All posts by emmalee72

What is Respondent Counterconditioning?

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

Just to recap…

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming respondent conditioning

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

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

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

What does that even mean?

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

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

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

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

Do they work?

Not often.

Why can respondent conditioning be so tough to change?

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this have relevance?

Problems in application

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

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

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

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

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

What is respondent counterconditioning?

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

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

Scary person appears > predicts the arrival of yummy food.

Scary dog barks > predicts the arrival of yummy food.

Scary vet visit > predicts the arrival of yummy food.

Unpleasant car journey > predicts a great walk afterwards

Scary person appears > predicts a great game.

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

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

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

Consolidation and reconsolidation of learning

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

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

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

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


Contingency and contiguity

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

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

Contingent and contiguous.

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

Improving your respondent counterconditioning

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

Here are two posts to help you with that:


Panoramas and vistas

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

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

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

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

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

Other posts about respondent methods

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

How to set up training scenarios cleanly

How to use a stimulus gradient

How to work under threshold

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

How to use a conditioned safety cue with fearful behaviours.

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

When to use respondent counterconditioning

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

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

What did I do?

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

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

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

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

Working with multiple triggers

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

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


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

Is the unconditioned stimulus strong enough?

Is there a suitably gradual stimulus gradient in play?

Is the situation clean enough?

Is the set-up short enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Is Respondent conditioning?


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

What’s the problem?

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

What’s in a name?

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

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

It deserves a noble name, maybe.

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

You know the story. Bells, meat and saliva.

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

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

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

What are unconditioned responses anyway?

So… respondent conditioning…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… to recap so far, reflexes are:

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

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

Where does conditioning come in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, easily learned equals hard to lose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not all bad, though.

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

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

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

And I wonder why I’ve so little willpower!

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

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

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

Respondent conditioning is some powerful stuff.

These responses are complicated, all right.

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

Learning by association is a powerful thing.

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

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

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

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

Life is a chain of associations.

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

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

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

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

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Help! My Dog is Struggling With Guests!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at her eyes, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My boy Heston is a very good example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Likewise hands coming towards them or even bending over them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsible Shelter Practices: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building capacity can feel almost impossible for shelters.

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

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

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

Sterilisation programmes run more effectively.

The shelter ends up supporting rather than mopping up.

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

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

Good luck achieving this!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s also about opening up to your community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You open your doors. Even just a chink.

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

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

Not to my knowledge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not responsible rescue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things can be better.

Things are better when we reach out.

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

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

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

I think we should finish with a message of hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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Responsible Shelter Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know our answer already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I telling you all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Help! My Dog is Obsessed by the TV!

From time to time, I get clients whose dogs have problems with the TV. Sometimes that can be startling when there are loud noises, but more often, it’s either chase-related behaviours or frustration-related behaviours when your dog sees or hears an animal on the screen. For instance, they may not simply be watching what’s going on, they may be trying to catch any dog that comes on screen, or they might go nuts if they hear a dog on screen. Other animals might also trigger these responses. Some dogs may try to catch the offending animal, especially if the animal moves quickly. Other dogs may bark, circle or even spin.

This behaviour cause you issues if your dog isn’t simply keeping a beady eye on the criminals in Inspector Montalbano. If your dog’s at risk of knocking all the ornaments over, smashing the TV screen or making it impossible to watch your favourite TV programmes, then you might be at your wits’ end.

So what can you do about it? Here I’m going to focus on the common trigger of dogs barking on audio or visual material. What I do is just an example and you can do the exact same thing for whatever your dog’s triggers are.

#1 Understand the exact nature of the problem

The first thing is understand the behaviour. This doesn’t mean you have to let your dog continue barking just because a dog’s barked on screen or trying to catch animals on the screen, but it does mean having a really good think about the kind of things you know cause an issue.

Make a list of the things your dog does and what sets it off.

The first thing to start with is the species. For instance, if your dog only reacts to other dogs, that’s some small win. There are dogs who can’t cope with any animal or human at all on screen. Don’t forget to also include things mechanical moving objects or the bouncing ball over karaoke lyrics. Make a list of all the things your dog responds to.

I don’t have dogs who are bothered by the TV, mainly because I don’t watch TV. But just because they don’t bat an eyelid to dogs barking on the radio or on the computer doesn’t mean they don’t respond to things. Lidy doesn’t respond to a single noise on the computer or radio. Heston sometimes has a curious head tilt when there are particular animal sounds. I took this video when I was trying to narrow down exactly what set off his head tilt reaction. Birds and wild animals definitely do it for him. As you can see, though, he’s clearly listening but he’s also not that bothered.

