All posts by emmalee72

Helping your dog cope better in the real world

Whether you live with barky, lively, bouncy dogs or you live with anxious or reactive dogs, you may find your daily walk to be a bit of a problem. You may even find training sessions to be impossible. You know that sinking feeling when you realise all the food in the world isn’t going to help your dog cope…. and you’re just hoping your dog won’t go TOO nuts, won’t bark TOO loudly, won’t panic TOO much… just because some paperboy is coming full pelt towards you. 

The thing that helps me best understand my clients’ problems walking their dogs is living with two dogs who are a bit of a challenge on walks. To be fair, Heston is only a challenge in that his meds make him less focused than he used to be, and his seizures aren’t the best way for the brain to keep hold of all the things he’s learned in the past nine years. Lidy, though, she runs the gamut.

Fearful? Got that. Full on panic attack because someone left a shopping basket on the pavement this morning.

Predatory? Got that. Cats, pigeons, livestock, wildlife… it’s all game for her as far as she’s concerned. Let’s just stick cyclists in there as well shall we? And cars sometimes.

Reactive? Got that. She’s suspicious of any people or dogs we see or smell on our walks.

If it moves, it’s a potential trigger. If it just lies there, out of place, like that lost shopping basket, then that’s a potential trigger too.

Many of my problems are solved simply by the time I walk the dogs and where I walk them. I don’t walk in busy places and I know that too many triggers are just overwhelming.

In all honesty, I don’t do as much training with her as I’d like to, simply because I don’t leave Heston home alone if I can help it. I’d never forgive myself if he had a seizure and I wasn’t there to help if he didn’t come out of it quickly enough, or if he injured himself. My intentions are good: I’d happily train Lidy for hours to help her. But life has other plans. I suspect most of my clients are in a similar boat.

And that’s perfectly fine.

Yet there are times when I’ve worked with her or I’ve worked with a client’s dog and the situation has just been too overwhelming, even though we had time to train.

Clients often tell me that their dog won’t eat on walks. Eliminating all the problems related to food that you can read about here, I usually find that the dog is just hugely over threshold.

Yet where we live or how we need to work our dogs isn’t easy. Some dogs are over threshold the minute they’re out of the door.

How can you work with dogs who are so fearful or so excited?

How can you even manage dogs who are so fearful or so excited?

The easiest way is to understand about vistas, panoramas and flats!

Knowing about these three things can help you manage your daily walks better. They can help you improve your counterconditioning or desensitisation no end, and they can also help you improve your training. If your dog is that over threshold, however, and you haven’t got any variation at all – there are absolutely no moments at all from the moment you go out of the door to the moment you get back in, and you are taking all the usual precautions, you need to think about behavioural medication and see a vet. Your dog is panicking and it’s a welfare issue.

I find, however, in most circumstances, that walking when there are fewer people and dogs about, even driving from your usual environment to do so, and spending time actually practising the habit of eating outside are the three things that mean there’s a little variation in the way the dog behaves at least. There are calmer moments.

If there are calmer moments, then we can work.

I also find however that people who aren’t getting the results they want are working in panoramic settings where the dog is visually triggered by any change at all. That’s why and understanding of vistas, panoramas and triggers can make such a difference.

Honestly, understanding these three things is the difference between successful behaviour modification that can happen in minutes as opposed to trying diligently to change your dog’s feelings about stuff in ways that takes months and months.

When people tell me, for instance, that they’ve been using counterconditioning for months and it still hasn’t made a difference, or that they’ve been trying desensitisation for weeks without seeing any progress, or where things have got worse, I can almost guarantee it’s because they’re being hindered by the environment rather than being helped by it.

Let’s first define our terms.

A vista is a long, narrow view, as between trees, cars or buildings.

Here’s one vista: trees on either side and a narrow path down the middle.

Here, you can see how the walls block out much of the view, so all there is left is a narrow little window at the top.

A panorama, on the other hand, is one of those wide sweeping views.

Flats are the name for mobile things on a stage that can be used as screens to block off various bits and pieces.

Flats can help make vistas out of panoramas. There’s a sentence I bet nobody has written in the history of ever. Certainly nobody talking about improving your work with anxious, sensitive or excitable dogs.

You may now worry I’m encouraging you to make portable screens. I am not, but I’ll explain how the world throws us screens that can help us.

Dogs who like chasing things like livestock, wildlife, domestic animals, joggers, bikes and cars, or dogs who are fearful of things like people or other dogs struggle most in panoramas.

I’ve said before that long-nosed dogs have a binocular advantage over short-nosed dogs. Their whole head is designed to see a wider panorama. Greyhounds, podencos, collies, German shepherds, Beauceron, Belgian shepherds and even little dachshunds are designed to see life in wide angle. Short-nosed dogs are designed to see straight in front, like a vista.

That’s the first thing.

The second is that some dogs – those who are herders, for example – have a horizontal streak of light-detecting cells across their eye, just like wolves. Other dogs have light-detecting cells scattered all over the retina, like we do. Those dogs who have a horizontal streak are literally motion detecting dogs. They may not be good at colour vision like we are, but they can see up to 700m with ease.

Don’t believe me? My one-eyed 16-year-old malinois could see cars moving 400m away. She had a cataract in her one good eye as well.

So where people tell me their dogs aren’t trainable, that they’re chasing things, wound up by cars or by cats moving, or they see people moving 400m away, I absolutely believe them. The problem is that most people also then start trying to train their dog 20m away. The dog couldn’t be more overwhelmed.

The problem is that most of us don’t think how these panoramic views can contribute to our dog’s problem. Of course, if they see something 400m away and that thing is going to take 2 minutes to get to you – or more! – then the dog is going to be reacting. It’s inevitable. Whether they’re overexcited and wanting to chase or whether they’re fearful and now they’re starting reacting aggressively or panicking, the time things take to move across a panorama or move towards you causes real problems.

If you’re trying to distract your dog, that leaves you with two minutes to try and do so.

If you’re trying to do counterconditioning, then you’re going to have to feed-feed-feed your dog for two minutes.

If you’ve got a panorama behind you as well, make that four minutes for distraction, counterconditioning or training.

If you’ve been in that situation, you know that those minutes sometimes seem like hours.

Vistas make life much easier. You remember I said my one-eyed malinois could see things 400m away? She’d react to cars that far away 100% of the time. Yet stick a vista in there and we could work at 50m. In fact, most of the time, we could work at 5m.

Once, when walking along this road, a deer hopped from one side to the other. Because it was a vista, she came and went within seconds. I’ve been in so many situations like this where the trigger has been in view for a couple of seconds, maximum.

Another time, a family of wild boar ran across this lovely scene. It took them almost ten minutes to get from the small coppice on the left across the fields and into a small coppice about 2km to the right of the photo. Ten minutes of trying to distract four giddy dogs who were watching wild boar over 300m away run in a broad arc across this divine panorama.

Which scenario do you think was easiest to cope with?

If your dog wants to chase, then every moment the trigger is approaching is adding to their anticipation. If your dog is fearful, every moment the trigger is approaching is adding to their fear.

That’s as true with the trigger departing too. Every moment adds to an excited dog’s frustration. Every moment adds to a fearful dog’s concern.

If you have a dog who has been specifically bred to control the movement of livestock, then you’ve got all that time to try and cope with their frustration of not being able to do the thing they were created to do: control the moving things.

If you’ve got a dog bred to protect lifestock, then you’ve got all that time to try and cope with their frustration of not being able to do the thing they were created to do: keep stuff away from the group.

Well done, guardians of mainland European shepherds. You’ve got a heady mix of both! And you wondered why your dog was reactive!

Maybe you’re looking at my countryside photos and thinking how ace it must be to be able to access such vistas and panoramas… it is as long as your dog isn’t mad about wildlife and livestock and distant cars which are all really much more salient because everything else is pretty still.

Towns also provide their fair share of vistas.

On Thursday morning, I walked my dogs at 5.30am. Mainly, this is because Heston’s bladder won’t go much longer and he’s awake at 4am. I draw the line at walking excited dogs at 4am unless it’s summer. At 5.30am, we had 5 dogs to cope with, 3 cats, 2 random people walking to the bus stop, 2 buses, several cars, 3 paperboys on bikes, 2 men leaving the shops and a guy who seemed determined to follow us around the whole estate. 18 things, at least, that Lidy hates. At one point, we had a big dog coming up behind us, a barking spaniel in front of us and a cat in the garden next to us.

How did we cope?

By narrowing the vista.

We tucked ourselves up between two large conifers, I stood facing the trigger, so the dogs were facing me. We ate our biscuits while a dog went past less than 5m away. Did Lidy react? No. To be honest, not sure if she saw the dog, but I know Heston did.

That was a particularly bothersome walk. I had to pop into one ginnel*, stop between two parked cars, nip up a side street, go up one person’s path, tuck ourselves in against a fence and a car. All I was doing was creating a very narrow visual vista in which the troublesome trigger was in view for seconds, not minutes.

Did my dogs see the triggers? Of course. I’m all about sneaky in-situ real-life training. We had biscuits and the vista meant that the situation was neatly and perfectly controlled. Although Lidy will react to things hundreds of metres away, using life’s visual screens meant that I wasn’t trying to train her for five minutes.

We can’t expect our fearful or excited dogs to control themselves for five minutes.

But a few seconds?

That’s manageable.

And if I want to make it tougher, because we’ve made progress? We get closer to the opening of the aperture. We can also choose places where the trigger moves more slowly across the gap.

Maybe you live in one of life’s places full of panoramas and no vistas, Idaho or Norfolk, for example.

You can use flats to help make vistas. I’ve used two parked cars before now. I’ve also used portable windbreaks, like you get for the beach, and I’ve even used umbrellas. Life tends to provide us with these portable flats that turn panoramas into vistas: parked cars, fences, bushes, crops. I’ve even used baled hay before now to tuck ourselves in against.

It doesn’t have to be person height, just dog height.

You may be asking how you can use very small things like a hay bale to break up a dog’s visual fixation on an incoming target.

Move around it!

This was a very unfortunate moment… This lovely (albeit tiny in this photo) couple had turned onto this path I was walking two of my dogs up. The path is about 800m so I could see them even though my dogs hadn’t clocked their rather giddy malinois. I could see them hesitate as well so I knew they were about to bring their bonkers dog straight down a path towards my bonkers dogs and that all of the bonkers dogs would clock each other about 400m and then there’d be two people trying to hold on to three bonkers on a path that’s less than 3m wide.

What did we do? We moved behind a hay bale. All the dogs saw each other for a few seconds as the couple passed, and I completed my very slow 180° trip around the haybale. We started with it between us and the dog, moved round as the dog drew level and then moved round the third side as the dog went past. No fear. No frustration. No pulling, growling, barking, lunging…

This morning as a guy in black walked past us? Same thing. This time with a conifer.

The aim of using the world to create more narrow vistas is not to distract your dog. Our dogs aren’t learning anything if they can’t see the trigger. We have no idea if they can cope better than they were. The aim is that the dog is exposed to the trigger for a very brief moment in time, that food arrives or training happens, and then it is over.

This narrow time and view doesn’t just make it more easy for the dog to cope, it also makes training more salient too. It’s hard for guardians to pair up triggers with food if the triggers are in sight for 5 minutes. I mean you literally have to be feeding the dog for 5 whole minutes. It’s much more salient for the dog if it’s a simple 2 second blast. What I mean by this is that it’s more obvious to the dog: ‘Ohhhhhhh…. THAT happened and then you gave me sausages??! Right!’

One other thing really makes the difference…. keeping the dog moving. I simply have no idea why people ask their dogs to sit if they want to chase or flee. It’s aversive in both cases. You’re asking your dog to perform a behaviour that is not only impossible but also making them feel unpleasant. If I see Keanu Reeves with a bundle of beagles, ask me to sit and wait and see what happens. You expect me – a rational human being with an amazing neocortex designed to help me control my impulses – to sit and wait? Really? And then you think a dog – more emotional and responsive with a tiny bit of brain dedicated to impulse control – if they can do the same when they want to chase wildlife or livestock or machines? Insanity that way lies. It’s aversive and it’s too big a thing to ask.

Likewise, if I see zombies walking towards me… you want me to sit and wait? Ok then.

Let’s stop asking our dogs for static behaviours when they NEED to move. Not only that, it becomes a massive cue that bad stuff will happen. My dogs sit and wait when cars go past because neither of them is bothered about cars. Cars predict biscuits. But if I only ask for a sit – or I mainly ask for a sit – when something exciting or fear-inducing is going to happen? Well, you’ve got a nice cue there for your dog to become excited or fearful.

Not only that, if you ask after the dog is fearful or excited, you’re much less likely to get a sit.

You’re training the impossible. Keep the dog moving.

Counterconditioning should not take weeks and weeks. If you don’t have a snappy head turn as soon as the trigger appears within five or six trials or so, your dog doesn’t know what you are doing. Get your set-up right and your dog will get it in those five or six trials. Pavlov wasn’t still trying to pair up metronomes and salivation 6 months in to his trial. The thing that annoyed him was that dogs made those associations quickly. If it’s not happening quickly, then that’s because the pairing isn’t clear to the dog.

How can we make the pairing clear to the dog? By being snappier and cleaner in our pairing. How can we do that? By narrowing the time the trigger is in view and limiting the other things in view. That also takes the emotional sting out of things and makes it easier for dogs to cope.

It also means we can train nearer the trigger. I don’t like training Lidy 3m away from young guys walking past us. It’s far too close and the risk of her reacting is huge. But life is like that. People are going to get 3m away and I’m going to need her to be able to cope. If she’s got to have people 3m away, I’d rather it’s for 5 seconds than 5 minutes.

The good thing about practising this method is that it works. Practice builds the habit that sometimes, you’re going to step into doorways or between cars or haybales. Sometimes, you may stand near a tree or a street bin. Once, Lidy and I ducked into a small pathway and she ate paté as dogs and people went past in both directions. That was at the shelter with all that this entailed. She coped. I coped. No reacting, no lunging, no barking. All that made the difference was me not expecting her to cope with scary stuff approaching her for five whole minutes while she tried to work out a strategy about how to cope with it. If I can countercondition dogs in a shelter environment, you can do it wherever you are. I’m a barely average trainer. I’m lazy. I’m sloppy. But you can make it easier by blocking off visual access to stimuli until the time they’ll be in sight for is seconds, not minutes.

The other thing is that high school maths is in your favour. The further away from the vista you are – that narrow aperture where things are in sight for a milisecond – the less you’ll see. The closer to the vista you are, the longer things will be in sight for. It’s really easy to adjust the exposure. That makes it much easier to keep the dog under threshold yet also create a programme of gradual exposure. I get around being sloppy and lazy by picking the right spot for my training and using vistas and flats to help me create it.

I’d also say you need to add one other tool to your kit beyond your ability to look for life’s vistas and use flats to help create them: get savvy about evacuation points.

Evacuation points are just places you can get off the main drag if things are approaching you while you’re walking or training. Nothing is harder for dogs than having to face things that are coming up on them – whether that’s in front or behind. If you’re on a road with high walls on each side and you’re busy watching cars go past 10m away, but then a car is coming up behind you and is going to be less than a metre away, you need an evacuation point. These temporary escape hatches where you can slot yourself will really help. Shop doorways, alleyways, driveways, sidestreets, spaces between parked cars… all can be temporary escape hatches.

Instead of trying to work with your dog where they can see everything for miles and miles, where cars are in view for minutes before they pass you or where joggers are visible from 500m away, narrow your vision and let the environment take the sting out of the things that bother your dog. Whether you are managing your dogs, whether you are just doing some on-the-spot in-situ training as you go, or whether you are setting up a full training programme, you’ll find it a lot easier when you work with the environment rather than against it.

PS. If you’re a dog trainer, I’ve got a book out. You should buy it. It’s really good. Even my dad says so.

* a ginnel is a beautiful invention from the north of England, a passage or alleyway between two buildings. 

Help! My Dog is Obsessed with their Ball!

* Ball, not balls. That’s different. See a vet.

When I watch videos of free-ranging dogs, you don’t tend to see them all glazed-eyed, barking at passers-by to throw them a ball. They’re not the dogs you see on those cutesy videos of dogs dropping balls at the foot of statues, hoping for a game.

What does this tell us?

Compulsive behaviour with balls is most likely both a product of pre-programmed hardware and also a product of software we’ve installed ourselves. Simply put: genes and learning.

How can genes be at work, you may well ask.

Well, have you ever seen a streetie fixated on a ball?

Why on earth would humans put compulsive tendencies into dogs when they were breeding them?

More likely, the dogs were bred for other behaviours, and compulsive behaviour kind of hitched a ride with the other predatory behaviours and appetitive behaviours that we used to create a handful of western breeds. Compulsion is a full-blown version of things we might call ‘motivation’, ‘desire’, ‘trainability’ and ‘focus’ or ‘tenacity’ and ‘endurance’. In other words, it benefited humans to have dogs who’d work hard.

From my own experience, this seems to be very much focused on an even smaller handful of breeds within the 400 or so recognised breeds. You know, the kind you find in airports as sniffer dogs or ones we pride as having constructs like ‘high drive’. There are probably only twenty breeds or so who really fit into this list, and then an even smaller handful who regularly produce such ‘driven’ dogs that ordinary guardians find themselves with a nightmare on their hands.

So, not scenthounds, on the whole. Mostly because life doesn’t give them an opportunity to play with stuff as a puppy, but many new guardians of our adopted Anglos, beagles, Ariègeois, Poitevin and Gascon Saintongeais are more likely to complain of another fault: not being interested in toys much at all.

And not pointers and setters. I mean, you want them to point at birds or set. You don’t need them much to retrieve them.

Good luck getting setters to do much work other than run and be incredibly lovely anyway. They’re often dogs that guardians tell me aren’t motivated by food or toys. I’d like to see setters at work in airports, galloping down the baggage carousels, ignoring the desperate pleas of their handlers.

And not terriers, either. Let’s face it: to terriers, everything is a toy. Shoes, remote controls, pens, packages, carpets, small furries… or sometimes their own tail if they’ve been deprived at an early age. Bull terriers? They’re a bit special, and English bull terriers can certainly develop compulsive behaviours, but it doesn’t usually involve balls or other portable toys.

And not mastiffs or livestock guardian breeds. Because… important resting to be done.

That leaves us with some gundogs such as spaniels and retrievers (though not the pointers and setters on the whole) and lots of herding dogs, including ones from the British diaspora (including collies and Aussies) and from mainland Europe (including Malinois, Beauceron and German shepherds).

You know, the kind of dogs that you do find in airports doing actual work, hunting for missing individuals, tracking down drugs or the kind of dogs you find herding sheep for eight hours a day.

Borderline compulsive behaviour around toys can be useful for the working dog. Or, more to the point, useful to the guardians or handlers of working dogs. Not so useful for the average guardian.

Fairly occasionally, I find compulsive behaviours pop up in these breeds even if they weren’t bred to work. Sure, your cocker spaniel may look like a perfect show champion, but there’s no reason mum and dad show champs can’t throw out a working-dog-under-the-hood every now and again. That’s how genes work.

Just as, likewise, every line of working dogs can throw out a completely ‘lazy’ mattress-backed dog who has zero desire to get out of bed of a morning, let alone go sniff suitcases in return for a ball.

So that’s genes.

They account for why I’ve had two toy-obsessed malinois.

I mean, around 7pm, she even starts the glacial shift of toys from the toy box to the bedroom. There are literally more toys than space for a very small dog. It’s like living with a Disney-obsessed five-year-old with very generous relatives.

When Tobby arrived, he only put his toy down to pee or eat. When he died, he’d dropped his favourite toy somewhere in the garden and when I found it three weeks later, I wept for hours.

But there’s also dogs like my lovely girl Flika who never had a toy in her mouth and didn’t seem to care. Mouths were for cake and sandwiches, not toys. Probably more a case of never having been taught as much as lacking normal malinois genes. That said, the number of shelter-related behavioural problems with shepherds that can be fixed with toys is higher than you probably imagine. Spinning in circles, destructive chewing, biting the lead, nipping volunteers getting them out of kennels, self-mutilation… much of this can be stopped in our shelter simply by giving the dog a toy to carry.

