Most of my clients come to me with dogs who are fearful, reactive or aggressive. Some of their dogs are shy; others are confident and a little boisterous. Usually they have problem behaviours that are interfering with their own well-being or the well-being of those around them. Some have problems with their guardians or with dogs in the home; others have problems when out in the real world and faced with life at large.
Solving the problem is never the issue: there are no problems we haven’t seen before. There are no dogs who have problems that other trainers or other vets, other guardians and other dogs haven’t overcome. There is nothing new in the world of dog training. There’s nothing new in the world of dogs.
Finding a way to solve the problem that fits your specific circumstances is a little tougher. All training needs time to acquire the skills you need and time to proof them in progressively more challenging circumstances. It’s that heady mix of slowly and surely, systematically and thoughtfully.
I’ve said before that there are no magic bullets. It’s just getting the little stuff right and practising until you’ve got it. Start way easier than you could ever imagine you need to and take the tiniest, baby steps until you’ve got it sorted.
Two things happen along the way though.
The first is that you worry it’ll never be right, that your dog will never be over their problem. You worry that they’ll never be ‘better’ and that you’ll never be able to cope. You worry that you’ll never be able to do X or Y. You worry that you might not get around to being able to do A or B, let alone X and Y. This generally happens about four to six weeks in, when you’ve forgotten the great progress you’ve already made.
You might, for example, have gone from worrying on every single walk that your dog was going to bark or lunge at someone. You might have gone from regular jumping, digging or humping to practically none at all.
But you’ve been managing the situation and you’ve been carrying the burden of making sure you never put your dog in situations that were too hard for them to handle. It’s all been on you.
Don’t get me wrong – they’ll have been great. You’ll have worked on focus, on impulses, on manners. You’ll have been desensitising like mad and counterconditioning like a fool, and you’ll have got your u-turns and your hand touches down perfectly.
You should have had a month of great experiences.
But in the back of your mind is the nagging doubt as you move to more challenging situations. The nagging voice that says, ‘What if?’
What if someone appears out of nowhere? What if a guest encourages my dog to start humping again? What if the delivery guy sets foot on the property?
A lot of this comes from having kept your dog safe during the early stages of training. That burden has been on you and it’s been tough. It’s hard to think of every single thing that could go wrong and plan it so that it doesn’t. It’s an emotional strain – just as it is living with dogs who have any kind of problem.
As you move out into the real world again and you start to put your dog and your training to the test, it’s bound to be nerve-wracking. My advice is to get a trainer to help you with it. However, they can’t be with you every single trial you’re going to do over the next three months. As you place your dog in more and more challenging situations, two things will happen. The first is that you’ll begin to have faith in them. The second is you worry they’ll relapse.
Heston is my go-to demo dog these days. He had 8 years to prepare for it, where other dogs carried that burden. Ralf, Amigo, Flika… they’d all done their share of helping guardians and their dogs. Heston, not until last September.
To be frank, Heston missed out on some stuff I should have taught him and I didn’t know enough then to raise him as thoughtfully as I should have done.
We trained. I kept him safe. Gradually, we met the world again. Vet surgeries and human contact, he’s come to tolerate if not enjoy. We learned how to cope around livestock and we learned not to go mental if we see wild boar sunning themselves. We learned not to chase swallows and not to bark at crows.
He has been the best demo dog. Mostly because he’s made the journey my clients’ dogs are making. He’s moved from barking at joggers and shouting at hikers to impeccable behaviour around all kinds of scary, strange humans. We found ourselves once in a masked parade by accident (don’t ask!) and our former worst nightmare turned out to be a walk in the park. He’s stopped over-reacting when he sees dogs and he is an absolute dream with dogs in the vets.
This is not to brag. This is to say, ‘Have Faith’.
Those As and Bs you don’t think you can do today will be Xs and Ys that will be a breeze in the future.
You don’t only need to have faith in your training and in that slow and repetitive process. You also need to rebuild your trust. I remember the day Heston lunged at a jogger who didn’t give us a wide enough berth, despite him barking like a maniac at her. That slow and steady process rebuilt my trust in him and his trust in me.
Every walk with Lidy, every car journey, we’re building trust. I get to watch her horizons broaden, little by little.
Lidy is never going to be my demo dog. That’s fine. I never expected she would be. She will be safe and her world will gradually get bigger, month by month. We might end up with some Cs and Ds instead of As and Bs.
Having faith, rebuilding your trust and respecting hard boundaries is all part of the process.
There will be days it will fail.
I remember about 18 months into working with Lidy. She’d not had any confrontations for those 18 months. One Saturday (coincidentally the Saturday I met Flika!) all her nightmares came at once: Saturday walks in the shelter, darkness, too many people, too many visitors, a man lumbering towards her. She couldn’t cope. Nothing much happened other than me getting a new set of holes in a coat. But it felt like everything had gone.
When it fails, we tend to think all has failed. It’s all been for nothing. Everything was wrong.
What we need to do is realise two things: what we were doing was working and we’re never back at Square One.
Repeat that like a mantra every single time you have a set back. You are never back at Square One.
You are NEVER back at Square One.
All your work counts.
Those 18 months of training and trust didn’t get wiped out in one fell swoop.
We re-set. We re-calibrate (thanks Frances!).
We take a deep breath and we keep doing what we were doing.
I’m now 3 years past that last incident with Lidy. I have no new holes in my jumpers. We’ve seen very muscular joggers running at us. We’ve had dogs appear from nowhere. We’ve crested the hill of what we would do when an off-lead dog was going to come bounding over to us. That bridge has been crossed and the water has well and truly passed beneath it.
We crest new hills all the time. She isn’t the dog she was. Heston is not the dog he was.
None of this is magic bullet stuff. If you read my articles, you know it’s patience, training and working with the dog at their pace. That’s all.
But it’s not just about the dog. It’s about us.
We need to remember to have faith. We need to trust in the process. We need to remember that we’re never back to Square One on the Snakes-and-Ladders board called Life. All that work counts.
So if you’re just starting out with your training plan, remember it’s as much about you as your dog. It’s about you remembering that progress isn’t linear and that life is what happens when you’re busy trying to hold it at bay.
Don’t waste your worries on whether you’ll be able to take your dog to the beach in two years’ time, if they’ll cope in kennels, if they’ll survive yet another off-lead dog running up to you, if they’ll ever stop humping Auntie Kitty.
All your training counts.
It can be hard to keep the pessimism at bay when you’re dealing with dogs with problems. There’s no good reason, though, that you can’t achieve at least some improvement before you compromise and settle on a life that suits both you and the dog.
Grit your teeth, make your training plan and keep going!
Life is all about balance. We want our dogs to be free to investigate the environment, but we don’t want them to pull us along through the mud. We want our dogs to be free to make their own behavioural choices, but we don’t want them to make choices that are injurious to them. We want to walk our dogs off lead, but we want them to come back when we call.
I’m a fairly laissez-faire guardian. I don’t micromanage my dogs and I’m too lazy to do obedience with them. Plus, I can’t see the point of drilling my dog to gaze at me as we walk as if I’m the hottest star on the planet. My cocker would do that for 5km if I had an accidental pig’s ear in my pocket, and after the first kilometre, it gets a big tedious to be honest. Plus, I’m walking them for them not for me. I would like to go eat cake and drink coffee. So if I’m out on a walk, this is my dog’s time. I don’t care for them heeling for 5km in the hopes of pork products. I want them to enjoy their walk and be dogs.
Yet the truth is that it’s never been possible for dogs to live in the human sphere without rules. If Lidy didn’t have rules (and doors, gates, fences and leads) she’d have run into the cow field opposite and either been kicked to death in her efforts to bring down a prize beef bull, or been shot by the farmer. If Heston didn’t have rules, he’d have died of starvation in the forest after spending his life chasing creatures and investigating. I don’t think it would have crossed his tiny mind to even go rooting in dustbins or eating the creatures he found even if he was very hungry.
Even street dogs and feral dogs, those who live in spaces between the human world and the wild world, are bound by rules. You don’t chase traffic, you don’t harass humans and you don’t harass other animals. Strict penalties, including the death penalty if you do.
It’s a balance for those of us who live with a dog – trying to find that magical world between a ‘full’ life for a dog and a life limited to one of sentient cuddly toy.
The truth is, though, when many of us give our dogs liberty, they don’t know how to cope with it. Just yesterday, we had a run-in with an off-lead dog who couldn’t cope with his liberty and charged up to us in a completely inappropriate way. And when we deprive them of their liberty, we’re faced with the need to teach them to walk nicely on lead, to accept being enclosed all day and to accept the frustrations of not being able to fulfill their most basic urges.
Some dogs struggle with achieving balance and when given liberty, make choices that put themselves or other individuals into harm.
One of the responsibilities, then, of entering into a relationship with a dog is to manage the balance between giving them freedom and helping them cope with restriction. Our lives with dogs are all about that balance. If we do the former, we have happy, fulfilled dogs. If we do the latter, we have dogs who cope with the frustrations that come along with living with humans.
What we need to do, then, is teach them how to cope with frustration and how to make good choices.
This is much easier with a puppy, of course. We can habituate them to small amounts of frustration, of not being able to get what they want immediately. We can inoculate them against the stresses of frustration by very, very gradually putting them in situations where patience, settling and calm are rewarded. We can teach them how to cope when alone. We can help them cope with frustrations of not being able to get to us or not being able to access play or petting or food when they want it. We teach them that all good things come to those who wait.
There are many ways you can teach dogs to wait. It doesn’t have to be painful. Most of this is basic manners: don’t mug me for your bowl; don’t jump up on me for affection; don’t charge my legs as you run out of the door; don’t paw me or nudge me because you want me to stroke you. We can teach our dogs nice ways to ask politely – I always teach my dogs that they can have as much petting as they like if they rest their chin on me. It beats being clawed to death. My dogs know that if they wait patiently, they’ll always get what they want. And I never ask them to wait patiently if they’re too young or I haven’t taught them how yet. No mugging is an absolute basic starting point:
You can also do ‘slow treat’. Once you’ve mastered ‘no mugging’, you can use slow treats to help your dog cope with their impulse to grab.
I love Deb Jones and I love this slow treat procedure. It’s been an absolute Godsend for so many other dogs. I used it with a big, grabby malinois x GSD who was reactive to other dogs. ‘Slow treats’ was his favourite thing to do with me other than getting aggressive with on-lead dogs around him. Some dogs – particularly the confident ones I find – like this focus game and it helps build up that concept of good things coming to those who wait. Shy dogs find it tougher, so you can start at the elbow. It’s a really good game as a prerequisite to ‘watch’.
Some trainers don’t like teaching dogs to watch or asking them to check in with us, but if you see something they’ve not seen yet that would end in a battle, if your aim is distraction, it can be a useful tool. I used it on Thursday when a deer stood stock still in the path ahead of us for a good couple of minutes trying to decide if we were a threat. I prefer nose down to the ground for real distraction, and many dogs find it hard to keep visual focus for a long time, but it’s a useful tool that has its place. Lidy really struggled with this game at first. No surprises there. The big surprise was that in starting it, lots of her other impulsive behaviours lessened without teaching. Lidy likes leaping on things in bushes. Leaping on things in bushes seemed to be massively reduced through playing the ‘slow treats’ game, and I often use it to calm her if she gets a little manic. Not being impulsive is a learned skill: dogs aren’t born with it. That’s especially true for certain breeds hardwired for dopamine fixes.
This is another Deb Jones one, and most of you will be already doing things like waiting for your dog to chill out before going to their bowl. Don’t overlook this skill though: it’s important for what comes later.
So you’ve done ‘no mugging’, you’ve done ‘slow treats’, you’ve done ‘zen bowl’… you can then start ‘chuck the cheese’ for dogs who are very chase-oriented. Tony Cruse’s activity is great to build up from the slower activities you’ve already done. You don’t need to do with with a collar hold – you can also put a bit of pressure on their chest.
Deb Jones also teaches ‘Get it!’, as do I.
You might overlook the importance of ‘Get it!’
Jane Ardern of Waggawuffins and Smart Dog makes the very valid point that we don’t want our dogs to get most things in the universe. If we teach ‘Leave it!’ on its own, then all we’re doing is setting ourselves up for a lifetime of ‘Leave it…. Leave it…. Leave it… Leave it….’
Isn’t it better, she says, if we teach ‘Get it!’
Honestly, I think dogs need both. When you understand ‘Get it!’ and ‘Leave it!’ then you have parameters… what’s out of bounds and what’s allowed. Along with ‘Wait!’, you’re teaching your dog what to get, what to leave and what to leave for a little while if they’ve got impulse control. I’d be remiss if I didn’t put Susan Garrett’s It’s Yer Choice in here.
You can, of course, make it as complex as you wish then. Instead of asking for their name or a sit, you can ask for any other behaviour. If you want to practise heeling around a pile of biscuits or toys, that’s your choice. Fill the space between the exciting thing going on the floor and you saying ‘Get it!’ with whatever your dog can manage. You can shape progressively more challenging behaviours and longer periods between the placement and the ‘Get it!’ You can clearly play this with toys as well.
Leslie McDevitt uses a flirt pole with her dogs in Pattern Games, and Kristen Crestejo uses one here too.
Of course, many of these things are seen as typically obedience-based or manners-based. But for dogs who do not make good choices under pressure, like Lidy, then learning to stop and voluntarily control your behaviour is a much higher-order brain skill. I find that with a lot of these impulse control games, the dogs are learning to space out what they want to do with actually doing it so that you can add direction or so that they can make better choices. It’s a core element of gundog training and works heavily on the Premack Principle. Premack basically pairs up a behaviour the dog would do less with one they would do more of. Make the favoured behaviour a consequence of the less favoured behaviour. Sit, and you get to run. Wait, and you get to chase.
Once your dog has control over themselves and they’re coping better with frustration, you can then add in something I refer to as ‘Mother, May I?’
When I was a small thing, I did a lot of those activities that get your parents some time alone. We also spent an inordinate amount of time out on the street playing with everyone else in the neighbourhood to the extent that I’m surprised I’m not entirely feral.
One of the games we played in Brownies and out on the street was one called ‘Mother, May I?’
Basically, one person plays Mother. They stand about 10 or 20 metres away from the rest of the kids. The aim is to get to Mother. You think of a way to get closer to her, like hopping, and say, ‘Mother, May I take five hops forward?’
Mother may say yes. She may say no. If you don’t ask nicely (Mother, May I?) you go back to the beginning.
Basically, it’s a permission game. Ask nicely. I may say yes, I may say no.
This is another really easy one to do with dogs.
Position a lot of interesting items around your garden when your dog is not present, or use an empty field or pathway. Make sure there is plenty of space between the items, and include stinky things as well as food. Put your dog on a lead, preferably using a long line where you’ve given the dog 2m or so of the 10. If they try to pull forward, stop dead. Your dog may then choose to do something else, like come back. In that case, you can let the lead out and say your marker word like ‘Get it!’. Whatever your dog offers may be the basis of a really nice ‘Mother, May I?’ request. Some dogs look back. That’s fine. You can use ‘Get it!’ if you want to shape and build that behaviour. Some dogs come back. That’s fine too. Some dogs slack off. Lidy sits. Ideally, what you want is some engagement with you. You’re the one with the lead. I’ve been shaping eye contact from Lidy. Sitting for permission to go chase cows doesn’t cut it for me.
At first, you can navigate the course with ‘Get it!’ cues. Then you can add in ‘Leave it!’ cues (you don’t get to get it at all) and ‘Wait!’ cues (you can have it in a second).
What you have are parameters and a dog who knows to ask if they can go forward and that lunging does not work. Technically, you’re replacing lunging with a ‘Mother May I?’
Dogs who have frustration issues will find this insanely hard. That’s why you absolutely have to start with the simple stuff like ‘no mugging’ and to make sure they’re really good at waiting and leaving items. You can also add in other cues like ‘Go Sniff’.
Using these isn’t a matter of a robotic military drill on a walk…
‘Heel… Leave it… Heel… Wait… Heel… Get it… Heel… Go sniff…’
You’re not a helicopter parent micromanaging their every behaviour.
What happens though is impulsivity slacks off. It is not rewarded in any of these games. Patience is rewarded. Waiting is rewarded. Checking in is rewarded.