Once you have your list of all the species or objects that trigger your dog’s responses, you should also note whether or not it’s sound or vision that sets your dog off. It may sound odd, but there are dogs who can distinguish between ‘real’ sounds on TV, computer, phone or radio and ‘fake’ sounds. If your dog only sometimes reacts, it’s worth testing it with the different kinds of things. For instance, as you’ll see from the two videos that follow, Lidy (and Heston) both recognise the sounds of real dogs barking in real life but do not react at all to the sounds of real dogs barking on the computer screen or on the TV, or to the sound of fake dogs barking. It’s worth knowing these things. One thing that’s it’s useful to know that for is because there are differences between recordings and the pitch and so on – way more sound techy than I am capable of understanding or explaining – and if I need to work on both because my dog responds to both, that’s fine, but I also need to understand they are different and dogs recognise that. If I were, for instance, working on the sound of fireworks in real life, using recordings to desensitise the dog just might not cut the mustard. It’s the same here.

Understanding the sensory channels that your dog responds to, the species they respond to and whether it is sound or motion or both is important for what you will do to treat the problem. If you’re not sure, put the TV on mute and see how your dog copes, assuming that the behaviour isn’t too distressing or dangerous.

Play a recorded clip where the species or object in question comes up about 15 minutes or so into the programme. The reason for this is that you want to be able to settle yourself down and pretend everything is normal. If you’re watching your dog for a reaction, your own behaviour may influence what the dog does. If you’re pressing the remote or a button, then that might also trigger your dog that you’re doing something differently. For instance, I know a very specific episode of Engrenages which I have on DVD where there is a dog barking, and nothing else in the rest of the episode. I can work out when that dog comes on, note the time and press play. I should be able to mute the TV when the barking starts in order to identify if it is the barking or not.

Not a twitch to the recorded sound of two spaniels playing. I’d also need to rule out dogs barking for alarm – just because it may be that my dogs are sensitive to one type of barking and not others. This is the same for all triggers. Has your dog generalised, or is it very specific behaviour to very, very specific triggers? Can they cope with static sheep but not moving sheep? Can they cope with sheep but not cows? Can they cope with black or brown sheep moving but not white? Can they cope with sheep baaing but not sheep moving?

These triggers or releasing mechanisms can be oddly specific. Lots of work done on animal behaviour has shown us just how specific, from the red spot on a stickleback that causes territorial aggression in other stickleback to the head of a female turkey that causes male turkeys to start getting ready for mating, even if the head isn’t moving and is just a dead head on a stick.

The more you know about the specifics of your dog’s triggers, the more successful you will be at changing them.

If your dog can’t cope with the sight of the species on screen, you should also rule out the speed of the animal. For instance, what happens when you play the clip at quarter speed, or if you speed it up? Some dogs may react to simply the sight of the squirrel or whatever on the screen. Other dogs may need it to be moving. If your dog needs the animal to be moving before they really get interested, then at what speed? We can mess around with our amazing TV’s frames-per-second speed. Does your dog still do it if the trigger moves at half speed? At quarter speed? At an eighth normal speed? At one frame per second? I’ve rarely seen a dog respond to the static image of the trigger, for example.

Remember to space out your trials over a few days so that you aren’t just setting your dog up to react. Unless it’s dangerous or compulsive, the more time you can take to really get to know your dog’s problem, the less you’ll have to do to sort it out.

If your dog is happily coping with Crufts without the sound on, no matter how fast the dogs are moving around the ring, if they’re happily coping with the protection dog sniffing out drugs on Engrenages until you put the sound back on, that tells you vital information about which sensory pathway you need to work on.

If your dog is coping with the sheep on Spring Watch when the TV is on pause, but then can’t cope at quarter speed, that tells you useful information. It tells you that it’s not the sight of the animal, it’s the movement of the animal (or the bike, car, fire engine…) It also tells you the speed at which your dog can’t cope, which is also really useful information for the training plan.

If it’s a particular TV programme or advertisement that always triggers their behaviour, which species is causing the problem? Bear in mind that could be humans, dogs, cats, wildlife, livestock, mechanical moving objects like bicycles or cars, or even just simply anything that moves on the screen.

If your dog is happy with all moving animals they can see, but just can’t cope with the sound, then you probably find your dogs are barking if they hear that particular sound if you’re playing something on your phone or on the radio.