We also have to understand that compulsions can be different. Malinois and German shepherds, for instance, seem to just like holding the item. Lidy sits next to me for about an hour sometimes, just holding her stuff. She’ll look at me and her head nods as if to say she’s on duty and ready for work. ‘Alright there? I’m just holding this plushie for you…’

For retrievers and flushing/retrieving dogs like spaniels, however, that can be very different. For them, the chase is the thing, not the grab-bite or hold. I’ve found that herding breeds from the UK diaspora (mainly collies) can also be addicted to the chase and collection. This pseudo-predation which mimics some aspects of how canids hunt in the wild, has been steadily strengthened through breeding in order to make the dog good at their job. It doesn’t take much to awaken that inner need. Toys for many dogs function as self-reinforcing, leading to a neurological cascade that dogs find very rewarding.

I’d just like to make an aside to point out that dopamine isn’t a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter as some people might try to have you believe. It’s simply one that tells the body what to find rewarding or not. Being rewarding and being pleasurable don’t have to be the same thing. I pick at my nails and compulsively bite the inner bit of my cheeks because something in my body thinks it’s rewarding. Neither of them are pleasurable experiences. Dopamine drives all kinds of behaviour from learning and memory to addiction, so it’s a bit facile to dismiss it as ‘feel good’.

It may very well feel good, but we can’t ask the dogs and they can’t tell us. If it’s a compulsion, I’m pretty sure there are lots of moments that don’t feel good at all. I also notice that a lot of dogs lapse into compulsions when they are stressed, as a kind of coping mechanism. We might even call this self-soothing behaviour, but again, that’s not to imply it’s pleasurable; I shout at politicians on Twitter when I’m anxious or not coping. It doesn’t make me feel any better. Lidy paces round in circles. It might fill a vacuum but I don’t think it feels good for her.

While I’m taking down myths, can we also stop talking about parading as why dogs like holding things?! No idea where this came from, but dogs don’t parade in my opinion. I’ll explain why. Firstly, complete dearth of information. I’ve seen one bit of ‘science’ that proponents suggest makes parading a thing for dog. It was a blog post about an observation of two village dogs in North Africa. Not science. Worse, it was a report from three years of research with only two incidences. Second, parading has no part in the general predatory motor sequence. Hawks don’t parade. Bears don’t parade. Wolf ethologists aren’t arguing to put ‘PARADE’ in the predatory behaviours of wolves. Literally no other animals do this, so let’s stop suggesting it’s a thing? Also, while I’m at it, it’d come after the GRAB-BITE when the dog has entered consummatory behaviours. If dogs don’t know how to dissect or consume a dead pigeon, that’s on domestication processes that have stopped them knowing what to do with it. That’s completely different than it being a motor sequence. Motor sequences should generally be true across most animals in the species. Parading isn’t. If it were, streeties and village dogs would also do it with the same frequency as your typical labrador. They don’t. My old boy Ralf once picked up a dead boar piglet and carried it about. He didn’t do that because he was showing it off or parading. He did it because he was a bit labrador, a bit shepherd and 100% dog, and his DNA said ‘pick up the bloody thing’ then didn’t tell him what to do with it afterwards no doubt because of domestication. Somehow, I reckon we’ll find out eventually that selective breeding led to the enhancement of appetitive behaviours designed to make us want to do things, and the truncation of consummatory behaviours, which is why most dogs are scavengers other than dingoes and singing dogs. It might also explain why some of our most ancient ‘breeds’ like Nordics and some Asiatic breeds can be found in the neighbours’ chicken pen. Most streeties and village dogs live by scavenging. If they don’t ‘parade’, at least regularly and reliably across the majority of dogs, then it’s not a motor sequence thing. Domestication processes seem to have involved dogs ‘forgetting’ at an ethological and neurological level what to do with prey or not needing to consume it. Parading is an explanatory fiction at best. It’s not an explanation about why dogs like balls.

Now those myths are out of the way… how do you know it’s a compulsion if your dog seems fixated or obsessed with a toy such as a ball?

Firstly, there will be physiological signs such as panting, dilated pupils and a wide grimace.

There may also be behavioural signs like jumping up at you to get the toy, grabbing or biting. The dog might bark at you if you refuse to relinquish the toy quickly enough. They may refuse to relax without the item. They might search for the item to try and access it themselves, or they might do something to try to make you get it for them, like whining or barking.

There can also be emotional signs, like frustration or loss of inhibitions. If your dog doesn’t normally jump or grab, but they do when you have their favourite toy, then that can be a sign that their normal inhibitions have no say in how the dog is behaving. They might appear sad or depressed without the item.

We can also see compulsions with what the dog does with the toy. Perhaps they’re constantly retrieving it and dropping it at our feet for it to be thrown again. Welcome to the world of retrievers, people! They’re getting internal rewards for doing what they’re supposed to do, just the same as I do for every word that forms on a blank page. Perhaps they refuse to relinquish the toy if they suspect you won’t return it. Perhaps they guard it or run away with it.

Much of this brings us to what the dog has learned YOU do with the toy. Do you always throw it again? Even if you resist for ages? Of course they’re going to bring it to you if that’s what they want.

Why is this problematic, you may well ask.

The first is that compulsions do not feel nice. They exist to fill a behavioural vaccuum when we’re anxious, but the adrenaline they produce heightens the anxiety they experience. Chasing is not comforting. If dogs are compulsive carriers, then why do they feel the need to get all their comfort from this source? Why do our shepherds have behavioural problems that are assuaged by toys? Because they’re stressed and anxious.

Second, compulsions can fuel behaviour that ends up being physically dangerous. Not just dogs following balls off cliffs or into dangerous rivers or tidal currents, but dogs who end up with repetitive strain injuries, with damaged cruciates, with joint strain. Pretty much every specialist vet who deals with arthritis or mobility issues will have posts on their social media about the dangers of ball throwers. The surface of some toys can damage the enamel of teeth. A dog who grabs a ball mid-flight can end up biting it and the toy getting stuck in their mouth… the horror stories are enough to make you wish you’d never introduced your dog to toys in the first place.

So what can we do?

The first two things are prophylactic. Don’t snigger.

More careful breeding of working dogs and show lines of working breeds is needed. We don’t need compulsions in dogs and the fact that these compulsions rarely happen in dogs who are responsible for their own reproductive choices tells us that it’s a behaviour we’ve built. It’s not ‘normal’. Of course, people may need dogs who work. No showline cocker spaniel needs to be bred to be that into toys that they are frantic and out of control. No golden retriever should be toy-obsessed when the heritability of musculoskeletal problems in Goldens is enough to make a geneticist weep. Breeding for beauty shows rather than behaviour is causing our dogs a lot of problems, if you ask me.

Second, if you have a breed that’s susceptible to chasing or carrying compulsions, make sure you work carefully with a good dog trainer from their earliest days in the home through their teenage times.

It goes without saying that they need a really good ‘drop’ – I suggest Chirag Patel’s method. Trade just is not enough, I’m afraid, and all you’re doing is getting yourself into a habit where they’ll only surrender an item if you have something of the same value to offer. That’s like a drug addict telling you that you can take their line of coke if you’ll give them another line of coke. That’s a recipe for disaster. I want a dog that will drop something they’ve decided is valuable with lightning automaticity and will also leave the thing they’ve dropped without drama.

Here’s Lidy practising.

She dropped a dead pigeon wing last week in return for a cheap biscuit, so keep working on your drop.

Keep their range of toys wide, make sure you build really, really strong cues for both the beginning and end of behaviours.

I also recommend you make sure you practise the following five activities:

#1

Go back in the predatory motor sequence.

Dogs who have compulsions often get ‘stuck’ at one particular point – often the point their breed was selected for. That’s to say spaniels may find the CHASE-GRAB/BITE aspect of the motor sequence more fun than the ORIENT – EYE – STALK bit. Collies might get stuck on the EYE-STALK-CHASE bit.

Going back in the predatory motor sequence means focusing on earlier points of the sequence and building those up too. So for dogs who enjoy compulsive games of fetch, doing things like scent work can be really useful. It’s building up their other muscles. In fact, this is how working dogs work in artificial situations which use their talents. Sniffer dogs spend all their time sniffing… in return for…. a game of fetch or tug.

If you’re a dog trainer, whether you see this as Premacking (low-value behaviours being followed by opportunities for high-value behaviours) or whether you see this as respondent associations (chasing is great, and if sniffing/locating always precedes chasing, then sniffing/locating will also become great too by association) it doesn’t really matter to me.

Enrichment using earlier stages in the PMS can help your dog become a little more of an all-rounder.

#2

Go forward in the PMS.

If you’ve got a dog who is fixated on the appetitive bits of the predatory motor sequence – the acquisition bit – then add in some of the consummatory bits too. That’s to say put in some food toys. Dopamine dips when we acquire food sources. Eating in itself works on different mechanisms. Not only would I putting in some KILL/BITE stuff like games of Tug, but I’d also be putting in DISSECT activities and also chewing, gnawing and even just a little productive licking. Digestion is our sedative friend. Be wary of frustration with this but snuffle mats, pickpockets and even having to destroy items to get to the toy can really help activate a whole load of other predatory muscles.

When I look at my lovely Heston (50% shepherd, 25% labrador, 25% cocker spaniel) he’s a living, breathing genetic pool of CHASE – GRAB/BITE and we work every day to keep his pool of enrichment activities building up his other skills otherwise he tends to fixate on one single toy.

#3

Make the toy conditional on completion of another task.

When Heston gets a bit obsessed with his Kong Rugby squeaker balls, I bang in other toys first. A short game of tug (KILL/BITE) predicts a game with his rugby ball. A tennis ball precedes the rugby ball. A soft plushie precedes the rugby ball. A flirt pole precedes the rugby ball.

You’re using Pavlov as your friend here, using the other object to predict the appearance of the second toy. You can build up a much wider arsenal of favoured toys and broaden out the dog’s repertoire simply by using this pattern.

When you’ve got it, you can then make the play with the less favoured toy last longer than the play with the favoured one. Again, this is what working dog handlers do: the activities gradually grow as access to the reinforcer grows less and less. You can’t have a springer who sniffs one suitcase and wants you to throw the ball…. you want them to search the room full and then get the ball for a short moment. Because of Pavlovian mechanisms, the search in itself becomes as fun as the ball.

If you’re technically minded, you’re using respondent second order conditioning and successive approximations. If that means stuff to you, go for it. If it doesn’t, find yourself a trainer who can explain it and show you how to do this with your dog.

#4

Work on both their impulse control and their ability to tolerate frustration. Buy a copy of Jane Ardern’s book Mission Control. All dogs can learn to handle themselves but you need to understand the negative emotions that are usually the fallout of compulsive behaviours. You can also work with a behaviour consultant who knows how to help you understand whether your dog has impulse control issues through the use of diagnostic tools such as the Dog Impulsivity Assessment Scale.

#5

If it’s a true compulsion, there can often be underlying anxiety or lifestyle changes your dog needs to help them cope in a world that they’re ill-prepared for. See a behaviour consultant and also a vet. There are drugs that can help with impulse control issues, working on the dopamine pathways, and there are also drugs that can work on balancing the dog out emotionally.

You may feel that you want to try nutraceuticals first, and part of me says ‘OK then’. The other part says that if your dog is as fixated on fetch as an addicted person is with cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, then it is a stonking, huge, welfare issue for your dog.

There’s lots of evidence to show that addictions are in some part Pavlovian for both animals and humans. That’s to say they are very context specific and being in the place where we have habitually got our fix, so to speak, can cause us to feel the need for that fix. If you were always a social smoker or you smoked with a specific group of friends, then you may need to avoid that environment or those contextual factors as you learn new habits. Going back in pubs can sometimes be the trigger for a relapse.

Likewise alcohol and drugs.

Learners may need a fix simply by being in the environment where they learned the habit in the first place.

To train dogs not to be compulsively addicted to fetch, then, may need you to consider all the places your dog played fetch and to take that place or those circumstances out of your repertoire for a while, if not for good.

For instance, if fetch has always been a park thing, you may need to go to different parks in order to do #1-#4 on this list. That’s tough if you’ve got a dog who has learned that your garden is the place for the game…. I’m not kidding but I once worked with a labrador guardian whose dog was compulsively dropping balls to be thrown. The dog was in agony too. The family contacted me about 3 months before they were due to move because the behaviour had got worse. All the packing and the change in routine was contributing to the dog’s anxiety. A change of house and the dog stopped his fixation on the ball.

This might sound crazy or miraculous, but the new house hadn’t been the scene of his compulsion before, and his anxiety dropped after the move. This happens more than you might think.

Of course, house moves and avoiding the context of past addictions aren’t a solution to everyone. A medication schedule alongside a decontextualised modification programme working on new skills in new places that are then deliberately generalised and then finally reintroduced into the original scene of the crime is the way forward here.

If you’ve been an inveterate gambler for years, you don’t go back into the bookies unless you’ve absolutely nailed the earlier bits of your training programme and you’ve got a support mechanism in place to help you should you need to go to Las Vegas for the weekend.

This is also true for lab animals who’ve been forced into addiction by scientists. They too will be distressed and frustrated in the location where the drug was delivered.

The more intense the behaviour is and the longer the dog has exhibited it, the more likely you’ll need to add medications and also change location for your training for at least 3-6 months or so.

A little compulsion can be a good thing in training or in working with dogs. It’s not out of control to see Lidy collecting her plushies before bed. If Tobby wanted to carry around his pink wanger all day and it wasn’t bothering him or me, then fine. That said, there are so many dogs whose guardians are engaging in far too much physical activity to try and stem their dog’s compulsions, forbidding access to toys completely or even causing their dog a great deal of physical pain because they don’t know what else to do other than give in.

Dog trainers: if you’re interested in more than just training tips for working successfully with clients, or you’re struggling to communicate the damage that guardians are doing by indulging or even encouraging compulsions, hop on over to Amazon and snag yourself a copy of my book!

Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from your Clients is available now.

How To Get An Anxious Dog To Walk

Many people struggle with their dog walks. Having moved recently into a dog-rich environment, I can see just how many that is! Dogs that won’t move and their guardians carry them everywhere… Dogs that lie down and guardians end up standing in place or trying desperately to chivvy their dogs along… Dogs mooching along in haltis… I’ve even got my girl Lidy who seems so excited to be out on a walk that she’ll sometimes pull and lunge, or she finds it difficult to focus on me. My girl turns into a frantic, bug-eyed, panting thing who seems to have ADHD at times. And as for focus at those points – forget it! It’s like we’ve no learning history at all.

For Lidy, it’s easy to mistake her lack of focus and self-control as excitement. It is – but it’s also underpinned by an anxiety that rears up as breed-specific problem behaviours. She gets very grabby, very reactive, very nippy. Sometimes I think our walks are a bit like Laser Quest for her. Last week, I wrote about how her theme tune for walks is ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ from Funny Girl. Yesterday, everything that could rain on our parade absolutely did.

Including my favourite moment… her having just done her business, me needing to pick it up, and a loose dog in a yard where the fence was but a loose nod to fences.

My favourite type of decision-making:

Do I try to scoop the poop with her likely to lunge at any minute (tip: stand on your lead as an additional measure!)

Do I try to scoop the poop and then wait for the dog to go back inside?

Do I try to scoop the poop and just about-turn?

Do I try to scoop the poop and then try to navigate past the yard with poo bags and leads and treat bags and a dog who’s likely to lose all sense of self-control?

Do I forget both and walk back alone later to pick up the offending mess?

My walks every day are filled with such mundane decision-making.

Honestly, though, if I don’t think on my feet, what may seem like a game of ‘spot the cat’ (seven yesterday, including two that shot out from under cars which was MUCHO exciting for Lidy, and one that just sat in the road to such a degree that I had to alter our route yet again) and a ‘fun’ game of Laser Quest can accidentally turn into something much more serious. Like walking Hannibal Lector when he’s just picked up a handy set of throwing knives.

I joke, of course. Well, I kind of joke.

Her arousal quickly tips over into predation or aggression.

That’s how HER anxiety and stress manifests.

But a number of clients have had dogs who just flat out refuse to move. Or they get outside like my neighbour’s Frenchie, lie down on their belly and just refuse to move.

Judging from all the inappropriate videos on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube, this is a more frequent occurrence than you’d think.

The first step is always a vet check. Of course it is. This is especially true if your dog’s behaviour has changed recently or if it has got progressively worse.

I will say this though. Only once have I had a dog to work with whose refusal to move was based purely on medical issues.

The last video I have of Flika, she’s hobbling at a snail’s pace. She would rather have died than not gone for her walk. We made it about 200m before I decided it was consummate cruelty to go any further. Tilly stopped walking about eight weeks before she died. She’d already lost two kilos from her tiny frame and it was obvious she was nearing the end of her life. Despite having a collapsed trachea and fibrosis in his lungs meaning he was constantly oxygen deprived, Amigo made it all the way around our 3km walk at his own pace, right up to the day he died, where he got in the car but he only made it 100m or so. The day before Ralf died, I realised for the first time that he was lagging by 500m or so.

For all my dogs except one or two, lack of stamina for our usual walks is a real sign that they were entering into the final weeks, days or hours of their life, and up until that moment, I’d have suspected everything was fine.

Heston can barely stand up some days. Every day, I have to help him get up, but to see his excitement at 5.30 as we near walk time is to know that dogs can be in incredible amounts of pain and it won’t put them off their walk.

A vet check is an absolute must.

I’d say though that low level refusal to walk if the vet can’t find anything significant is probably compounded by other things or caused by other things.

The first of those things is anxiety. As I said, for Lidy, it goes quickly from ‘fun’ attempts to catch cats that decide to bolt at the last minute to a dangerous loss of any inhibition.

Other dogs are so anxious that they’re impossible to get into their walking gear. Lidy is her very best dog when the harness comes out. Heston whines. Neither of them is moving away from me when it comes time to get the gear on.

If your dog is reluctant to approach you before a walk, that may tell you something about the walk or it may tell you something about the equipment.

The easiest way to test this is to walk the dog without equipment. That might mean hiring a secure field. If your dog doesn’t enjoy walks but enjoys being in a secure field or walks off-lead as long as their recall is perfect, then that’s useful information.

Even ‘non-aversive’ Y-shaped fleece harnesses can be aversive for a dog. I remember when I tried one on Amigo… He just froze and wouldn’t walk. Weeks and weeks of habituation for my boy made no difference. Whoever his guardian was before me had taught him with a collar, and that’s how he felt comfortable walking. Even at the end, where I hated having a collar on him because of his fibrosis, he would only walk in a collar or off-lead. Unfortunately his deafness and cognitive decline meant that he was on lead most of the time. Luckily, he never pulled or I’d have had to reassess.

If my clients’ dogs are happy walking off lead, then it’s likely that the equipment is unpleasant, wasn’t introduced slowly enough to the dog or that the methods the guardian used to walk the dog were aversive.

Remember that many individuals shut down completely when punishers are used. Remember also that we don’t get to judge the aversive nature of the punisher: the learner does. So if the dog isn’t walking on lead and is fine without it, then that tells me a lot. Perhaps the dog doesn’t trust the guardian. Perhaps the equipment is uncomfortable. Perhaps the dog prefers to make their own choices, notably about their own safety. Even stopping and standing still, if it’s aversive to the dog, may cause a reduction in all movement. That’s one of the potential complications of punishment.

I also find anxious dogs can really struggle. If walks are Laser Quest for Lidy, some dogs walk as if they’re going through a war zone.

The first sign I see of this is hypervigilance. The dogs are looking around constantly, on edge. One of the major signs I see of an anxious dog is holding on to their business. That doesn’t just mean a tucked tail, keeping all their scent in, but also failure to urinate or defecate.

Some dogs will mark – or pseudomark at least. My last three have all been markers. Flika’s vet notes included one from her last guardian suspecting that she had a urinary infection because she was doing lots of little wees and no big ones. Nope. She was just squeezing out a few drops here and there to add to smells already there. Then Heston would follow suit. Lidy does the same. Both she and Flika are lady leg cockers. Lidy handstands from time to time against trees. She’s particularly fond of the fox-style poop-on-a-stone type of marking.

When we come out of the house, though, the first wees are big old wees. Heston’s a typical old man urinator these days – an absolute stream for about three hours. Lidy leaves a visible puddle.