The other day, a bird flew out of a hedge right near Lidy’s head. Did she leap on it? No. Did I have to say ‘Leave it!’. No. She moved forward as if to leap on it … and then she stopped. She didn’t sit and look at me as if I am a cruel beast for not letting her try to chomp birds. She just went back to what she was doing. The bird didn’t set off her primitive ‘leap on it now!’ brain circuitry. Well, it did a little. Then her fully exercised self-control and thought muscle kicked in. No point chasing a bird who has gone. The moment was over.
What you find with impulse control activities is that your dog is building up some space between thinking and action in order for training to kick in. They’re also learning to defer to you if they don’t make good decisions. For those of us trying to break superstitious behaviours where the dog impulsively barks or lunges and we can’t make headway because we can’t break the link between the thing appearing and our dog lunging, impulse control often gives us the wiggle room. This is so important for dogs who are impulsively aggressive or reactive. The big, slow neocortex can kick in and take over with its ability to rationalise and to control voluntary movements, rather than the zippy limbic system and reptilian bits of the brain making impulsive decisions first.
If you want to move from impulsive actions to a zen calm, teaching your dog about parameters is essential.
Dog Training Secrets #1: there are no magic bullets.
You want to make money? Market a product for dogs that claims to solve problems instantly. By the time you get caught out, you’ll have made your money and be sitting at a bar surrounded by palm trees somewhere much warmer and less muddy than you are now. Better still, design five products and sell them a couple of years apart from each other. Pay a world-class marketing team and your job is done. Sit back and watch the profits roll in. Warning: this is not a job for you if you are at all afflicted by a conscience or any sense of shame.
It seems that everyone on social media these days is after the magic bullet, the panacea, the cure-all, for their dogs’ behaviour.
The Quick Fix is everything.
You’d have thought we’d be wise to snake-oil salesmen by now, but it seems Barnum was right when he said there’s a sucker born every minute – if he said it at all. And we all know fools and their money are soon parted.
Sometimes, we’ve sat back and watched our dog’s problems develop over months if not years. We’ve let them grow and grow. Perhaps we tried to ignore them and that made things worse. Those problems fester and metastasize. Sometimes, that’s just because life got in the way. Jobs got busy. Kids took priority. Pandemics ran rampant. One day, we wake up and we find that the itty bitty problem we had months ago is now a colossal beast and our dog’s behaviour is seriously impacting everyone else’s well-being, including their own.
Most of my calls and contacts come from people who can’t live with problems any more. Maybe they thought the problem would work its way out eventually. Rex would stop jumping up on guests, surely, when arthritis set in? Rover would stop barking like mental at the neighbours playing football, surely, by the time deafness and blindness took over? Lacey would stop biting people if we took her to a café, surely, by the time all her teeth fall out?
The trouble is that this is not what happens. Dogs don’t grow out of problems. They grow into them. They get better at the behaviour. They can do it for longer. They specialise. They do it in ways that get results more quickly.
For whatever reason, the behaviour works. Like an ugly and unwanted weed, it flourishes. It sends down roots that make it hard to unseat. It sends out shoots. It blossoms. It sets seed and raises a family. By the time clients get in touch with trainers, what they often present us with is an enormous triffid of a behaviour that is swallowing up all their energy.
What the snake-oil salesmen promise is a scorched earth approach to those problematic behavioural weeds. Burn it. Zap it. Concrete on top of it.
The trouble is that, like DDT, some of these promises are dangerous. Some of them destroy everything else too. You know… the important stuff like trust and friendship, choice and agency. Others don’t work. The fields around me are lurid orange right now and smell like burning rubber. I wouldn’t mind, but whatever this vile stuff is designed to kill seems to be effective for about five weeks. That’s what a lot of these Quick Fixes you can buy from any number of companies do. They work for a while and then the problems come back with a vengeance. Not only that, you’re left with a nagging feeling that what you’re doing isn’t good or right, but if the company says lurid orange rubber-smelling herbicide is what works, they must know?
And sometimes, the behaviour is resistant to those promised cures to all problems. Sure, it might work for a short while, only to find new ways to spread, to mutate, to find a way to flourish.
Anything in the dog world that promises you instant results is a bit like all those other ‘instant’ products we fall for, so reliably and so credulously. Great abs in 8 minutes a day. Five kilos weight loss in a month. Quick house sales. Immediate happiness. A better job in two weeks. If the aim is improvement, someone somewhere is making a profit out of the gullible fools who want instant success. You buy in. It fails. You leave 0 stars on their feedback and the company bosses cry into their margaritas in Tobago.
The truth is that we want a magic bullet. We want jumping up to stop immediately. We want our dog to instantly stop barking at the post van. We want our dog to stop pulling on the lead right this very minute and never pull again.
The reality is that there are no magic bullets. Hard work, repetition, creating good habits, building foundations, they all take time.
After all, the problem didn’t usually happen overnight. It’s not going to disappear overnight either.
So what can we do, other than give in?
In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao talks about something she calls SMART x 50.
SMART simply means, see, mark and reward training. In other words, every time you see the behaviour you want instead, mark it (say ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’ or use a clicker) and reward.
She tells us to reward our dog fifty times every day for doing something useful or cute. If you have heard Kathy speak, you’ll know right away that’s her speaking. I’d settle for rewarding them for anything they’re doing better. Remember: rewards can be anything the dog finds valuable at that moment in time. That could be food, toys, praise (if your dog finds it rewarding at that moment) petting (likewise) or even functional rewards like being able to move forward on a walk. You are not advised to use fifty sirloin steaks. But small cubes would be just marvellous.
I do a lot of my own dog training this way. I don’t even know what they’ll do well that day. I’m just ready to mark and reward it when I see it.
Mostly, my dogs have it nailed good behaviour in the home, car and the garden. They stop barking when I ask and bark hardly at all any more. They’re patient and calm. They don’t stress when I’m getting food out. If I say “tea time!” they trot into the kitchen and they hang about quietly and unobtrusively when I’m doing my bit. They travel perfectly. They sit waiting for me if I need to nip into a shop. They’re happy to be groomed and have nails trimmed and take all the tablets I throw at them. I still reward them for ignoring the various comings and goings of my neighbour and his joyfully barky pointer. They are the least amount of effort of any dog ever born and I get to be the laziest dog trainer that was ever born.
Walks are different. Heston likes chasing stuff and he also has previous where it comes to barking at joggers, hikers or cyclists. He’s still prone to pull from time to time towards powerful smells. Lidy seems to divide things into ‘Can I kill it?’ and ‘Can I eat it?’. I’m not massively sure it’s a division as such. There seems to be a lot of crossover. But when my little firestarter first arrived after three years in the shelter, she had a lot of previous. If it moved, it needed to be dealt with. Her pulling was shocking. She walked like a small velociraptor on a lead randomly pouncing on things in bushes.
For a year, I walked her by herself. Frankly, she was pretty manageable as long as nothing surprising happened like we saw an unpredictable crow or a random cat. Then, when my old girl died, Lidy and Heston got walked together.
That first walk in new territory with the two of them terrified me. I forgot how sensitive Lidy is to novel stimuli and environments and how long she takes to acclimitise. I joke about her behaviour but in all seriousness, there are moments where I know that it’s taking everything I’ve ever learned to give her some quality of life without jeopardising the lives of other animals or risking injury to any humans she comes across. She pulled constantly for 4km. Less velociraptor and more Tyrannosaurus Rex. If we’d have come across anybody or anything, I ran the risk of losing control of her completely.
Behaviour like this doesn’t have a magic pill to cure it. I could have thrown everything that’s ever been claimed as a magic pill at her arousal levels and it still wouldn’t have been enough.
So where do you start, when it’s all wrong?
It reminded me of that saying: ‘how do you eat an elephant?’
‘One mouthful at a time.’
How do you solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem?
One small step at a time.
Kathy Sdao’s SMART x 50 is how we’ve been doing it.
If she pulled less, ‘good!’ and treat.
If she gave me eye contact, ‘good!’ and treat.
If she did a u-turn when I asked, ‘good!’ and treat.
We did other stuff too. I don’t want to make it sound as simple as all that.
But most dogs are not as complicated as all that.
And simply through that ‘one mouthful at a time’ approach, I think I’ve managed to at least eat a good bit of that elephant.
There are other tips too. Setting your dog up for success where they can do little but succeed is one of those things. Eliminating as much of the unpredictable while you embed new behaviours is another. Cherry picking the very best of what the very best trainers have to offer is another. We have a bank of five core skills that we practise every day.
This weekend was tough. Saturday was miserable. There were hunters literally everywhere and by the time I found a sensible place to walk without getting shot at in mistake for a boar, we’d been in the car for almost thirty minutes. Between the floods and the hunters, we’re a bit stuck. We got out. We played a few games. I used up some of those 50 rewards simply by playing some games and helping everyone chill out (including me).
And then… a muscular guy clad entirely in black lycra came running up to us. Not jogging. Like a serious, hardened runner. In terms of PREDATOR level of threat, this is surpassed only by a team of muscular guys clad entirely in black lycra running at you. We got out the way, we played some more games, I watched Lidy. Every time she watched him without anything more worrisome than a stare, I marked it and fed her from my hand at my side. If she went back to watching him, I said ‘yes’ and gave her her treat. Watching was fine. Lunging and leaping and grabbing and flopping about like a great white shark on a fishing line are not fine. That would have been my failure to work at a safe distance. We had watching and deciding and marking and rewarding. All was well.
Needless to say, a lot of my rewards got used up on that jogger. And that was fine.
As if this weekend couldn’t have been more challenging, yesterday, we saw two deer leap across the road. To be fair, they participated in my set-up perfectly. They were just far enough away to keep her under threshold and just in view for a lovely, narrow time so I could reward copiously without having to deal with watching them for 5 whole minutes.
This time, we played ‘get it!’ and ‘catch!’. The first allows her to visually track a moving treat. This is kind of like playing a cheap fair shooting game compared to going after big game, if that’s what floats your boat. No, it’s not the same. But it’s better than no shooting at all. I’m pretty sure Lidy would be one of those individuals posing proudly with some giraffe she’d killed. Here I am asking her to have a go at a fairground shooting gallery. ‘Get it!’ is the only way at that moment that she’ll get to chase and catch anything.
The second, ‘catch!’ allows ‘grab-bite’ behaviours on a moving target. Again, not in the same league but at least it’s catering to the same bits of her reward system and answering those primitive needs.
So it’s not just about SMART x 50.
It’s about how and when and where you use those rewards. You can use them to encourage focus by getting the dog to come back to you for the food or toy. You can use them to meet primal needs of being a dog, namely chasing and grabbing stuff for Miss Maligator 2015. You can use them to disrupt visual locking and fixing on a target (which is what I did) or you can use them to disrupt olfactory locking and fixing on a target. The latter is what I do with Heston when he’s nose-down-tail-up in a scent. What do I want? To disrupt the lock and fix on the scent. Throwing him a treat to find in the grass can do that, and caters to his olfactory needs. Or disrupting and rewarding from my hand is a good way if his tracking is in danger of pulling me into a bush.
By rewarding the behaviours we want to see little by little, day by day, we get so see unwanted behaviours die out. We’re starving those weeds of anything nourishing. No, it doesn’t happen overnight. No, it’s not a magic bullet.
Well, not one that works in 24 hours.
Over 12 weeks, sure.
Now we’re 12 weeks into Lidy’s SMART x 50 outdoor training and I’ve bags more focus and less arousal. She listens more and recalls more. She pulls much less, sometimes going several hundred metres without a tight lead, and she almost never lunges. Because her arousal levels are lower, she’s less predatory. She’s less likely to pounce on birds in the bushes, or mice in the hedgerows. She’s stopped alerting on distant cars and vans. Is she ready for the next steps? Sure.
The question then arises about where we stop. It’s not my aim that Lidy becomes super docile and passive, that she copes with Venetian costume parades and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Chasing the impossible would be an exercise in frustration and futility. I just want to know we can go for walks and she will cope. Next up is livestock, because they’re much more of a challenge for us and our walks are severely limited because she seems pretty willing to show me you can eat a full cow in one sitting despite my telling her it’s one mouthful at a time.
Variety is not just the spice of life. Variety in behaviour gives us something we can capture and nurture. But I can’t do that if I find myself treatless and unprepared. The worst behaviours are those that never vary. But as Lidy demonstrates, even if you can pull at one constant pressure for 4km, there’s still hope. The thing is, it’s never one constant pressure, not really. Where we have variety, we have the potential to coax evolution. And if we can do that, we might find that our weeds turn out to be flowers after all. Capture that variety when it’s at its best, and you might find that Death By A Thousand Cuts is more effective at killing off problem behaviours than some Magic Bullet anyway.
You don’t have to have a specific goal in mind. My lovely, perfect Mr Heston is lovely and perfect. I’m just rewarding him for the lovely stuff he does. With Lidy, I dd have a specific goal in mind. I wanted her to learn to walk, not trot (and heaven forbid anything faster!) on lead. I wanted her to check in with me unprompted. So every time she walked a couple of paces on a slack lead, I said ‘good!’ and gave her a treat. Every time she checked in, I said ‘good!’ and we moved forward to sniff the bushes. Now, walking is what we do, and checking in if we want to go sniff is also what we do.
So tomorrow morning, pick up your treat bag and count out your treats for the day. Every time you catch your dog doing something you like, mark it and reward it. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Very soon, those great behaviours will be default behaviours because it’s ‘just’ what we do now.
Run interference (phrase): American football: move in such a way as to cause interference Informal: intervene on someone’s behalf, typically so as to protect them from distraction or annoyance.
One of the toughest stages of training can be proofing, where you put your training to the test. You know the score: you’ve done the groundwork and the drills. You know it’s important to gradually reintroduce your dog to the situation that caused trouble in carefully planned and managed steps.
And then… Life gets in the way.
Let’s take some really common problem behaviours and look at where they can run into teething troubles.
1. You’ve been working with your dog to stop them barking at people who arrive at the property.
2. You’ve been working with your dog to stop them jumping up on guests or on people out on walks.
3. You’ve been working really hard on your dog’s recall.
4. You’ve been working to stop your dog chasing _______________ (fill in the blank!).
5. You’ve been working on loose leash walking skills with your 50kg dog who you’ve switched to a harness after years of trying to control him with prong collars and shock collars, but you’re not confident enough yet to take him out in places he might lunge.
6. You’ve been working hard to help your dog cope in the vet surgery but they still get a bit overwhelmed by the noise and the other animals.
7. You’ve been working with your reactive dog to stop them lunging and barking at other dogs.
8. You’re rehabilitating a dog with serious aggression issues.
We can all find our best laid plans going massively astray the first time something goes wrong and our dog resorts to their previous problem behaviour.
You know how it goes. You’ve spent 6 weeks teaching them a new behaviour, controlling and managing the situation so they don’t get to practise their old behaviour. You think you’ve got it cracked when BAM, right out of the blue, your worst nightmare rears its ugly head and your dog goes right back to jumping, barking, chasing, ignoring you, pulling on the lea, lunging or fence fighting.
What you need is someone to run interference for you! Someone to take out all the people who threaten to derail you. Someone who can block any distractions and stop them so that you can get on with what you’re doing.
None of you are old enough to remember the days when self-propelling machines needed men with flags to walk in front of you, I’m sure. You have probably heard of these apocryphal tales, however. What you need is a red-flag-waving person to help you out.
Having a team-mate to run interference when you’re training your dog can be so helpful. This is someone who’s read the game plan and knows your aims. They know how you intend to carry it out. They know your plays and your purpose. They know you’re trying to stop your whirling dervish pointer from headbutting everyone they see when they’re running off lead. They know you’re trying to turn your whistle training into rock solid recall. And this is as true for serious misdemeanors as it is for the things most of us just try to cope with: serious fearfulness, reactivity or aggression when out in public.
The purpose of this team-mate on the pitch is to clear your path and help manage the environment so you can reach your goal. They’re going to work with you in the same way in real life too. They’re going to stop any potential obstacle derailing your progress so that you can reach your dream goal, be that the dog who keeps all four feet on the ground or the dog who can cope with off-lead dogs romping around without feeling the need to tear their face off.
Let’s take each scenario and see how a team player might help you out.
