lots of data. We’re awash with it. When we act as a hub for foreign dogs coming in, that means there is an easier way of collecting data about health and disease, rather than trying to collect data from 4000 adopters who may or may not respond. It also means ease of collecting data in terms of how many dogs are returned to the shelter for whatever reason.

How can we know if foreign rescues are really a problem? We can’t when we’re just working off anecdote. People say the plural of anecdote is data. It isn’t. It’s anecdotes. We still don’t know. We need actual crunchable data that it’s impossible to get through owner-reported surveys. You want to know how many dogs are rehomed once they arrive on foreign shores? You can’t know through asking people to tell you. You want to know how many dogs of foreign origins are euthanised by vets as a result of disease or behavioural problems? You can’t know by asking vets to self report. Only the vets with a vested interest one way or another will reply. That data is so dirty and so flawed as to be useless.

Where dogs come into foreign shelters or are managed by robust foster machines, that data is much more easy to access. Want to know how many of our shelter dogs are returned in a year? I can tell you that. How many days they were in the shelter? I got that too. How many had a behavioural issue? I got that. How many just didn’t gel in their family? I’ve got that data. How many were euthanised for behavioural reasons within six months of adoption? I’ve got that.

Shelters can act as hubs for better data collection, not just in terms of understanding the problems with foreign adoptions – if there truly are any out of proportion with ‘homegrown’ dogs – but also in terms of health data on diseases such as tick-borne disease and leishmaniasis. When dogs are transferred across borders, there are many, many reasons that shelter-shelter transfers are a better solution. Or, at least, shelter-foster network.

It’s not just about data. Shelter-shelter transfers are also about support. When shelters act as a hub for dogs who’ve travelled from further afield, they also take charge of the after-adoption stuff. Dogs don’t always fit in. That’s a fact of life. I’ve taken back three fosters who just couldn’t live with my dogs or my lifestyle. It’s made me heartbroken to do it. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Returning a dog 10 miles to a place that has the capacity to take them takes a lot of the pressure off.

One thing is for sure: shelters need to be open to the community so that returns can happen easily. Better a dog has a short return to kennels before being rehomed than a long and miserable life with thousands of pounds spent trying to make a round peg fit into a square hole. That can’t happen easily if the shelter is 2000 miles away. That’s another reason shelters need more local hubs who have capacity to take dogs back if necessary. Again, if you’re running around with your hair on fire trying to put out other fires, you probably don’t have capacity to do that, and no judgement is intended. We’ve had Mondays where four dogs have been returned. If you can’t take in four dogs because you’re at full capacity – if you can’t even take one single dog back because you’re at full capacity – then you’re not positioned to be open. Networking would help with that.

Foreign adoptions can be just marvellous. Dogs who have no chance of a short stay in your shelter can find places where they’d disappear in an afternoon. There are literally waiting lists for obscure French hounds in Germany, so beloved are they. The main reason is they are amazing dogs who should disappear out of all shelters in a heartbeat. Those dogs would languish in the shelter in France.

However, it also depends on us knowing what kind of dogs are easily adoptable and also don’t have difficulty integrating into German life. If shelters and rescues just offload their most difficult dogs to adopt, then they’ll soon get a reputation and nobody will take dogs from them.

Inter-shelter transfers within or across borders can also help you develop capacity so that your own shelter can help. It doesn’t make a difference if that’s within your own country or across borders where the dogs won’t face massive problems adjusting.

If you’ve sent five dogs to another local shelter who can help, if you’ve sent ten up to another shelter across the border where they’ll be rehomed in an instant, then when your neighbour rings up with five staffies, you’ve got capacity to say yes. We can’t win the war if we’re all fighting our own battles. Easier said than done, I know. As I said, aspirations, on the whole.

Opening up isn’t just about opening up link from one organisation to another.

It’s also about opening up to your community.

Again, easier said than done. The good thing is that many European shelters are already dipping a toe in the water, if they aren’t fully signed up to the process. Many of us are building capacity little by little and helping out where we can. We can do more when we work openly and we involve the local community.

Serving the community and rehoming responsibly aren’t always easy. Of course you can create a presence and market the heck out of yourselves, but it’s also about being open. There are a gazillion ways people can support their local shelters and associations, most of which do not involve being physically present at the shelter. It’s easy to write off the community around the shelter as being irresponsible, causing all the problems you’re in the business of cleaning up daily. Yet engaging people in the shelter is one of the fastest ways to spread the message and to change people’s opinions, not just about the dogs that you have for adoption, but also changing people’s perceptions about the shelter.