Dogs who don’t wee at all on walks or who are reluctant to do so are often anxious dogs in my experience. I know a number of dogs like this who hold on and hold on for hours, unlike mine who’ve all peed and pooped willingly and liberally all over everything that smelt like it needed it as well as to void their bladder and bowels.

Your first job then is to investigate your dog’s health, equipment, comfort, learning history and emotional state.

Without that, you’re not likely to find a solution. When we don’t know what the problem is, there’s no point starting on a solution.

A vet visit is your first port of call. And trust your vet. Once or twice I’ve had to send dogs back who failed to show a marked improvement in the way they walked, but the vast majority of the time, if the vet can’t see anything, you really need to unpick the other things that are going on. Like I said, dogs who love walks will often walk through any amount of pain even just to be outside the gate.

After your vet visit and an investigation of how the dog walks without a lead, you’ve got some idea about whether it’s equipment or your own relationship with the dog that’s causing an issue. If you use punishers, it’s not rocket science to work out that it means your dog will be less happy to be near you and they’ll be more reluctant to walk in your space. You may not think the equipment or your methods are aversive. Only your dog’s behaviour will tell you. A good behaviour consultant will be able to help you identify the problem using this rule-out.

For dogs who are struggling to cope, I think we should be considering medication earlier than we do. If dogs are panicking outside the home, if they can’t even go to the toilet, then this is something I think we should consider early on. Even there, there is a difference between a dog like Lidy with a loss of all inhibition at points and a dog who is constantly vigilant. Different medications may need to be considered.

We should also be considering whether walks are necessary.

Though it may add a little to your regular bills, two or three hours a week at a secure dog field may be cheaper than a month’s worth of Prozac. If your dog is happy in your garden and with occasional times in a secure field, then that can at least help you get over the anxiety hump. If your dog needs safety, it’s cruel to deprive them of it. We should also remember that only the dog decides if they’re safe or not. We don’t get to pick a walk that we know is safe and think that our dog will be happy and relaxed in it.

Some dogs may need a walking buddy. Many scenthounds that come from living in a group can be fearful on their own. Some lines of some breeds like the Ariègeois and the Gascon Saintongeais can be really anxious. To some degree, that’s mitigated by being in a big group. However, one of the shelters we work with in Germany make a good point about this. Their dogs all live loose and are not kennelled. They make the point that for fearful dogs, they can use other dogs as a crutch. The presence of other dogs never truly fixes their underlying anxieties. If your dog needs other dogs as a form of Dutch courage, it may be worthwhile discussing medication with a vet, or considering the quality and necessity of your walks.

Many anxious dogs need to build a more secure bond with their guardian or their person walking them. Being on a lead in a novel environment without your social network is a challenge for a social species. I think this follows on from the previous point. If the dog doesn’t trust us to keep them safe, then we may have a lot of rebuilding to do. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the last point that the dog may be given courage because of their social network. Watching Heston being taken away from me into the vet was hard: my normally confident boy was not going anywhere without me. My vet in France never really requires us to be separate from our dogs, but I know UK vets prefer to take animals away from guardians. Still, I watched six years of training go down the toilet as the vets had to carry him away from me. Heaven help us this week with his check up.

Prior use of force and coercion can be a reason why many dogs just stop dead. Even if we don’t think it’s that aversive, the dog clearly did.

We should be our dogs’ secure base. I certainly am for my dogs. That’s not to say they can’t cope without me. It’s just to say that our dogs need to trust us not to push them too hard and also to keep them safe. Anxious dogs need to be able to trust us.

We may also want to consider using safety cues or talismen to help our dogs understand that the world is predictable and safe. I use a lot of pattern games for exactly that. Leslie McDevitt’s opening lines about the pattern games says it all: there may be all hell breaking loose out there, but the dog and I are engaged in building our relationship and doing our thing.

Trick training can ironically really help anxious dogs, I’ve found. Operant training, especially in multiple contexts, can help dogs understand how to operate the world. Unlike classical conditioning and counterconditioning, which are passive processes, operant learning is active learning. The dog is learning how to work the world. It’s much more empowering than Pavlovian processes, I find. When the world gets a bit too much for Lidy, we go back to pattern games. It resets us and reminds us that everything is familiar, even though it is different.

We also need to make sure that the guardians are re-contextualising learning and helping the dog to generalise. If you’re always doing things in the same way in the same place, sometimes a failure to walk on lead or respond to guardian cues can simply be a lack of generalisation. I spend ten minutes on every single walk Lidy and I do where we just practise things we were doing. If I want her to eat at the vets and to behave consciously and operantly in the vet, then I need her to know that the rules still apply wherever we are. The worst thing I think dog trainers do is to help the guardian teach a novel skill in a dog club or in the home. That’s the easy bit. Why leave the tough bit – generalisation – to guardians knowing they’re novices, their dogs are novices and generalisation is hard?

Often when I see dogs whose guardians say won’t respond, it’s either because the guardian hasn’t understood the underlying emotional undercurrent driving the behaviour, or because the guardians haven’t generalised behaviours from the home.

Finally, don’t dwell in the whys. It may be that your dog has the perfect storm of fearful genes, congenital pain and mobility issues, a complete lack of socialisation, aversive equipment and a fearful guardian who has used punishment in the past and flooded the dog accidentally. Knowing this changes nothing. Navel gazing until you’re sick of the sight of your own navel won’t help you move forward. Understand causes, absolutely. Dwell on them? Don’t bother.

If things are that bad, get on board with medication from the beginning and support it with a great behaviour modification plan.

You may have to reprioritise. One client had a dog who wouldn’t walk at all and was carried everywhere. When I asked the guardian whether this was an issue, really it was just her own embarrassment that had led her to want to change things. She liked walking. Her dog liked being out and about. He was a little dog who didn’t need the exercise. Being carried was not ideal, so a stroller was a perfect compromise. If you’re going for such options, however, make sure that the stroller isn’t just another way to flood the dog by trapping them and forcing them to endure stressful situations from which they cannot escape. The next thing you know, your dog will be avoiding going into the stroller or passively flopping about like a ragdoll, knowing all attempts to escape will be stymied.

Unless the dog is anxious in the home (in which case medication needs to be seriously considered!) then what you do in the home may not count. I’m a huge fan of free work and use it often with dogs who are anxious in the home, but unless I can sort out a free work set-up on my walk, it’s not going to be an easily generalisable skill when it comes to building confidence on walks. You may want to work on your dog’s underlying confidence: that’s perfect. However be mindful of the fact that – unless the home is incredibly stressful – walks may be a step too far for most dogs. Given that most dogs I see who are resistant to walking are either very small non-terrier breeds, using food may not be an option and the dog may simply be overwhelmed. Bringing the outside in with ‘Smell Libraries’ can help: pick up stuff from the outside world – be it branches, leaves, grass or fabric – and encourage the dog to engage with smells in a less scary environment.

In short: see a vet, do your rule outs, build the relationship and take time to rebuild the dog’s trust in the world if anxiety is an issue. Consider lifestyle changes and whether there are alternatives that you could use to exercise the dog that don’t involve going out of the home as frequently. If the dog’s issues are overwhelming, psychopharmaceuticals shouldn’t be the last thing we consider. All we’re doing is wasting our effort and prolonging our dog’s discomfort if we don’t consider medication early enough.

Does MY Dog Need A New Name?

Whether we’ve got a rescue dog or not, we might consider changing our dog’s name. In fact, it’s a question many of my clients ask when they’ve just taken on a new rescue dog. Should you change their name or not?

Other people worry that they’ve “poisoned” their dog’s name by using it as a punishment, and now the dog won’t respond to anything they say.

I was watching an old video of my groenendael cross Heston playing with my gone-but-not-forgotten girl Flika the other day. Half way through the video, I note that I was being mugged off camera by a small cocker who was going through my pockets. At one point, the mugging had got too much and I stopped it with a kind of sharp ‘Tilly!’

I’m guessing it worked because I didn’t have to say it again.

Tilly, despite my using her name as a punishing interruptor, designed to stop her in her tracks, still came for her name. That was lucky. Not all dogs will respond when half the time, saying their name precedes something bad and other times, it precedes something good. In fact, I distinctly remember my ex saying that Tilly only responded to him if he said her name in a silly way. I’m absolutely sure she’d mastered the difference between a ‘Tilly!’ meant as an interruptor or punisher, and ‘Tilly!’ signalling something good was going to happen, like walks or dinner times.

Flika was a different case. Although that was her name, and had been since her microchip was implanted in 2004, 14 years later, she knew categorically that ‘Flika!’ meant humans were watching and to get on with robbing sandwiches or cake as fast as she could before someone got to her. She never once responded to her name, other than to speed up.

As you can imagine, that made it lots of fun to try and recall her. She was the mistress of evasion.

Some people worry that their shelter dogs will carry the stigma of their former names. It doesn’t need to have been an abusive experience to be a bad one. Flika had no doubt suffered no true abuse related to her name other than the ‘abuse’ of being stopped from eating birdseed, firecrackers, firelighters, barbecue coals, tissues or sandwiches from people’s bags.

In the shelter, we often change dogs’ names if they are pejorative. Killer became KiKi, Attila became Titi… lots of our macho dogs are given ridiculous status names that have negative associations, or are given silly names. No chihuahua needs the added difficulty of being called Killer. No American Staffordshire needs to fight against bias against their breed as well as being called after some ridiculous thug from years gone by. Names carry stigma and we may very well change a dog’s name to avoid that stigma.

Also, dogs may get a new name if they came from an abusive experience. Our Ullyse, named for his quest and his voyage, is a name to signal his voyage from his years in the wilderness to his return ‘home’.

Many dogs (and cats!) arrive unidentified, so whatever they were called is no longer known and they get a new name. My boy Amigo was like that.

So if you adopt a shelter dog, chances are that their name is either pretty new and meaningless, or possibly attached to some prior trauma. A change of name in those circumstances may well be a good thing.

Other times, their name is just who they are. Lidy’s name is her first name. In fact, I’m pretty sure her name was supposed to be Lydie (plenty of people write it that way, but her former guardian spelt it this way, and so do I … a scrambled, misspelt name says it all.

I did consider renaming her for a fresh start. I considered lots of things from a minor vowel change to Lady rather than Lidy, but she’s definitely no lady, no matter what I call her. I also considered a kind of consonant change to Ripley, since she’s very much one girl against the universe. But she’s not that either.

Plus, dogs’ names migrate, don’t they? Like TS Eliot’s cats, they have many names. Heston is Heckles, Heckley, H, Heston Crow, Mr Crow and Handsome. Tilly had that many names that migrated that by the end of her life, she was Pipsy. Tilly Popper became Popper became Pops became Tilly Pipper became Tilly Pee became Tilly Pips became Pippy became Pipsy. Lidy is Lidy Malou. Sometimes she’s Malou. Sometimes she’s just Lou. Sometimes she’s LouLou Beans. Sometimes she’s Beans. Sometimes she’s Beanie. Sometimes, she’s Little Bear.

That’s how dog’s names go. The name we want other people to know them by, like Killer and Attila. The name we call them ourselves, like Heckley and Meegy. The names they are when we’re being cute, like Beany and Knickers. The names they are only to themselves.

There is another time that names can make a difference, Jane McGonigal argues in her book SuperBetter. She argues that it does us good to come up with our superhero name especially if we’re working on new skills with our dogs.

It’s easy to focus on your dog’s weaknesses and difficulties when you’re working to change your dog’s behaviour. They’re predatory. They’re fearful. They’re aggressive. They’re a handful. They’re dominant (Yes, I’m sticking that old chestnut in!). They pull on lead. They don’t have any recall.

The flip side of this is that it leads naturally into a lot of negative self-talk. We’re unable to control them. We can’t master them. They’re too much of a challenge. We can’t change them. We can’t protect them. We’re failing them. They’d be better in a different home.

When we focus on our strengths, it rephrases the game. McGonigal explores ways we can identify our own signature character strengths to help us overcome challenges in our life. I think this would work perfectly for both us and our dogs.

For instance, I’m not a tired, old middle-aged woman who can’t manage her dogs. Identifying our signature strengths can help us consider our own ‘inner name’. I am wise, I am understanding. I’m empathic. I’m practical.

Lidy is not a hot pink mess of Malinois faults. She is brave. She is curious. She is courageous. She is lightning fast. She is loyal.

Yes, I’m anthropomorphising. If you don’t like it, get over it. Go read a little.

Once you’ve identified your own personal character strengths and those of your canine side-kick, these become your resources for a better future. They are your magical superpowers against the challenges you face. If you’re struggling to get your dog out of the door or you’re struggling to navigate a world of feisty pigeons and half-hidden cats, if your battleground is the vet’s surgery and the vet is your dog’s mortal enemy, identifying your signature character strengths is a great way to think about the resources you have available. As well as this, it stops you fixating on the things you think you’re not so hot at.

McGonigal suggests that after we’ve identified our signature character strengths, we then find ourselves a new name.

As a fan of Game Of Thrones (ok, to the last series… I think you all feel me on that!) I quite like Daeneyrs’ honorifics: “Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons”

Let’s just forget about the ending, shall we?

I’m no longer Emma The Tired, Fifty-seventh of Her Name, The Downtrodden, Permanently Exhausted Slightly Mad-Eyed Midnight Dog Walker, Wearer of Dog Hair.

I’m Emma the Wise, First of her Name. The Champion of Underdogs, Mistress of the Biscuit, Explorer of the Twilight Worlds and Mother of Malinois.

Lidy is no longer Lidy the Maline, First of her Name, Chaser of Cats, Killer Queen, Dynamite with a Laser Beam.

She is Lidy the Mercurial of Tribe Hamingja, First of the Vanguard, Shaper of Destinies. She can keep the Dynamite with a Laser Beam bit.

You obviously do not need thousands of honorifics. I’ll be answering to Emma the Wise from now on, and Lidy will still go by Lou.

McGonigal gives you hundreds of ideas about how you can use your new personas to overcome your daily battles and to remember to focus on your strengths not your weaknesses. For instance, one of those things involves finding yourself your theme song. You might already have a theme tune. If you’re wondering, mine is definitely Shirley Bassey’s I Am What I Am. But that’s not my Superhero song. Lidy’s is definitely Killer Queen. Gunpowder, gelatine, dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind.

Lidy’s Superhero song is definitely Barbra Streisand singing Don’t Rain On My Parade. I think that definitely sums up her determination to champion everything and to defy expectations. Don’t tell her not to fly, she’s simply got to. That got me thinking about my Superhero song. I think, in keeping with Barbra telling people not to rain on her parade, I’ve got to go with Rihanna’s Umbrella. There are days when people do rain on our parade, and my job is to give her an umbrella. When the sun shines, we shine together. Told her I’d be here forever. Said I’d always be her friend. Took an oath, I’ll stick it out to the end. When it’s raining more than ever, know that we still have each other. She can stand under my umbrella. When the world has dealt its cards, if the hand is hard, together we’ll mend her heart. I love the movie Funny Girl and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s a movie in which Streisand makes choices that don’t work out for her. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I call Lidy my Funny Girl either.

I can’t think of a more perfect mix for our Superhero duo.

In SuperBetter, McGonigal makes lots of other suggestions too, such as having a mantra. That can definitely come from your Superhero song. Another suggestion she makes is having a small something that represents your secret superhero identity. Whether that’s a Wonder Woman holder for your poo bags or a diamond studded treat pouch, having a little something small that reminds you of your inner strengths can stop us fixating on what we can’t do. I have a little Owl brooch from Winnie the Pooh clipped on my treat pouch. It reminds me that you might still spell your name WoL but to some people, you’ll always be wise even if you are a pompous know-it-all. On the serious side, it reminds me that we’ve got as far as we have because I’ve never stopped learning to help us on our journey. It also reminds me that sometimes, people may have no idea what I’m talking about when I’m Explaining How Things Work. It’s a reminder not to take myself so seriously and to lighten up. These little totemic items can stop us taking it all so seriously. It slams a door in the face of catastrophising and nips rumination about our faults in the bud. Whenever we’re doubting ourselves, it’s so easy to think of what we can’t do and what is holding us back. Seeing it as a game helps us understand that we need to practise, we need to start with the basics, that we learn to level up and we keep getting better.

McGonigal’s whole approach is a wonderful antidote to the pessimism we can feel if we’re facing challenges with our dogs. It’s a worthwhile purchase for anyone who’s looking to overcome obstacles and level up their game. I’m such a fan of making everything as easy a game as I can, and this fits right into my preferred mode of training. Definitely a book worth a read if you’re struggling to defeat in-built negativity and carve out a sensible plan to achieve your goals.

Names give us so much more than simply a recall. What we call our dogs says so much more about our attitudes, our values and how we see our canine companions. Even if you intend to stick with the names you’ve got, having a Superhero secret identity for you both might just give you a way to remember your inner strengths when the going gets tough.

If you’ve poisoned your dog’s name by using it as a punishment, if your dog has a traumatic past, if your dog’s name has migrated from something sensible into something silly… there’s a number of reasons our dogs might end up being called something different than the name on their papers. Even if your names are nothing more than a silly secret identity to help you triumph over your challenges, there’s so much more to names than just a jumble of letters to help us distinguish between our dogs. McGonigal’s book SuperBetter is available online and in bookstores.

If you’re a trainer or behaviour consultant working with clients who have dogs who need support, I highly recommend it as part of your training kit.

My book Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from your Clients is available on Amazon.

Building Frustration Tolerance in Dogs

One problem I often see in young dogs is an inability to handle any kind of frustration whatsoever. In fact, as I write this, I’m reminded that I saw it often in my old girl Flika, adopted age 14. Memories of her standing on a desk in the office shouting at me that she was absolutely ready to go home, thank you very much, are still fresh in my mind.

Why do we need to teach our dogs to handle frustration?

The first and main reason is that life is frustrating. Dogs are going to have to ride in cars. They’re going to have to wait for their meals unless you leave food down all the time. They’re going to have to sometimes wait for things like going for a walk, getting into a car or getting a treat.

Dogs who can’t tolerate the smallest frustration are the ones we often call pushy or rude, insistent or impatient. In fact, it’s on us: we’ve got to understand that it’s a skill we need to teach young dogs. It’s sometimes caught rather than taught, where the dog kind of accepts frustration. However, because inability to cope with frustration may well be an acquired skill, we also need to make sure we’re setting our dogs up to succeed.

Just this morning for example, I was on my way back to the car with my dogs. Yes, it was the crack of dawn. One reason for that is that I like to photograph the world, and crack of dawn and the pre-twilight golden hour are photographers’ hours. The second reason is that I can’t stand off-lead dogs who can’t cope with being unable to greet every single other dog they see. Lidy doesn’t need that kind of drama, and neither do I. You can imagine my horror then that just as I’m on my last 100m to the car park, I see a car pull up just behind mine with a springer spaniel going absolutely bananas, barking, bouncing off the windows, yelling at all of us.

As I said, Lidy does not need this drama, so we turned on our heels and found some space. We’re up on the moors with roaming sheep, so although I’m mindful that it says dogs should be under control, something about the time of day and the maniac brown and white blur in the back seat tells me that this dog absolutely will not be.

So what’s the problem with this dog in the car? The first is that their dog brain rules. They’re the kind of dog that’s not going to respond to recall, won’t be able to walk on a lead, can’t cope with car journeys, can’t cope with not being allowed to do exactly what they want to do at that very moment.

Now I’m aware in the last post that I said I love giddy dogs. Let me repeat that. I love giddy dogs. Giddy dogs. Not dogs who are red-eyed and frantic. Contagious enthusiasm is one thing. Being unhinged and being unable to cope are entirely different than being excited. Unfortunately, because so many people now have dogs who are completely unsuited to the lives they must lead and who’ve been bred without paying attention to temperament, I don’t think it’s a surprise that I see frustration mainly in dogs who have been purpose-bred. They’re often ‘high energy’ breeds with a bad reputation – ones that have a reputation for needing a lot of exercise… nordic breeds, working terrier breeds, many working gundog breeds and some shepherd breeds such as the Malinois. In other words, all the dogs that it’s recommended first-time owners shouldn’t get are ones who struggle to cope with managing their needs. That is a post in itself, I’m sure. In humans, disorders like oppositional defiance disorder and conduct disorders are believed to have strong genetic components as well as learned components. There’s little reason to suspect it’s not the same with dogs. As always, it’s a complex mix of genetic and developmental influences, so we have to understand frustration is neither a fait accompli nor something we can simply ‘teach’ out of dogs.