The alert barker
You may well be implementing the plan from the previous post and your dog may be coping admirably with things that pass by or make noise outside the house, be they tractors, pedestrians or neighbourhood dogs. But what happens when those threats stop outside and ring the bell? Under normal circumstances for planned visitors you may well be controlling visitors by putting the dog in another room with a few food toys. What happens though when some random Tuesday lunchtime, a guy stops to ask if you want your roof tiles cleaning or your paving re-laying? If you’ve not yet moved on to pairing up the doorbell or a knock with the good stuff, having someone who can step in and keep playing games with the dog while you go out and deal with the uninvited guest is a good way to deal with it. Either you send them out to deal with the unwelcome and unplanned arrival while you play games, or you go out while they play games, if they know what you’ve been doing. You can keep your dogs at a distance and they can deal with what needs dealing with.
Use your team mate to ring the bell and knock at the door when your dog’s got used to the ‘thank you – retreat – treat’ protocol from last week. A few trials a day and you’ll have a dog who lets you know someone’s at the door, but who stops barking when you ask.
And if you’re home alone or live alone? A Manners Minder or automatic treat dispenser that you’ve introduced your dog to well before the event can be set to a variable rate of spitting treats out. You can go out and your dog can keep getting paid while you’re not there.
Got more than one dog and suspect a war would break out? Separate them with gates and give them all something to keep them busy while you go out to deal with the inconsiderate sod. And then ask your mates to drop around at scheduled times to play knock-a-door-run so that you can practise ‘thank you – retreat – treat’ with your dogs in carefully planned trials so that when a carpet salesman finally drops round, you’ll be all ready for them.
The over-enthusiastic welcome committee
For dogs who jump up in the house, having a team mate who can welcome guests in while you keep control of the dog to stop them practising is really useful in those early days. Your team mate should be able to explain to your guests that they’re not to give the dog any attention for jumping, but if the dog does a shoulder touch, a hand touch or a high five, then they can say ‘hi!’
While you make sure your dog is able to cope with the drama of new people, your team mate can make sure the new people are able to cope with the excitement of seeing a dog. A spare pair of eyes to stop your guests saying ‘oh good boy! hi!’ and accidentally reinforcing the jumping up won’t go amiss. I find that where things go awry, it’s when we’re overwhelmed, trying to look after our own dog, family and home and we’re not able to adequately manage all the complex pieces. Having someone who can take the dog to another room, play with them a little while you sort everything out and then bring the dog out when energies are lower is another way a team mate can really help you out.
And if you’ve no-one to run interference? Put the dog away with treats until energies have calmed down so that you don’t risk your guests inadvertently reinforcing your dog for jumping all over them.
Proofing your recall
You know the drill. You’ve worked on recall in your home, in the garden, in empty supermarket car parks, in closed fields and with a dropped long lead on quiet, clear walks. You’re gearing yourself up for the real tests when you take your dog to your favourite place, they race off before you and by the time you get round the corner, they’re frolicking with harassing a flock of sheep. Having someone who can go out five minutes before you on your exact walk and then send you a message with an all-clear is really helpful. It also gives you time to put your dog back on the lead should something happen.
Last week, I was working with a young gun-dog who has been charging up to people on walks and had knocked one of them over by jumping all over them. If there had just been someone running interference beforehand who could have been five minutes ahead and said ‘there’s people coming!’, the guardian could have put the dog on the lead way before the dog saw the wildly exciting new friends that he just had to jump on. The trouble was that the dog’s recall was great in most circumstances, but as soon as he saw anyone out on a walk, his recall failed completely. A team mate would definitely help with control and management here.
The diehard chaser
Most of the pedigree and mix-breed dogs in Western countries have been bred to chase to some degree, with the exception of a handful of lapdogs and livestock guardian breeds. From sight and scent hounds to gundogs, cattle dogs, herding dogs to terriers and bull terriers, chase behaviours have been selected for over many generations. This can be really tough if you’re proofing a recall or even if you’re walking a large dog on a lead. I still remember the time four dogs dragged me on my arse through a cowfield…
Having someone to go on ahead and let you know if there are deer, boar, livestock, ducks or wild-roaming joggers, hunters or cyclists can be a great way to make sure you’re not exposed to any unpleasant surprises and trying to live down a ‘Fenton!’ moment while your labrador rampages through the park chasing deer and heavily reinforcing themselves in the process.
The partially reformed lunger
Maybe you read my post about retractable leads a few weeks back and you’ve decided harnesses are the way forward. You’ve got yourself a great new lead, a solid harness and you’re weaning yourself off using a choke, shock or prong collar because you know it’s bad for your dog and it’s probably not even controlling them very much any more if they’re dyed-in-the-wool pullers. Maybe you weigh 60kg and you’re walking a dog who’s only just a little less than you. Perhaps you’ve got two smaller dogs who add up to some hefty tension.
Having a team mate to walk with you is ideal. Pulling can be socially contagious – it can be a bit of a competition to be the husky at the front. And it can be hard to walk two or more dogs and do some real training with both of them. It’s almost as bad if you’ve got a great dog who knows the ropes and one who needs a bit of work. It’s nigh on impossible to train two or more dogs simultaneously so if you need some one-to-one time, a friend is always welcome.
Maybe you’ve done loads of work and they’re almost perfect except they lose their mind on one tiny but essential part of the walk… having a friend to help with another lead is so useful. I know there have been times at the shelter where we’ve got a dog who’s mostly great but who struggles to get out of the shelter grounds because it’s stressful. If you’re trying to manage 45kg of German Shepherd, having a friend to help you on the tough bit means you can put down all your aversive tools which weren’t working anyway. Sometimes, it’s just because it’s muddy and slippy that you need a helping hand. It might only be for 100m or so, but if that means you can get rid of the heavy weaponry, then it’s well worth it.
The not-quite-ready-for-the-vets dog
Maybe you’ve got a dog who you’ve been working so hard to desensitise to the vets, but that heady combination of other dogs, cats, smells, vets, chemicals, barking, squealing, grabby hands and long waits in tiny waiting rooms is likely to set them back six months in progress, having a team mate to run interference is just the ticket. You can stay in the car and do nice stuff with the dog. They can be your substitute in the surgery until your time is ready, and then can act as a great team mate running interference would do – keep their eye out for the old lady who really doesn’t have a good grip on her poodle – avert the very large mastiff-with-attitude standing in the corner and make sure you can get in and out without drama. Not only that, they can help you in the surgery so you can talk to the vet, help manipulate the dog and keep running counter-conditioning while you get the vital information and have grown-up conversations. Perhaps your vets take the dog from you… the same thing is true. Having a friend to run interference can be a dream way of getting into the surgery without subjecting your dog to the miscreants hanging around in there. Your team mate is your wing-person, helping you navigate the complex obstacle course with a cool head. By the end, all they might be doing is humming Mission Impossible music with your dog who had no idea what the bodyguard was for, but if it stops you having a bad experience in a delicate and fragile stage of your progress, all well and good.
The almost-reformed reactive rover
So you’ve been working through a programme to help your dog cope with reactivity. You’re just about ready to go and spend your first five minutes proofing it in the toughest conditions: outside the dog park or at the cani-cross rendezvous site. It’s Murphy’s law that someone won’t have control of their overly-social Donald Trump of a dog who races over to subject your girl to a bit of light humping and who sets you back to square one in your training. A team mate can either take your dog and walk away while you occupy the offender, or you can walk off leaving them to do the same. Given that you will need to practise in some challenging conditions before you are truly able to say your dog can cope, knowing you can do so without derailing everything you’ve done is a true gift.
Truly effective rehabilitation
When you’re working with a dog who has bitten a member of the public or another dog, even if it was only a nip or a grab, it can be nerve-wracking to take them out in public. So what are you supposed to do? Keep them in forever? One of the hardest things to do is build up really positive experiences and make sure you’re keeping people and their animals safe. A team mate who goes out before you, runs interference with stray dogs and wandering humans, who acts as your spotter and your guide, who can help you work through the awkward bits, well, they’re invaluable. Of course, you may have had to use them as a stooge too at the beginning, so that your dog gets used to them. But if your dog is such a risk that they’d bite any person they see, then you definitely, definitely will need some friends who can act as a stooge so that you can control what they do, how they move and where they go. It’s no use trying to rehab your dog using unsuspecting members of the public. That’s a huge liability.
You may, of course, have partners, parents, adult children, neighbours or friends who are willing to help out. If not, don’t worry. There’s an army of professionals who can help you, from dog walkers and trainers to behaviour consultants. I can’t tell you how useful it is to pay a dog walker a tenner to let you know their schedule so you can follow them around for half an hour every day and desensitise your dog in a low risk situation. There are many professionals who might help out if you bung them a bit of cash. Maybe you know exactly what you need to do. Maybe you’ve been working with a great behaviour consultant and you just need some people to practise on who don’t charge quite so much.
In any case, find yourself a team mate. They won’t just inspire you and challenge you, but they’ll also enable you to bridge the gap between ‘nearly!’ and ‘touchdown!’
Many of our dogs are typical ‘watch dogs’, whether they’re a huge Pyrenean Mountain dog or a tiny Lhasa Apso. If you’ve got a dog who drives you nuts by barking at every pedestrian, cyclist, jogger, car or truck that passes your house, or who barks in the garden in response to all the other dogs in the neighbourhood barking, read on and find out a really simple way to put an end to your dog barking to alert you to everything outside the door that offends them.
Why dogs alert bark
The simple fact is that most dogs on the whole bark much, much more than wolves, which gives us a clue that their barking has served a purpose. Indeed, many of the earliest recorded accounts of dogs include stories about dogs who were kept to alert the home-owner to potential intruders. The watch dog was probably one of the earliest roles dogs played in our lives.
Today, the simple fact is that many dogs can’t distinguish between an intruder and a passer-by. It becomes a superstition for many dogs that they feel they need to bark in order to make the offensive stuff outside the door or gate leave. They don’t realise that it’s not their barking that has made the offensive individual go away, but that they went away anyhow and they always intended to.
Recently, a big family and business moved into the house across the road from me. They also have a very noisy dog who likes to bark every time the cars pull up. The dog is outside most of the day and it’s easy to tell when people are coming and going.
The problem is that my dogs also like to bark at cars that pull up and also bark at dogs who are barking in the neighbourhood. You can imagine what a challenge it could have been for my dogs to cope with vans coming and going all day and with their dog barking every time they do.
So how do we stop this?
Step 1: identify triggers
Make a list of all the things that make your dog bark. Take a sample over 72 hours. Note how long they bark for and what they’re barking at. Even if you don’t know precisely what, because you can’t hear what they are, make sure that they’re reacting to things outside the property, not inside. Recognise patterns and also recognise the most challenging parts of your dogs’ day. For me, that was early morning and lunchtime. The triggers were generally neighbourhood noise which is worsened as people come and go. The post van is also a challenge. Note whether those things are visual or auditory.
Step 2: remove perches and vantage points
Many of our dogs use the backs of sofas or even coffee tables to stand on to keep an eye on the outside world. Who knows – they may even think that’s their job!
Your first job is to make it more difficult for your dog to see out of the window, to stand on couches or tables to look out, and to block up their access points. Move your couches, use screens, add stick-on filters, put plants in strategic places or even relocate to another room in the house temporarily. All these are temporary measures until you have things under control. Don’t worry – you can put your couch back in its rightful spot in a few weeks.
If your dogs are very sensitive to noise, you might even want to make sure you can give them a sound-proofed space with some inoffensive ambient music at busy times. But be careful you aren’t just adding to their problems by making it difficult for them to rest.
Remove vantage points and viewpoints outside too if your dogs bark at things beyond the property line.
Gates like this are perfect for encouraging barkers. If you want to have a fighting chance, it’s important to block off those vantage points. Here, some bamboo panels would be an easy solution, as long as we remember to block off the space around the solid panels too.
Step 3: give them something to do at critical times
My neighbour goes out to work at anywhere between 7.36 and 7.47. I know because his dog goes nuts. It’s winter and he also leaves his van warming up for ten minutes, so it tends to be a prolonged barking session just outside my window until he’s gone.
At 7.30, we have our breakfast. The dogs have Kongs, a bit of Classic FM, some highly offensive (to me) but highly valuable dog swag and a snuffle mat. At 7.50, we’re finishing up our breakfasts. Not a bark to be had.
Now I could give my dogs their breakfast at 7am and spend 10 minutes telling them to shut up at 7.36. I could give them a bowl at 7.30 and spend 10 minutes telling them to shut up at 7.36. If my dogs notice the comings and goings (they do) they’re more invested in eating breakfast than barking. Don’t make it easy for your dogs to bark at the most difficult times simply because they’ve nothing else to do. What stops me curtain twitching and cursing my neighbours? Occupation. What stops my dogs waiting around for stuff to happen? Occupation.
Step 4: prepare yourself to put an off-switch on your dog’s barking
It’s not realistic to expect your dogs never to bark. They’re dogs. Also, if you have a burglar, a bit of barking probably wouldn’t go amiss. But we can’t easily teach our dogs to distinguish between intruders and passers-by. All we really want is our dogs to stop when we ask and perhaps to start barking less frequently. After all, that’s probably why we tell them so many times to stop!
To prepare yourself for the off-switch, you need some high-value treats, preferably freeze-dried. It’s no good using fresh meat or cheese unless you have a cooler, because you need to keep the treats to hand. But you want high value treats – not just big brand floury biscuits. Your dogs will stop so much more quickly if you make it worth their while.
Step 5: cache your treats away from the scene of the crime
My dogs like to bark near the window in the living room, since that is closest to the road. I store my treats in a jar on the mantelpiece which is on the opposite side of the room. This has two purposes. One is to establish clear patterns about what happens when they need to bark. The other is to move them away from the window and create distance. Yes, it’s annoying to get up every time to go there myself. No, it’s not more annoying than yelling at them to stop barking for ten minutes. Look at it this way: you don’t have to get up off the couch and give them a treat, you get to move and get some exercise in return for their immediate silence.
Step 6: thank your dog and mean it
The next time your dog barks because something offensive to them is happening outside, with your most sincere and well-meant, heart-felt gratefulness, thank them!
Say, “Thank you! You are the best dog in the whole of the universe!”.
Say, “Well done, you magnificent creature!’
Say, “Good job, my loyal and most excellent bodyguard!”
Tell them they are wonderful and give them a treat away from the scene of the crime. Really mean it. Remember they save your from burglars, intruders, debt collectors, vagrants, hobos, would-be marauders, insurrectionists, odd-bods, religious acolytes, ne’er-do-wells, anarchists, miscreants, errant SWAT teams, hired assassins and warmongers on a daily basis. Thank them and feed them. They do not know you are not Halle Berry in John Wick and they are not Belgian Malinois. As far as they are concerned, you are their most valuable asset and they are the Best Guardians in the Known Universe.
Don’t worry the first ten times or so if they don’t stop instantly, or if they keep popping back to have the final say. Thank them anyway, sincerely, and from the bottom of your heart.
Remember, too, that the higher value your treats (at least at first), the more surprising this will be and the more amazing your results will be.
Feed for the entirety of the time the offensive thing is in radius of the house or garden. It’s better to use five or six treats and go slightly longer than the intruder is in range than hope that one will do.
Make sure you pick a phrase and use it every single time, like ‘thank you!’ or ‘good job!’
This phrase will become your off-switch. It tells the dogs they don’t need to bark any more and they’ve done what they were designed to do. They can bark, and as soon as you say the magic phrase, all is well. Partly, this is about your response to the scary stuff. If you’re silly and relaxed, your emotions will be as contagious as your previous hostility and anger. You can of course say, ‘Stop!’ or ‘That’s enough!’ but most of us have tried that already. Also, they don’t tend to be filled with nascent pride that our fierce dog has actually, for once in their life, followed our directions.
Step 7: add in some other stuff to stretch out the treats
You can ask your dog to ‘get it!’, to find the treat, to ‘watch!’ or play slow treats, where you’re practising impulse control. This way, you can spend two or three minutes with only a handful of treats. Keep them moving and busy, rather than asking them to sit for five minutes while a man chainsaws trees outside your home. Being still in the face of threat is hard. Keep your dogs busy and occupied until the offensive individual or machine has well and truly gone.