Many shelters in the past were responsible for the management and death of stray populations; many still are.

It’s not that they want to be – nobody really wants to kill dogs for a living, do they? – but the image of kill shelters lingers to such an extent that people are adopting from noisy, social media savvy foreign ‘kill stations’ because they want to save the life of a dog without realising that the shelter just up the road from them is having to do the same.

It works in other ways too. If you’ve worked hard to move away from euthanising a surplus of animals, it’s soul-destroying to have community members who believe you’re still in the business of having to kill dogs and cats.

How do you help people in your community understand your shelter’s missions and stop populating myths?

You open your doors. Even just a chink.

That of course means opening yourself up to both scrutiny and criticism.

At the same time, it’s well known that it’s easy to live with irrational views when you aren’t faced with grim realities. For instance, I’m sure the myth about breeders being responsible for dogs in shelters would be soon put to bed in France if people realised that viewing dogs as a utility does much more damage. If only we were overwhelmed by ill-bred dogs with paperwork every day! I mean the Australian shepherd is France’s most popular breed right now. Last time we had one in?

Not to my knowledge.

I know we’ve had the accidental offspring of Aussies, but we’ve never had one in, despite the fact I know personally of one family who’ve had six ‘accidental’ litters of mixed breed pups by letting their unsterilised female wander around when she’s in heat. Not one of those dogs ever came into the shelter.

If you’re going to tackle myths, present the grim reality, and you’re really going to start bringing down the cultural institutions that truly put dogs in your shelters, you need people in your community to know what’s happening rather than pretending that it doesn’t or blaming people who contribute to the problem. It’s not just that countries need to fix their own issues before shipping off strays, but that communities do too.

If we want to change cultural values, we have to move out of the world of nebulous biases, prejudices and stereotypes that fester away causing fears to worsen. We can do that by being open and by being rational. Data helps us do that. Shedding a light on things and being open to what the real picture is helps enormously. The more people involved in your shelter, the more myths you can bust day after day.

Besides networking and opening doors, another thing that makes a huge difference is for shelters to take the view that they not only should serve the community but support the community.

Our shelter faces three groups of people who contribute significant numbers of dogs to our animal population for various reasons. Having close links with these groups can be mutually beneficial even though it’s tough. It’s easy to alienate and ostracise groups who view animals differently than you do, but many of the problems that arise are through over-population or lack of support, both of which can be helped by being in and around the community as problems emerge, rather than when problems reach a point where they can’t be easily resolved. Keeping dogs in their homes can be a really sensible way of keeping them out of shelters.

Being in touch and working as a multidisciplinary team with health professionals and social care teams can also help. If teams working to support the homeless know they can turn to the shelter for food, for low-cost veterinary care or sterilisation programmes, or even for temporary lodgings, that can also help fulfil a more supportive role. Shelters can lead by example rather than closing the door.

Of course, this can make people dependent on shelters to clear up after them… there’s people who argue that problems exist because shelters exist… children with elderly relatives will run the appeals and find their dog a home rather than letting the dog go to a shelter, or families will step up to help with vet care, but I think this harks back to days when shelters killed surplus populations and there weren’t treatments for various diseases. Society is more fractured these days and a wider range of people live with dogs. It’s not as simple as saying problems wouldn’t exist if shelters didn’t exist.

Generally things don’t happen overnight. Situations don’t happen overnight and trying to fix them overnight doesn’t help either. Often, when healthcare professionals can alert shelters and rescues before beloved pets are going to be relinquished it also makes the transition of the guardian into medical facilities or nursing homes much easier. Likewise, rather than having 30 puppies over 18 months, if social services let shelters and rescues know as soon as the first litter is born, shelters are better placed to rehome litters and to make sure sterilisations, vaccinations and microchipping can be carried out.

But, as the saying goes, it takes a village.

Shelters and rescues need to be a focal part of that village, rather than remaining on the outskirts, as liminal as the populations they often serve. It’s worth reiterating that sometimes things need to change at a national level otherwise we’ll always just be mopping up problems elsewhere on this planet, but the same thing is true of our own communities. If we’re having to rely on inter-shelter adoptions, we’re really just farming out our problems elsewhere. However, if you need to deal with problems in your own region, then you need to work under capacity as a shelter so you can get out into the community and spend resources there rather than on in the shelter. That may need a lot of support at the beginning.