Frustration is also a by-product of not getting expected reinforcement. That’s to say it’s a regular by-product of operant extinction protocols and also of putting dogs in time out. But it’s also a by-product of not teaching dogs how to cope with life when there’s a time interval between what they want and when they get it.

Many dog trainers and guardians confuse teaching about frustration with teaching impulse control. I don’t think the two concepts are the same. You’ll see why. As Frans de Waal explains in his excellent Mama’s Last Hug, animals need impulse control. The cat who can’t slow down and stalk won’t catch the bird. The social animal who can’t control his impulses in a social group is likely to find himself attacked or ostracised. Being a predator takes impulse control. Living in social groups takes impulse control. Dogs are social predators, so it makes sense that they’d need to be able to control their behaviour rather than letting it spill out willy-nilly.

Impulse control is largely a failure of the prefrontal cortex. It fails to get the message through to the rest of the brain that NOW is not the time to do the thing. Now is not the time to leap on a bee. Now is not the time to take food. Now is not the time to try to grab the ball.

Impulse control can be one of two things: learning the right time or learning it’s not the time. Learning the right time is easy to see when we think about taking food. Snatching food is not acceptable. Waiting until it’s offered moments later would be. Grabbing the ball when the guardian hasn’t thrown it yet would also be an impulse control thing. If you grab it when the guardian’s still holding on to it, that’s the wrong time. You can grab it, but just not yet. Wait until it’s been launched and the ball is 30m away. Cues like ‘Wait!’ are about waiting for the right moment to do something. Learning to wait when the door is opened rather than dashing out, learning to wait when the car door is opened before jumping in or out, and learning to wait for food to be delivered rather than taking it when it’s still on its way – that’s all impulse control.

Alternatively, impulse control might also be learning that now is not the time at all. Now is never a good time to bite a bee. Now is not a good time to jump off a cliff after a wily goat. Now is not the time to dive off a dock into an empty lake. Things like ‘Leave it!’ are about impulse control, as are behaviours like ‘Wait!’.

Of course, controlling our impulses can lead to frustration, but learning how to control impulses doesn’t teach dogs to control their frustration. Not only that, impulse control is largely a matter of stimulus control: has the cue been given? If so, then collect $200 as you pass Go. If it hasn’t, no $200 and no passing Go. If the cue doesn’t come at all, that’s the same thing. It’s also about controlling how much of a behaviour: how fast, how frequent, how often. Slow or zen treat is a good example: too fast a movement and the treat disappears. Be still, wait for the cue and slow your movement down, and the treat is yours.

Impulse control can be a huge request, especially if the animal really, really wants something. It’s a huge request for puppies, whose prefrontal cortices, small as they are, are not properly online yet. If you can’t control your bladder and bowels properly yet and you’re still having “ooh, ooh!” moments in the middle of wrestling with your siblings, then your body isn’t quite tuned up to control impulses yet. Being a teenager makes impulse control a huge request as well. Medication and hormones can make impulse control a huge request, even if the dog had already learned not to do things they really wanted to do. Not counter surfing, not jumping on people, not biting people… that’s all impulse control.

So, coming to frustration, you can see that it MIGHT cause you frustration not to get these things, but not necessarily. I have to say my girl Lidy has low impulse control at times when she’s under a big cognitive load (like walking on lead rather than rampaging at the same time as trying NOT to chase cats or eyeball cows). She’s rarely frustrated if she doesn’t get what she wants. Heston has lower impulse control around food than he used to have – phenobarbital may do that to a dog – but he’s not frustrated if I leave stuff on the counter. He just accepts it and waits until I’m not paying attention. Yes, I know. My presence is a deterrent … I have thoughts about that! Even so, it’s enough of a deterrent that he’ll wait until I’m not looking before he’d snatch a sandwich.

Neither of them are behaving like that lunatic dog this morning.

By the way, when I drove out of the car park onto a long lane over the moors, I was chased by one of the two bonkers dogs. I had to stop my car because I couldn’t go fast enough to get away from him and he was in danger of getting hit. I got out, put a spare slip lead on him and walked him back to his guardian, some 200m behind us. She was mad at me. She’d have been more mad if her dog had been killed by my car – or any other car. I will say that walking that dog on the lead those 200m was insanely difficult. I know why she just drives him on to the moors and lets him off lead. He had no recall, no coping skills for not being able to do what he wanted, no ability to walk on lead. As soon as I gave him back to her, she let him off the lead again to hand the lead back to me. I said she could keep it if she had ‘forgotten’ hers. What did he do? Ran 200m back down the road and barked and circled and barked and circled my car.

We had to all sit in my car with this insane dog running around and around and around. I waited 20 minutes, feeding my dogs biscuits from time to time for being so patient.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Learning how to cope with frustration does not always happen by accident. Nor does it always sit easily with learning how to control our emotions and behaviour. You can read some of my favourite activities to help dogs learn to control their bodies in this post about teaching parameters.

Teaching frustration needs you to start with errorless learning and immediate reinforcement I’m afraid. That’s your baseline. Every event in a programme to build up frustration tolerance is a winner at the start. Kind of like a very well-stocked lucky dip. You need to start from a place where nothing is frustrating, because otherwise the learning journey is going to be that much more difficult. To be honest, I always start with heavy reinforcement on a continuous schedule for virtually all behaviours when I’m working with dogs who have emotional disorders or who need a bit of help. The first ever time I took Lidy out at the shelter, she was jumping and nipping me for at least 500m. There was a minuscule gap where she stopped, I asked her for a sit and she sat. I gave up almost half my treat pouch to that first sit. Five years later, she growled twice at an insane dog circling our car for 20 minutes. Pay up, pay regularly, don’t be a cheapskate and make every event one where the dog will succeed. Not where they can succeed, depending on conditions. Ones where they will succeed.

#1 Scatter feeding

One of my favourite ways to do this is with scatter feeding. Basically, you take a handful of goodies – and if you’re working with a very frustrated dog, use big, stinky treats. I’m talking lumps of Stilton and shavings of Parmesan, chunks of stinky fish and slices of strong-smelling meat. Scatter heavily and densely that first time. You can find out about scatter feeding here.

How do you level up? Change one variable at a time. Spread the food out more. Make it more difficult to find. Use less stinky and smaller pieces. Use less food.

Why does scatter feeding help frustrated dogs learn how to cope with frustration? Because there are longer and longer intervals between appetitive behaviours (searching) and consummatory behaviours (eating). Scatter feeding builds resilience and helps dogs learn to keep going. It’s not unusual to find frustrated dogs are often anxious as well, and I find it builds skills that help them relax. I don’t know how or why that works, but I always think of scatter feeding like yoga for dogs. I’ve hundreds of Before and After videos, and every single one shows a contented, relaxed, chilled dog at the end. It also helps avoid the frustration of things ending – the odours linger on the ground. You’re also building frustration tolerance stamina in the actual exercise itself as the food gets more and more scarce.

#2 Free work

You can also do the same with a planned free work session. If you haven’t come across free work yet, definitely look for a practitioner who can help you. It’s Sarah Fisher’s baby and many people use it to help look at dogs’ physical condition and posture. I use it completely differently depending on what I’m using it for, but if I’m using it for building frustration tolerance, I’m using it in a very specific way. Free work was designed to help humans observe the animals in their life, but I’m sure Sarah would be happy to see it used to build up the dog’s skills as well as the human’s.

First, you start with an easy set. The food is easily available. There are no challenging frozen Kongs or Nose Its that take two hours to spit out one treat. There’s nothing difficult to access. Surfaces are low and non-challenging. I usually use a range of things like a pile of old clothes, maybe a Pickpocket, a Kong, a silicon snake, a robust licki mat, a stuffed marrow bone. I’ll also put things in that encourage the dog to take their time, like the marrow bone might.

I do find that frustrated dogs can’t even tolerate anything that’s more than a mouthful or takes more than one go to consume. Even that can be hard. I’ve seen dogs give up on Kongs that were packed too tightly or frozen, or stuffed with paté, so everything is easy.

And then we level up, just in the same way as you do with scatter feeding. On a planned and systematic programme, we add in the occasional more frustrating food toy or foraging activity. I put in fewer morsels of food and they have to work for it. I include non-food items like scent libraries (boxes of stuff with different odours on them). I put the treats in the pockets of the old clothes; I wrap snacks up in a mat. Everything gets harder, gradually and progressively. All frustration tolerance training really is is simply successive approximations.

How do you teach a dog who can’t tolerate frustration for 10 minutes? You start with 1 second. Then 2.

#3 Plan the Goldilocks increments

Whatever you’re doing, you need to plan like Goldilocks: it’s got to be ‘just right’. Too easy and the dog isn’t learning to tolerate any more frustration than they already are; too hard and the dog is just going to get frustrated. Joy.

Most humans are really bad at this bit. They take huge leaps. If their dog can’t tolerate ten minutes of not getting what they want, they start with one second. Then they go to a full minute. Now I’m not a mathematician. I can’t even tell you what percentage increase that is. What I can tell you is that you never do less than 5% of your last level and you never do more than 10% to your next. If your hyperattached dog can’t stand to be without you for 5 minutes and they’re howling, then you start with 5 seconds and you work up from there. Even 6 seconds is a 20% increase. So you need to shave your criteria and slice it thinly.

#4 Use Tug games creatively

I’m a big fan of Tug. I know it’s not for every dog but I encourage you to get yourself booked onto a Craig Ogilvie course if you aren’t sure. I love Tug so much because it’s safe, cooperative play. Much play is not collaborative between dogs and humans. The human is a ball launcher – a role that can be filled by a machine – and the dog is oblivious to your relationship. Wrestling and sparring are collaborative but they’re not for every dog and I use them with extreme caution with frustrated dogs. Other than that, you might also find Chase Me or Hide and Seek games can be lots of fun. Flika and I had bags of fun chasing each other. She’d chase me and slam into my legs and then I’d chase her. Collaborative games teach us to cope with frustration because they teach us that we won’t always win. You also have to work together to win. If one individual is pushy or demanding, then the game stops. It also teaches dogs about taking turns and it sets parameters… You have clear signals to engage and disengage.

I’d say that tug isn’t a game to play with a very frustrated, nippy or boisterous dog, but it’s definitely something to consider as you build up your dog’s tolerance to not getting the toy. You can also start with really long tug ropes so the dog’s learning about precision.

My boy Heston stopped nipping by 10 weeks and I swear that our careful games of chase and tug played a really important role in that bite inhibition. He’s not once set a tooth to me (or any other individual) since 10 weeks, not even in accident. Our tug games are a huge part of our relationship.

You can also start with quick, short games with a large number of long rope toys (1 or 2 metres even). The dog gets a bit over-aroused, you drop your end, you pick up another and you reset. They’re learning that if they take their frustrations out on you, sure, they ‘win’ the toy, but the toy stops being fun. You’re the fun.

#5 Teach the Counting Game

If you’re using free work set ups or you’re playing games, you definitely need to make sure you’re adept at bringing down arousal levels. The more aroused the dog is, the more likely you’ll see frustration. But how do you do that if taking things away from the dog causes frustration? I often interrupt and end games with an impromptu scatter feeding. I also put in Chirag Patel’s Counting Game:

I absolutely adore the Counting Game for reasons I can’t even begin to explain, not least for dogs who have trouble giving up resources, but also as a distraction method in case of emergency. However, its special forté is if you’ve got a young, boisterous, frustrated dog who’s destroying things, who’s finding it hard to play without getting overaroused, and you don’t want a battle or to raise their frustration levels.

So for dogs who ‘win’ the tug toy because they’re getting too over-aroused and they’re less likely to cope with the game ending – even though it absolutely needs to end because there will be bloodshed otherwise – they ‘win’ the toy and I move away and start counting out treats. If I really need to bring it down a notch more, licking or chewing is even better, so I might put down a few smears of peanut butter, paté or cream cheese.

#6 Build up to frustrating food or foraging toys

Some toys are massively frustrating and many dogs will give up. My two haven’t a chance of persevering with a frozen Kong stuffed with spreadables. If they can’t get it rapidly, they give up. I do fill up with spreadables to about half way these days, or mix it up so they cause some clumping, but frustrated dogs give up on frustrating toys.

That said, we can add in frustrating toys to our free work the better our dog gets at coping with frustration. I find awkward-angled toys with narrow openings like the Buster Cube or the Ruffwear Gnawt-a-Rock to be the most challenging of all. This hexagonal cube really takes a long time to spit out its treasures compared to, say, the Kong Wobbler.

You don’t need to buy expensive toys. One of my dog Tilly’s favourite frustrating foraging activities was what I called her Cocker Box. I saved all my cardboard boxes and paper bags, brown paper and tissue paper. Then I’d put a very small number of treats in it – say four or five. She’d spend hours with that box. That dog was a lesson in tolerating frustration. She once spent about six hours trying to get a trapped treat out from under the couch. There was only one caveat – if I was present, she’d look to me for assistance. Make sure, then, if your dog looks to you for help, that – once you’ve chosen an appropriately difficult toy – you remove yourself if you want them to truly learn to cope with frustration

#7 Start to remove yourself

I hate to say this, but we’re often the cause of our dog’s frustration. If we sometimes pay out really quickly and other times we don’t, we’ve got to expect that will be confusing for the dog. You’re the equivalent of one of those ‘maybe I will!’ vending machines that often take your money.

There’s even some forms of frustration that manifest as separation-related behaviour because the dog can’t get to you. I know about this, because I’ve been shouted at by a dog shut in an office. Some dogs find it really frustrating to be separated from us, especially if their frustration is often directed at us. If you’ve got a dog who’s barking at you, who’s ogling you, who’s pawing you, who’s nipping you, who’s whining at you, then it may well be that they’re used to having to tell you that they need stuff from you.

This ends up a vicious circle. I’ve got a frustrated barker. Heston gets very tired of me doing silly human things like tying shoelaces and brushing my teeth when it’s walk time. This manifests as excitement, but there are also elements of frustration in there too. When we set off out of the gate, it’s all a bit crazy. The problem is that he needs me to open the door and the gate or to drive the car, and he has to wait for me. The easiest way to deal with this gap between what they want and when you can deliver is give them something to do. He’s perfectly happy to wait if I give him a bit of random scatter feeding in the garden and then I can go and do my bits. If he can constantly access me, he’s constantly coming to whine and bark at me, even if he has scatter activities. My presence is a conditioned cue that predicts walks. If I remove myself from that, his frustration is much lower.

We may well have to train our dogs to start being a bit more independent too. You notice that I said there’s a co-morbidity of frustration and anxiety? Building up their ability to get their needs met without depending on us is one way to cut out the frustration.

#8 Shape your way to delayed gratification

I don’t often use clickers because most of the training I do is real world training out with dogs and poo bags and treat bags and leads. I use a word like ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’ and that suits me better than having to remember to pick up yet another thing before I leave the house.

That said, clicker training and heavy stimulus control is perfect for frustrated dogs.

Clicker training (or just marker training using a word) is great because you can successively build up the gap between you marking and you giving the treat. At first, you’re going to start with a really rapid reinforcement… click, treat… click, treat… click, treat. There should barely be any gap between the click and the treat. And gradually, stealthily, slowly, stretch out the gap between the click and the treat.

Click… one Mississippi… two Mississippi… Treat.

That’s the first step. You can also practise distance behaviours. I’m not a huge fan of traditional obedience on account of I am so very, very lazy and I cannot for the life of me see the need to ask my dog for a sit so I can walk off 100m and call them. If I can’t see a use for a behaviour, I struggle to find the reason to teach it. But traditional obedience like that, where you’re working at a distance, is great. You control the gap between it.

Sit…. stay…. (walk 100m)… Click…. (dog has to run 100m) … Treat.

I’m a big fan of that.

Another way you can do it is also to use a Pet Tutor. A Pet Tutor is an automatic treat dispenser. To start, you’ll need a remote-operated one. You park the treat dispenser out of the way, start doing some work with the dog. You click, you press the remote and the treat dispenser spits out the treat. Clearly, you have to start near to the dispenser, but as time goes on, you can stretch out the distance between where you’re working and where the dog gets food.

Why this helps with frustration is because it teaches the dog how to cope very gradually and gently with the gap between knowing they’re going to get something and waiting to get it.

#9 Use heavy stimulus control

I just said that I don’t just like marker training, but I also find heavy stimulus control to be useful. What this means is that basically, everything your dog gets is clearly cued. No cue, no reinforcement. This takes away the doubt and anxiety of ‘Will I? Won’t I?’ where reinforcement is concerned. The dog is clear when they’ll get what they want instead of floating round trying to find ways to ask for what they need. Predictability takes away a lot of the challenge of frustration.

#10 Build up to free shaping

Free-shaping or auto-shaping is an activity you can do with your dogs to build up their resilience, patience and ability to try again. As I said at the beginning, frustrated learners need an error-free, safe, reinforcing environment. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. That doesn’t teach them how to cope when they do make errors or when reinforcement is less predictable. Free shaping is not something for novice dogs, but I love it for those dogs who are building up their stamina.

Dog-led free-shaping is the first type of free-shaping. Here, you take a handful of treats, cue the dog that treats are available. I say ‘ready?’

‘Ready?’ simply means ‘if you do something, treats may be available.’

In dog-led free-shaping, the dog takes the lead. They offer behaviours, and you click or mark what you want repeated that session. The savvier the dog gets, the more easy it is for them to offer repeated behaviours. It really us up to the dog. We mark what we want more of, but it’s up to the dog to pick that first behaviour.

Say for instance I say, ‘Ready?’ and the dog takes a step back. I mark and reinforce. Then they’re not sure what they did right, so they try some other stuff. When they back up again (which might happen straight away if they’ve come forward for food) then we mark and reinforce. It’s that simple.

As you go, you might only reinforce novel behaviours.

This brings us into the second form of free-shaping: human-led free-shaping.

Here, you start with a goal in mind, and you just reinforce any progress towards that goal that the dog makes. Kamal Fernandez does a great example with a box. He puts a box down and has an end-goal in mind: the dog must, one way or another, get into the box. He marks and reinforces every step the dog takes towards the box. I’ve put tin cans down on the floor and mark and reinforce approaches to one can over the others. Other days, I’ll put up different sticky notes at dog nose level and mark successive approximations as the dog gets closer to one specific sticky note. It’s a guessing game where the rules change every time we play. It’s up to me to mark for any slight move towards the end goal, and up to the dog to be conscious of that they’re doing and think about what they’re doing.

Free-shaping is innately frustrating, because the dog doesn’t know what you want them to do, and you can’t lure or prompt to get them to do it. There can be long gaps between attempts. I’m particularly conscious of the fact humans are abysmal at waiting. Watch many teachers or parents with their children and look at how long they leave between asking a question and filling in an answer if the response isn’t quick enough. One thing I’ve done over the years is shape my gaps between asking a question and prompting a response. That thinking time can be frustrating for us. Human-led free-shaping is the gold standard of frustration tolerance for me.

As you can see, we move a long way from confusing impulse control and frustration. Free-shaping has absolutely nothing to do with impulse control. Okay, maybe it helps dogs process their own bodies and make more conscious and purposeful decisions about what they are doing. But if they learn impulse control from that, it’s a side-effect, not the main objective.

Free-shaping is not for frustration novices. It is the Olympic performance of the Gold Medal Winning Patient dog.

In summation, we can never entirely remove frustration from our dogs’ lives. Neither, arguably, should we. Frustration may be largely ‘caught’ depending on genes and socialisation, but it can be honed and mastered through ‘taught’ methods. While there is clearly some crossover with exercises for impulse control, I very much think teaching our dogs how to handle life’s frustrations is something quite separate.

I’d also highly, highly recommend Jane Ardern’s book Mission Control. Although it’s mostly focused on impulse control, learning voluntary control over our own bodies, emotions and actions will always reduce our frustration.

If you’d like to receive these articles directly to your inbox, don’t forget to sign up; I promise not to get spammy! That said, just a final plug for my new book – Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from your Clients. If you’ve got it already, don’t forget to leave me a review!

how To Stop Your Dog Jumping Up When Excited

Previously, I explored ways you could teach your dog new ways to greet you that didn’t involve dislodging contact lenses, kicking you in the kidneys or having 40kg of fur knocking you over. We looked at the reasons why dogs might jump up when greeting in the last post, focusing on how you can manage and modify this behaviour. Today, it’s the turn of jumping up for excitement.