It can, of course, be all those things.

#2 Understand what the dog does when you aren’t there

Unless you have a dog with separation-related behaviour, there’s a really important rule out to do – one that most people don’t even think about…

What does the dog do when you aren’t there?

The reason we need to find out this information is because sometimes our attention or our interaction can be contributing to the dog’s response. None of us like to think that our behaviour is contributing to what our dog does. We don’t have to have laughed at Fido ‘joining in’ with the agility dogs at Crufts, and we don’t have to have responded positively. The sad fact is that computers, tablets, phones and TVs take our attention away from the dog and whenever they respond to certain things that they’re probably already sensitive about, it can really contribute to their behaviour.

You need to know that this is happening, and to what extent.

There’s a simple reason for this. If your dog is happy to hear the trigger on the radio or see the trigger on the TV when you are not there, well, the behaviour is a very effective way of getting your attention. We may not think that shouting ‘Get down, Rover!’ is particularly reinforcing, but if the dog has found it to be a useful way to break the TV’s captive hold over us and cause us to interact with them, it’s likely to be a behaviour that is going to happen again and again.

Usually, either the behaviour is exactly the same or it’s a bit milder. It’s very infrequent that I see the dog never do this behaviour at all… but you need to know.

Why you need to know is that it will help you design your treatment plan. If your dog’s behaviour is in any way influenced by YOUR behaviour, you’ll need to account for that in what you do.

#3 Decide if it’s more Pavlov or more Skinner

Generally speaking, we might think of this behaviour as a Pavlovian responsive one: the dog sees or hears the trigger and then they perform the behaviour. Just like Pavlov with his sounds and salivation, we might think of this as triggering a behaviour.

Literally as I typed these words, a little dog barked outside. I’m going to assume it was a shih tzu as we are surrounded by barky shih tzus. All small dogs are shih tzus, aren’t they?

What you see in this video is Lidy notice the sound. Full malinois radar ears. Her face is pointed in the direction of the sound. When she looks to me, because dogs do look to us to see what we’re doing, I tell her she’s a good girl, because she didn’t bark or respond, even though she very clearly heard the dog. The dog triggered a response in her.

Another bit of Pavlov at work… As soon as I tell her she’s a good girl, you see her relax. Her ears go back, she gets off the couch, she shakes off. Shake offs are possibly a way of dispersing adrenaline after a stressful experience. She licks her mouth. She yawns. She shakes off again. All beautiful, beautiful canine body language showing that, if I hadn’t guessed it, hearing those grumpy shih tzus barking was stressful for her.

Along comes Heston. Bear in mind these are two guarding breeds. Heston has a spectacular bark. Did he hear the shih tzu? I don’t know. Did he hear me? Maybe. Did he hear Lidy shake off? Definitely. What happens when dogs bark and we are very good dogs who don’t join in?

We get food. Skinner. And a bit Pavlov. We go to the kitchen and we get snacks. You’ll see this is the result of my alert and alarm barking protocol. I just literally finished watching Kathy Sdao’s excellent (as always!) presentation at Mike Shikashio’s Aggressive Dogs conference this weekend, where she talks about turning triggers into cues for behaviour… this is a living example of what I take her to mean. Dogs bark. We go to the kitchen. We get snacks.

We haven’t completely left Pavlov behind. How does Heston feel about dogs barking, would you say? Loose, open mouth, tongue in situ, bottom teeth visible, soft eyes, low & slow wagging tail, the little circle… I wouldn’t go as far as saying my dogs feel happy about other dogs barking. But they know exactly where to go, exactly where the good stuff is and exactly what happens next.

Triggers > responses

Cues > behaviours > consequences.

Some people might think there’s little difference between a trigger and a cue. As Kathy Sdao explained this weekend, a trigger releases a behaviour and we don’t largely have very much control over what we do next. We English-speaking individualists don’t like to think that we human beings are at the beck and call of the world around us, but largely, when a trigger happens, we respond.

Cues, on the other hand, involve choice. They say that reinforcement (in this case interaction from me and best quality freeze-dried lambs’ lungs) is available if you choose to do certain behaviours. Here, that’s if you’re quiet (or, at least, you stop when I say ‘thank you!) and you, in anticipation, move away from the sound (on the left of the camera) to the kitchen on the right, thus we’re using distance increasing behaviour too… slam dunk of potential reinforcers: increase distance, feel safer, have interaction with the group, get biscuits, have a choice over behaviour, remember our agency.