When shelters have capacity and when they work as a network to move dogs to where they can most easily be adopted and supported, then that frees up other potential too.

What’s most important, I feel, is that we don’t pull the ladder up behind us having been given a helping hand out of the pit of despair.

You might be doing a very nice job of keeping your own fires under wraps and may not have run around with your hair on fire for many years. But if everyone around you is on fire, then there’s something of a duty to help out.

It’s never comfortable for shelters to look at their own populations and think they too can be involved in supporting foreign or even other local rescues. I’m sure our German, Austrian, Swiss and Luxembourgish partner shelters, associations and rescues could easily say that they don’t have capacity to help us out. If you ask me if I want to take five dogs a month from countries having bigger problems than we face, then if we’re in a position to, we absolutely would. That said, according to many media sources in France, France has the biggest shelter population in Europe, so we’re no role model. Despite this, there are still times we help out our neighbours. No reason those neighbours need to be on the same side of the border as us.

So shelters can work differently and can change. It would make a huge impact and reduce a great deal of problems if we did. Many, many shelters in France are already doing just that. I’m amazed by how much collaboration and support already happens within and across borders. I’m not writing this as some vague dream, but based on the practical experience of the shelters and associations around me who are already doing these things.

If shelters want to do our bit to reduce the pressure on the supply-demand market of dogs, we need to change our way of working. Hard as it is. Knowing full well we’re all still running around with our hair on fire most of the time. That’s a given.

Shifting to case-by-case adoptions and having an open door policy for trial adoptions makes a real difference.

This might begin to change things in our own locations as well as position the shelter more centrally in a post-humanist world. Who knows whether shelters will form part of integrated community support hubs in future worlds? I can dream…

It’s all well doing more within the community, but our reach might be better if it doesn’t end there.

I think if shelters were open to taking on inter-shelter adoptions, especially from other countries, we could really change things. Even if we’re all just doing a tiny bit.

Other things need to stop, though, in the rescue world. This is rarely of the shelter’s making, although restrictive adoption policies and an over-population of particular breeds or types of dog definitely create a situation in which other problems then occur.

What we know categorically doesn’t work (and is borderline illegal in the EU) is adoptions from foreign shelters direct to homes. Not by the intermediary of a physical structure; nor by the intermediary of an experienced foster network. From a foreign shelter or home direct into a home in a different country.

This system is the one most likely to fail. Like it or not, anyone can set themselves up as a rescue, can fundraise (and spend funds how they please) and can find some desperate shelter somewhere else on the globe to ship them dogs. While they might arrange transport and take payment from adopters, even passing on some of their funds to the original shelter, they don’t have the capacity to help when the dog arrives because they don’t have a physical structure or a foster network that acts as one.

They’re often not even there when the dogs arrive. They don’t know the dogs. They may have published stories about the provenance of these dogs in order to find them homes – often accompanied by KILL SHELTER!! and things in capital letters with lots of exclamation marks.

This is not responsible rescue.

At best, most of it loosely works out, on an Ali Baba or Wish kind of model. You weren’t really warned what you were getting. It wasn’t what you wanted. The dog copes if you’re lucky and there’s nowhere to return the dog to if they don’t cope.

Direct adoptions from foreign shelters might solve the occasional problem. They don’t solve anything significant and it mostly ends up mopping up some situations to help out shelters who appear to need it. At worst, it’s responsible for those countries letting dogs proliferate as a fundraising tool because they know some rescues act as if puppies are blank slates. It’s what causes fury over the abuse of international animal transportation, import, export and sales laws and leads to claims that such transport and transfer systems are unworkable.

It makes me sad because I know the vast majority of places operating a direct-from-rescue service mean well. I know most do. Sadly, many are run by people whose hearts are bigger than their experience or capacity. I’m sure they do not mean to put dogs into homes who are going to spend three months under the table, often needing extensive training and medication just to even cope with daily life, let alone to live a life worth living. Let’s be clear: our local dogs, even dogs from great breeders can suffer serious separation anxiety, fearfulness, aggression or extreme lack of socialisation. It’s not new and it’s not limited to foreign dogs coming to foreign shores.