Step 8: practise until your dogs are 100% reliable
When your dogs are completely reliable, when you know you could say ‘thank you!’ and they would stop instantly, then you’ve cracked it. Would you put money on being able to say ‘Well done!’ during a work zoom call and your dogs stopping barking straight away? If not, you’ve got a bit of work to do yet.
You’ll find by this time that they are less sensitive to noise because you’ve also been getting them used to the noise or the offensive passer-by and pairing it up with good stuff. But never cheat your dog before they get to reliability. If there is a scary noise or intruder, ALWAYS thank them and ALWAYS give them a treat. Do this every time they bark. It’s a 100% thing. If you’re in and they alert, bark or otherwise notice something outside, then you give them a treat until you’d put money on them running straight to the treat spot when you tell them how magnificent they are.
Step 9: add in praise or petting occasionally
When your dogs are 100% reliable, you can swap in the simple ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Good job!’ or ‘Well done!’ without a treat. Your cue to stop will have been learned as a conditioned reinforcer: praise. You can add a game if you like. You can give them a bit of petting or attention. Start varying what good stuff happens when they’re quiet when you ask. Start with the minor offences, where it’s a slight growl or a head looking towards the window.
Never phase out the treats completely. Remember that the stuff outside your window or your gate IS a threat to your dog if that’s what they think it is. If you stop the treats, expect the behaviour to return. Keeping an occasional treat every so often, even going back to 100% treats for stopping barking for a short while, can help keep it fresh and exciting. You may find that barking drops off so much that you can keep to 100% treats. I do, simply because barking is so extremely rare that it’s a small price to pay for the quiet. If I get through 10 treats a month, it’s been a crazy week. That’s down from 10 treats an hour. I’m happy with that.
Step 10: thank the smaller behaviours
So what do you do if you hear or see something?
If you see your dog look but not bark, thank them and give them a treat. If you hear them growl, thank them and give them a treat. If they were resting and they open their eyes slightly, thank them and give them a treat. Switch in the praise and petting if you barely get a reaction. What you are doing is shaping smaller behaviours so they don’t need to bark to tell you several SWAT soldiers are rappelling down your house front and you’re going to have to take your diamond stash to the safe room.
So, in essence:
When there are offensive things outside: * say ‘Thanks!’ * go get the dog a treat away from the gate, door or window * keep giving the treats until the offensive things go away * repeat until it’s a well-established habit.
In this video, my friend pulls up to drop something off. Neither of my dogs bark. I wanted them to. I even ask them, ‘Who’s there?’ hoping one of them will. They don’t even then. That’s how good this technique is. There really is someone outside — my girl looks at the window on the right a few times, but not a bark was uttered between the pair.
Lidy, the malinois, notices the car door opening and the car running. Heston, the groenendael cross, is still my huge fanfare barker and even he doesn’t utter a peep. He doesn’t even look out of the window. I videoed it for you because I’ve been trying to catch them barking for 3 days and they haven’t barked once. There have been multiple disturbances of cars, vans, dogs barking, cyclists parked up outside chatting, post vans, the kid over the road playing kick-ball against the side of their house, gunshots, hunters, hunt dogs and even fire sirens. And I’ve waited. This was the one moment where I thought I would get some lovely barking. I got none. Heston looked out of the window and looked at me. We went to the mantelpiece anyway because it’s always worthwhile topping up with the challenging moments. We play until my friend leaves. Then the treats are gone.
If you are worried that your dogs will start barking to get treats, I’m happy to say this activity does not work like this. Because the dog only barks when there is something to bark at (and you can, by the way, do this if you suspect the dog hears something you don’t) then they only do it then.
Please note: this activity is not suitable for dogs who are barking AT you to get your attention or if they ever bark at you for food. It’s also not suitable if people are going to come into your home, though it may work in the same way. You can also do this with doorbells or if your dog barks when the phone rings.
So if your dog is alert barking, it’s well worth trying this simple technique to reduce the number of times they bark, and how much they bark as well as putting their silence on cue. It’s made my life much more bearable, especially as noise has increased outside my home. And I like to hope it has made my dogs’ lives more bearable too because I’m not yelling at them to stop or hoping they’ll just stop of their own accord.
If there is one piece of kit that I wish I saw less of, it would be an extendable lead. These leads, which retract into a plastic handle and are sometimes controlled by a ‘stop’ button that stops the lead spooling in or out are mired in controversy.
Perhaps the question is more in line with when we shouldn’t use an extendable lead.
When shouldn’t you use an extendable lead?
If your dog pulls at all. Extendable leads exert a constant low-level pressure. This habituates a dog to pulling and teaches them that walking with a lead means accepting a low level of pressure. You will never be able to teach your dog to walk without pulling if they don’t understand that to move forward, they need to move without putting any pressure on the lead.
If your dog ever chases or is likely to chase things in the environment. These leads can spool out incredibly quickly and the longer the lead, the more momentum your dog can build up. They can very easily whip the lead out of your hand before you’ve even had time to react.
If you are ever passively supervising your dog on a walk. By this, I mean you check your phone, you watch the birds, you’re talking to a friend, you’re looking at the path. Walking a dog on an extendable lead means constantly and actively supervising your dog. If you don’t do this, the split second you take your attention away from your dog becomes a potential moment when your dog can spool out the lead without you being aware and can potentially end up in trouble.
If you are ever closer to bicycles, pedestrians, other animals and moving machinery than the maximum length of the lead. It is very easy for any dog on a retractable lead to end up cutting in front of a car, a bicycle or racing up to another dog and getting in a fight. You are reliant on the ‘stop’ button to stop the lead spooling out. If this fails, you are left without any way to prevent your dog getting into trouble and potentially causing injury to others without having to attempt to grab the very thin retractable cord.
If you don’t walk your dog with every single piece of skin covered, particularly lower arms, hands and legs. Or, if you walk around other humans who haven’t covered all skin. Or, if you walk around other animals who have exposed skin. You don’t even need to risk grabbing the thin cord to cause yourself injury. Friction burns and abrasions caused by the retractable cord are well documented. A simple search engine image search for injuries caused by retractable leads should be enough to put you off for life. Don’t look if you haven’t got a strong stomach.
If you walk your dog with a neck collar. The potential for your dog to build up a head of steam and either rip the handle out of your hands or cause injuries like whiplash are enormous.
If you walk your dog with a front-clipping harness. The potential for that cord to cut your dog’s legs or shoulders is significant. Also, front-clipping harnesses are designed for flat leads , not the semi-constant pressure of an extendable lead.
If you use a choke or prong collar. Both of these are designed for a quick jerk or yank, known by people who use these collars as a ‘correction’. You can’t ‘correct’ a dog when you can’t exert immediate pressure. The pressure from an extendable lead is at a semi-constant if the dog never reaches the end of the lead or you never press the ‘stop’ button. That habituates your dog to a semi-constant, mild pressure and habituates them to the aversive that should be stopping them pulling. Instead of becoming deterrent, it means the dog gets used to a semi-constant level of pressure. Ironically, the pressure of a retractable lead, even pressed stop or at the end of the spool is not enough to put true pressure on the choke or prong so that they function as they should, unless the dog runs into them and builds up a head of steam. The added choke or prong worsens the likelihood of damage in this case. Chokes and prongs were not designed to be used with retractable leads. You might as well not use the choke or prong.
Head halters. Again, for the same reason. The extendable lead puts a constant pressure on the dog. These are aversive in the first place unless the dog has been habituated to them over a period of time, so adding a low level of pressure to them makes them even more aversive. And like chokes and prongs, using them with a retractable lead never allows you to put pressure on the head halter properly, unless the dog builds up momentum. The risk of injury to your dog in such circumstances is huge.
If you ever walk more than one dog.
If you will ever be in a situation where you might need to grab the lead to stop your dog getting into bother.
If your dog eats things they find in the street, such as other animals’ feces or discarded food as you don’t have the control to be able to stop them or pull them away if necessary.
If your dog is at all fearful, as the likelihood you will not be able to control the lead if they spook is significant.
If your dog is at all aggressive or likely to bark, growl, lunge, grab or bite another human or animal.
If you can’t get your dog’s attention when you call them. Whenever you call them. If you’ve got a dog who hoovers up smells or fixates on things in the distance, then a retractable lead is not the tool you want in a battle with the environment for your dog’s attention.
If your dog is a puppy. An extendable lead should not be the first lead you introduce your dog to. It is not a training tool. All it teaches is the young dog to get used to constant pressure on the lead and that they can go wherever they want if they pull.
If your dog has any problem with recall. If you ever lose your dog to the environment, then an extendable lead is not for you. Even if you are very vigilant, if you can’t always get your dog’s attention when you call, then an extendable lead is a liability.
The only time I’d ever use a retractable lead is with a dog under 5kg or so who can walk perfectly on lead and never spools out the cord so that the lead bit is always loose. I’d have to be actively supervising the dog, make sure I’m not around other humans, moving machines or other animals and know that my dog is 100% unlikely to want to interact with them, or anything around them. In such cases, I might as well get a flat lead.
It begs the question as to why people use extendable leads. I think the answer is that they want to give their dogs more freedom to interact with the world and allow their dog to run a little or trot, keep their own pace. Ironically, these are two very good reasons not to use them. Dogs who follow smells or who run on the lead are dogs who can easily build up momentum and end up jerking the lead out of their guardian’s hand.
They are also not good leads for moving to off-lead work. If I’ve been working on recall with a dog, then I’ll often include a ‘trailing lead’ moment where the dog is free but they’re still trailing a lead so that I can intervene if necessary. We sometimes do this when we’ve introduced dogs in the shelter too, as we are less likely to risk a bite if the dogs get into a fight and we can use the leads to control the dogs a little better if we need to by picking up the lead again. Using a dropped lead is often a really good way to move to independence with dogs who have a history of chasing, of not paying attention, or of fearful or aggressive. You can’t do that with a retractable lead.
As you can see, then, barely any single good reason why an extendable lead is the right choice. I accept there may always be exceptions. Normally, I’m fairly relaxed about the kit my clients turn up with bar the heavy artillery like choke chains or prong collars, but I am never okay with an extendable lead. It’s the one time I’ll always swap it out for something more reliable. That said, nobody’s dog is having sessions with me because they’re super obedient. However, all that’s done is made me even more conscious of the problems extendable leads cause and give me all the more reason never to use them.
In the next post, I’ll talk you through using a long flat lead, so that you can work safely with the 17 different kind of dogs who shouldn’t be using an extendable lead. They can carry some of the same risks if you’re not careful with them. And in the post after that, I’ll be looking at ways to teach your dog to walk without pulling.
Along with separation anxiety, protective behaviour is the one behaviour that guardians most often contact me to say their dog is exhibiting where I often think this self-diagnosis has been made in error.
Much as I hate labels, many guardians mistake certain aggressive behaviours as motived by a desire to protect them. Some of those include territorial behaviours, a high degree of suspicious behaviour concerning unfamiliar dogs and humans, or resource guarding. In the past, vets and behaviourists may also have labelled these behaviours as dominance too. So today, I want to iron out the wrinkles, to clean up the confusion and tidy up the misunderstandings.
Usually, clients will tell me their dog is behaving aggressively or their dog is reactive when out on a walk. They tell me they stopped to talk to a neighbour and their dog barked at or lunged at the neighbour when the neighbour came up to shake hands. They tell me that an off-lead dog ran up to them in the park and their dog attacked the off-lead dog. They tell me that a cyclist went past and the dog bit them. Sometimes they tell me that their dog bit someone who came into the house or garden, even if they’d been invited in. Or they tell me that their dog growls at anyone who approaches them when the dog is sitting with them in the home.
Very often in these scenarios, guardians tell me that the dog was just protecting them. Like separation anxiety, an umbrella diagnosis for a lot of behaviours, emotions and motivations, I want more information first before I agree. Invariably, however, I arrive at a different conclusion. Is your dog really protecting you, or is something else going on?
Protective aggression is usually something I end up ruling out all together. Largely because protective behaviour is very different from the behaviour the guardian is describing. Although I don’t like labels, certain behaviours also require certain treatment plans – and that may include veterinary treatments or behavioural medication – and it matters what the dog is doing. After all, you don’t treat a sore throat with stomach medication. It would be completely ineffective, unless the sore throat was caused by acid reflux. Likewise, treating territorial, guarding or aggressive behaviour towards strangers as if it is protective behaviour is very likely to be as ineffective as treating most sore throats with Gaviscon.
Many dogs have been specifically bred for protection. Mainland European herding dogs from the Great Northern European plains were bred to work to not only keep the flock together, but to work in unfenced multi-purpose agricultural land. The predecessors of German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, Briards, Berger de Picardie, Beauceron, Dutch shepherds and some Italian herding dogs were bred to keep the flock together, keep the flock off crops and also to protect the flock from predators – both animal and human. Sometimes we call this the ‘living fence’ where the dog seems to act like a fence keeping the flock in, keeping them in situ and protecting them from threat, just as a fence would do. Some German shepherd owners erroneously attribute the ‘living fence’ notion to this manufactured modern breed, when in fact it is a behaviour we see in many other northern European flatland dogs, particularly the berger de Beauce and the berger de Brie. Being able to keep the flock together is a key aspect of this behaviour, and that means a certain level of independence – as the dogs may be left without the shepherd – but also a degree of stranger danger. Anything that approaches the dog is seen as a threat. It is little wonder that German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, French shepherds and Belgian shepherds are most often seen as guard dogs. They’re very different from the British herding dogs like the collie, and the herding dogs of the English-speaking diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
Another group of more ancient working dogs also have strong instincts for flock guardianship, albeit without the herding tendencies: the livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. From the Caucasus, through Asia Minor, into Eastern and Southern Europe, where there are mountains, there are livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. Since there are few crops in these areas, you don’t need dogs who can also act as a living fence, keeping sheep from grazing on unfenced crops, but you do need dogs who can keep the wolves away and protect the flock in the absence of a human. All the big guardian breeds fall into this group, from the Akbash and Anatolian shepherd, the Carpathian shepherd and the Mioritic to the Maremma, the Pyrenean mountain dog, the Portuguese Estrela mountain dogs and the Spanish mastins, these dogs can often be found in European mountain areas along with an accompanying sign to remind hikers to leave the dogs to their flocks and not to make any approaches. Many of these breeds are also making their way into the Western world, where guardians are troubled by behaviours they don’t understand and that are out of place in urban areas, but that the dogs resort to particularly in times of stress when they’re more likely to revert to their ‘default’ settings and inbuilt behaviours rather than relying on learned experience. Recent work has shown that livestock guardian breeds like these are actually less motivated by territorial behaviour than they are by protective behaviour. In other words, they are bonded to the sheep and have imprinted on them. This behaviour, from a very early age, makes them very protective of their flock, seeing them as kin.
It’s less unusual therefore to see protective behaviours from these dogs than it is from other dogs. And of course other dogs can be protective. All dogs are born knowing how to be a dog. Just in these two different types of dog we have selected for very particular behaviours that careful socialisation should address. What I would typically expect to see from dogs in this category would be that ‘suspicious until they know you; loyal when you’re a friend’ kind of behaviours. It’s not unusual for shepherd and livestock guardian owners to report that their dogs have problems with arrivals and departures from the group, and with strangers. Certainly, my own reprobate Belgians are highly suspicious of people and dogs until they know them. And then, they’re your very best friend and would guard you with their life. I always think of them of dog versions of the Robot in Lost in Space: “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”
So protective behaviour for these kind of dogs would include aggressive reactions towards strangers and generally biddable behaviour with people and animals they know. It’s often directed towards strangers who they perceive as a threat. However, these dogs would also be fairly biddable away from their flock. The true test of protective behaviour for me is if the dog is friendly when they’re not with their flock or family. Or that their reactions are much milder, at least. If the dog is as aggressive or reactive with strangers as they are when they’re on their own, it’s not protective behaviour, is it? They’ve nothing to protect. And most dogs, in my experience, are as aggressive or reactive on their own as they are when they’re with their humans or animal companions. My dogs are not protecting me: they’re as wary of strangers when they’re alone as they are when they’re with me. And stranger danger is very different than protective behaviour.