There’s really no difference between Lidy alerting to the dog outside and a dog alerting to another dog on a YouTube clip… it’s all simply Pavlov (stimulus > response) or Skinner (behaviour > consequence)

But it does help if you have an understanding of how much. Going back to step 1 and 2, we can begin to unpick whether the behaviour is being reinforced by something.

Sometimes that’s sensory stimulation. It feels fun to chase stuff. Sometimes that’s the ability to practise breed-specific behaviours. If you don’t want a dog who barks at things, don’t get a dog known for guarding behaviours. If you don’t want a dog who likes to visually chase things, don’t get a sighthound, herding breed or a gundog. If you don’t want a dog who sings to Pavarotti, don’t get a vocal breed like a husky who enjoys a bit of a chorus when they hear sirens or dogs howling.

Other times, that reinforcement comes from us. You’ll know this if you did #2. You might wonder if the dog is simply reacting to threat because they’re protecting you. It’s a possibility although it’s rare. If you notice your dog doesn’t growl or bark as much when you’re not present for the sound or the sight of a dog or human you may want to rule this out. Livestock guardian breeds and mainland European herding dogs selected to protect the flock are two types of dog who might tend towards protection and, if you’re not there, it might not be your attention that’s fuelling the behaviour, but your presence. Alternatively, your presence might just be bolstering the dog’s confidence and you might see your dog growling or barking at the noise of ‘intruder’ dogs or humans when you’re present simply because your presence boosts their confidence.

If it’s mostly Pavlov (trigger > behaviour) and it’s not giving the dog much opportunity to express breed-specific behaviours, to be a dog, to get sensory stimulation or to get attention or interaction from us, this will alter the balance of your training programme.

#4 If it’s more Pavlov or emotional response…

This is because your dog has become sensitised or sensitive to the trigger. The sound or sight has become more salient or significant. For instance, my next-door-neighbour has just started up their very throaty car and Lidy opened her eyes. Heston did not. But she’s not on alert as she was in the video.

We hear and see things all the time that our brain has become habituated to. It’s normal. We carry on with whatever we’re doing, just as I’ve become habituated to the sound of the fridge and the level of light in the room. When we sensitise to something, it becomes more noticeable or salient.

The way to approach respondent behaviours like these is through desensitisation.

For this you need a specific desensitisation plan which a good trainer or behaviour consultant can help you construct.

Systematic desensitisation consists of two important parts.

The first of those is a stimulus gradient, which means starting with the smallest shaving of a trigger that you can manage where your dog is under threshold and building up as your dog learns to cope to the strongest stimulus.

The second part of systematic desensitisation is pairing the stimulus with relaxation, meaning that the dog needs to be chilled out. This doesn’t mean they’re distracted. It means they notice the stimulus but it will be paired by a state of relaxation.

If your dog is responding to the noise, then you will do something to elicit a state of calmness, like just having a chill out on the couch. Your first goal is to present the barking for as short a sliver of time as your dog can cope with – perhaps even one single back at 10% volume on your phone. If you need to, get someone else further away playing the sound. You don’t need food or anything for desensitisation because the bark or the triggering noise should be paired up with relaxation.

Say, for instance, your dog is triggered by the sound of a specific advert. As soon as the advert starts, the dog is waiting for whatever trigger in the advert, be it a car horn or a cat or a dog moving on screen. You may decide to start with the sound. Getting the advert on your phone and playing the first three or four notes is one way to start desensitising your dog to a very specific target.

If you’re wondering how to desensitise your dog to the sight of squirrels or sheep or dogs on television, use a pre-recorded programme where you know at what point the trigger appears. You can press pause and click on remote features to slow down the programme, even if you’re going frame by frame. Perhaps your dog will only cope with two frames before you skip five minutes and continue. Remember not to use the remote only at that period of time otherwise it’s quite likely the dog will pick up on that. Similarly if you’re tapping your phone and a dog barks… don’t let your behaviour with a remote or a control become a substitute trigger.

#5 If it’s more Skinner than Pavlov

The first thing your dog might be doing is rehearsing some innate behaviour for a) dogs or b) their breed. If you’ve got a collie or other kind of herding or droving dog, it’s not unusual that they’ll find the television both stimulating and frustrating. It’s visual stimulation that awakens their need to control movement, and it’s frustrating because they don’t have any control over the triggers on screen. I say triggers here, because motor patterns like these are arguably scratching some deep Pavlovian releasing mechanism: stuff moves, I must control the stuff. It’s more Pavlov than Skinner.