The sad fact is, though, that many puppies from foreign shores are sold as if they are blank slates by well-meaning people who think that love is enough and if the dog has a roof over their heads, then the ends justify any means. When there are problems, they don’t have back-up and they don’t offer support, only condemnation and blame for their ‘failure’.

This is another reason shelters are often better placed to help: knowledge of dogs, puppies, socialisation, behavioural traits, training and handling dogs is a skill that direct-to-home networks don’t always have. Shelters are often better placed with professionals who understand that puppies aren’t blank slates and are more experienced at handling dogs as well as working with dogs with traumatic pasts.

The belief that love is enough and that puppies are blank slates is leading to a very high number of puppy adoptions that are just not working out, unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of purpose-bred dogs that also end up in the wrong homes: the care to match people with dogs isn’t always rigorous, no matter where the dogs come from.

Sadly, though, in my opinion, there is little less responsible than taking a puppy with a genetic legacy of 3000 years of utility as a guardian breed and giving it to guardians who have no idea what they’re getting or why they’re having the problems they’re having. Having had clients who’ve never had dogs before, have never had guardian breeds before, who’ve never had a puppy before, the ramifications of selling puppies from foreign countries as if they are blank slates are enormous.

These are the clients I spend the first hour with giving them insights into the dog they just picked up. Welcome to life with a spooky Carpathian shepherd whose job it is to tell you that wolves are after your sheep and alert their family. Welcome to life with a GSD from very strong protection lines. Welcome to life with a working Labrit, an out-of-sorts Grand Pyrenean, an imported Akbash.

Nobody should get one of these dogs without at least knowing what it means or how dogs like this have mostly lived and what they may struggle with. The same is true with any dog to be honest. I look back at myself ten years ago and wonder what was going through my tiny mind to adopt dogs with such a blasé attitude. They’re just dogs, right? How hard can it be?

Luckily, the behavioural and medical problems that my adopted American cocker spaniel had were exactly the same problems that my Nana’s American cocker spaniel had some thirty years before. Like I said, breed matters, especially when it comes to problems.

Honestly, and I feel really strongly about this, if an adopted dog is placed in an inexperienced home, these clients shouldn’t be having to pay for my time. It comes back to shelters having the right to say no (and, perhaps, not exercising it quite so liberally at times, I know…)

The rescue should be providing support. I do it when other associations and shelters ask me to because I enjoy doing it and I’m glad to be asked. A dog from a shelter 300 miles away is no different than a dog from our own shelter. Just because the ink is dry on the contract doesn’t mean the relationship is over. Adoption should be a lifelong relationship, not a sales contract. This is also easier to achieve when you are working locally. I can’t tell you how great it is to see ‘our’ dogs out at the park, on hikes, on walks, at the shops, visiting the shelter, coming for open days. I also can’t tell you how happy I am to be involved in their ongoing lives should they have problems fitting in.

As I said, when we have capacity, we help. That can be as individuals or as a shelter.

Since I’m not needed so much, it gives me the flexibility to help other associations and rescues where needed. But I shouldn’t be doing this without the original rescue ‘negotiator’ admitting they need to change their practice. I totally understand why my UK colleagues are getting frustrated because there are unfortunately so many associations acting as nothing more than money-collecting middlemen who facilitate transport and nothing more. They’re procurers or brokers, not rescuers. I realise many mean well, but without a physical location or a robust team of fosterers where there’s slack in the system, meaning well means that many dogs are struggling in families that are ill-equipped to cope. Sadly, an enormous number of these dogs are then euthanised without the broker who brought them to foreign shores accepting responsibility or changing their ways in the future. I guess it can be difficult as well for such procurers to even know how big their problem is if they aren’t aware of how they compare to others

Responsible sheltering might ultimately mean that we’re all able to open our doors from time to time to other shelters who need us to. I have no problems with adoptions to foreign climes: many of the dogs I have known and loved have found homes through our German partners. In turn, we offer space for local shelters here who are overflowing and at risk of being requested to euthanise ‘surplus’ dogs as well as supporting 30 Millions d’Amis and One Voice among others when they don’t have space. If – and when – shelters have capacity, that means being able to act as a hub for dogs coming into the country. I know foster networks who do the same thing. At least there’s slack in these systems. At best, the experience is safer and much less traumatic. It’d be hypocritical of me to accept help from other shelters and not support inter-shelter transfers.