Protective behaviour: * Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a stranger approaches the dog who is with their guardian or another family member/animal. This would intensify the closer the threat comes to the guardian, family member or family animal. * The dog does not behave in this way (or much more mildly) when the guardian, family member or family animal is not present. * The context is always in the presence of the guardian, family member or family animal, whether on familiar or unfamiliar territory. * The purpose of the behaviour is to keep threats away from a protected target. * Rule out stranger-related behaviours, sexual behaviours (where the dog is protecting a dog of the opposite sex from same-sex dogs), territorial behaviours, resource guarding. * Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as a down-stay. Treatment will always focus on the dog-guardian pair. There would be little point in training the dog without the guarded family member present.
There may also be hyper-attachment to the guardian, family member or other animal in my experience, and the dog may not cope well without their presence. Remember that this behaviour may not be seen in isolation: it may be that the dog also presents other behaviours too. You can be both territorial and protective!
Stranger-related behaviours: * Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches whether out in public, on home ground, whether in the company or the guardian or whether alone. * The dog consistently behaves in this way with strange humans and dogs despite removal from territory, removal from resources and removal from familiar humans and dogs. * The context is consistent every time strange people or dogs approach. * The purpose is to stop the approach of unfamiliar animals or humans. * Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour and resource guarding. * Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as automatic u-turns, games such as “Look at That!” and working both with the guardian present and when the dog is alone. Treat and Train machines which dispense treats and remote training would be possible treatments for dogs who are uncomfortable with all strangers. Treatment will focus on both the dog alone and the dog with their guardian.
There may, of course, be dogs whose behaviour is intensified when the guardian is present or when they are on ‘home’ territory.
Territorial behaviour: * Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches a space considered by the dog to be their territory ie home ground, whether fenced or not, cars, homes, dog parks, familiar walks. * The dog behaves consistently whether the guardian is present or not, but only on familiar ground * The dog is friendly and approachable (or more so) away from the territory. * The dog may be friendly and approachable if they arrive last to new territory that is already populated by unfamiliar humans or dogs, but may behave aggressively toward newcomers who arrive after them. *The context is always on territory that is considered their own, whether that is because they are resident or because they have spent some time there, even if only very briefly. The behaviour is also only evident when a threat approaches, such as an unfamiliar dog or human. *The purpose is to protect the territory, not the people or dogs within it, though it may well be intensified by the presence of people or other dogs. * The behaviour may intensify if doors, gates and other barriers are introduced. Where physical barriers are not in evidence to demarcate the edges of territory, the dog may be less likely to intensify behaviour around the edge of the territory. * Treatment would include desensitisation and counterconditioning on the territory, but may also include behaviours using remote devices and things like Treat and Trains where the guardian is not present. * Rule out protective behaviour, stranger-directed behaviour and resource guarding.
Although the jury is still out as to whether dogs truly mark territory with pheromones in the same way as other canids do, it may be that these dogs are more likely to investigate urine and fecal matter left by other animals, and to overmark by urinating or defecating on top, and sometimes by scratching using hind paws to indicate where scent has been left. Dogs who are territorial may also often seem to spend more time investigating the perimeter when arriving at a new space, where other dogs are less likely to do so and may spend more time away from the perimeter. They may also leave well-defined tracks around the perimeter. I’d certainly be expecting to see other behaviours that suggest the dog is very aware of the boundaries to territory, such as marking around the edges or patrolling. The dog may also position themselves at entrance points if a physical boundary is evident.
Behaviours may be intensified by the presence of familiar humans or other animals. It may also be intensified by the presence of valued items. For instance, it’s not unusual for a dog to ‘claim’ territory in a kitchen or sleeping area from other dogs in the house, but the behaviour is less territorial and more about the presence of valued food items or sleeping spaces than it is about the territory itself per se.
As I said, it’s more typical to see certain breeds arrive as clients with these behaviours. For my own dogs, Heston my Belgian shepherd mix is pretty territorial. He is fine if we meet people off site (well, he’s a little nervous as he wasn’t socialised as well as he should have been – definitely my fault!) but he is not protective of me. He’d behave the same whether I was present or not. Lidy my Malinois is not particularly territorial, but she does not like strangers approaching her, wherever she is. You can see why I’d see myself as a protected guardian if I didn’t know for sure that a) Heston would bark at anyone who approached his territory whether I was there or not and b) Lidy would behave aggressively towards anyone who approached her, home ground or not, whether I was there or not. Because we only see the behaviour when we’re there, and because we’re self-centred little monkeys, we often think it is our presence that is causing the behaviour when in fact, it’s definitely a higher order skill to be more bothered about protecting others than it is about protecting yourself. All that said about guardian dogs and guard dogs, the most extreme case of protective aggression I’ve ever seen is a griffon vendéen… so it’s important not to dismiss protective behaviours just because the dog isn’t a doberman or a rottweiler or a malinois.
So often, when guardians tell me the dog was protecting them, I think that the dog actually felt completely unprotected by the human and was acting to protect themselves since their guardian failed to pick up on their discomfort around people or other dogs that they consider to be a threat. There are two factors that also play into it: the dog was often on the lead and therefore unable to get away from the threat since they were secured to their guardian, or the incident happened at an entrance point to the garden or home.
Let’s move on to another kind of behaviour that is often diagnosed by guardians as protective: resource guarding.
Other than these rustic dogs, lapdogs can also be protective of their guardian, particularly in the home and particularly when they’re on couches or under the feet of their guardians. It can be tempting to call this behaviour protective aggression, but often the dogs who show it also show other behaviours in other circumstances away from the guardian.
Resource-guarding behaviour: * Behaviour exhibited includes barking, growling, lunges, snapping and biting both familiar and unfamiliar humans, dogs and other animals who approach an object. * The context is always in the presence of a valued resource. Be mindful of the fact that human beliefs about value are not the same as those of dogs: dogs can guard the most innocuous of items. Most likely, however, are dogs who guard resting spaces (like beds and couches) who guard toys (or items considered toys) food or water bowls (and may only guard things they actually don’t want to eat at that time) and also may guard you as a resource if you are petting them. The target is more often a familiar dog or human simply because it’s more likely to happen in the home as resting spaces and food are not generally available on walks. * The purpose is to prevent valued items or contact being taken from them. * Treatment is particularly specific depending on what is being guarded. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are important, but taught skills like ‘drop’ or ‘trade’ may be useful for toys, but would be unhelpful for dogs who guard their beds from others. * Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour, stranger-related behaviour.
In my experience, dogs who guard items tend to be fairly anxious dogs on the whole and it’s rare to find those who only guard one item. Tilly, my little guardy cocker spaniel, didn’t just guard me if I was petting her (she had no interest in guarding me if I wasn’t sitting next to her) but she also guarded food items, toys and space. She’d even guard them from me at first. She also had stranger-related behaviour, and you can see how I could construe this as Tilly not liking other dogs and people approaching me when in fact what she was doing was feeling unprotected and vulnerable. The behaviour disappeared when I did not put her into vulnerable positions.
It’s worth noting that we don’t get to decide on the value of the resource. Lidy guarded a piece of dry pasta from me yesterday and then ate it with a most disgusted look, yet she will happily relinquish a sausage if I ask…. like I said, we don’t get to choose, the dog does. She has never guarded anything from me before.
It is also worth noting about what is appropriate and what is not. A friend shared a super video on Facebook the other day. Her gorgeous little Amstaff was in a preferred bed and an older hound was approaching, barking and moving in and out, trying to dislodge the interloper. The Amstaff did absolutely nothing, but it was clear the hound was very upset by the dog squatting his bed. That is appropriate behaviour. Good management followed, where the guardian asked the Amstaff to vacate the spot (which is right next to the fire… hence why it is so valued!) and he did so happily. He got a snuggly blanket and a hot water bottle next to his guardian and the hound got his preferred spot next to the fire. What is not appropriate, however, is a dog on vigil in their bed who growls every time another dog moves.
The same is true to a degree for all the behaviours I’ve described. It’s normal for many dogs not to appreciate strangers – so many of them have been specifically bred to be suspicious of unfamiliar humans. It’s normal for dogs to be territorial. If you lock your doors and you put up fences, you too are territorial, and that is pretty normal for a human too. And it’s normal for some breeds of dog to need to be taught that it’s okay for strangers to approach their flock – even if that flock is human. It’s also normal to protect stuff from those villains of the home who might intend to interrupt your petting session, who might intend to steal your spot by the fire, or who might come and stick their head in your bowl. Like my friend, it’s up to us as humans to understand where tensions are likely to rise and to manage those situations.
Whilst it’s normal, it is not something we need to accept. Sometimes it is something we cannot accept if the behaviour is injurious to others or to ourselves. And whilst you will see desensitisation and counterconditioning as part of all treatment plans, to deal with the emotional aspects of how dogs feel about threat, that will differ depending on what the context of the behaviour is and what its purpose is. For instance, this morning, I was desensitising Lidy around cows. That isn’t going to do anything to help her with her stranger-related aggression. It’s for that reason that we do need to be specific about what the context and purpose of the behaviour is, as well as the underlying emotion, because if we don’t, we’re back to treating sore throats with Gaviscon again.
It can be very difficult to work out what exactly is going on, particularly if you have no idea what your dog would do if you weren’t there. I suppose most people who tell me their dog bit someone because the dog was protecting them are just equating their presence with the bite, without realising the dog would have done the same had they been there or not. In any case, if you’re unsure, since all of these behaviours risk escalation if you do not address them, it’s vital you find a qualified and experienced behaviour consultant to help you out. They’ll help you through management, support you with training plans and offer you solutions that should keep everybody safe and help you address your dog’s difficulties. They should also be able to offer you an insight into what your dog is doing, and why. You don’t have to live with these behaviours and in many ways, they can mean our dogs lead much smaller lives if we don’t address them.
If you’ve got a dog who is reactive to everything, one of the most challenging things can be things moving up from behind, things moving alongside and things coming head on. In my experience, head on is worst, if only because it gives the dog time to decide that they don’t like whatever is coming towards them. If that’s someone walking towards you and your dog catches sight of them over 500m away, it can take them five minutes to get to you, especially if you’re battling a dog who is pulling on the lead. Now the bit that’s like high school mathematics: even if you’re moving towards them and they’re moving towards you, it could take you 3 minutes to get past each other: 3 minutes in which your dog is deciding that this is going to be terrible. Or, deciding that this is going to be wonderful target practice for a bit of “Catch the Monkey” or “Catch the Machine”. 3 minutes of you feeling anxious and passing that anxiety down the line.
I’m a fan of avoiding triggering situations whilst we’re learning to cope, but I’m also a fan of teaching dogs incrementally how to cope. If you’ve not already read about habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning, working below threshold and using L-turns and U-turns, you might want to do a little reading beforehand. You can also polish up your desensitisation and counterconditioning. Whilst you can avoid some triggers most of your dog’s life, it does not make for a full life. The more contact that you are likely to have with triggers that set off behaviour, the more vital it is that you train your dog how to cope with them.
One thing I’ve become very conscious of on walks is that Lidy is a visual scanner, constantly on the lookout for stuff to a) chase and kill b) chase and kill and c) chase and kill. I notice a lot of my clients’ reactive dogs like this too: constantly scanning the environment. It’s as true for reactive dogs or anxious dogs as it is for chasey dogs. They walk with their head up, constantly on alert. I find it’s very apparent with anxious dogs. Some of them spend their entire walk in visual surveillance mode.
Heston has his nose to the floor, and he’s a much more refined nose: Lidy’s telling me there’s squirrels, weasels, mountain goats and camels right here, right now, and Heston is telling her to cool her jets. She can’t seem to decide if scent is 2 minutes old or 10 days old, if it belongs to something 10 miles away or in the next bush. He’s so much more discerning: he’ll only alert if it’s close and if it’s recent, though it interests him if it’s older scent. A nose down dog is a great dog to manage. There have been many times when Heston has had his nose to the ground and I’ve managed to keep it that way whilst a hare, deer or boar shot past.
Flika was a dissector of smells. She’d have to stop and give it a very thorough investigation:
That’s not to say she spent her whole walk like that. Put a cow or a car in the scene and she’d go back to visual scanning.
Heston likes to quest: that process where they’re looking for a scent but they haven’t really got it quite yet – quite often running and ‘hoovering’ up that scent until they find the freshest. Tail up, head down, trot, canter or gallop. Visual scanning is only for when scents are really strong and you need to use your eyes because the thing is SO close.
And the Problem Child, she’s a visual scanner. The sod.
In my experience, dogs who are visual scanners are absolute sods for being really sensitive to the environment, to environmental change and for literally having more time to go over threshold. Nose down dogs, like it or not, can often be tricked. There have been many times when I’ve been able to fake out Flika or Heston simply because I saw what they were busy smelling. We’ve avoided all kinds of hare, boar, deer and dogs that way. I’m very conscious of dogs who are visually scanning the environment the whole time – they’re more likely to exhibit reactive behaviour or chasing behaviours in my experience.
You can’t fake out a visual scanner. They’ve seen it before you have. By scanning visually, they were literally waiting for things to move.
And I think visual scanning has something to do with anxious dogs’ feelings too. If you don’t feel safe enough to stick your nose to the floor and enjoy your walk, if you’re spending all your walks waiting to be pounced upon, then you’re going to find it less appealing to get your nose down and get on with being a dog.
Some dogs also need to be re-taught that it’s fine to get your nose down and sniff and investigate. So many dogs are taught to walk on a very short lead and never engage with the environment. We teach them to be visual like us, and don’t allow them to be dogs. I hate it when dogs aren’t allowed to use their primary tool of information gathering: their nose. So the activities I’m about to propose also help dogs re-engage with the world using their nose. When we forbid our dogs in gathering information in the best way they can – via their nose – we’re also limiting their understanding of the world in which we’ve placed them.
A final thing is about the appearance of dogs who are visually scanning and who have their nose down in terms of the threat level they pose to other animals, especially to other dogs. The visual scan often seems to set other reactive dogs off. Head up behaviour is instantly scary (and one reason I don’t like using fake dogs or stuffed dogs) whereas head down behaviour, whether you see it as appeasement behaviour, displacement behaviour or a calming signal, gives a very different impression. I’ve seen this so many times where I’ve encouraged my dog to stick their nose to the ground and the other dog has stopped posturing too.
A pose like this, then, can come across as quite hostile to other dogs, especially if the dog is stopped, if their mouth is closed and if they’ve got widely spread back legs.
This, on the other hand, says “not interested in you” and “just doing dog stuff.
A final reason I prefer nose down behaviours to visual scanning. It’s also why I’m not a fan of stopping still with dogs and asking them to stand. So very many reasons a ‘nose down’ is good and why it’s good to keep dogs moving.
So how do we teach our dogs ‘nose down’ behaviours? I use two techniques. The first is a game of ‘Find it!’ and the second is a Pattern Game from Leslie McDevitt called ‘1-2-3-drop!’. The first is ideal for when you’ve got something coming up from behind, if you need to move your dog quickly past or away, or if you’re moving quickly past something. The second is good when you need to be first, when you’re coming up to something, when you’re approaching a blind corner or bend.
Like everything, you need to start these easy and you need to start in a safe place. Start in the kitchen, in the garden, in the driveway.
Start by practising at home and in the garden.
Do it so many times that as soon as you say, ‘Ready?’, your dog looks back at you and they’re ready to go hunting. Start with small throws, a metre or so, with big, smelly treats on flat ground. Graduate in complexity until you’re a pot shot over 5m or so with small treats in foliage.
If you’ve got a reactive dog, they should be on the lead in all cases until they can cope. Yes, the lead may well be playing into reactivity, but if your dog is reacting to humans, dogs, other animals or machinery, the last thing you want is them learning that aggression and charging in works. It’s the quickest way to turn reactive behaviour to aggressive behaviour.
If you’re using a longer lead than 5m, your dog has a lot of room to get into trouble. I don’t recommend longer leads until your dog can cope with everything at 5m. At the same time, if you’ve got less than a 2m lead, this isn’t really giving your dog lots of capacity to make good choices themselves. For this reason, a 2m, 3m or 5m fixed flat lead is your friend. Heston has 10m because he can cope. Lidy has 2m because she cannot. So your throwing precision needs to be as long as the lead.