If you’ve got a dog whose jumping up is a problem, your first job is to rule out greeting behaviour, as the majority of dogs I see who are jumping up are only doing so in a problematic way when they greet someone.

When you’ve ruled out jumping up in greeting, it’s then time to look at jumping up when overaroused or excited.

In many ways, jumping up for excitement is one behaviour we often find a nuisance in combination with a number of other behaviours which serve the same purpose. Those behaviours include excitement barking, circling, spinning and nipping. As you can probably guess from the name, excitement barking is different than alert barking, and it won’t be as easily resolved with a handful of treats and a bit of reassurance that your dog is the greatest guard dog ever. In a way, it’s a bit of an error to separate these behaviours from greeting behaviours that we might consider a nuisance: often that behaviour can be driven by excitement too.

When dogs are excited, we’re likely to see an increase in all kinds of behaviour, including ones that are noisy or a bit of a nuisance. They just behave more. They might pace. They might pant. They might whine. They might start grimacing. Lipsticks might appear where previously there were no lipsticks on view. They might nip. They move more.

Conversely, they find static behaviours and noiseless behaviours to be something of a challenge. Asking an excited dog for a sit is likely to end up as a fail, simply because the rational, controlled brain isn’t driving the dog at that time. Asking them to be calm or go to their mat, to lie down, to wait or to control themselves is likely to turn into a fail too. The sad thing about this is that there are hundreds of guardians asking for these behaviours. Asking for a sit when your dog is excited is destined to failure, not least because it’s an unpleasant thing to do in that moment. If I had one wish, it’s that we’d stop expecting our dogs to be still all the time.

The usual outcome of asking for calm or stillness is that we end up being cross because our dogs have ‘forgotten’ their training. We end up frustrated with them. We end up embarrassed by them. We try teaching them to be calm. Trying to get our a-rational dogs to be rational brings out the a-rational in us too.

Truth be told, this makes me a little sad. I love that ridiculous things make my dogs giddy. Lidy rhymes with giddy (if you were wondering!) and she is Giddy Lidy with good cause; I love that Heston, despite all his aches and pains, gets excited before walks. Every single time I see a post on social media about calming our dogs down, teaching calm, teaching settle, teaching them to Be Less Dog, a part of me dies inside. You know how, in Peter Pan, a fairy dies every time you say you don’t believe in fairies, in my head, puppies die every time people say ‘the dog just needs to be taught to be calm and to settle.’

I love that they have that kind of Christmas-Eve-meets-Snow-Day enthusiasm for ridiculous little things. We just went outside for two minutes and mine were like Best Day Ever! We were literally on the deck with a fur removing glove and a brush. I went in the kitchen and they were like Christmas Dinner With ALL The Trimmings. I picked up my car keys and they were like ROAD TRIP, YEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!! ALL THE ROAD TRIPS to ALL THE BEST PLACES!

That brings me to my first solution to jumping up for excitement: take off those great big, dull, grown-up, boring human-centric goggles you’ve got on and celebrate your dogs’ joy. If you can live with it and it’s harming neither you nor your dog, live with it! Celebrate it! Find more joy.

Let me let you into a secret… I work, write or conference for an hour. Then we celebrate for five minutes. We dance. We throw toys. We go out and shout at the wind. We get goodies. We play. I ask them to spin, twist, middle, jump, leapfrog me and pogo off me. Then I go do some more stuff that will pay bills. Another secret… all the behaviours I ask for are so much fun to do that my dogs only want paying with social contact. How mad is that?! And how cheap?!

Enjoy their joy. Live vicariously. Share it. Make it contagious. If it’s not harming them in doing it and it’s not harming you, a little jumping up when we get our food bowl is not the end of the world.

Lidy jumps up two times during the day. One is when I get our breakfast. She’s all Whoo Hoo with hers and I’m all Boo Hoo with mine. Perhaps I need to be thinking about how I can make my breakfast Whoo Hoo and not Boo Hoo. I suspect this may involve Haribo Sours and a lot of Sherbet so I’m going to refrain on the grounds that it would cause some kind of minor humanitarian crisis around me. But Lidy’s little jump for joy is not offensive to anyone at all.

The other time is when we go out for a walk. Having tried to make sure she is well secured before we go out of the front door, I ended up almost being dragged down the steps. For the sake of my back, I put a bucket of toys at the top of our steps and I make sure the gate is well locked. She’s safe. She picks up a toy and shakes it, tossing it about in the air, delighted with our daily walk. I tie my shoelaces without being headbutted, lock the door without being headbutted, walk down the steps without being pulled onto my arse and we all find equilibrium by the gate.

So your first job, if it’s not offensive or harmful, is to live with it. Change your understanding and your problem is no longer a problem. The best thing about this solution is that it involves doing absolutely nothing at all other than changing your mindset.

But if the jumping up is dangerous to you or your dog, then you can change that too. There’s two aspects to consider. The first is management. The second is working on how they handle frustration and how they control their impulses.

Unlike jumping on guests, there really aren’t consequences for excitement. Racing round your house like a maniac on Christmas Eve does not make Christmas Day come faster. Fixating on snow falling outside your classroom does not make break-time happen quicker. If I don’t put Lidy’s bowl down, she’ll jump some more, but it’s not controlled by consequences.

This excited or frustrated behaviour is controlled by what comes before, not what comes after.

It’s the realm of Pavlov and Watson, not the realm of Skinner. You see snow and then you get excited. You put out mince pies and then you get excited. You get out the dog leads and then your dogs get excited.

We might even anticipate these events (which can make them both more frustrating and more exciting) if the sky looks solid grey… maybe there’ll be snow… if it’s December 23rd… Christmas is soon… if it’s 7am…. we must be going out for a walk soon.

The excitement might stop once it turns from anticipation into participation. Frustration turns to satiation. We might stop feeling as excited when we open our presents or when we’ve seen all our relatives or we’ve eaten our dinner. We might stop being Snow Day giddy when we’ve played out until we have frostbite and we’ve lost nine pairs of mittens. We might stop being excited once we’ve been out for a walk.

In other words, we might see less behaviour when our anticipation has been satiated, but we’re not excited because it makes stuff happen.

Excitement belongs with anxiety in all honesty, not with learned behaviours like ‘sit’. Literally nobody had to teach a dog to be excited. Can you worsen it with social contagion? Sure! Come to a shelter at walk time or meal time and I’ll show you. But the behaviour we see with excitement is just a coping mechanism for dealing with the frustration of anticipation.

Like with jumping up in greeting, jumping up from over-excitement can be managed. Putting in safety features is one way of doing that. Since Lidy jumps up before walks, making sure my gate is really secure (and checking it out of the window before I open the door) is one way of managing the situation. If your dog jumps up for food and you have laminate floor, put in some rubberised matting or a non-slip rug. Put in baby gates. These don’t stop the dog from jumping up. They just mean the dog can jump up in safety.

You can also manage it by breaking the chain between what’s exciting and being excited. For instance, if I pick my keys up, my dogs will go nuts. If I want them not to go nuts I need to understand that they’ve become sensitised to the keys, that this is a Pavlovian conditioning process and that desensitising them to it would be to repeatedly pick up my keys in a gradual, slow, controlled way. In other words, I’m not picking them up, dangling them in front of my dogs, dancing and going ‘Whoo hoo! I’m going for a ride without you!’

I’m going to leave them on a side table and pick them up for a millisecond. Then again. Then again. Then again. Et cetera.

That’s all desensitisation is. A planned, systematic, gradual programme of exposure paired up with a feeling of calm. Ta-dah.

If I want Lidy not to jump up for her bowl, I’m going to start by having that bowl around me and reaching for it time and time again. She should never react.

The problem is that these pairings and associations are difficult to extinguish and easy to resurrect. In other words, once your dog knows that bowls mean dinner, well, good luck. It’s the same with hoping your kids don’t come to recognise the Golden Arches of McDonalds and associate that with Happy Meals. Good luck breaking that chain, she says, from experience. Hard to break that association and easy to resurrect.

Another way to manage the situation is to give your dog something to do instead. I’d claim credit for this, but Heston taught me rather than the other way around. He barks, rather than jumping, when excited. Given the state of his hips, that makes sense that he might always have found barking easier and more productive than jumping for joy. But the principle is the same. If you want the science terms, it’s a behavioural response class. Actually, I don’t even know about that, since response classes have the same effect on the environment. Excitement has zero effect on the environment. Anyway, he found a behaviour that provided the same relief, a coping mechanism. Instead of barking when he is excited, he grabs a toy and squeaks it. Lidy needed a little encouragement to pick up her toys and run round with them instead of jumping up, but now she grabs a toy and takes all that frustration and excitement out on the toy instead of out on her joints. All I had to do was provide the toys and make sure they’re easily accessible. Everybody’s needs get met, nobody gets head-butted and everyone is happy.

So that’s another strategy: provide access to other ways the dog can manage their excitement.

A fourth strategy is to give them something purposeful to do while you do the thing that’s inevitably frustrating them. If they can’t cope with the inordinate amount of time you take in preparing their breakfast, you’ve got two ways to handle this: either you can do stuff faster or you can occupy them while you do it. I’ve never found doing things faster to work. I take the dogs out pretty much as soon as I go out, and I’m damned if I can go from 1 to 500 like they can. I’d have to sleep in my clothes with my hair at least semi-presentable, with my contact lenses in and with a toothbrush in my mouth. Even then, if I didn’t go to the toilet, I’d probably end up having an accident at the first sight of a cat or a sheep or something. Minimum time from rising to leaving for me is at least ten minutes. That’s a long time for dogs to get themselves wound up. How do they cope with this? Lidy normally beats Heston around the head a few times in her primitive attempts to play, and he tries to ignore her.

If that’s an overly long time (it is, for them) and you can’t cope with your dog’s attempts to cope and occupy themselves before what is unarguably the highlight of their day, then you might want to provide some kind of alternative.

Now, I didn’t find scatter feeding – or any kind of food to be honest – to be useful with dogs who want to greet you, but scatter feeding and a bit of occupation, even dynamic trick training, can be a wonderful mechanism to help your dogs cope with the frustration of waiting for you.

If you’ve got an over excited dog, a bit of scentwork or scatter feeding can be wonderful. Just as a word of warning: it does have to be that magical ‘Goldilocks’ level. Not too challenging and not too easy. Too easy and it won’t occupy your dog long enough. Too challenging and they’ll just give up.

To occupy Heston, I just have to hide a ball the night before and tell him to find his ball.

To occupy Lidy, I just have to randomly shout out fun cues like ‘spin!… middle!… crawl!… stretch!… ‘ and that stops her punching my poor boy in the face.

Find something that’s right for your dog and occupy them.

Some dogs will occupy themselves if you give them the means. Others are going to need more interactive occupation. Now would be a really good time to use a Pet Tutor automatic treat dispenser, for example. Or two. If you can’t keep your dog busy because you’re doing things, there are machines that can take up the slack. You can set the reinforcement sequence to a variable rate but fairly frequently and it just might keep your dog busy while you put your mascara on. I would say, though, if you’re putting mascara on, I’m kind of with your dog on the frustration side of things…

All these strategies either help the dog cope, help the dog and you be safe or help keep the dog busy. They take a little bit of time to set up and then you’re gold.

Finally, you can (and, arguably, should) teach dogs to cope with frustration. A dog who has to be managed all the time is hard work. It doesn’t teach them that sometimes there’s a delay in getting what they want. If your dog’s behaviour is dangerous, then you may also want to add on some modification. I’m a huge fan of teaching parameters and also using graduated enrichment activities to build frustration tolerance. No dog ever tolerated frustration like my cocker spaniel with her Nose It toy. One treat once took her two hours to get out. That’s tenacity and also tolerance. Many dogs would walk away after a second or two, including my boy Heston. That level of cocker tenacity doesn’t come naturally, however. Building in tougher and tougher challenges through food toys and games or scent work can really help your dog extend their patience through successive approximations that get there without causing frustration. How do you get a dog to spend two hours searching for one treat? You start by getting a dog who can spend 10 seconds searching for one treat. And how do you get that? Starting with a dog who can spend 1 second searching for a treat. Beside teaching them to control their impulses, how to wait and how to cope with having their needs temporarily thwarted is a good way to make sure your dog can cope in a life that offers many frustrations.

If you learn to live with what’s acceptable, adjusting your requirements for perfect control at all moments, set up the environment to help the dog out, give the dog something to do and teach them how to cope with frustration as well as manage their impulses, you should find that you’ve successfully stopped your dog from all but the odd jack-in-a-box moment.

Next week: setting your dog up to succeed

Remedial Socialisation for Dog-Reactive Dogs

Coming out of the other side of a pandemic, I’m getting a lot of clients whose dogs are reactive to other dogs. If they’re on lead, they’re barking and lunging; if they’re off lead, they’re racing up to other dogs for some pretty hair-raising greetings.

Guardians inevitably have an internal discussion with themselves about whether it’s reactivity, fear or aggression. They also have a discussion about whether the lead is causing the problem. Many guardians, knowing that the lead or fence seems to be making it worse, take their dog to classes for socialisation, on social walks or also to dog parks, often on the advice of random people on social media.

Let’s get the myths out of the way first. There’s first a myth that you can take a dog who has few social graces and turn them into a social dog. Second, there’s a myth that more social experiences will help do that.

What do we know for sure?

First, that the experiences a dog has from 3-13 weeks set the rules. After that window, they’re learning exceptions to the rule, which makes it slower and harder if the dog didn’t learn that other dogs are okay. What a puppy learns during this brief period sets their rules for their experiences and teaches them how to behave in different contexts.

Most people’s error is to think that a dog who has experience of litter mates or other dogs in the home is a dog who’ll be okay with unfamiliar dogs. Those are very different skills. Dogs who are ‘social’ with other dogs in the home don’t think of other dogs outside the home as being the same. They know how to behave with the family group but that doesn’t mean they know how to behave with other dogs.

Of course, trying to socialise a puppy also clashes with vet guidance about vaccinations, which makes it tougher, but behavioural euthanasia is a huge reason dogs don’t make it past their third birthday, so you need to check with your vet about current disease risks and balance this with finding some way to make sure that during this brief period (largely from 6-13 weeks) your dog actually sees or smells (if not interacting with) unfamiliar dogs in a non-threatening way. There are so many ways you can do this but I thoroughly recommend you read Eileen Anderson’s and Marge Rogers’ book Puppy Socialisation.

What happens after 13 weeks is really about confirming the rule or learning exceptions. If you learned that other dogs are scary during that short period, then you’re going to be learning exceptions to that. ‘All dogs are scary… except that one… okay, except that one… alright, not that one.’

If you don’t see other dogs during that time, they also pass into the ‘unknown, probably scary’ category too.

But if you learn ‘other dogs are fun!’ then that’s your general rule.

If you learn ‘I’ve got the automatic right to play with every dog I meet’, then that’s your rule. It’s going to be pretty frustrating when your dog realises at 16 weeks that you’re trying to impose an ‘okay, not that one’ rule. ‘And not that one either. No, not that one either’.

Of course, things are worsened by the fact that social and sexual maturity for dogs (and people) don’t happen at the same time. Like humans, sexual maturity may happen relatively early – way before social maturity. There aren’t exact figures because it depends on breed and size and lots of other things that affect sexual maturity, but usually that happens somewhere between 9 months and 3 years for dogs. And social maturity happens later – often between 18 months and 4 years. That means for a lot of our dogs, hormones are engaged when social inhibition isn’t at its best, or we start messing with hormones in sterilising dogs too. We’re also messing with breed and behaviour without really knowing what we’re up to, and that complicates things as well.

By and large, as a simple rule of thumb, I work off the principle that if you have a breed described as loyal or aloof, then you need to make sure you pay extra special attention to the breeder and the early experiences and how you’re socialising your puppy before 13 weeks or so.

Pretty much everything afterwards is remedial or learning exceptions.

Not only that, but many people only realise their dog has a problem when their dog is a teenager. Then you’re also trying to do this remedial socialisation at absolutely the worst time in the dog’s life.

You’re in a bind, because if you leave it, the situation will likely get worse, and if you try to tackle things, you could make it worse as well.

Many people take their undersocialised or inadequately socialised or even inappropriately socialised teenage dog and try to put them in with other dogs in the desperate hope that they’ll learn something.

Many people do this, but I’m going to court controversy and explain why I rarely do. Let me also add that I’m not talking about easy dogs who just need a bit more socialisation having had a bit of a rocky start, but who have already fifty or more greetings under their belt that went okay. I’m also not talking about dogs who are a low risk and have a relatively positive history. I’m not talking about dogs who occasionally bark or lunge. Putting them in with an experienced and well-managed dog group may be all they need.

I’m talking about dogs who always bark and lunge at others. Dogs who are so sensitive to the presence of others that they’re barking and lunging fifty metres away. Dogs who can’t be interrupted and are not interested in distraction.

There are many problems with putting dogs in need of socialisation in, unmanaged, with other dogs. One is that it depends on the social skills of the other dogs. If the other dogs are young as well, then you’re potentially risking a single learning event for them that will traumatise both dogs. Also, you’re putting the most delicate job of all in the hands of dogs whose own social development is not yet complete. That’s like my mum hoping I’d learn social skills from all the metalhead friends I had when I was 15. In fact, they taught me well, but it was more of a happy accident than purposeful socialising. I’d argue that I actually did pretty well because I had to go to school and learn how to interact with those people, and I had jobs, so I had to learn how to be with adults too. If you want your dog to end up like a Lord of the Flies maniac dog, then by all means, let them hang around with other dogs who are at the same development point.

If the dogs you’re putting your unsocialised dog in with are much older, you’re possibly putting an exuberant and difficult dog in with dogs who have health issues and are protective of themselves. That’d be like hoping my mum’s knitting circle would have been a great place to socialise the teenage me.

Not only that, but I don’t think dogs should have to carry the burden for mistakes in socialisation that human beings have caused. It’s not fair on those dogs. They didn’t sign up for being a guinea pig in your attempt to resocialise a dog who’s like a canine equivalent of Jack and his choristers in Lord of the Flies. So often, we can be really selfish about the needs of one dog without considering our absolute obligation to the others.

Another issue is that dogs who are truly frustrated on lead – and only frustrated, not fearful or aggressive – can you explain to me how letting them off lead helps them cope with social frustration of being on lead? You’re letting a gauche and naive dog self-reinforce or manage the situation in whatever way they see fit. Like it or not, you can’t let your dog off lead for the rest of their life just because you haven’t taught them how to cope with frustration yet. If you keep letting frustrated dogs off lead instead of teaching them how to deal better with the frustration of NOT being able to engage with other dogs, well, you’re never going to resolve their problem.

And yes, that’s YOUR job. You’re the dog’s family and the dog’s teacher. Most animals in the wild learn to cope with frustration of hunger or being thwarted in social greetings in ways that are often violent and inappropriate. Adult wolves, for instance, aren’t expected to socialise with other groups of adult wolves. Grown bears aren’t going around hanging about with other grown bears. Not unless it’s for reproductive purposes or to acquire territory or a mate. The animal world is not rife with frustrated social contact as it is for our dogs. Our expectations are insanely high. It is our responsibility then to help our dogs cope with the frustration and complicated feelings of meeting unfamiliar dogs. What are you going to do if you see a dog on the other side of a busy road? Let your dog off lead and dodge traffic just so they won’t feel frustrated?

Hoping they’ll just magically one day stop being frustrated and control their impulses by letting them throw themselves at other dogs, well, you need to follow a human about for a day and find out how they cope with frustration, and then ask yourself if we can truly expect a dog with a tiny cortex to do the same. I got beeped and sworn at the other day because I didn’t know where I was and I dropped to 25 from 30 to read the name on a street. I literally inconvenienced the person for less than 10 seconds and he had a red-faced shouty, sweary meltdown. So don’t expect dogs to do what humans struggle with.

Also, if you reinforce your dog’s behaviour by letting them access every single other dog they compulsively feel they have to ‘say hello’ to, then you’re building a behaviour you really don’t want and making it more likely they’ll be even more frustrated should you need to keep a lead on them. If you can’t let your dog off lead to run across a busy main road, you also don’t want your dog going nuts on lead only metres from the bumper of some big Discovery or Land Cruiser going 50. Your dog is going to be the bane of somebody else’s life, if not get into an accident.