The dogs arrive into safe and experienced conditions. Of course it’s kennels. We understand that. But even from offloading, shelters are ready from the get-go. Who else has 3 metre gates and can find people to be there at 3am when the transport arrives? Who else has handled thousands of dogs both into and out of transport crates? Who else has the physical capacity to cope if the adoption goes wrong? Far better that the dog can be returned to a local shelter than end up on a dog sales site or being euthanised because the guardian feels that they have no options.

Things can be better.

Things are better when we reach out.

I see in the next twenty years that the grown-ups in the shelter world will be having conversations about responsible sheltering. We need to be visionary and we need to work more collaboratively in order to do that.

We can’t do it if we’re all fighting our own fires.

We’re all learning, all the time. We do that faster than any other species because of one thing: language. As one of the youngest species on the planet, our progress has been exponential because we communicate with words. We can use this to benefit the other species our lives have impacted, whose trajectories have been irrevocably altered through domestication, so that they don’t suffer as we all face further challenges in the 21st century caused by huge divides in equity and mounting climate change.

I think we should finish with a message of hope.

I can’t begin to tell you how many amazing people I know in rescue and rehoming. Sure, there are egos and there are people who seem to be scratching psychological itches they’ve not dealt with properly. There are crazy people and passionate people and argumentative people. There aren’t enough of either the amazing people or the passionate people, and shelter work can consume many, many of us and spit out our bones.

Even so… these conversations are already happening – have already happened. These networks already exist. Shelters are already moving to the centre of communities and taking a central role in welfare of all species. It may only be some 200 years since the earliest movements in animal rights and animal welfare began, but in 70 years, we’re already a long way from the dog pound and the mandatory execution of unclaimed strays.

As we climb that ladder of progress, there are two things I think we need to do. One is to share how we’re doing it as shelters and stop being so reticent about it. Others can benefit from our lessons – another great thing about being human. The other thing we need to do is to remember not to pull the ladder up after us. Responsible sheltering doesn’t mean cutting off our neighbours. It means remembering we’re all fighting the same fight and we’re all on the same side. When we work together, we improve our capacity. When we improve our capacity, we can help others. That help needn’t end at our borders. Arguably, it shouldn’t end at our borders.

Ultimately, shelters are one small piece in a very large puzzle. This puzzle is largely given over to legal and cultural behaviours that are beyond our control. That’s not to say shelters haven’t got anything to offer. I truly believe we can go a long way to addressing problems when we remember that borders are artificial constructs and that our relationship with animals is global. We do enough damage cutting ourselves off in human exceptionalism. It’s time to remember that we’re all part of a global system and we can’t just ignore our neighbours’ problems because we think our own problems are unrelated to theirs.

To all those involved who are already making this happen, may you be the vanguard for future ways of working. It’s true what they say: rising tides lift all boats.

Available in ebook form and paperback

Responsible Shelter Practices

Today, I write perhaps the first part of the most important posts I’m ever going to write. I write lots of posts that I hope are useful. Today’s is important. It might be useful as well, who knows? It’s going to be the first in a series about responsible shelter practices.

I will say that this risks being a long post, so grab a drink and a snack, or save for later.

Being a behaviour consultant in France and being English-speaking puts me in a very noisy world of US-based and UK-based colleagues with the occasional Australian, Irish, New Zealand or Canadian voice there too. There are very few Europeans in our professional groups, and if they are, they’re mainly from the northern countries, particularly Norway, Sweden, Holland and Belgium.

Having been part of shelter and association work in France for the last eight years, as a volunteer, as a trustee, as a driver, as a behaviour consultant and in doing outreach, I’ve not been touched much by a problem that my colleagues have faced, though it’s starting to affect me more and more too.

I’d like to start by pointing out a huge and very important fact: the dogs my colleagues see are problem dogs. That in itself is important. Our own clients are not a reflective group. I deal a lot with livestock-guardian breeds and protection breeds, or aggression cases, mostly because that’s what I like doing and I feel like I know my stuff. I get a lot of malinois and German shepherds. Mostly this is because they are very popular in France and because I’ve got a reputation for malinois and German shepherds. I can’t look at my own caseload and assume that ALL malinois and German shepherds are problems or that they’re more problematic than other dogs. Please remember as I write that the dogs behaviour consultants see are not representative of the whole. It’s important to start with that in your head.

The problem my colleagues have been reporting on frequently is the situation involving dogs adopted from other countries. Whether they’ve been street dogs or village dogs, in the meat trade or hanging around on a beach, I think it’s fair to say that some dogs adopted from foreign shores have problems adjusting to life in a different country.