‘Find it!’ is very easy. You just throw a treat in front of you about the length of the lead and tell the dog to find it! You move them forward. You can also do it moving very quickly if you’re very near the target, so if I’ve got Heston on a 10m lead, I shorten it so he has a couple of metres, throw big treats and move him forward quickly. If the target is a long way away OR they suddenly sneaked up and I need to keep my dog’s head down for longer, then a really slow ‘Find it!’ with a handful of treats into deeper foliage can also keep them busy longer. It’s a great management tool. There have been times we’ve diverted behind a bit of a screen and we’ve played a few rounds of ‘Find it!’ on the spot to keep them busy.
But you can also use ‘Find it!’ for when they see the scary or fun thing coming but have not yet reacted. They’re under threshold, still listening to you. So many people at this point ask their dog for a sit, then wait… wait… wait… maybe ask for ‘Watch me!’… and the dog is losing their patience, concentration and capacity to cope by the time the target gets closer.
I see so many problems caused by asking the dog to be static and to passively accept/cope with scary stuff or stuff they’d like to chase, especially if the target remains in their field of vision for several minutes. I needn’t tell you about the time Heston and I had to watch a whole wild boar family run across the horizon, crossing several empty fields. It must have taken them 10 minutes. How calm do you think Heston was by the end? Static behaviour like a sit or a down-stay is a tough ask when there’s moving things and you can’t chase them or run at them or run away.
‘Find it!’ keeps the dog moving forward, nose down, eyes focused on a target.
You can use it for emergency avoidance. Like I do when I spot a hare in the distance and I don’t want to cope with a very frustrated Heston.
And you can use it for counterconditioning. This is not distracting the dog, like avoiding. This is waiting for the dog to see the target, then using that as a cue to play ‘Find it!’. This process is much more conscious and is called operant counterconditioning. It’s a much less passive process, and for that I’m a big fan.
Think of it this way:
counterconditioning: scary thing appears > give dog food.
The purpose of this is to change the dog’s emotional response to the scary stuff. It doesn’t change the dog’s behaviour. It changes their feelings. You don’t need to mark behaviour in counterconditioning, because it doesn’t even matter what the dog does. Just as long as they’re accepting food, then it’s working to make them feel better about the scary stuff.
operant counterconditioning: scary thing appears > dog sees scary thing and does not react > guardian marks the behaviour with a ‘yes!’ or a ‘good!’ and then tosses the food and initiates a game of ‘Find it!’.
The purpose of this is to shape behaviour. It will also change their feelings, because ‘scary thing’ = ‘food’, just like in the counterconditioning bit. But it also reinforces non-reactive behaviour. It reinforces calmness. It shapes it from a small moment of non-reactivity into something much longer. Operant counterconditioning is the gold standard of reactive dog training.
There are lots of operant counterconditioning processes you can use.
You could reinforce check ins, where a dog sees the trigger, looks back at you and you reinforce with food. You could do this with a cue, like seeing your dog see the trigger, then asking them to ‘Watch!’ or ‘Check in!’ or you could just shape it naturally without a cue. My dogs (even the Problem Child) do this when they see a car. I don’t cue them. They look back at me and come back, sit down and we have snacks. The car cues that behaviour. That’s a gold standard because I don’t even have to pay attention to what the dog is even doing. They tell me. I can forget about the cars and they automatically come back to me and get out of the road.
You could reinforce u-turns, where the dog sees the trigger, turns back to you and you reinforce by moving in the opposite direction from the target. In a way, the car check ins are a bit like this. One dog I worked with used to see a dog and turn back, then we’d get out of the way and go and have snacks. It was much better than holding on to 40kg of air snapping, teeth clacking German shepherd trying his best to navigate bouncy labradors in the best way he knew how.
You could reinforce hand touches, where the dog sees (or senses in my case) a trigger, turns back to you and touches your hand so that you can engage with them or work with them. Lidy does this. When she’s feeling uncomfortable or a bit bitey, she touches my hand and we play games until she’s ready to cope again. Again, better than holding on to 20kg of pocket rocket maligator trying to take a chunk out of someone’s shopping bags.
Leslie McDevitt, the queen of these procedures, introduced us to “Look at that!” – and you know from my last post why I like this cued behaviour. Unlike auto check-ins or the engage/disengage game (where you reinforce disengaging behaviour), this cues the dog for a predictable turn of events. So I say, “Where’s the Dog?” and Lidy scans the environment for a dog. When she sees it, she comes back to me for food. It turns scary stimuli into a game. If I say “Where’s Fred?” it prepares her for a person. Because it’s cued behaviour (i.e. you ask for it), the dog is prepared for what they are going to see. The world becomes predictable. If you want to read up on why predictability is great for anxious dogs, then you’ll enjoy my previous post.
You can see why counterconditioning is a step up from using ‘Find it!’ to just avoid the dog seeing a trigger. It actually starts to change their feelings. And you can see why operant counterconditioning is a step up from counterconditioning, because you can shape behaviour, not just change feelings.
You’ll also see that I deliberately only mentioned scary triggers for counterconditioning and operant counterconditioning. There’s a reason for that. Safety and predictability are the key reinforcers for an anxious dog. Food is an added bonus. Safety, predictability and food are NOT reinforcing for a dog who wants to chase stuff. Walking Lidy through town near humans and she is very much in need of safety, predictability and food; she often performs hand touches to access them.
How many times did Miss Predation 2015 hand touch me today on our woodland walk?
How many times did she engage with me without cuing?
A big, fat zero.
Because… chasing… chasing… stuff to maybe chase and smell and chase and bite and smell and bite and eat.
Can you use food with dogs with strong predatory behaviours? Not at first, no. Chasing is the number 1 fun. Nothing you can offer (and no punishment you can inflict) is as fun as chasing. This is why desensitisation is a better friend. Heston today recalled for a food treat when we saw a deer. That took 8 years to achieve, lovely readers. 8 years. To be fair, I’ve only really been trying for 5 of those 8. We’ve been gradually picking off things he likes to chase, one by one, and working on them. Here he is, not fussed by cows. The other week, the cows were right at the fence line and one stuck her head through. He ignored her. She was just there. She might as well have been a leaf on the bush or a crazy piece of grass. When he was 10 weeks old, he barked at cows non-stop. We did a lot of desensitisation and now frisky, frolicking cows can do their business right up by a very flimsy barbed wire fence and my dog is ‘meh!’
That is also true for horses, for sheep, for goats, for chickens (we’re revisiting cats!) and for all manner of game birds. A pheasant in the bush didn’t get a reaction yesterday. Nor a fat little partridge. Ducks, the same. We picked off each one and we worked on desensitisation. This from a dog who once chased swallows for 30 minutes in a field. Part of it is just being older and not having the same thrill. He’s much less bothered by squirrels, weasels, badgers and rabbits since they have very good evasive techniques. His big thrills were running stuff on open ground: hare, deer, boar. But we cope with them these days. Desensitisation is a part of that. But what is vital is that we meet those ‘chase’ needs. That means a bit of a dopamine hit, a bit of hunting, a bit of running, a bit of chasing. ‘Find it!’, lame as it is, is a loose approximation of this. No, it is never going to compete if your dog is sensitive to things that move – Lidy is a long way from even coping with smells and sounds, let alone seeing moving things – but when you couple it with desensitisation and you practise often, then you’ve got something that can meet a little of that need.
This is one of Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games as well. Here, you start counting, ‘1… 2…. 3…’ and then you drop a treat on the floor. Instead of tossing it in front of you, you drop it at your feet or slightly behind. Immediately you’ve dropped it, you start walking forward and start counting again. The dog is then trying to catch up with you and you’re able to use yourself as a bit of a screen as well as keep their head down. It’s more regular than ‘Find it!’ and the treat is easier to find. I usually use something pretty visible and this is not a routine that involves them hunting or looking for the treat, just putting their head down.
Like ‘Find it!’ you can use the rhythm to go quickly or to go slowly. I find as well that I can use it to slow the dog down a little, instead of a military pace with a drop every second or so, I can drag the ‘1-2-3’ out over 6 seconds, slow paces and then speed up as we get nearer, or bring their energy down by starting quickly and then slowing down.
It is so simple, it’s insane.
I find it fairly hypnotic and Lidy clearly enjoys it when she’s feeling a bit antsy, as she’ll often hand touch and then we go into 1-2-3-drop. It puts our dogs in a positive frame of mind and gives them something predictable, something routine. The key part of desensitisation that can be really hard to achieve is working around triggers in a relaxed state. No relaxation, no desensitisation. As you can see from the Youtube video of me working through these around a cow field with Heston, his body language is relaxed, he’s loose, he’s engaged with me, he’s not fussed about the cows. Full disclosure: Heston could walk off lead past frisky bulls and not bat an eyelid, so the video is just about practising ‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ as a cold trial so that when I need it, it’s as automatic as breathing.
You can, by the way, put subtitles on as I’ve added commentary about what I’m doing as we go.
Once you’ve got a really automatic recall for ‘Ready?… Find it!’ and for the ‘1’ in ‘1-2-3-drop!’ then you can start to practise in more challenging conditions.
This scenario is what I call The Drive-By. In this scenario, not unlike the one I have here, using ‘1-2-3-drop’ on approach keeps your dog slightly behind and trying to catch up, so they’re focused on you as the moving target, and on a routine they have practised hundreds of times as you walk past a static or slowly moving target. Just a reminder: you don’t want these games to become a predictor of scary or interesting stuff in the environment, so make sure you always have a few cold trials at other points on the walk too. Just as you pass the last of the sheep (or horses, children in a playground, revving motorbikes or whatever it may be) switch to ‘find it!’ to high-tail it out of there. At all times, YOU are between the dog and the trigger. You are also moving at all times. It’s often in the absence of any other routine that a dog will resort to inbuilt dog stuff like chasing or reactivity, so this fills the void when your dog needs a crutch to lean on.
This scenario is one I call The Blind Bend. I am absolutely not a fan of reactive or chasey dogs going round blind corners first. All hell can break loose. Whilst I’m also not a fan of frog-marching dogs, or them needing to be 2 paces behind at all times, I insist on a bit of corner management.
One real-life example is just up the lane where the video was made. The house opens directly onto the street and the owners often leave the door open. Their dog usually lies in the doorway (because… dog!) and I’ve had a few hairy and narrow escapes when the door has been open and the dog has come flying out. The dog isn’t actively looking for trouble, but if the door is open, we don’t go past the front of the house. I could easily also take the left turn and move away, but the safest is a U-turn. So we play ‘1-2-3-drop’ on all blind corners, and I often encourage corner sniffing too. Corners are usually good spots for marking – cats, foxes, dogs, whatever you like… corners are often smelly. Encouraging a dog to get information by sniffing means I can get information by looking. Again, the dog should be furthest from the target or potential trouble, and ready to U-turn if necessary. We practise on literally every corner on our walk and if I have the slightest doubt, I always go round first.
This is my High Noon scenario, where your dog is walking up to a trigger they feel is dangerous or interesting to chase. Instead of gunslinging, looking for screens, u-turning if not and l-turning if you’ve got a suitable screen, you can either play ‘Find it!’ on the spot until the trigger goes past, or you can practise some other behaviour at a distance. I might have a few games of ‘Look at That!’ if we’re safe. This is the toughest of all the scenarios, particularly if the dog has had visual confirmation of incoming threat for the last 5 minutes or so.
We can certainly feel we should try to wrestle our dog past the trigger. I don’t know what it is about human beings that we prefer High Noon to taking two minutes to step off the battlefield and wait for the enemy to walk on by.
The final scenario is Misaligned Stars. For whatever reason, you’re walking into the equivalent of a trigger minefield. Sure, you could get past the sheep, dodge the oncoming trigger and cope if there’s a loose dog, but unless you feel incredibly lucky, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. We u-turn. We pick another walk. Simple as that. I might end up 10 minutes longer on the walk as a result, but nobody will have had a meltdown.
‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ are not magic. They work through repetition in easy places until it’s an automatic response. They provide a structure for you to work at a safe distance and even provide a structure for you to work a little further into that safety bubble without incident. A busy dog will be much more able to cope with triggers all around them. If you’re interested in learning and education, there’s some interesting information about cognitive load in the classroom – basically, our problem-solving capabilities are less when we have to do more work. Giving explicit step-by-step guidance reduces the difficulty of the task and makes it much more easy the learner will accomplish it. Transferring actions to procedural memory (our muscle memory if you like) takes the pressure off. These two activities help dogs’ muscle memory take over the cognitive load, so that they can cope with managing two things at once – in this case, walking to heel and coping with scary or exciting triggers. Putting loose-leash walking to simple patterns like ‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ means that this routine muscle behaviour, automatic and simple to perform, polished to perfection, means that the dog won’t struggle quite so much to cope with the complicated stuff. In theory, at least.
And if nothing else, it helps you manage the dog in relation to the position of the trigger.
As you can see from this video, nose down, moving past…
The cows aren’t at all near (about 50m) but even my one-eyed sixteen-year-old girl could have seen these (and would have reacted to them when I first adopted her, aged 14) so don’t overlook the distance you may need to work at, but don’t feel like it’s hopeless.
You may feel like you’re going to have to do this with every single trigger and it will take you a gazillion months, but in reality, once dogs realise what we’re up to, then they begin to generalise much more quickly. Sure, it took me 4 weeks to work around cows, but it didn’t take me 4 for sheep, chickens, cats, horses, goats and the other animals we come across in the neighbourhood. The aim is to make these triggers no more and no less a part of the landscape than the trees and the water butts and the bushes and the fence posts.
So if you have a reactive dog, start teaching these skills now. Start easy, start simply, start without the trigger near you at all. And then, very gradually, up your game. After all, if a one-eyed old lady can learn not to chase and not to lunge, then I’m pretty sure there’s hope for us all.
Global lockdowns, decreased road traffic and non-existent air traffic meant that for many of our dogs, March 2020 to June 2020 were peaceful times. I know for many anxious dogs, it was a break from the daily grind. It wasn’t a surprise then to find my books filling up with anxious dogs post-lockdown. It seems strange now to think back to those times without traffic and planes disturbing the peace.
For anxious dogs who returned to normality post-lockdown, it seems to have hit them really hard. The only equivalents I can really give are where you give something up and then find you can’t cope with the levels of whatever you used to do.
For example, I gave up drinking alcohol little by little over the last fifteen years or so. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t something I purposely quit. I just started drinking less. Now, half a glass of wine makes me sick, beer bloats me in ways I don’t want to describe to you and even half a glass of cider makes me hugely inappropriate.
It’s the same with many things I’ve quit the habit of in the last few years. I used to always wear perfume. Five or six squirts every day. Wrists, neck, clothes. I had so many different bottles and I was never without. Now, I can’t even tolerate the slightest spritz – it seems to follow me all day and give me a headache.
And don’t get me started on traffic and city life!
Like the proverbial frogs in hot water, we habituate to noise, smells, experiences, tastes and even our daily activities. Take us out of the water for a while and we find it impossible to tolerate when we’re immersed once more.
And I think this is what happened for a good number of dogs. Add more regular walks, anxious guardians, families off work, changing routines, people at home more and a beautiful spring, and it’s not a surprise to me that our dogs found it difficult to tolerate what they’d previously habituated to in the past. For our anxious dogs, I think this was particularly marked.
In the past few months or so, there’s definitely been something in the air about the use of predictable routines and objects in dogs’ lives. First, it was a little-shared study in by Joke Monteny and Cristel Moons in Animals back in January: A Treatment Plan for Dogs (Canis familiaris) That Show Impaired Social Functioning towards Their Owners.
The paper is very nice, discussing the effects of modifying the environment and lowering stress in dogs who are reactive to their guardian’s behaviour. I read it nodding sagely at the parts that informed guardians about thresholds and low level behaviours. They used Dr Kendal Shepherd’s excellent Ladder of Aggression that I shared a couple of posts ago:
So far, very straightforward. Recognise the lower level stress signals and notice how your dog is feeling. That’s always my starting point with anxious dogs.
Then they suggest education, and explanation, giving reasons for the dog’s behaviour, explaining things from the dog’s point of view. Yes, yes. Always good. The paper’s authors suggest going back through the guardian’s behaviours to explain to clients what the dog is doing at each point, and the effect of their behaviour on the dog.