Yet, because they cannot understand that they are in fact unable to control the movement of the creature, it becomes superstitious. By that, I mean that they feel like they need to do the behaviour to get the thing to stop moving. If the thing doesn’t stop moving, they’re going to keep on behaving until it either stops or goes off screen. Whether the dog thinks that they have actually been successful is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t matter.

It’s not just about chasing and moving. It’s also about dogs bred to guard things. Whether you’ve got a mastiff breed, a livestock guardian breed or a mainland European dual-purpose herding and protection breed like a Dutch shepherd, German shepherd, Beauceron, Briard or Belgian shepherd, you’ve got dogs who may take the noise or appearance of a dog or human as an intruder and feel the need to bark at them. It’s not a surprise to find Malinois and German shepherds with some pretty suspicious behaviour around triggers.

Likewise with Asiatic breeds, ancient breeds and terriers, you’ve got dogs who can be aroused by movement and frustrated because they can’t control it.

This takes a dual pronged approach.

On the one hand, desensitisation will work. Desensitisation is crucial for both excitement and fear. Relaxed states, controlled triggers and very small doses in a gradual gradient are your friends here. Break the link between the thing and the need to perform the behaviour.

On the other, these are deeply reinforcing behaviours for dogs and we need to think about their welfare. A heavy enrichment programme that’s very much focused on your dog’s dog and breed needs is going to help scratch that itch. Like other behaviours, though, don’t build up their coping mechanisms for that one simple behaviour: build a dog who isn’t relying on that one behaviour to get their kicks. Scentwork, nosework, trailing, mantrailing, snufflemats, scatter feeding and lots of nose stuff can build up the nose as the primary sensory muscle, not eyes or ears. Give your dog mental stimuation and help them control their impulses through training. Also teach them to cope with frustration. Meet the dog’s needs first and foremost. Allie Bender and Emily Strong’s amazing book Canine Enrichment for the Real World will help with that.

Meet your dog’s needs and you may find that you’re having to deal with fewer and fewer incidents where they’re meeting their own needs.

Likewise, if your dog is aroused all the time, then you may need to do a bit of work here. Sometimes this is age-related. Teenagers are learning what floats their boats and how to meet their own needs. I wouldn’t hope they’ll grow out of it. It’s vital that you put steps into place to help desensitise them and also meet their needs productively.

Anxious dogs or fearful dogs may well benefit from the addition of behavioural medications from your vet if this behaviour is part of a suite of behaviours. Be conscious that you will still need to put behaviour programmes into place: medication does not teach your dog how to cope. Unless they’re supposed to spend the rest of their life medicated, then you’ll eventually have to teach them anyway. Medication for anxious, spooky or fearful dogs may help behaviour modification work faster at the beginning, though there’s no evidence it actually works better in the long run.

If you realise that your own behaviour cues your dog, as well you might, then you’ll also have to work on your own relationship with your dog and – dare I say it – dial back on the television for a bit and put your relationship with your dog first for a while. Of course, you can do both – many of us manage to watch TV while the dog is having a massage or being stroked. Teach your dog how to get your attention whenever they need it – especially if they’re aroused – and always give them what they need for a while, then gradually teach them that it’s enough. By gradually, I mean over months, not weeks. You should also ignore your dog’s behaviour if they bark at the TV. Get up, walk out, call the dog, give them something to do instead, come back with them, carry on. Reinforce non-responsive behaviours (just like my alert and alarm programme) and you should see the behaviour diminish because you’re meeting your dog’s need for contact as well shaping the kind of behaviours that work rather than the ones that don’t.

#6 Manage the environment

Unless you plan on quitting TV for good (highly recommended anyway!) you probably plan on watching something at some point. Training a dog through a careful systematic desensitisation programme with a trainer or behaviour consultant may take from three to twelve weeks depending on a number of factors, like the severity of the behaviour and how long the dog has been practising.

While you’re training, you will need to put a stop to triggers. That may mean listening to everything through headphones if your dog is triggered by noises. That may mean watching things on your laptop, phone or tablet for a few weeks and also using headphones.

If your dog is triggered by very specific things, its worthwhile finding a couple of films or repeated videos where you can guarantee that there is nothing in there that will trigger your dog. I mean 100% guarantee. Playing these on repeat during the times you’d usually watch TV will also desensitise your dog so that they’re less alert. It’s not simply a matter of never playing anything on TV for a few weeks and then putting the TV back on again. Your dog will go right back to where they started. You want to normalise TV and stop them watching out for stuff.