I want to say another thing. As someone who knows shelter statistics intimately, it’s important you know something else too. Some of our dogs adopted on our own doorstep have problems adjusting to life in a different home. This is important to bear in mind too.

When I started this website back in 2015, I called it Woof Like To Meet because I realised how important the right match was. The more the people and the dog fitted together, with whichever poultry, livestock, domestic animals and wildlife already lived in the home, the easier that match was. The more we could replace like with like for those dogs, the easier it was.

Sometimes that poses ethical issues: Do we want to release our hounds to go and live in concrete kennels where their care is often neglected? Do we want to release our malinois or German shepherds to be the very sad guardian of some deserted pile of scrap metal?

You know our answer already.

Since hounds take very well to home life and since protection dogs just need people who understand them (and perhaps have fewer neighbours or visitors than the hoi polloi in a busy town…) then we don’t have much fallout from the fact we don’t want these dogs, on the whole, to go and do the kind of jobs they were doing before. Notice I said ‘on the whole’. That’s important too. Case by case, always.

This poses shelters in rural France several issues. Hounds, gundogs and herding dogs are seen as outdoor utility dogs. They aren’t particularly adoptable by people who live on our doorstep. This is despite the fact that these dogs are ALL the BEST dogs.

In urban France, there are other issues. The malinois and German shepherd are also used as security dogs in the industrial suburbs, not just left to guard car yards and deserted warehouses. The American staffordshire and their many lookalikes are popular dogs for many disenfranchised people living in urban areas.

These are France’s culturally disadvantaged dogs: hounds, working gundogs, protection dogs, security dogs, status dogs.

Each one comes with a label and a defined identity that marks their card when it comes to a speedy adoption.

Countries create cultural problems because dogs are a reflection of us, our values and the lives we lead.

Adopters also create cultural problems. In a recent webinar, I said we have three types of adopters. Though I’ve labelled them, there’s no intended judgement about them.

First, we have those adopters who are driven by economic factors. Virtually every single shelter study I’ve read out of Australia, the UK and the US focuses on these adopters. What’s true in the US is true in France: small, young females, preferably pedigree will leave our shelter in an afternoon. We could adopt out probably twenty small, young female dogs a week. Give us twenty small, young bichons and you won’t even notice them come and go. Middle-aged large mixed-breed males, on the other hand, well, you boys might as well prepare for the long ride.

Economic adopters sometimes want cheaper pedigree versions of dogs they like, such as Frenchies or Malinois. The shelter is cheaper than paying for a dog from a breeder in the UK and US (not in France…) and these adopters want a dog to rehome. Notice I said rehome. This is NOT rescue. The advantages of economic adopters for shelters is that they are plentiful and they conform to market forces, which is cool. That means a good marketer can do a lot with shelter statistics. The disadvantages of economic adopters is that they are budget-conscious and they don’t want dogs that won’t adapt quickly.

Plenty to be said for adopters like this. They are all good people, I know. But I know one thing: foist a ‘problem’ dog on these people and they’ll return the dog. Those ‘problems’ might not be problems for other people and might not be problems at all. You’ll also hate the reasons they give. It’s very rare that shelters or rescues look at their own behaviour and say, ‘We didn’t make it absolutely clear that this dog was not for them.’

This is tough for shelters and rescues. You too may end up on the front page of your local newspaper on Christmas Day, as we did, because we wouldn’t adopt a dog to a local lady who worked 14 hours a day and wanted a dog for the 2 hours she was home and awake. No dog walker, no doggie day care, no leaving the dog with a neighbour. Shelters have to say no, and people who are economic adopters do not like this. Imagine turning up to a car sales yard and the guys won’t sell you a car?

That’s one of the downsides of economic adopters: they can become indignant if you won’t sell them the dog they want. We shelters and rescues don’t like the word ‘sell’. It’s ugly. It has awful connotations. Yet if you speak to a tax accountant, your ‘adoption fees’ are sales, pure and simple. Just like shoes, economic adopters can fixate on a dog they like and then become outraged if you say the dog isn’t for them.