They go to explain how to manage the environment and avoid stress, as well as avoiding punishment.
Finally, just when I was thinking they’re simply describing a very simple procedure, some 2500 words in, they hit me with two descriptions. One is something they call The Predictability Game. The second is something they call a safety cue.
The predictability games are great. They tie in to lots of other things I do with the guardians of anxious dogs, from Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games to Chirag Patel’s Counting Game. As Leslie McDevitt often says, they teach the dog rules and predictable patterns. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the world around us, the dog and I are involved in a relationship, we’re doing stuff. We’ve got our routine. We’re undertaking easy, fun, reliable, predictable, reinforcing activities that normalise the unpredictable and help dogs cope. I’ve been doing a few of these with a couple of clients, and one said to me this morning that their dog has become more affectionate and more relaxed as a result. The dog knows the routine. It brings safety. The dog isn’t spending all day scanning the environment for threat and they trust their human to keep them safe. For me, I’ve used these hugely with Lidy – she comes out like Kato in a Pink Panther movie, attacking everything on site. Pattern Games are our crutch for when the world gets tough. We go back to our really simple ‘one – two – three – drop’ food game. We play ‘ping pong’ where she shuttles back and forward for treats. I use these to vary the pace and to bring down her energy levels and to provide a reliable routine. I also love them because they’re moving games. So many trainers ask dogs for stillness when threats are approaching, especially when the dog is on the leash, and it’s just creating a lot of problems because the dog has nothing else to do. So they go back to relying on predictable behaviours like barking that get them what they need – safety.
That tied in to listening to Leslie on Hannah Branigan’s great Drinking from the Toilet podcast, where again, they were talking about predictability and routine. I highly recommend this episode if you haven’t already listened to it. I’m on my fifth time through and still it’s giving me more. You can find the podcast here.
I’ve also used Chirag Patel’s Counting Game for the same kind of purpose. To be honest, I don’t think it matters what you do with your dog as long as the dog enjoys it, it’s not adding to their cognitive load by being too difficult and it’s getting the nose down and breaking up the dog’s visual scanning of the environment. When I say “one – two – three” my dogs are back with me, no matter what, because what I’m about to ask will be easy and it will be routines we’ve practised a thousand times in a very large number of situations.
I find that this just builds up so neatly to Leslie’s ‘up-down’ game and to ‘ping pong’.
So the Monteny and Moon study really reassured me that this was a useful kind of approach to take.
But it got better. These safety cues. I mean, this was something I had to go away and sleep on, then come back and get my head into again.
So for Monteny and Moon, a safety cue is “a novel item for the dog without any previous association”. They give the example of a mat, and I think that is genius for a number of reasons, not least because it’s portable and you’ll be able to work with it in a variety of places. The process they explain involves working to create an association between positive experiences/lack of stress and the mat. So you’d start in a quiet environment where you are still and the dog is calm, where you’re not likely to be disrupted by television noise, music, doorbells, people arriving or other dogs. And you just sit whilst the dog does something fun. So you might give them a chew or a lickimat and just let them get on with it. If your dog is fearful around you, you do absolutely nothing other than give them a cue to announce the arrival of the mat, like “here’s your mat!” and give them a toy, puzzle, chew or food game and go and sit down. You do absolutely nothing. You don’t make sudden movements, you don’t play noisy games on your phone. You just sit.
This happens over a few times (and I’d vary the games/chews/puzzles so that the mat is the announcer of good stuff, not the toy or chew or whatever) and you need to do five trials where you can see the dog relaxes within five minutes of the mat going down.
Then the mat gets picked up and put away until next time. What you want is a positive association with the mat, so that just like Linus in Peanuts it comes to signify something pleasant and can induce a state of relaxation. To finish, throw a couple of treats away from the mat, say something like “mat time’s over!” and put the mat away.
If you use the mat often enough and gradually enough, it comes to help your systematic desensitisation. If you remember, that relaxed state is vital for desensitising a dog to things, so the “safety cue” is a way of inducing relaxation and calm.
Now I know objects can be a great talisman for dogs. For instance, for one very territorial dog I worked with, whoever had his bowl did not get barked at. If you arrive with a bowl, you are a welcome guest, whoever you are. It doesn’t make the dog feel better about YOU until later, but it does not evoke the kind of barking and aggression they were getting without it. Same thing in shelters for people who arrive with leashes or other recognisable “goodies”. It can also work the other way too. You may remember my saying about my dog Amigo who had quite clearly been trained with a fly swatter. Seeing him trembling to see one on a table told me all I needed to know. So these kind of items with a positive or negative association can induce emotional states such as relaxation (and fear, unfortunately, if they aren’t used correctly).
So I chewed this study over for weeks as its implications sank in.
When Hannah mentioned “certainty anchors” very briefly on her podcast, though, it sent me on a bit of a search to find out what she meant.
So a certainty anchor is exactly this: a learned process in which we use predictable factors as a crutch to cope with the unpredictable. Not unlike Monteny and Moon’s ‘safety cues’. Now in another life, I was involved in change leadership and working with organisations involved in a change agenda. Sometimes, we call this the Red Queen hypothesis, that we’ve got to always keep moving just to keep up. A kind of use-it-or-lose-it mantra. What I learned from my 4 years in consultancy was that some people find it hard to change.
We started with a really simple game – one I still play in group classes. The presenter pairs you up and asks you to stand back to back. You then have 30 seconds to make 5 changes. Then you turn back and your partner has to work out what you changed. The first time, invariably, people take things off. Sweaters, earrings, bracelets, watches, glasses. It’s fairly liberating. That kind of change I think we can all deal with – removing the extraneous. Nobody, by the way, ever removes the essentials. Interesting. I’m sure there’s something profound in that.
Then, without prior warning, the presenter tells you to turn your backs again and change 5 more things. Now people start to use the environment to pick things up. They pick up cups, binders, stand on chairs, put pens in their hair. I think generally speaking people do that too – abandon the extraneous and then add on new things.
Finally, once more without warning, the presenter asks you to do it again. Now this is where it gets fun. People get creative. People are liberated. I’ve seen shirts come off, or shoes. I’ve seen people make impromptu hats out of bags. I’ve seen them fashion earrings from pens.
But two things also happen. As soon as the presenter tells you the game is over, invariably, people change back everything to how it was. That says a lot about habit. And the second things is that people usually have a few things they’d never do. Like remove a wedding ring or change the finger they’re wearing it on. We don’t change our core values.
So all this is interesting, but out of four years’ work, if you ask me what I learned is that adults will invariably groan and shut down any time any change is proposed, even if it removes work from them. I also know they go back to default as soon as the pressure is off unless the change was wanted and it came from within. Change is hard, even for humans who seem to be one of Nature’s most adaptable species.
Change, at a biological level, is threat. Mice and rats who’ve been habituated to a new environment for five days are more likely to survive when a predator is then introduced, compared to mice and rats in a novel environment. Novelty is not good, especially when we’re under threat.
So this is where certainty anchors or safety cues come in. Author Jonathan Fields in his book Uncertainty says rituals help ground us. They help us find equilibrium. He says they’re powerful as tools in ways to help us deal with uncertainty and anxiety. It adds something known and reliable to your life at times of change. Their consistency is the crucial element – that we can deal with the cognitive load of change without it throwing us off balance. They’re a bedrock or foundation that allow our brain time to process the other things. Fields says these ‘anchors’ secure us and help us cope during times of stress and change. He also says that when we have these, we are then able to take risks. They give us some control over the uncontrollable. They build structure and build practices that allow us to cope in constantly changing circumstances.
Now for anxious dogs, we know that predictability and certainty help them cope. Routine, ritual and predictable patterns help them cope with the uncertainty of everyday life. They free up brain bandwidth.
Chirag Patel’s latest Domesticated Manners presentation makes good use of those anchors… the items in a dog’s life like bowls or blankets. I highly recommend everyone watches the whole video. If you’re just a beginner, it’s easy to follow, but for those of us who like the subtleties, there’s so much going on underneath the hood there that I watched that at least twice too.
Now a lot of these things are about props. Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games are about routines. For dogs who are anxious, I’d argue that both of these things are essential. But I think there is one more element.
More precisely, our relationship and interactions with our dogs.
Now most of you will know my journey with Miss Lidy, my reprobate shepherd. About four years ago, I made her a promise. I promised that I would keep her life predictable. That I would be predictable. I didn’t say I’d become her certainty anchor, because I didn’t know such words then. I didn’t say I was her safety cue for the same reason. But I wanted her to know that when she was with me, none of the scary stuff would happen. Her voice would be heard and respected. She’d no longer have to rely on her teeth. I would be her routine and her regularity. I would always be 100% reliable. Our relationship would be based on consistency and safety.
Much of her first ten months here with me has been about the small routines of an ordinary life. It’s been about restoring predictability. It’s been about creating routines that we both abide by that help us both cope when the unpredictable happens. Sometimes, unpredictable things happen, but I’d like to hope that she knows that as long as she is with me, I am her certainty anchor and that I can generate for her those feelings of safety and security. If you’re well-versed in attachment theory, no doubt you’re reading this thinking about how we can be a secure base for our dogs, and I think that is exactly what I try to provide for her.
If we have anxious dogs, creating routine, regularity and structure can help us for those times of change. They help us cope. They may well be crutches, but nobody said the only way to live is to be completely self-reliant.
So what can we do to help foster a sense of predictability and build that foundation onto which change can be built?
First is to think about our daily patterns. That means regular times and sometimes even regular walks. That means being routine and teaching dogs patterns to cope when things change. I’m heavily reliant and massively indebted to Leslie McDevitt on that score, but I also use a lot of Deb Jones’s focus games from Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for exactly the same purpose.
Second is to teach a safety cue. Work on building up an association with a mat or an item like a toy. I do a lot of freework as well with anxious dogs, and having reliable, known toys and surfaces in there can also help dogs have an environmental base to explore the novel items in the activity.
Third, and perhaps most crucially for me, is to build up your relationship so that it becomes the safety cue, the certainty anchor. I’m sure you have friends or family members who act in that role for you – 100% reliable, you know you can trust them instinctively and completely. When you have that, you realise that you’ll always have that solidity from which to explore, to experiment, to try out the new. Of course, we need to make sure we’re fostering independence too – Lidy panics if she can’t find me in the garden once she’s spent her time exploring – and that’s something I’m conscious of too. All that remains to say about that is to make sure that we have a solid range of certainty anchors, including ones from within. Some of what we can do with anxious dogs is certainly help them know how to cope on their own and find their own anchors. Sadly, when I see ritualised or compulsive behaviours, I often see dogs who are using those in order to cope. Finding pleasurable, functional and productive behaviours that help dogs cope is part and parcel of overcoming anxiety.
On Facebook, I’ve been running a short series on helping our anxious or fearful dogs cope with stressful events. This post brings all of those posts together in one simple, easy guide.
What prompted the posts was the opening of the hunt season in France. Sunday mornings are often a key day and different regions also operate other days during the week where different kinds of hunting are permitted. The best place to check for these if you live in France is your local ONF (Office National des Fôrets) in your department. They usually have a guide to hunt seasons.
Suffice to say this is not a pro- or anti-hunt post. The guidance in here is as useful for people with roadworks, noisy neighbours, fireworks or storms. It’s also useful for dogs who suffer when they are left alone, who have social fears, phobias or find it difficult to cope with change.
The opening of the hunt season is going to be a shock to the system for our dogs in the countryside though, especially after 6 months of calm and the first 8 weeks of lockdown, so if you also have regular days where your dog will need to cope with a lot of noise, make sure you use it as an opportunity to do something fun AND safe. It’s a great day to stay in and do some work in the garden or in the home.
If you have a dog who is struggling to cope, there are a number of things you can try. Pet Remedy and various other diffusers such as Adaptil contain things that can help your dog calm, like valerian (Pet Remedy) and dog appeasing pheromones (like Adaptil and Feliway, also, for cats). You could also try things like Zylkene, Adaptil tablets, NutraCalm, YuCalm or Anxitane. Any number of nutraceuticals and scents or pheromones might be able to help our dogs. Remember also that they might need extra Omega oils and B vitamins to help their brain function at optimal levels. It really is very individual to the dog, but some of these should help in the short term and you can seek your vet’s advice if you need anything more.
If it is very noisy, you may find things like pressure wraps and massage also help your dog cope.
Blocking some of the noise out can also help. Playing classical music or reggae has been shown to help dogs de-stress in shelter environments, but only if used temporarily, so you might want to consider putting on some Bach or some Bob Marley at a level that won’t stress your dog out. Calming and soothing words also make a difference for some dogs, so reading the latest blockbuster to them can also reduce their stress (and yours). Make sure you also play it when there’s no noises to block out – it’s not unknown for dogs to form associations between you putting on music and then loud noises starting.
Of course, our dogs pick up on our anxiety too, so if you feel like you’re contributing to your dog’s emotions, take some time today to relax a little (in amid the gunfire!) and play YOUR favourite music at a gentle level or read a book, do some yoga, try some tai chi, get some breathing techniques to help you relax.
You can also pair up the gunshots or loud sporadic noises with food or toys. Have a little time with chews, with stuffed bones, with Kongs, with snuffle mats, with pickpockets and even a pile of laundry with a handful of treats in. Make it a pleasant and soothing experience as best you can.
Even if your dog isn’t usually sensitive, this can help.
Remember too to keep your dogs secure. Fearful dogs can take flight very easily at times when there are more noises than usual, and it’s really important you keep them safe. Keep doors and windows shut and locked. If you take them out in the garden, be vigilant and supervise them actively. Keep walks to quieter times like lunchtime or dinner time and keep your dog on the lead. If there are hunts in your area, use a long lead (3m – 10m) even if you normally let your dogs run free. Even if they aren’t nervous and they just like a chase, there’s a lot of animals being displaced from their usual places of safety and they’ll be making their way into unfamiliar territory at speed. The last thing they need is your off-lead, out-of-control spaniel joining in. The risks are very high that your dog will get injured or lost, or that they may accidentally get shot.
Remember, you can’t reinforce fear, so if your dog needs attention, they can have it. If they need safety, let them choose where they feel safe. If a trainer tells you otherwise, or expects your dog to ‘just get over it’, find a better trainer. Remember also to be safe. If your dog is cowering or fearful, frozen to the spot or even shaking, be careful of touching them or grabbing them even if you are moving them to safety – it’s a quick way to a bite.
First, we’ll look at a very common remedy that vets in France recommend: Zylkene. This is also available for cats in France too. I know I write lots about our dogs, but don’t forget noisy, busy or stressful times can be just as traumatic for cats, and you will need to think about them too.
Zylkene is a food-based supplement manufactured by Vetoquinol, a French veterinary medicine company. Its active ingredient is Alpha casozepine. This is a peptide derived from milk protein and is believed to work with GABA in the brain. GABA is associated with hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, hyperexcitability and hypervigilance. One of the first studies carried out by French veterinary behaviourist Claude Beata in 2007 showed that, alongside behaviour modification, Zylkene was as efficient as other pharmaceuticals at reducing anxiety.
Zylkene is often given as a remedy for anxiety from situational change, from new homes to car trips, new guardians, loud noises, grooming, additions to the family, storms, vet trips and hospitalisation. Because it is a food supplement, there is a very low risk of overdose, and so studies recommend vets try Zylkene before anything else. In studies (Beata et al. 2007), it has been shown to be as efficient as prescription drugs such as Seleligine (Anipryl/Selgian) and it’s always useful to try first because if it is as effective and has fewer potential side-effects, then it’s worth a try. Remember, this study showed that behaviour modification must also be part of the plan. That means doing things specifically to change behaviour, rather than just hoping a pill will function on its own.
There is little evidence to say whether Zylkene is effective in the short term or in the long term. Where studies exist and have shown a reduction in anxiety, they have been medium- to long-term studies. You may need to think about Zylkene doses daily over at least a six to eight-week period. It may work best with dogs who have other signs of hyper-reactive behaviours in general. For instance, it works best with Flika, my ancient hyperactive old malinois, but not with Lidy, who is mostly (contrary to popular belief!) fairly laid back unless her environment changes. It’s worth having a conversation with your vet about dosage if you don’t see a change in your dog’s behaviour before moving on to prescription pharmaceuticals. Remember, you can also safely use Zylkene as part of a layered package of remedies, though you will need to check with a vet before starting.