Besides being a heavy burden on all the other dogs and not helping dogs cope with frustration, letting them off lead to ‘socialise’ them has other potential consequences as well. If we’ve made a mistake and they’re actually not just frustrated or needing to cope with greetings by bounding up to others, and they’re really truly struggling, what we’re doing is putting a potentially aggressive dog into a situation where they can really do some damage. At best, they feel ambivalent about other dogs. If all we’re doing is throwing them to the dogs, quite literally, then all they’re learning is basic survival skills for greetings. Often, that’s going to involve even more hair-raising events.

It reminds me of a story. Once, I was talking to a lady about the number of drunk drivers in her area. She admitted her husband drove drunk on occasion. She explained that everything was okay as other drivers avoided him. You see how this goes. One day, he got in an accident with another drunk driver who was relying on him to avoid him. One day, your ambivalent and unsocialised dog is going to run into another ambivalent and unsocialised dog. And then what?

Hoping for the best isn’t enough. I know sometimes that people find willing friends. I know dog trainers – like me – who use their own dogs from time to time. Hoping for the best with a friend’s dog or a client’s dog is not okay. Not where other people’s dogs are involved. If you wouldn’t do it with another client’s dog as the guinea pig, you really need to ask yourself why it’d be okay to use one of your own. I’ll explain shortly how I have involved my own dogs in the process.

Letting frustrated dogs off lead because they can’t cope with frustration also becomes the bane of other dog guardians’ lives. Twice in the last six months, an off lead dog whose guardian was busy yelling how ‘friendly’ their dog was has bounded up to my dogs. Luckily, Heston is still healthy enough to handle it and I’m usually able to restrain Lidy and let Heston pick up the slack to protect my girl from the one thing she fears most: aggressive, unsocialised Tarzan dogs bounding up to her just like those dogs do. That ‘friendly’ dog has then gone on to start being a complete arse around Heston, a much larger dog who could easily kill them. I have to keep Lidy muzzled because other people don’t understand their own dogs. She’s not muzzled for her own sake. She’s muzzled for theirs.

That brings me to muzzles. Now I am a fan of muzzles, and Lidy wears a muzzle a lot – to the extent it’s usually not an issue for her on walks and it’s just another piece of kit. What I see though are people forcing muzzles on dogs – or, at least, racing through the process of habituating the dog to a muzzle – and then throwing the dogs in the deep end. This is a bad idea because that dog is then unable to react should they need to. Once, we housed Lidy with a large German Shepherd when she was in kennels. It wasn’t my choice and we were full. She’s the one who lacks in social graces, yet he’s the one who picked a fight with her, flattened her and pinned her to the floor when another dog went past. If she’d been muzzled, we’ve effectively removed her ability to protect herself. A muzzle says you realise things could go pear-shaped. If you’re considering muzzles, I think you need to take a step back in your training.

Muzzles also put us into a state of false comfort about physical fallout and we don’t consider the emotional fallout. We are so sure that the dog will be unable to bite that we put them in with dogs where we’re worried what the outcome will be. We flood them. We dump them in, take away their teeth, hoping that they’ll get over their fears or frustrations or lack of social skills and just, miraculously, magically ‘get better’. We forget that a) this puts the dog in past their comfort levels b) it risks muzzle punches and one-sided fights where the dogs aren’t evenly matched c) encourages people to take a shortcut to muzzle training and d) doesn’t teach them how to manage their emotions other than some kind of weird trial by fire. Also, muzzles come off. Some muzzles can be bitten through. Fixed muzzles are easier to get off and soft muzzles or biothane muzzles are easy to bite through. Ultimately, muzzles allow us to flood the dog knowing that we’ve prevented physical injury. However, it also allows us to put aside the needs of the other dogs, as well as the emotional consequences of flooding, potentially doing a lot of damage.

Ultimately, unless your dog is happy in a muzzle, you’re potentially wasting eight weeks of extensive training on muzzles that you could be putting into lead frustration and working around other dogs. It adds an obstacle rather than taking one away, unless you’re going to force your dog into a muzzle quicker than they can cope with. Then, they’ve got to greet dogs who they feel ambivalent about at best as well as wearing a muzzle they don’t like. How can we on the one hand say, ‘Oh the lead changes their behaviour and makes them more…’ and then think a muzzle is absolutely fine, never altering the dog’s behaviour? As a regular muzzle user, I’ll tell you how muzzles affect Lidy. She’s totally aware of wearing it in situations where she might want her teeth. Instead of lunging, snapping and biting, she cowers, tail between her legs. I can’t understand how we’re swapping one piece of equipment that changes behaviour for another piece of equipment that also changes behaviour – a piece of equipment most of the dogs aren’t used to in the first place. I’ll tell you something for nothing: nobody – literally nobody – muzzles their dog as much as they should. We humans have got issues about that. Most dogs arrive for their trial by fire with issues about their muzzle as well.

So is there any hope for a dog who is reactive to others or who can’t cope on a lead – whether through fear, lack of choice or frustration?

Yes. But the outcome depends.

First it depends on their age and how long they’ve been practising the behaviour. Second, it depends on their genetics and their social experiences so far in life. You need a thorough, robust risk assessment. If you’ve got – heaven forbid! – a very young dog-reactive scent hound who has good social skills with the dogs they live with but they’re trouble with unfamiliar dogs, then there’s a good prognosis. If you’ve got an old, grumpy terrier who’s lived on his own since he was eight weeks, who has terrible social skills and an absolute litany of fights under his belt, then not only is there a poor prognosis, but there’s perhaps also not the same need. A six-month-old dog has a need to learn how to behave around other dogs. A twelve-year-old dog … well, you’ve managed so far. If you are unsure if remedial socialisation is for your dog, go to a professional who can help you carry out a robust risk assessment taking into account your dog’s prior history.

The second, and I am absolutely firm on this, is that throwing your dog in with the dogs is completely and utterly off the table. I don’t care if you have the most amazing group of stooge dogs, demo dogs and nanny dogs in the world. It is not THEIR job to teach a frustrated, fearful or aggressive dog how to speak dog. Now I know I am risk averse and most people haven’t seen the number of fights I have, but if your dog is frustrated on the lead, then they need to learn how to cope with frustration and they need to learn how to behave around other dogs without interacting with them.

That is my bottom line. You don’t pass into remedial socialisation until you know how not to be a dick on the lead when you see other dogs.

With a good programme, we shouldn’t be talking more than three to six months. That may need medication on board as well as modification and management.

If your dog can’t cope with seeing other dogs when they’re restrained, then that’s a skill they need to learn. I know that may be controversial and I know some people might see that as adding another level of skill on, that dogs can sort it out themselves, that 99% of fights aren’t that bad. I’m glad that you’ve not seen the damage dogs can do to each other through a combination of bad genetics and poor socialisation. But if your dog can’t cope with seeing other dogs when they’re on lead, I’m afraid sooner or later you’re going to have to master that anyway. Life is not a dog park. How are you going to even get into the dog park if your dog can’t cope on a lead with dogs who are behind a barrier and in a dog park?

Once you’ve got your head on board with that, life isn’t too tough. There are at least twenty posts I’ve written in the past six months or more on how to modify antisocial or frustrated behaviour around other dogs. Between understanding threshold, using a stimulus gradient, desensitisation, counterconditioning, selecting the right training method, management, distraction and avoidance skills and operant counterconditioning, you’ve got all you need to retrain a dog.

That might take 12 – 24 weeks of work, depending on the dog’s health, lifestyle, history, genetics and their guardian’s level of skill.

Only then will you move up to putting them in with other dogs.

At this point, you may be considering whether to muzzle or not. I’d say if you’ve been through the training programme, if you’ve selected the right dogs and environment to do this next step in, you won’t need a muzzle. By this point, the dogs I’m working with are relaxed around other dogs on lead or under control off lead who don’t approach.

The best step I’ve found next is to get them into a well-managed class with some older, larger, opposite sex, calmer dogs who are busy doing stuff. If your dog would find that too tough, you’re not ready yet. The other dogs can be off lead and doing active stuff with their guardians by all means. A couple of weeks of training around dogs who are occupied and don’t attempt to engage can also be put on a stimulus gradient too. You can be working nearer and nearer, the dogs almost side by side at points, and you should still have a calm and relaxed dog. Then you stretch out the ‘unoccupied time’. It depends on how things are going, but it’s an easy step from there to being off lead while the other dogs are on lead, or being on lead while the other dogs are off (but with rocket recall or long lines). Then you mix up the class with younger on-lead dogs and livelier dogs, same sex dogs, smaller dogs, larger dogs… you start to generalise. All being well, you won’t need to vary the class too much. This way is much more humane than ramming them all in together and blindly, naively, hoping for the best. It takes longer, I know, but it actually re-teaches the dog, rather than hoping for the best and putting your faith in random dogs to teach your dogs. Matching dogs up is an art. We learn that at the shelter where our dogs are kept in pairs, and also in pairing up our dogs with the dogs of our future adopting families. Our shelter director – like me – is firmly of the opinion that muzzles and leads alter things. She’d be happier with letting the dogs manage things themselves – of course she would. I’m not but I respect her stance. She has an ethology background and she knows dogs. She knows how anxieties pass down leads and how frustration complicates things. Yet, at the same time, off-lead greetings don’t happen. No matter what your best instincts are about dogs, safety is the first priority. Respecting the other dogs is right alongside it. It is totally and utterly unethical to put inexperienced dogs in with just any old dog in any old circumstance. I’m sad to say I know of dog training classes where trainers let their clients’ dogs take on the burden of socialising naive adult dogs. To take a risk with our clients’ dogs is another thing altogether.

Now I have used my dogs in the past in training scenarios. I will do again when I have the right dogs; currently Heston is unwell and Lidy is the last dog in the world who should be a guinea pig. Flika was a wonderful demo dog. So was Amigo. But I will say this… I worked long and hard with my clients on training their dogs, desensitising them, counterconditioning them, helping them feel okay around other dogs… and then, and only then, did I work well below everybody’s thresholds – humans and dogs alike.

Dog-dog aggression has the least positive outcome in ‘solving’ aggression – unless you add in predatory behaviour which is much tougher. Of course that varies from dog to dog. It’s dependent on numerous factors. Whether you think the dog is frustrated or fearful or lacking in social skills, there are too many moving parts and uncontrollable variables to leave remedial socialisation to the whims of two dogs – one of whom needs work. Absolutely, your clients will want to work quickly and will want to see outcomes. If we aren’t explaining the risks to our clients in ways that help them understand why it’s going to take six months or a year until their dog will be off-lead with a handful of carefully selected other dogs, then we run the risk of lawsuits and injuries on our consciences – if not worse. There are so many nuances to putting remedial groups together that you really need to find a more experienced trainer (or refer to one if you are that trainer yourself) if you’re thinking you should rip the plaster off, stick a muzzle on the dog and hope for the best with a few of your mates’ dogs.

At the very least, make sure all humans have also done a defensive handling course and know how to break up dog fights. Often, it’s not the dogs who are injured but the humans who try to separate them. Remedial socialisation is absolutely possible and is certainly the aim of many of my training programmes. Lockdown has meant I’ve got a few young teenagers on my books right now who’ll be aiming to be okay around other dogs and even mingle with them – hell, perhaps even play with them one day. But at the same time, I know and accept that remedial socialisation is not for all. Some of our dogs will need small worlds, and that is fine.

A trial by fire is not the way forward.

A muzzled trial by fire isn’t much better. It might end up less bloody if we’re lucky, but trauma doesn’t have to be physical to have consequences.

That’s as true if the dog is just frustrated or if the dog is fearful. It’s as true for dogs who are just barking and lunging as it is for dogs who are snapping, fighting and biting. Emotions running rampant lead to bad decisions. That’s as true for humans as it is for dogs.

Remedial socialisation is a fine art. It can easily go very wrong. It is hands down the most difficult, nuanced and complex training procedure that a dog trainer will ever undertake. To be blasé about that can have very serious consequences. It’s much easier to teach dogs to cope with frustration, to learn a little bit of control, to feel safe in spaces where there are other dogs and to cope when they see one. If the only reason you are considering remedial socialisation is to help your dog cope with undersocialised dogs who rampage up to them when out in public, ask yourself if that 1 hour a day is worth this very intensive programme. If you’re running into objectionable off-lead dogs every day, it’s well worth contacting a trainer or behaviour consultant who specialises in aggression as they’ll be able to teach you coping skills as well as help you find places and times where you can exercise your dogs safely. Most of us only need our dogs to be okay from time to time. I can count on one hand the places I’ve faced off-lead dogs who were out of control in the last five years, and I walk Lidy every day.

Ultimately, there will always be idiots. I was walking my two (on-lead, of course) at a French service station in the lorry car park. We were 10m from lorries going 110km and cars going 130km. Some nutcase had an aggressive off-lead labrador with no recall who charged up to us. That guy had a jet ski and an unsupervised toddler wandering around in a service station, so I don’t think he was blessed with risk aversion. Putting Lidy through a years-long socialisation programme that may never truly work so she can cope with the very occasional dogs of blokes who think off-lead dogs with no recall are safe on motorway service stations is not the way forward. All the training we’d done and it was little more than a simulation for my dogs who recovered admirably within minutes. I’m still angry about it, but that’s another story. Right now, we live 10m from a French bulldog, 50m from an Australian shepherd and some little scruffy ball of fluff. Two shih tzus live 100m away. We are in the most dog-heavy environment that Lidy has been in since the shelter. There haven’t been incidents. No barking. No lunging. No hackles raised. No off-lead dogs charging up to us. What I needed – and what many of my clients need – is a way to cope with other dogs that doesn’t cause them embarrassment and doesn’t cause their dog frustration. They don’t want years of delicate stooge groups and intensive remedial education for their singleton dog. Often, throwing dogs in with the dogs, trials by fire, are not actually what clients need or want. We want dogs who can cope in the vets. We want dogs who can cope with the odd off-lead dog. We want dogs who aren’t trying to tear down doors like Jack Nicholson in The Shining just because they heard the neighbour’s dog. We may want to be able to let our dogs off lead around others and be able to call them back (I don’t!) but these are not skills that happen through hapless trials by fire.

Remedial socialisation should always be something we consider for dogs who react to unfamiliar dogs. It should always be the end-goal if the dog is young, in my opinion. But it is so dependent on the dog that if you have a blanket policy, it will end up being torn up eventually. Not only that, it’s hands down the hardest situation dog trainers and behaviour consultants will ever manage, so it’s worth passing on to someone who has bags and bags of successful outcomes with both remedial socialisation and also with helping dogs cope on lead. Often, trainers who bang a muzzle on (and, worse, shock collars, or rely on punishers) and then leave it to the dogs to teach each other are rushing the dog, pushing the dog too fast and actually not that skilled at dealing with on-lead frustration. It’s worth asking how many successful outcomes the trainer has had with on-lead frustration too. In many ways, I would expect them to be incredibly successful at helping dogs manage their emotions. I do a hell of a lot of this, and not so much of the remedial socialisation.

Remedial socialisation is one time it pays to be cautious and, if you think you are going too slow, slow down. It really makes me itchy when I see dogs left to their own devices and literally thrown in with the dogs. It doesn’t have to be this way and it relies on luck rather than skill.

I realise that guardians may push dog trainers into moving faster or initiating remedial socialisation groups. If you’re a dog trainer and you’re struggling to help your client set realistic and achievable goals and build sensible habits, feel free to check out my book!

How To Stop Your Dog Jumping up

In the past month, I’ve had a number of clients whose teenage dogs are jumping up on them or on guests. I was contemplating doing a post on this topic, just so that I could put everything together and keep it all in one place when along came an article in The Guardian last week asking for ways to stop dogs jumping up on children which spurred me to action.

The first thing we need to do when we’re thinking about dogs jumping up is define the context, the purpose and the emotions underlying it. Without this, what you think this behaviour looks like and what I think it looks like might be worlds apart.

I’m writing here about jumping in a very specific circumstance: on you, on guests or on people you might meet out and about. It’s a behaviour that would happen within two minutes of greeting, if your dog isn’t on a lead or behind a gate. I’m going to write next time about dogs who jump up when they start to get excited. Heston does a little pop of joy when he sees the special treat bowl come out, and Lidy does a leap for joy when she sees her bowl. These two behaviours are different and they have different mechanisms requiring different solutions. They have different underlying emotions and we need to think about them differently.

I am not, however, talking about dogs who jump to get over fences or baby gates, who hop like cats onto various high surfaces for a vantage point.

If you’re not sure whether you’re reading the right post, ask yourself if your dog jumps up or would jump up on people within two minutes of meeting them. That may even be if the person had gone out of the room and come back in again. The gap between that absence might be days or weeks. It could even be seconds, particularly if you have an anxious dog or a dog who is very attached to one individual. If your dog would generally jump up on people when you meet them, this post is for you.

I’m talking about dogs who jump on you as soon as you get in through the door when you come back from work.

I’m talking about dogs who jump up on your guests as soon as they arrive.

I’m talking about dogs who bound over to other people when you’re out on a walk and jump all over them.

Why are we starting with the ‘why’?

Because if we don’t understand WHY dogs do this, then we have no business trying to stop it. If you don’t understand what drool and blinking do, then you shouldn’t go around trying to stop it either. Only when we understand what the behaviour is designed for can we then find efficient ways to address problems with it.

The fact that my clients whose dogs fit this bill have dogs who are teenage dogs between 6 months and 3 years is also telling. I don’t think dogs jump up more at those ages. I just think we start to get a bit tired of our puppies doing this. No doubt it’s a behaviour they’ve been doing since they were puppies but it gets more tiresome when they grow up. Not only that, as dogs come to social maturity, then they tend to be more conflicted about social activities which can fuel their behaviour. They’ve lost that puppyish ‘Hail, fellow, well met!’ feeling they get when they see new people or greet people they already know, and they’re into the realms of feeling awkward about it. It’s at this age (and younger… Heston started at 10 weeks – shepherds!) that dogs start feeling ambivalent towards new humans. They may also be fueled by feelings of discomfort if they’ve been left alone – and that can start even from days after birth.

Unlike humans, dogs are not a fusion-fission species. We apes live in large groups that tend to disperse and come together regularly. Think about all the times you split up from your family group and come back together again. You probably don’t even all sleep in one single room anymore and even within the home, you’ve got walls splitting you up from the rest of the family at various points. We split up, we come together.

Lots and lots of other mammals don’t do this. Either they disperse and stay dispersed, or they stick together. Some larger groups of social predators like wolves do split up from time to time on a daily basis, and that’s where we might see quite frenetic greetings.

I adore this video of wolves – we don’t have context but this looks like typical pack regrouping behaviour. Say one or two had gone off, this looks like very typical reunification. It could also be the kind of pre-hunt behaviour. Wolves quite often exhibit this exuberant behaviour when they’re about to go off and hunt together.

Look at those open mouths, those loose tongues. These are not stressed spatulate tongues that are hanging out way below the mouth. You can usually see the bottom teeth. But it’s not warm and these tongues are not on show for panting and temperature regulation. Mouths are open and loose. Bodies are loose and wiggly. There’s some lovely head-to-head greetings, almost like playful head butting. Eyes are soft. Tails are sometimes high but loose. There’s lots of submissive behaviour towards the big guy on the right who’s much less playful than the other four. Look at how the wolf approaches at 0.10 – 0.15 – low, curving, indirect approach, head low, mouth open, eyes soft, long blinks. And what does he do at 0.16? Opens his mouth from a much lower position and licks and nibbles the other wolf’s jaw. The same head-pressing at 0.22 – 0.23 with the new arrival. We’ve a lovely shake-off at 0.45 and a great five-way head-to-head at 0.52 before we’ve got a huge knot of wolves and tails. Seriously, if you have five minutes, slow it down to 0.25 speed on YouTube and look at the synchronised tails. It’s quite magical.

There’s a lot to take from this. The first is the amount of face to face contact, including muzzle licking and muzzle nudging. The second is to see all the same behaviours even in our bichons and maltipoos – the loose open mouth, the wiggly body, the low posture, the soft eyes.

So why does jumping up happen? Face-to-face greetings, soft headbuttings even muzzle licking … they’re all part and parcel of social greetings for dogs.

And where is your face?