Speaking on behalf of shelters and rescues, saying no is tough. I maybe should just point out at this point that what pushed me to adopt Lidy was someone else making very serious overtures that I wasn’t going to be able to say no to… Three years in a shelter and we start to think seriously when people step up and say they want a guard dog for their French bulldog breeding business… Warehousing stressed dogs isn’t acceptable. Sometimes that forces shelters and rescues to lower their standards. Adopting dogs yourself because there are no other solutions and living as a guard dog isn’t the life you want for your dogs is also part of that fine dance about sheltering and rescue.

There are also now ethical adopters. Ethical adopters are looking for a companion dog that comes from a socially ethical source. Notice I said ‘dog’ there? Barely any of our cat adopters are economic adopters or ethical adopters. Literally nobody sticks up photos on Insta with a #RescueCat tag and are there even charities that are taking ‘street’ cats and ‘village’ cats and shipping them three thousand miles even though the fate of many cats is much, much worse than it is for many dogs? If you’re a deep thinker, you’ll have spent some time pondering this, I know.

Ethical adopters are often those plastering ‘adopt, don’t shop’ signs everywhere on social media often without realising that this is complicated. They maybe fancy certain breeds, but they want the knowledge that theirs was ethically sourced. The great thing is that ethical adopters are thinking about where dogs come from and don’t want to spend £4000 for a muttley pointer mix from some dodgy website and they don’t accidentally end up buying a working cocker who spends most of their days miserably chasing lights and shadows and being told off for not being a lap dog. Ethical adopters are wonderfully noisy advocates and carry your sales messages far and wide.

The tension of ethical adopters is that they see the shelter as a villain from which the dog must always be ‘rescued’. They’re also not averse to ‘rescuing’ an 8-week-old puppy from a puppy farm from time to time without realising they’re just ££££ to the person selling it who’ll put a new model on sale next week. Many times, they want the label of ‘rescue’ but they actually need a dog to rehome, not a dog who has huge problems. The problem with ‘saving’ dogs is that you need to post pictures of them on Insta and hashtag #Rescued #AdoptDontShop and you can’t do that if your dog is shitting themselves in the corner.

Being ethical is hard. If you want to know how hard, try being vegan in rural France. Thank God for good vegetables and lentils, that’s all I’ll say. Coming back to British shops is all vegan mayonnaise? You guys have vegan mayonnaise? Vegan cheese? VEGAN cheese? Vegan chocolate??! Also, why do all your crisps have milk in them? Being vegan is easy in the UK, that’s for sure. Still, loads of people are cut out from vegan choices because they’re expensive.

Taking the ethical high road isn’t easy. Nor is it black and white.

For instance, I have to live with the fact that my dogs aren’t vegan and I don’t plan on them being, so I have to live with the moral ambiguity of living with a predator as Hal Herzog would say. Also, someone then says that the almond milk you’re drinking uses more water than raising a cow, or that the air miles almonds are shipped is catastrophic, so then you’re on oat milk, but then you realise there are such things as Oat Milk Marketing Wars and you just want something to put on your bran flakes.

See? Ethical is tough. Don’t even get me started on whether or not it’s okay to eat a burger from one of my Auntie Clare’s cows because they’re all raised outside on grass and live lovely lives… and whether that’s better than a tomato shipped in from a ten-mile plastic polytunnel strip in Morocco that’s depriving locals of water. Minefields everywhere as soon as you start thinking about it.

So we do need to cut our ethical clients a break.

On the other hand, I also think we need to remember that in all honesty, a real rescue dog is not what they’re after. Sure, they might not conform to the young-small-female-bichon marketing trends, but they don’t always want a dog that’s going to take five months to come out from under a table.

Finally, you’ve got a tiny, wonderful niche of people who I think of as the real rescuers. I have many friends who fit this niche. They take on the troubled dogs, knowing full well all their troubles, and they never make a song and dance about it. One wet Wednesday in November, they turn up. Often a dog of theirs may have recently died and they ask you for the oldest dog, or the dog who’s been in the longest. They’re quiet people who just take the dog for exactly what they are and they adapt around the dog. If you’re a rescue or shelter and you have these, you probably won’t get photos from most of them. I have hundreds of our really troubled souls that I wish I knew where they were and how they were doing. Sometimes you wonder if they’ve died. When you see their guardians at some event or other, they say, ‘Oh, she’s just fine! Took her about five weeks to come out from under the table, bless her, but she’s a treasure!’