Before you start, it is a very good idea to get an idea of your dog’s behaviour by making a chart. It can be very difficult to tell if any change is being made, and why that change is. For instance, I noted a 10 minute period, filming it and counting how many times Flika got up and lay down again, how many times she paced, and how fast. Then it was easy to see that this changed at another period when she had taken Zylkene, and then to see the effects again without. Because the change was relatively small – she barked less, panted less, paced less and moved less, but around a 15% reduction in each – it’s easy to think that it might not be working, when in fact there had been some abatement in activity.
Despite its popularity, there are actually very few studies about Zylkene, so don’t feel disheartened if it does not give you the results you were expecting. Studies have also included behaviour modification or other dietary supplements, so it’s hard to say for sure what the effect is. The studies that do exist have design flaws that make it difficult to know exactly what was making a difference, so we still have a lot to learn about this over-the-counter remedy.
References: 1. Beata, C. et al. (2007) Effects of alpha-casozepine (Zylkene) versus selegiline hydrochloride (Selgian, Anipryl) on anxiety disorders in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research, 2 (5), pp. 175-183
2. Buckley, L. A. (2017) Is Alpha-casozepine Efficacious at Reducing Anxiety in Dogs? Veterinary Evidence, 2 (3).
3. Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. eds. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.
3. Kato, M. et al. (2012) Effects of prescription diet on dealing with stressful situations and performance of anxiety-related behaviors in privately owned anxious dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7 (1), pp. 21-26
4. Palestrini, C. et al (2010) Efficacy of a diet containing caseinate hydrolysate on signs of stress in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 5 (6), pp. 309-317
Adaptil collars and diffusers
Adaptil is made by Ceva, another French company, this time based in Libourne. Their global products include many household names for veterinary treatment, including Selgian, which may also be used for some similar abnormal behaviours in dogs.
Adaptil is an over-the-counter plug-in or collar. The plug-in is useful if your dog is in one place when they are anxious or fearful, such as in the home, where a collar like Lidy’s can be more useful on the move. Remember, just like pills, dogs can’t choose to get away from the collar, so the plug-in might be your first stop. Then, if the dog finds it offensive, they can move away.
Adaptil, like its sister product Feliway for cats, is a pheromone-based product. The principle by which it works is to release artificial odours that replicate those of a mother dog. It can be a useful addition for when puppies move to their home and Ceva recommend it for puppies who are struggling to be left alone during the night, to prevent separation-related distress and also to help them cope with loud noises. It may also have a use in puppy socialisation classes. Veterinary behaviourist and researcher Daniel Mills, and his group at the University of Lincoln, have done some studies into the efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) products, as have French veterinary behaviourists Emmanuel Gaultier and Patrick Pageat. Mills et al. (2006) shows that DAP products worked to relieve distress in a veterinary clinic setting. Sheppard and Mills (2003) also showed that DAP products could be effective in helping dogs cope with fireworks. Landsberg et al. 2015) showed that DAP collars could be useful in reducing anxious and fearful behaviour during thunderstorms. Dogs were less anxious and chose to hide more rather than freezing during storms when wearing a DAP collar than when they were not. This perhaps shows that they may be better able to cope and make good choices during noisy events.
However, like Zylkene, not all studies are published, and there have been questions over the efficacy of Adaptil. Some trials have shown that DAP is as effective as prescription pharmaceuticals (Gaultier et al. 2005; Gaultier et al. 2008). Again, it’s another product to test and see whether it makes a difference. It really does seem to be very much about the individual dog.
For Lidy, it reduces her night-time pacing significantly and also her pacing during gunfire in the hunting season. It also helps her cope with storms. The best test for me is the change in her behaviour that I noticed when the collars were coming to the end of their life-span and her pacing and distress vocalisation would increase once more.
Like Zylkene, it may be that Adaptil is best in use with other products and because it is a very low risk product, it’s worth trying and layering in with other things. Adaptil also make a tablet, which is discussed below.
When talking about risk, it’s really important for people whose dogs have distress behaviours around doors or dogs who jump that you choose the plug-in rather than the collar, since dogs can easily and quickly hang themselves. This collar is of no more risk than any other collar, but it’s something to bear in mind if your dog jumps up at door handles or has a risk of catching themselves on it. Since it may be used outside the home for reducing kennelling distress, distress during veterinary visits, car journeys, separation, fireworks and gunshot, it’s worthwhile remembering that panicking dogs must be safe too.
Landsberg et al (2015) recommend arranging the environment to minimise exposure to noises, such as keeping dogs inside. Playing music would be another way to minimise noise exposure in the home as long as the dog accepts it and is not further stressed. They also highlight the role we play in our dogs’ anxieties – not that dogs’ fears, anxieties or phobias can be “reinforced” by us, but that our own behaviour impacts on the dog’s level of stress. So taking some calming breaths, reading a good book aloud, sticking on a bit of Handel and trying an Adaptil plug-in or collar might be a great combination for some dogs.
Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Bougrat, L. et al (2005) Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. The Veterinary Record 156, pp. 533–538
Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Vienet-Legue, D. et al (2008) Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone in reducing stress associated with social isolation in newly adopted puppies. The Veterinary Record 163, pp. 73–80
Landsberg, G. M., Beck, A., Lopez, A. et al (2015) Dog-appeasing pheromone collars reduce sound-induced fear and anxiety in beagle dogs: a placebo-controlled study. Veterinary Record.
Mills DS, Ramos D, Gandia Estelles M et al (2006) A triple blind placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behavior on problem dogs in the veterinary clinic. Appl Anim Behav Sci 98:114–126
Sheppard G, Mills DS (2003) Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks. Vet Rec 152:432–436
Anxitane / L-theanine
Anxitane is produced by another French company, Virbac. It’s not a particular surprise to anyone who regularly visits a French pharmacy to know that the French are ever so slightly obsessed with herbal remedies and with nutraceuticals. Parapharmacies are filled with a number of products for all manner of mental and physical complaints.
Anxitane is their only product aimed at canine behaviour, although they also make an anti-stress product for cats. The active ingredient in Anxitane is L-theanine, derived from tea. L-theanine is an amino acid and has been shown in randomised control trials in humans to reduce heart rate and symptoms of anxiety without causing drowsiness. It’s also been demonstrated to improve focus. L-theanine is also found in products like Solliquin. You’ll also see L-theanine frequently as an ingredient in blended products.
You always knew a cup of tea was the solution to all life’s woes – this just works on the same principle.
So far, studies about the efficacy of L-theanine have been small, with usually under 20 dogs. Other studies have been funded by the manufacturers themselves or behaviours have been owner-reported rather than videoed and coded externally. The role of bias and placebo effects can’t therefore be ruled out. In general, the studies on L-theanine have been less robust than those for Zylkene and for Adaptil. That is not to say it is inefficient or does not work. As we know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. One trial explored the effects of L-theanine in conjunction with behaviour therapy versus the effects of therapy alone (Michelazzi et al. 2015) and took cortisol readings during the trial. They noted a reduction in stereotypical stress behaviours and phobic behaviours. L-theanine is believed to work with GABA and glutamate at a neural level. All three – Zylkene, Adaptil and Anxitane – are manufactured products meaning their active ingredients are tested and assured, as opposed to other products which are not, and are very much more ‘hit and miss’ in terms of quality and levels of active ingredients. Like the other products, branded L-theanine has also fewer risks in overdose than other pharmalogical products, and so it is an option that many caregivers may wish to consider before trialling pharmaceuticals, in discussion with your vet.
Araujo, J.A., de Rivera, C., Ethier, J.L., et al. (2010) ANXITANE tablets reduce fear of human beings in a laboratory model of anxiety-related disorders. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 5, pp.268-275.
Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R. et al. (2007) L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology 74 pp. 39-45
Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G.V., Minero, M. et al (2009) Effectiveness of L-theanine and behavioral therapy in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 5 pp. 34-35
Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G. V., Talamonti, Z. et al (2015) Efficacy of L-Theanine in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs: preliminary results. Veterinaria 29(2)
So far, we’ve looked at products with a single ingredient. Now, we look at blends of ingredients in over-the-counter tablets that might help out your anxious dog if they’re in need of a boost.
We start by looking at a UK product. Sadly, this isn’t available easily outside of the UK, but it’s interesting to consider the ingredients and their use. Nutracalm is a product from Nutravet. They manufacture nutraceuticals to supply as over-the-counter remedies for dogs, cats and horses.
Nutracalm contains an ingredient we looked at yesterday, L-theanine, which is the active ingredient in Anxitane. It also contains L–tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in the production of serotonin and melatonin, as well as in the way B vitamins are absorbed – essential for healthy brain function. Whilst chemists are not sure exactly how modern antidepressants work, many stop serotonin being reabsorbed and recycled in the brain, meaning there is more of it floating about helping us feel calmer and less anxious. Tryptophan is usually available through diet, and you can find specialist diets aimed at boosting serotonin in dogs.
With all changes that we make to our dogs, I would advise a degree of caution, so run any changes by your vet first, especially if your dog is on medication, if they have heart, liver or kidney problems, or if they are prone to gastrointestinal problems. What we do to our bodies is not without consequence, but many of the consequences only show up many weeks or months later.
Nutracalm also contains GABA, working on the same systems as L-theanine and alpha casozepine. GABA levels help regulate activity levels and also contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. It helps dogs in particular who are showing nervous or anxious behaviours. Benzodiazepine drugs work on GABA pathways, and so supplementing with GABA may lead to anti-anxiety effects, just without the side-effects and drowsiness associated with these prescription pharmaceuticals.
The final two active ingredients in Nutracalm are passionflower extract and B vitamins. B vitamins are essential for the function of the brain, and passionflower has a long history in herbal medicine as having a calming effect.
In theory, then, Nutracalm has something to boost dopamine and give us back an interest in life, something to boost tryptophan and serotonin, GABA which is involved in management of anxiety, and a couple of added extras in passionflower and B vitamins. Unlike Zylkene or Anxitane, which only have one active ingredient, this has five.
Other supplements such as YuCalm, manufactured by YuMove who are part of the UK-based Lintbells family, also contain their own blends. YuCalm is available in France and for those of us with dogs with arthritis, we may already be familiar with YuMove. YuCalm is also a blended product. It contains L-theanine, lemon balm and fish protein hydrolysate. Not unlike Zylkene which also contains a hydrolysate from cow’s milk, YuCalm is working in the same way. Landsberg et al (2015) demonstrated that fish protein hydrolysates had some efficacy in reducing anxious reactions in dogs. Adaptil tablets also contain a blend of GABA, L-tryptophan, L-theanine and B vitamins, not unlike NutraCalm, so you can find lots of products on the market that work with blends. Since all the blends are proprietary, there will be variations, and just because one does not work, it does not mean the others will not. Other products like CaniRelax also contain lemon balm, passionflower and eschscholtzia extract that also may have a calming effect. CaniZen contains valerian, passionflower, eschscholtzia extract, brewer’s yeast and minerals. Ananxvia and Animigo Calming Aid are two others. These last four French products contain herbal extracts, sometimes with additional minerals or vitamins, to help boost a dog’s natural emotional resilience.
You’ll find then a number of blended products on the market, containing various proprietary blends of L-tryptophan, L-theanine, GABA, passionflower, fish protein hydrolysate, lemonbalm, brewers yeast, B vitamins, valerian, essential minerals and eschscholtzia. These are less well-trialled than the products mentioned earlier, but at the same time, it would also be difficult to isolate the effects resulting from each individual product.
Still, these products have all been demonstrated in some trials, be they on humans or on other animals, to have some calming effects, and so lack of trialling shouldn’t stop you from picking up a couple to try out. NutraCalm, YuCalm and Adaptil tablets would be my starting point, perhaps even adding in one or two other products to layer them. Of course, they do start to become really expensive then, and so it’s worthwhile doing a quick check to make sure what’s making a difference. For instance, I like to try 7 days on and 7 days off, then 7 days back on again, making a note of anxious reactions during that time with a simple tally. If I can’t see much of a difference, I’ll probably try a different tack. Although it certainly won’t hurt dogs to have supplements and nutraceuticals, there’s no point giving them a very expensive cocktail of products if it’s making minimal difference to their quality of life.
References Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.
I confess I have a healthy (?!) skepticism about herbal remedies. I know a good few millionnaires who got rich off selling diet pills, herbal remedies and CBD oil from their spare bedroom, and whose sales pages are littered with negative reviews that don’t seem to stop the money rolling in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am too knowledgeable about the profit to be made from untested, ineffective and poor-quality remedies to be able to endorse them wholeheartedly.
At the same time, I know there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in my philosophy, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Ayurvedic medicine, indigenous medicines, eastern approaches to healing and even our own “old wives’ tales” often prove to have something to them. Take willow and foxglove as two very simple examples. Aspirin and Digoxin are just two examples of how the so-called myths and ‘woo-woo’ medicine found a place in Western drugs markets.
So there’s that.
And with those two provisos out of the way, we’re going to take a quick look at some herbal remedies that might just be able to help your dog cope during stressful events. As with everything, run things by your vet first. Some products, like St John’s Wort, are contraindicated with other medications.
Gingko Biloba is the first product we’ll look at. One study, Reichling et al (2006) showed a reduction in anxiety related to geriatric conditions, activating GABA and reducing anxiety in generalised anxiety disorders.
St John’s Wort has a long history of use with mild depression and anxiety, and this is also a herbal supplement you might wish to try if your dog is otherwise generally depressed or not enjoying life very much. If you’ve noticed dips in your dog’s curiosity or interest, their engagement in the world, St John’s Wort is believed to function in similar ways to modern antidepressant drugs. In fact, sometimes St John’s Wort is contraindicated in use with such products, so definitely one to run by your vet before trialling (Sarris et al. 2009)
Valerian is another herbal remedy that may also reduce the effects of stress. It’s one I trialled with Heston here when it was clear his epilepsy was linked to stress. As with all herbal remedies, it is worth doing a really thorough investigation of behaviours over a period, withdrawing the treatment and then doing the same analysis before reinstating it. That way, you can measure the effects of any herbal remedies on behaviour in a slightly more rigorous way than just a general impression.
Products such as Pet Remedy have been put through some small clinical trials and include extracts of valerian among other herbal extracts. Now Pet Remedy is one I keep on board for personal use, and I use both the spray (on myself) and the diffuser. Lidy is certainly much more relaxed during stressful events when the Pet Remedy diffuser is plugged in.
I also use it as a kind of talisman scent, by which I mean that I use it to anchor anxious dogs, by pairing it up with calm times over a period of weeks, and then gradually transferring the scent to more challenging or difficult events. I was thinking this morning of how much the various perfumes and aftershaves of my paternal grandparents was a smell that could calm me, how the smell of coconut suncream immediately relaxes me and how the smell of ripe damsons transports me right back to a place in my childhood on my maternal family’s smallholding. Smell is such a powerful, powerful tool to evoke feelings that if we use it right and we pair it up carefully, over a long period of time, it is bound to be much more salient to dogs with their supersized olfactory bulbs. I know we need to use it carefully because essential oils are a bit of a punch in the nose for dogs, and I know myself that too strong odours can be really headache-inducing, but if supermarkets can make us buy more by wafting the smell of bread, and estate agents can sell more houses by roasting coffee beans in the kitchen during viewings, then I don’t think we should overlook this very powerful tool with our dogs. Ultimately, as long as we offer our dogs the choice when using odour, and we know they can move away if they want, then it’s definitely worth a trial. It’s much less invasive or intrusive to start with smell than it is to start with giving the dog something to ingest, and so these can be the gentlest approaches. But just because they’re gentle doesn’t mean they’re not effective. If you know a smell that can transport you instantly into calmness and a feeling of safety, then you know just how powerful this might be with dogs whose sense of smell is so much better than ours.
Reichling, J., Frater-Schröder, M., Herzog, K. et al (2006) Reduction of behavioral disturbances in elderly dogs supplemented with astandardized Ginkgo leaf extract. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd 148(5) pp.257–263
Sarris, J. and Kavanagh, D.J. (2009) Kava and St. John’s Wort: current evidence for use in mood and anxiety disorders. J Altern Complement Med 15(8) pp. 827–836