Usually at the top of an upright body.

Added to this, humans don’t all like or accept bending over to have a dog lick their mouth and chin. I confess I’ve become much more accepting of doggie greetings now I understand what they are. Dogs can, of course, be taught not to do this to humans during the socialisation processes which tell dogs WHEN it’s appropriate to do a behaviour. Lots of my dogs have been taught not to lick humans… Ralf, Tobby, Heston, Tilly, Saffy, Amigo, Flika… none of them were lickers.

How does a dog try to solve the problem of you having your great big face over a metre above them?

Well they jump.

Do we see dogs jumping at the faces of other dogs?

Sometimes. I’ve seen some small dogs who were ignored by big dogs trying to jump up at their face.

But mostly, dogs of different sizes tend to dip or raise their head to make a face-to-face possible. Horses greet dogs in this way. Friendly cows do.

How is it that human beings with our great big uber-developed giant brains can’t understand that jumping up is caused by a desire for a face-to-face contact?

I don’t know.

We’re very out of touch with animals sometimes. Especially since, living in France, the hardest thing about Covid was not going to kiss the cheeks of literally everyone I know… those face-to-face greetings can be a real compulsion if you’ve built a culture around them.

But you don’t want to get down on your knees and stick your oddly-shaped head up close with a dog. Or maybe you can’t. Also, I don’t advise this, especially with dogs you don’t know.

And if you do (and I do, sometimes, with my own dogs or dogs I know) then you understand you can’t ask that of everyone. Especially if they’re small children who might get bowled over, or older people who might easily get toppled.

The most important thing to understand, then, is that face-to-face greetings are normal for dogs. They don’t separate and come together in ways like we do, and it’s stressful. We also need to understand that really, we ought to be teaching these skills when the dog is young and we can more easily modulate in-built behaviours than trying to do it when the dog is six months old and it’s already an entrenched habit we don’t like anymore.

We also need to understand the emotion behind the behaviour as well as its purpose or role. Jumping up is often fuelled by social anxiety. People see it as friendly behaviour. This is especially true compared to, say, barking at strangers or growling at them. Yet what I see in many of our so-called ‘super social’ dogs are behaviours that are frantic and slightly compulsive, fuelled by social anxiety. We think often of dealing with stress as ‘fight or flight’ – and that is especially true of unfamiliar encounters. But we also need to think about ‘tend and befriend’ behaviours, especially within familiar groups or with humans and dogs we expect our dog to behave in a friendly manner with. ‘Tend and befriend’ is another model of coping with stress that is proposed as an add-on for how we handle stress. Often, after stressful events (like greetings) there will be a lot of social grooming, displacement behaviours, checking others out. One prime example was a dog who’d snapped at another. The other dogs present, straight after the two had split up and shaken it off, then went to go and check out the snapper, as if to say, ‘Things okay mate?’

Jumping up often fuelled by social anxiety. Those who get the most exuberant jumping may well be the ones who cause the most anxiety for the dog. Alternatively, the most exuberant jumpers can often be caused by people ignoring them. This is what’s known as an extinction protocol and it means often that dogs will try harder and put more effort into what they are doing. This is not to say we should indulge jumping up, but it is to say that people ignoring it will often find that it gets worse. I’ll talk about that later.

Jumping up can also be fuelled by social tensions, particularly in teenage dogs. I often find that if they’re jumping up more at specific individuals, it can be related to appeasement behaviour: it’s often the person who makes the dog feel most ambivalent who gets the most jumping up. That goes for children too, if your dog doesn’t have a long socialisation history with children. It may also be worsened in times when children are developing – particularly when they start becoming hormonal.

The third thing that may fuel jumping is overarousal. As you know from my post about dual processing, when in doubt or arousal, dogs are going to choose the dog thing to do, not the odd little quirky thing you’ve taught them to do. If it’s a choice between voluntarily sitting or pogoing in someone’s face, then if a dog is aroused, innate learning (pogoing) will always trump learning from this lifetime. Who has most problems remembering their learning? Teenagers…

So jumping up has a function. It is an instinctive way that your dog is solving a problem of your face being very far away and not having been taught when to greet humans face to face.

It is sometimes fuelled by anxiety. Other times it can be worsened by social tensions and frustrations. And it may be worse when our brain is at a developmental period where we’re struggling to even remember the most basic things we’ve known since being very small indeed.

Now you understand that, we can start by thinking of ways to address it.

Management

The first is management. Baby gates, distance and leads are a very good ways of preventing a dog from jumping up. If you’re far enough away and your dog is on a lead, your dog can’t jump up on a guest. Management is going to be vital for anyone training a dog not to jump up. If you’re just letting your dog jump all over people, they’re just practising and getting better at it. If people are finally giving in and greeting the dog or giving them attention, then you’re also shaping bigger, more frantic, more frequent and more dangerous behaviour.

If you’re trusting your guests not to encourage it, stop. You can’t trust people not to reinforce your dog with attention.

In any case, not giving your dog attention is ignoring the dog’s needs and it’s going to create both frustration and fallout. When frustrated or thwarted needs fuel behaviour, we’re going to see dogs trialling other things, such as barking at the guests or even nipping at them. Ignore jumping up at your peril. Not only is it unkind in that it doesn’t meet your dog’s needs, but it may also fuel way worse behaviour that you’re going to really struggle to ignore.

Manage every situation in which your dog feels the need to jump up by keeping them far enough away and removing as much social anxiety as possible. One of my dogs barks at guests. He has a Kong when they arrive and a few treats, and he settles almost immediately. Another is not the type of girl to cope with greetings, so she stays in another room with some fun stuff to do. If those people are going to be sticking around, we have our own programme of what to do, but trying to bring her along with me in a fusion-fission human world is a recipe for disaster.

Lower arousal and social anxiety

Many dogs live lives where they are in semi-permanent states of arousal. They have compulsive behaviours. They can’t settle. They’re frantic, busy dogs who seem constantly on edge. Twice this week I’ve advised more mental enrichment for teenage dogs, and both times the guardians have seen an almost immediate reduction in arousal levels in other areas of the dog’s live. Teaching dogs to permanently settle down or calm down is holding them to higher standards than we hold ourselves to. It is also dull. Dullsville dull. It requires the kind of insane willpower that even humans don’t have.

Let’s stop proposing teaching calmness and settling the whole time. There are other ways to dampen arousal levels, and that’s to make sure our dogs have the right balance of mental and physical activity alongside plenty of sleep.

Most fired up dogs have too much physical activity. I see them red-eyed and panting after two-hour walks. They live on adrenaline and never come down from that high.

I’m not a fan of making dogs work for every morsel of their food. But using a good proportion of it for scentwork, games and scatter feeding can make an enormous difference.

Enrichment alone will not stop your dog jumping, by the way, but it might lower their general anxiety and arousal levels just enough so that they remember what you’ve taught them.

Many dogs I see like this are singleton dogs who have missing socialisation. They’re battling against early learning. Many have a place to sleep in a highly frequented place in the home: kitchens, living rooms, hallways. They’re underfoot and unable to get any solid naps in during the day. Unlike humans who tend not to nap, dogs are diurnal and I see a lot of dogs who can’t get undisturbed sleep during the day. Being free to go to your basket in a room where the TV is on, where kids are playing, where machines are running… that’s not enough. Sleep is such an essential prerequisite for learning that to miss out a long siesta during the day is to make it even more difficult for your dog to remember what it is you are trying to teach them.

Desensitise greetings

For reasons you will now understand, greetings can be stressful for dogs, even those who we might consider to be super social. You may really benefit from taking the emotional sting out of those. Don’t be too judgey: you surely don’t get as giddy as you did when you were a child over those kind of knicker-wettingly exciting things as Christmas or birthdays, snow days or holidays. Nor do you (hopefully) feel meeting people is traumatic as you did when you were a child and you used to hide behind a parent.

Taking the emotional sting out of things is best done through a classical counterconditioning process known as desensitisation. This pairs a state of relaxation up with a very minimal exposure to the thing that causes the jumping. As the dog learns to habituate to people and feel relaxed, the level of exposure increases. That will include distance and time. In other words, we start with a single person who is very far away for a very short time and we build up incredibly slowly to a number of people who are very close and for longer periods of time.

Desensitisation is a process that I think most of us understand, and many of us try, but most people go far too fast in steps that are far too big. Make sure your steps are very gradually incremental.

You can also improve your desensitisation by teaching it out of context. So if your dog just jumps up on people in your hallway, doing it outside the home rather than in the hall will help. Then move up to doing it in the garage, the dining room, the kitchen. Remember too that when you put the dog back into that context, you’re more likely to see the behaviour pop back again, so go back to being as far away as possible with the least challenging humans and for the shortest amount of time.

If your dog does jump up, take a brief break. Do something different and then come straight back to it. During sleep, our learning is consolidated. What that means is that we firm up the neural connections and it makes learning stronger. That’s something we absolutely don’t want to happen with problem behaviours, so tackle them straight away if you can.

Teaching better greeting behaviours

One thing that I see some guardians trying to do over and over, and failing over and over, is to teach their dog to be calm and to sit during greetings. Usually, they’re using food to try and make sure the dog sits, or keeps four feet on the floor, or even goes and lies down on a mat.

There is a logic behind this. In science terms, they’re trying to to reinforce an incompatible behaviour. Put simply, they’re trying to teach the dog to do something that they can’t do at the same time as jumping up. You can’t sit AND jump. You can’t lie on a mat AND jump. You can’t have four feet on the floor AND jump.

But if you’ve ever seen dogs trying to do this, you’ll know it’s an exercise in futility and frustration. We can make it so much easier for ourselves and for our dogs!

The first thing to do is realise that jumping up is fed by attention and greeting. Generally it stops once this has happened. Dogs don’t keep pogoing for ever. They just don’t. Nobody is calling me saying their dog is still jumping up at a constant frequency or intensity after three hours.

Jumping up is reinforced by contact.

Dogs aren’t jumping up for food or toys. They’re jumping for social contact.

It’s vitally important to build new behaviours that allow dogs to access that same thing. Trying to build any incompatible behaviour will fail if you are not using the reinforcer the dog wants to access. In other words, if they weren’t jumping up for food, it’s unlikely they’re going to stop doing it for food either.

It’s literally like giving me a sandwich if I want to shake your hand.

We’d make our lives a whole lot easier if we understood it’d be much easier to teach a replacement behaviour using the same stuff the dog wants to access. Not only that, it’s kinder and more appropriate. If the dog wants contact and we’re depriving them of that, especially if it makes them feel anxious not to get contact, then we need to give our heads a good wobble.

Once you know that you should be building behaviours that are reinforced by contact, you’re going to make life easier.

When you understand that asking for what I call Taxidermy Behaviours is also making our own lives more difficult, as well as those of our dogs, then you’re also going to make life easier. By Taxidermy Behaviours, I mean the kind of thing a stuffed dog could do – hold a sit, hold a down, hold four feet on the floor. Asking for moving, fluid behaviours rather than something a stuffed dog could do is going to make your life easier as well.

When you know those two things, whatever you ask for is going to be so much easier. Absolutely anything can generate human contact: hand touches, chin rests, standing between legs, leg weaves, pushing a flipping pram with a baby doll in it…

You do, however, want something that naturally encourages your guests to pet and make contact with your dog. Not everyone likes being bopped by a dog nose, especially on their hand. Vertical people have very little to rest a chin on (except feet, for very little dogs). Standing between legs can quickly knock people over. Also, and I’ve done this myself, when your dog likes jumping, the last place you want them to try to do that from is between your legs. That way, very unfortunate accidents can occur. But it depends on the dog. One dog who was anxious and jumping on people was very happy to go stand between her guardian’s legs until all the people had sat down. That worked for her. For a dog named Zébulon (Zebedee in French, from The Magic Roundabout) standing between his guardian’s legs ended up with a very unfortunate head making contact with very unfortunate delicate bits of the of the male anatomy.

The replacement behaviour I like the most is a leg lean. Most people instinctively bend down when a dog leans on their legs. Most people pet the dog. Flika used this to her advantage to elicit petting from various humans she met. Sometimes with me it was more of a leg slam, but most of the time, it worked.

If you’ve got seated people, a chin rest is a good one. Amigo, the tart of the dog world, would make his way around with his doleful eyes, resting his chin daintily on any lap he could find. Again, it most naturally ends with contact and I find those two behaviours to be most natural to the dog.

If you’re going to choose a replacement behaviour, make it easier, make it less effort, make it natural and reinforce it with the same stuff.

Teach it out of context and make sure it’s really well embedded before you embark out into the world. Make sure your dog can cope with times when they won’t be permitted to make contact – for people who don’t want to pet the dog or give the dog attention. You can, of course, use food when teaching the behaviour in the first place, but even there, I switch quickly to using contact and attention. You can put it on cue if you like. Ask the dog to ‘lean’ or to ‘rest’ is one way to do this. That way, you can encourage guests to ask the dog for the behaviour.

In sum, the whole chain would look like this:

  1. Teach the behaviour, reinforcing with contact (and food if you like)
  2. Put the behaviour on cue: ‘lean’
  3. Manage and teach the behaviour around guests (say behind a baby gate or out of context)
  4. Encourage guests to ask for the behaviour if they want to greet the dog
  5. Keep the cue fairly sloppy – let the dog do the behaviour when they like and reinforce. You shouldn’t have to ask them to do it all the time
  6. Manage the dog in context, ask guests if they’d like to greet the dog. If they do, ask them to cue the behaviour and reinforce with contact.

Having a good recall and a dog who can tolerate frustration will also help. You may well need to call your dog away. I quite often cue them to do the exact thing to me – Flika never seemed to care who petted her at greetings as long as someone did. Asking her for a lean meant she knew who was paying up and who wasn’t. A long history of reinforcement means the dog is more likely to seek contact out in people they can get it from rather than arse about trying to get it out of people who aren’t likely to pay out.

Between those four steps, I find the problem soon resolves itself. Give dogs the means to ask for what they need in ways that are socially acceptable, and everybody wins. You don’t have to put an end to your guests fussing your dog because it ends up restarting your dog’s pogo problem, and you don’t have to starve your dog of contact when it’s in their very DNA to ask for it.

Should we punish or correct?

If you follow the steps above, you won’t need to. Of course you may be tempted towards spray bottles, shake cans, kneeing the dog in the chest or even shock collars. You don’t need to use these methods. Punishment deprives the dog of getting their needs met. If trying to teach a dog to sit for a biscuit instead of jump on guests for greeting fails, you can be sure you’re going to need a pretty unpleasant experience to override your dog’s basic instincts.

It’s for that reason that many aversives fail.

If they succeed, they run the very high risk of a) damaging your relationship with your dog and b) making them feel even more uncomfortable around greetings. When you’ve read the explanation of what fuels excessive greetings, then you’ll realise that dogs already feel uneasy or ambivalent about greetings. They’re going to tend and befriend MORE if they feel nervous. So, here you are with your knee ready to punch the dog in the chest, wondering why your dog feels more anxious than ever about greetings. Punishment won’t resolve that. So besides potentially worsening your own relationship with your dog, worsening how they feel about people coming into the family group and needing to start at a high enough level to act as a deterrent for a very natural and normal behaviour, we should always remember that punishment simply suppresses behaviour temporarily.

It does not suppress the need to do the behaviour. It does not meet the dog’s needs. It may not even meet your guests’ needs if they’re in need of contact too. It’s our responsibility to teach our dogs. When we’re successful, we won’t have a problem. If your dog still isn’t quite getting it, it’s because you’re asking too much. Make it easier for them.

I find it massively ironic that people are so weird about greetings. Just 22 miles over the sea from the UK, where no contact at all is fairly standard, our French neighbours are busily shaking hands much more frequently than we British people do, and they’re also happily kissing cheeks in ways that can make repressed British people incredibly uncomfortable. Americans are huggers in ways that I will never be, and don’t get me started on life in Japan, where every bow is nuanced with meaning and even eye contact can be offensive. When we have a queen who people are supposed to bow or curtsey to – are they? Who knows? – and there are people to tell you how to address her if you meet her, it all feels a bit rich that we can’t understand our dogs’ frantic attempts to be a dog and their discomfort when they don’t have their needs met. If you are unsure how this works, try elbow bumping or bowing to the next person who offers you a culturally acceptable hug, kiss on the cheek or a hand shake. If you don’t both feel awkward, I’ll be happy to retract my statement and update my understanding. Fist bumps, high fives, back slaps, butt slaps, hand shakes, hugs, bisous, bows, curtseys… humans are WEIRD and etiquette matters. If you didn’t feel awkward when Trump tried to shake the Queen’s hand, don’t be upset when your dog gets it wrong with you. Humans are not just weird but weirdly unable to understand that dogs greet like dogs and that it’s hard for them not to.

In next week’s post, I’ll look at dogs who jump up because it’s exciting and things are WHOOO HOOOOOO!

PS I’ve got a book out! Find it in Amazon.

Fool Me Twice: When force and coercion backfire with Dogs

You know the old saying: ‘Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.’

That expression is so very true of dogs.

It can seem like such a simple solution to our problems. Just do it. Get it over with. Whatever it is won’t be that bad that the dog will take an instant dislike to it. Vet visits, medical treatment, trips in cars, being on their own, tolerating absence, going to daycare, visits to the dog park with scary-looking dogs, trips to the market, going for a walk, visits to cafés, nail clipping, muzzle use… even wearing a harness. All of these activities are the kind of things where humans can be tempted to think, ‘oh let’s just get it over with!’

To be fair, there are times when needs must. I lived with cats before having dogs as an adult. The first time I realised I needed to use a cat transport cage was the time my cat had an abscess that needed urgent treatment. I did not have time to make the whole experience more pleasant. In fact, since he’d arrived with me in a crate, you can be pretty sure he still remembered that horrible experience.

When you’re a cat guardian, I think you realise more easily that you can’t fool cats twice. Thinking of disguising a pill in paté? Good luck! It may work a little the first time, but I’d put money on it not working the second.

So when things are true emergencies, when we really don’t have the benefit of time, we might resort to force – whatever the situation is.

As long as it’s a one-off occasion, we won’t have to worry about the repercussions.

The trouble is that most things are not a one-off. Especially things that the animal finds traumatic.

So why can that one-off single traumatic event be so powerful?

Single-event fear learning is well-known in the psychology world. Where we truly fear for our safety or our lives, then our brain is very good at finding ways to make us avoid that situation in the future. After all, many millions of years of mammalian evolution mean that our ancestors – dog or man – were the ones who did learn from traumatic experiences. Avoiding or trying to escape from potentially life-threatening situations is advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.

Now you know and I know that wearing a harness is not a life-threatening situation. It doesn’t hurt, for goodness sake. We may even have gone out of our way to buy a harness made of fleece and loveliness.

Sticking a muzzle on a dog isn’t going to kill them.

Taking them for a walk in the park is not a life-or-death thing, on the whole.

Getting your nails clipped isn’t going to take you out of the gene pool.

In fact, that reminds me. There is a very popular viral video with a number of dogs fainting. It’s called ‘drama queens’ or something along those lines. People laugh at dogs who’ve, most likely, got a stress-induced medical condition called vasovagal syncope. For whatever reason your brain thinks fit, it shuts down all non-essential services and puts your body in lockdown. Syncope (fainting) can be caused by any number of things, but if you’re showing your dog nail clippers and they keel over, the likelihood is that their brain says ‘nope!’ and causes the dog to faint. The dog is not being a drama queen.

The reason I recognise it is because I have vasovagal syncope too. So does my mum and so does my paternal grandmother. I’m only saying that in case there are geneticists out there who are interested in the heritability of such a thing. It happens to us all in the exact same situation: needles.

Don’t get me wrong: my sisters are nurses. We have strong stomachs. I’ve cleaned up teenage vomit on coach-loads of schoolkids. I’ve cleaned ulcers and bathed wounds. I’ve nursed an old poodle who had an ulcerated wound on his head where you could actually see his skull and bits of other stuff I don’t want to think about very much. Helping out on vet day at the shelter opens your eyes to all kinds of wounds where you have to be grown-up about it. I’ve sat round Christmas tables while firefighters and emergency nurses explained what degloving means and what motorcyclists look like when their scalp comes off… The type of people who tell you off if you can’t pronounce vasovagal syncope because you’ve only read it on the internet… the people who’ve seen just how many people have such a fear because they’re passing out in Covid vaccination clinics across the world with surprising regularity.