The drawback of these people is they rarely share enough of how hard it can be to take on dogs who need a lot from you at the beginning. They’re the kind of people you need to share stories that say ‘Oh, she came three inches out from under the table today!’ but they often never do.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because shelters have to first know their cultural problems and then they have to know their adopters. If you don’t realise that you’ve got nine gazillion greyhounds because you’re one of EIGHT barstewarding countries on the entire face of this enormous massive globe of ours where betting on greyhound racing is legal, and you aren’t going some way to try and change the system a little, then no good moaning about how many predatory greyhounds you’ve got to work with or how there’s only broken teenage greyhounds to adopt. Remove the problem, remove the dogs being exploited and ending up in shelters…

Secondly, I am telling you about adopters because many people who arrive at shelters or make enquires of rescues are not actually looking for a real ‘rescue’ dog that needs weeks and weeks to integrate.

If you’ve got a lot of people looking to make an economic choice, that’s great. Know that if you listen to what they need and can provide a dog that fits their lifestyle, it’ll probably stick, but you may have to deal with economic choices about what the dog looks like and you might find that distasteful if they won’t take a perfectly good dog that fits their needs perfectly because it doesn’t look like the dog of their dreams.

If you’ve got a lot of ethical adopters, know that what they say and what they need might not be in line with one another. They want the lifestyle dog perhaps that they can put on social media, sometimes inventing stories for about the dog’s past trauma. I’ve had my eyes opened more than once to the stories that some people have made up about our dogs and their pasts and, you know, that’s fine. Is that dog sleeping well at night? That’s all I care about.

And if you’ve got those secret rescuers, do your best to help them share their stories. They don’t like to attract attention as they just get on with it. But it’s important that people understand what ‘real rescue’ is.

Why is this important?

Because if economic adopters can’t get a dog from one shelter, they’ll often be tempted into buying a puppy from foreign shores that they’re ill-equipped to cope with, or they’ll end up buying from some dog sales website online where they can’t return the dog. Economic adopters are easy prey for shelters and rescues that really are operating in a ‘no-returns’ zone. Like Ali Baba or Wish, they send goods over foreign shores to people hoping for a wedding dress that looks like Princess Diana’s and end up with something that looks like a car wash auto-rotating brush had inappropriate relations with a Brazilian samba outfit. And just like Ali Baba and Wish, sending a dog back can cost you more money than you’ve got.

I joke, of course, but when I see dogs who’ve travelled 72 hours being unloaded in car parks on motorway services, it fills me with panic and despair. I’ve seen three adverts just yesterday for newly-adopted dogs to the UK who’ve run off from pick-up points, from the garden on the first night or from a walk. These dogs end up on websites being sold on. They end up living traumatised lives, and, perhaps worst of all, they turn adopters against adoption in future.

It’s also important because ethical adopters can be seduced into adopting by tragedy narratives and THIS DOG WILL BE KILLED! narratives. Like people buying almond milk without realising the hidden side-effects, ethical adopters are lining the coffers of some foreign ‘rescues’ who are breeding dogs, knowing puppies are easy to pass on. Again, they too end up taking on dogs thinking that love is enough, because doesn’t every single #rescue or #AdoptDontShop hashtag on social media show them just how easy it is to ‘rehabilitate’ dogs that were actually just rehomed. Also, if shelters locally won’t adopt to them, they become indignant about the shelter, as if the shelter is killing dogs by not releasing them. As I said, ethical adopters are noisy, and that noise isn’t always celebratory if you’ve refused to adopt a dog to them because it would be a poor fit.

Finally, there are far, far more dogs who need our niche rescue adopters than there are places for them.

So that’s the problem. There are cultural reasons why shelters have loads of dogs in that adopters don’t want. There are plenty of often very valid reasons why shelters close themselves off to certain adopters with blanket policies that then push the would-be adopter to go elsewhere. There are people who want a dog from a shelter or rescue. In short, there’s a market. That market isn’t always being met by shelters in the local area. That drives people to buy from puppy farms or from foreign rescues that are perhaps less scrupulous. There are also lots of very, very lovely people who see problems and want to make a difference.

I think we need to understand what the problem is and why the problem exists before we go on to think about how shelters and rescues can function in ways that better meet the needs of their communities AND can function ways that don’t close off help to foreign shelters or rescue associations who desperately need help.

Only when we understand what’s causing the problem can we consider how we can fix it.

In next week’s post, I’ll explore ways that shelters and rescues can begin to address the problem in a responsible and conscientious way.

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