So it’s not a phobia.

But once when I went for a routine tetanus, the doctor made us wait. I was standing up and … then I wasn’t. I think I hit the deck and I was unconscious for a couple of hours. It also happens when people talk about hip bones. I have no idea why. I feel icky, I feel warm, and boom, gone.

Now I’m a human. I do meditation. I know how to avert these attacks if they’re coming on. I put my head down low. Vasovagal syncope makes blood pressure and heart rate drop suddenly, so making it easier for the heart to pump it is always helpful. Not only that, if you’re standing, you make an almighty crash (apparently) if you pass out onto the doctor’s stone surgery floor. So I sit down, I wait for the cold sweats to start and for the yawning to pass. And then I’m fine.

I am a rational, grown-up human being. My rational brain is saying, ‘you got this! It doesn’t hurt at all… Don’t be a baby… it’s for the good… it’s over in milliseconds… Nurses are great at this…’ and my vasovagal nerve says, ‘I think you might die if I don’t protect your internal organs’

It’s even whispering that right now as I write about it.

So what I’m trying to say is that humans shouldn’t be judgey when thinking what animals might be afraid of. We share common fear responses to being trapped, being caught up in things, drowning, asphyxiating, certain creatures.

Here’s my girl Lidy with a snakeskin I found. It had just been shed and I don’t know if snakes smell, but you can see her hesitate. She starts by walking in very hesitantly, does that thing where her feet are planted as far back and she stretches her neck as far as it can, then steps back, licks her lips, backs up, yawns, looks away, comes in from another angle, and then my boy Heston comes in like a wrecking ball, sniffs it, decides it’s not good to eat and ignores it. Look at the length of her neck though as she stretches out to eat it. I heard a new way to describe this last week: giraffe neck. Totally.

Now Lidy is adopted and I can’t swear she’s never had a bad experience with a snake before I knew her. In other words, it could be a learned fear just exactly as this post is about. But I have known Heston the vast, vast majority of his nine years and I know he hasn’t…. and he doesn’t care. Fear of snakes is such a universal fear, though, going across many species, that it may be almost instinctive.

We don’t get to choose what upsets our dogs. Heston? Brave with that weird snakeskin, barked at a stone cross. Terrified of large spoons and cups being offered to him. Brave with dogs and people. Terrified of the vet even though I promise she never hurt him. So terrified he wet himself. Sorry for sharing that, Heston.

Lidy? Will bite a live snake full in the face. Terrified of snakeskin. What’s up with that? Scared of corncobs. Brave with cows and vans and cars and dogs way bigger than she is. Can walk past a gas bird-scarer at full volume. Petrified of thunder, fireworks and people cheering on the other side of the road if someone scores a goal.

Deciding for dogs that they should just get over whatever experience it is and stop being babies usually backfires. Some dogs just become more fearful when forced. Heston does. His anal glands have given way twice in his life and he’s quite a fan of wetting himself when I’d be hitting the floor head first. Other dogs freeze. You can see Lidy freezing, approaching, freezing approaching. Some dogs hit the deck and don’t move. You see videos of these ones too, usually being dragged around a park with comments like ‘my dog’s so lazy!’ Some dogs just stage a sit-in. Bum hits the floor and it’s a great big NO from them. And the ones I work with will often bite. That’s usually way more effective than lying down and being dragged around on your lead anyway.

The thing is, we’ve known this a long time. The fallout of coercion, force and punishment is well known and documented. Sixty years of lab-based and field-based studies and we’ve still not got our heads around the fact that if we use these methods, there may be unintended and unpredictable consequences. It’s time we put our sensible heads on and step way from forcing animals into doing things just because we can. Or, at least, just because we can once.

Bribery also falls into the category of coercion as well. I know it probably doesn’t feel much like you’re forcing your dog if you’re bribing them with cheese to get them to put a halti on or to come back to you if you call them and they’ve stolen something they shouldn’t have. Of course, less knowledgeable trainers may think reinforcement training with food is bribery. It isn’t. That works ‘behaviour’ then ‘food’. Bribery starts by offering food and if the dog wants to, then you’ll get the behaviour. There’s a big difference between choosing to do something because you’ll get a predictable consequence like food for doing so, or being cajoled into doing something with food. Worse still, if you’re in the habit of bribery, as soon as you get your bribes out, the dog can predict you’re about to do that incredibly mean thing again.

Sometimes, that pressure or force can be relatively minor. Even bringing dogs to us with food as a bribe can be just as uncomfortable for them as doing something really, really unpleasant. Remember: we don’t get to choose what animals find unpleasant. I pass out because I think about hip bones…

Even things like stepping in towards a static dog to coerce a sit may seem like something fairly innocuous. It’s not the least unpleasant thing in the world, but stepping in to a dog’s space when they’ve failed to respond to a cue is a way of putting pressure on a dog because they didn’t respond the last time. It can be really tough to stand still and not use our own bodies as a way of coercing dogs into doing things.

So we can fool our dogs once. We can bribe them a few times. We can shove the muzzle on. We can clip the harness on. We can attach a lead to a newly-adopted street dog who’s been caught with a catchpole and never been on a lead in their life before. We can force a dog into a crate or a travel kennel or an Elizabethan collar. We can grab them and wrestle them into the car. We can pin them down at the vet and restrain them. I could have got that snakeskin, backed Lidy into a corner and held her there, trapped, until she ‘faced her fears’. We can force our dog to swallow a pill. We can hold their mouth open and force that pill down. We can stick a halti or a snoot loop or some other offensive piece of equipment on them.

And it might work. Once.

If we’re incredibly lucky (and the dog is incredibly unlucky) because we outweigh them and we’re inventive little apes, we may be able to do that for the rest of the dog’s life. Want a walk? Well, you’re wearing a muzzle. Suck it up.

If we’re fairly lucky, Pavlov might come along for the ride and if the very horrible thing like a car journey or a muzzle or a lead or a head halter or a harness is then followed by a very lovely thing, then the scary thing will come to predict the very good thing through association and our fearful or unwilling dog will come to see the offending item as being a predictor of something good.

And for the rest of us?

You’ve guessed it.

We’re going to suffer the consequences of coercion.

Aggression is one potential side-effect of using force. That may be directed at you if you’re the one trying to manipulate the dog or do something to them, or it could be directed at another individual. One example is the dog who’d been forced into a muzzle and manipulated at the vet’s, The case was very much worsened by the fact the dog had severe hip dysplasia. You’ve guessed it. The dog saw the muzzle the second time and bit their guardian as they tried to put the muzzle on.

Another possible side-effect of coercion is avoidance. Yes, you can see how this plays out. The first time you forcibly remove an item from your dog, your dog may tolerate it. But the next time they pick up something you don’t want them to have? They’ll scarper. Then you’ve set yourself up for a nice game of ‘Catch me if you can’. Avoidance is particularly problematic if you’re in big spaces, so it’s really not a good idea to catch a dog when they’ve failed to recall and then force a head-halter on them. Not only will they scarper when they see the head-halter, but you’ll also blow all your recall training. Forceful people are not nice to be around, and dogs will become wary of humans who reach out to do things to them.

It’s not unusual, therefore, to find dogs avoiding the guardian clipping the lead on, and then behaving aggressively if the guardian manages to corner them. The same for pills, medical interventions, putting dogs in the car… you name it. The last thing you need is a dog who feels uncomfortable and chooses to stay away from you if you really need them to be close to you.

Dogs who have a history of coercion also tend to offer less behaviour. They sit more. They opt out more. They lie down and refuse to move. Again, if approached, that might well turn to aggression. I’m sure you’ve all been in class with a teacher who insisted on asking you questions. When you didn’t know, what did you do? If you had lovely teachers, you’d say ‘I don’t know!’ and they’d explain. If you have teachers who humiliate you and make it an unpleasant experience, you’ll avoid eye contact but you’ll also do less. Nobody wants to draw attention to themselves when under threat. Also, if dogs have no choice and no way out, they may also have what psychology professor Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’. I write a lot about this elsewhere, but frequently coerced dogs end up doing very little. They are still and small and avoid eye contact, while at the same time keeping an eye on the person who’s been doing the forcing.

Dogs who are frequently coerced by guardians also suffer because they have no outlet for their anxiety. It’s not unusual therefore to hear of dogs developing stereotypical behaviours such as circling or pacing as a way to cope with their anxiety. Often, when avoiding a guardian, they’ll become restless and agitated. They also become hypervigilant for all the contextual cues that mean they’re about to be forced into doing something, and then they generalise wildly. Living in a hyperalert state and not trusting your guardian are recipes for ongoing anxiety problems in dogs.

Just because dogs have been forced into doing something doesn’t mean they learn how to do what you want. When Tilly had ear problems, she’d come to me, present her ear and I’d put her drops in. No force. She knew exactly what she needed to do. When I get harnesses or muzzles out, my dogs approach me and stand while I put them on. No force. I present the muzzle and they put their noses in and hold still. No force.

Choice is also a very powerful motivator, where force and pressure are not. Where dogs understand what’s happening and they’ve been taught gradually and without fear or uncertainty things become more predictable. The funny thing about unpleasant events is that individuals cope better with predictable unpleasant events than they do with random ones. If we can pair predictable unpleasant events up with predictable yummy stuff that follows, then we can very quickly turn something unpleasant into something that’s acceptable. This is how we teach dogs to accept muzzles and harnesses, leads, constraint, being in the car, having injections, getting their nails clipped…

So force a dog at your own peril, I say. Accept that you may have to do it once or twice in emergencies. Know that this will destroy a whole lot of trust with your dog and you’ll need to rebuild that trust. Prepare your dog for all of life’s unpleasant events. The last thing you need is a dog who really, really needs to wear a muzzle for a couple of vet visits being forced into one and then deciding that she didn’t like it very much and makes your life miserable the second time she sees the blessèd thing.

We should all remember, too, that we don’t get to choose what our dog decides they are opting out of. There is no rhyme or reason that says one dog will be afraid to approach a stone cross and another will be afraid to approach a snake skin and that both will be happy to go into the vet but neither feels happy going in to water that’s too deep. We don’t get to predict and we don’t get to choose. It may seem ridiculous to you that your dog literally passes out at the sight of nail clippers, but in your dog’s brain, it’s literally a matter of life or death. And if you’re thinking they should grow up and get over it, remember most humans have got some weird thing that they can’t do. I can’t touch felt. I can’t stand people sweeping carpets with sweeping brushes. I like watching the swallows in the evening until I realise they’re bats, and then I freak out even though I like bats and they’re literally no more likely to fly at me than a swallow is, and if they did, it’d be no less bad.

We don’t get to pick what we find icky. Animals don’t either.

Remember that the first experience sets the rule. After that, we’re learning exceptions. So if you want your dog to learn that leads and collars are horrible, they feel like they’re choking and they might die, then go ahead and force them that first time. That initial experience sets the rule. If you want your dog to enjoy walking on lead, introduce the lead carefully enough that there’s no force involved at all. That sets the rule.

And if you’re looking for cooperative ways to handle your dogs, then you can always read my post about cooperation and handling.

References:

Azrin, N. H. (1956) Some effects of two intermittent schedules of immediate and non-immediate punishment. Journal of Psychology, 42, 3-21.

Azrin, N. H. (1960) Effects of punishment intensity during variable interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 3, 123-142.

Bolles, R. C. (1970) Species-specific defense reactions and avoidance learning. Psychological Review, 77, 32-48.

Fantino, E. (1973) Aversive control. In J. A. Nevin (Ed.), The study of behavior. Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman

If you’re here as a dog trainer, why not check out my new book?

Client-Centred Dog Training helps you get out of the coercion and compliance mode with human students too. No grown person should be forced to do something they don’t believe in. I really feel that, if we’re working with humans and their animal companions, we need to step away from words like ‘compliance’. Guess what? Force free works for humans too! If you enjoy my articles, you’ll definitely enjoy this!

Thin Slices and Shaving in Dog Training


No, I’m not talking about wafer-thin ham or lion cuts in grooming, I promise!

One of the things I find to be absolutely true is that guardians have already tried to do what I’m proposing. I never turn up and propose something they’ve never considered. If they have a dog who’s wary of strangers, they’ve tried to expose their dog to strangers. If they have a dog who barks when people come in their house, they’ve tried to expose their dog to people coming into the house. If they have a dog who’s chasing cats, they’ve tried to expose their dog to cats.

And so it goes.

So when I say we’re going to try it again, they’re all: ‘Tried that. Didn’t work.’

The main difference between what I’m proposing and what they did is that I’m going to do less of it over a longer period. Much less of it. Much longer period.

When we’re working with dogs to expose them to things they find exciting or frustrating, or when we’re working with them on things they are afraid of, then we use a planning tool called a stimulus gradient, like those road signs you see to show you inclines and declines.

It means instead of exposing our dogs to things they’re scared up right up close, we’re going to take our time and work further back. We’re working either to train them and teach them new skills, to desensitise them or to counter-condition them. We can, of course, do all three.

So why am I doing exactly what the guardians have already done, knowing that it will work?

Basically it comes down to understanding and expectations.

Lidy, the recalcitrant malinois, has recently discovered pigeons. We’ve never known pigeons, other than the wood pigeons that lived in the garden and were much more wary of other species. At the moment, we’re living among cocky, well-fed pigeons who have never met a Lidy. She’s never stalked birds, but now she’d decided she’s a pointer, she’s in full-on stalk mode around 200m away.

Now we will be working on this once life settles down for us again. Right now, we’re just getting by.

When I start working on her with it, though, that gradient will be so gentle and so ridiculously slow. We’ll start over 200m away, where the sudden flight of a flock of pigeons isn’t likely to set off all her chase mechanisms.

Where most guardians start, though, is when the dog is so aroused that they’ve no chance intervening when the pigeons all decide to fountain up into the air. Often, they will tell me that they’ve had loads of space. And when I ask them how much space that is, it turns out to be 10m or so.

Not only that, but they’ll also lump the distance and increase the challenge too significantly. I may well do a couple of days around 225m and then 210m for a couple of days. This is shaving. Slicing off such fine, fine tranches of the distance that it may seem barely noticeable.

Generally, I tend to work between 5% – 10% off the gradient. Any less and progress will be frustrating. If I’m doing 3%, for the sake of argument, over 225m, by day 21, I’m going to be around 125m away still. It could take me 3 months of diligent work. For most guardians, that can be very frustrating. It can also be frustrating for the dog too.

Yet most guardians shave off too much distance or add too much time. For instance, even a 25% gradient will take you 17 days, shaving off 55m on that very first day, and if I’m working on Day 1 at 225m without reaction and I dip down to 170m on Day 2, it’ll be unlikely my dog will be able to cope with such a big dip, especially at the beginning. If she’s stalking them at 200m, I’d be silly to think that one day of training will be enough. The gradient is too steep.

In fact, most guardians aren’t always aware of the point at which a trigger becomes noticeable. We call this salience. Last night, hot night, windows open, some neighbours were out late in the garden drinking and chatting. I was trying to drop off to sleep. Most of the time, their voices were background noise, and once or twice every two or three minutes, the decibels would increase. Background noise became salient.

Now I was a long way from yelling at them out of the window but two hours of spiking did test my patience. Yet most dog guardians do the equivalent of waiting until their dog is leaning out of the window yelling obscenities. If you wanted to work on my tolerance of night-time noise, then waiting until I’m involved in blue-faced yelling about respect out of a window at one in the morning is never going to work.

So partly we have to notice that point of salience and work at that point. Not the point of reaction.

In other words, we want to know when the trigger becomes noticeable, not when is the dog out of control. The salience point for Lidy is around 200m. The out of control point is around 10m when the pigeons all decide to take off. That’s the first thing we need to do if we’re going to start shaving off thin slices: work out the salience point and the reaction point. When does it become noticeable? When does the dog react?

When we’ve got the point of salience, that moment the trigger slips from the periphery into relevance, that’s where we need to start the gradient. As you’ll know from my other blogs, that can often be around 500m sometimes.

But that’s where we start planning.

A stimulus gradient is basically like any other gradient. It can be steep or it can be really shallow. Our dogs’ exposure to things that excite them or things that make them afraid is most likely to fail when we expose them on a steep gradient. That 25% gradient is too steep. Even a 15% change gradient is too much for most humans involved in achieving goals – let alone a dog who feels murderous around pigeons. Think of us going down a steep hill in our cars…. We know the steeper it is and the more pressure we put on our brakes, the more likely they are to overheat and fail. The same happens to our dogs’ control mechanisms.

Making the gradient less challenging without making it frustrating is where the shaving and fine slicing comes in. The better we are at this, the more likely our dogs will be able to cope. Too big a gradient over too short a time and we’ll lose. Too small a gradient over too long a time and we’ll lose. We’re looking for the Goldilocks gradient: just right.

Once we’re working at the point of salience, not the point of reaction, and once we’re working on the Goldilocks gradient, the animals we work with will find life much easier.

Now I could take you through the complex maths and pyramid sets I do with clients, or the occasional variable sets that average out to the set increase for that day, but most of my clients find that too precise and overly complex. I find that, as long as they’re keeping an eye on body language and they’re working roughly around the Goldilocks level, things usually go just fine. It doesn’t need to be planned in compulsively inflexible mathematical steps. In fact, I think most of my clients would give up if I expected this. That’s not to say I don’t expect journals and logs along with rough estimates of distance, but I don’t expect them to get their measuring wheel out, glue some pigeons in to place, measure out exactly 169m, do five trials that average out to 169m and repeat the next day at 162.5m. That’s where frustration lies.

I have found, though, two other techniques that can help. The first is to keep to a short number of trials.

I know people who’ve shaved their gradient so finely that they’re doing eight months on a programme. Not only that, they’re starting at reaction point, not salience point, and they’re still battling the dog eight months in. If you’re doing it at that beautiful sweet spot, you’ll find that five trials that finish on a win is more than enough.

You don’t need to be doing twenty or thirty minutes. Everything we know about Pavlovian conditioning says that associations should happen within a brief number of trials. We do five trials and we go.

Of course, my clients think this is madness at first. We rock up, we do five trials, we go home. What kind of trainer is this?!

And this is why I need them to be able to do most of it themselves. I don’t expect to have to go and hold their hand over this once they know where the dog notices the trigger and they’re making sure their next-day goals aren’t some enormous and unreachable challenge.

We turn up, we do five trials. We go home.

Dog working on fearfulness around people? See five people, go home.

Dog working on predation of pigeons? See five flocks of pigeons, go home.

In fact, it may even be five repetitions of the same trigger. That’s fine too.

That’s my first piece of advice. Keep training sessions ridiculously short.

My second is to finish on a win.

Humans are terrible at pushing things too far. We always do it. ‘Just one more!’ we think to ourselves. Our hardest habit to break will be getting over that just one more mentality. When we finish on a loss, not only is the dog rehearsing a behaviour once more, but they’re also strengthening the link between doing the behaviour and what comes next. One loss and we’re then fighting to try and get a win. What happens if we have to go through fifty repetitions to get that win? We’re at 50:1 in terms of practising vs learning. I want zero practising.

So when I finally get around to working with Lidy on her pigeon fancying, we’ll be doing those four things: starting at the point of salience where she notices them, not when she’s leaping after them… planning a ‘Goldilocks’ gradient to make sure I’m not asking too much or too little… keeping sessions short… finishing on a win.

Once those four rules are in place, the progress made is astounding. Those four rules are the difference between trying a technique and failing, and trying a technique and succeeding.

In other news, my new book came out on Saturday. It’s a book for trainers who are looking at ways to increase client engagement. If you’re a dog trainer who wishes that you just had to work with dogs, because they’re easy, but their humans are a challenge, this book is for you!

Find it on Amazon or click the image!


If you’ve ever felt like you know how to train dogs but you’re missing out on key skills on training people, if your clients testing your patience with their weird and idiosyncratic ways, then this book is made for you.

‘Owner compliance’ is often seen as the magic ingredient where successful outcomes are concerned in dog training. Yet the concept of force is at odds with how many of us work with animals in a compassionate and cooperative way. In this book, you’ll find 30 lessons to sharpen your skills in taking a compassionate and cooperative approach with your human clients too. Make no mistake, though: it’s not tea and sympathy! It will also give you a business edge too!

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