You may of course have dogs who can easily be distracted. Neither of mine would notice a bomb explosion if they have their snuffle mats, wobblers, Kongs and a silicone snake. If I truly struggled watching things and I wanted peace and quiet, then distraction may work.

If your dog is used to your absence within the house, there’s no reason you couldn’t watch in a room where they’re not present if you absolutely needed to. If your dog sleeps in the lounge and they don’t normally react if you’re watching things in bed, there’s no reason to disrupt that habit. If you’re really, truly struggling with not being able to watch your favourite shows for six weeks and run some trigger-free video instead, it may be time to admit you have a problem yourself and find a solution. Again, this is not to say that the TV goes off and stays off for however long. You’ll need it on otherwise the moment you put it back on, you’ll soon realise that your dog has actually become more sensitive during the hiatus. You’ll need to transition back to full strength TV gradually as you blend your desensitisation programme into real life once more.

In conclusion:

  • understand whether it’s visual, auditory or both
  • really get to grips with the specificity of those triggers
  • eliminate your own reactions or presence as the reason behind the behaviour
  • create a gradual stimulus gradient
  • manage your dog’s behaviour and their exposure to sounds and sights while you re-teach your dog
  • check in with a vet if your dog is highly impulsive, highly predatory or particularly anxious or fearful and get medication on board from the beginning if necessary
  • if your dog is older or larger and your dog seems to be particularly sensitive to sounds or their behaviour has intensified, it’s worth asking the vet to check for musculoskeletal problems since sound sensitivity has been repeatedly linked to musculoskeletal pain
  • consider teaching some simple impulse control games and some frustration tolerance
  • add in species-specific and breed-specific enrichment to give your dog an outlet for their needs
  • add in a wider repertoire of enrichment for your dog so they aren’t just reliant on one type of reinforcement
  • implement a systematic desensitisation programme based on your dog’s needs and using the sensory channel that they’re sensitive to

Final plug: if you’re a dog trainer and you are looking to move from compliance models with your clients to a more cooperative way of working, this should help you make the shift:

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Last night, a lovely friend sent me a video of a dog she is thinking of taking on. The dog was staring at the light and shadow patterns on the floor in the home and trying to catch them. This behaviour, often known as light or shadow chasing, is part of a suite of other behaviours that I realised I’ve never written about. These behaviours, depending on a number of factors, might be known as stereotypies or compulsive behaviours. Sometimes you may hear these behaviours referred to as ‘Canine Compulsive Disorder’.

These behaviours might include:

  • circling: pacing or running in circles
  • tail chasing: attempting to chase and bite their own tail
  • mutilation: repeatedly biting and damaging body parts including limbs, feet, flanks and tails
  • licking and nibbling (also causing acral lick dermatitis and granuloma) : repeatedly licking or nibbling body parts including limbs, feet, flanks and tails
  • fly snapping: trying to bite invisible flies
  • light or shadow chasing: trying to catch moving light reflections
  • trancing: walking slowly backwards and forwards under plants or soft furnishings
  • licking non-nutritional surfaces like walls, beds

In reality, stereotypies can include a much wider list than these behaviours, but most of these would be considered normal under usual circumstances, so I don’t want to get alarmist and send hundreds of people to the vet in search of a behaviour consultant, medication or a veterinary behaviourist. However, behaviours such as masturbation and humping can also take on elements of stereotypy.

How would you know if your dog has a stereotypy?

The first thing is that the behaviour is usually seen as a movement that is repeated over and over again in largely the same manner.

Is Lidy’s circling before we go out for a walk a stereotypy? I’d say not. It is repeated and it is practically an identical circle each time, but it’s the last 30 seconds before we go out for a walk.

Is Heston’s fly snapping a stereotypy? No, because there are actual flies.

They can occupy a large part of the animal’s wake time. This was why the first thing I asked my friend was how long the dog spent trying to chase shadows every day. If a dog is suddenly excited by the reflection of their collar tags on a sunny day, that’s a lot different from a dog who spends hours every day performing the same ritualised behaviour. Stereotypies can often be difficult, if not impossible to interrupt.

Sometimes they might not be evident to us. How do we know whether licking is a stereotypy if the animal never damages themselves or we don’t see it?

Stereotypies are not only repetitive and largely unvarying, they are also unproductive. What I mean by that is that they don’t seem to have a purpose or a function. This is one reason a medical rule-out is necessary. Another friend’s dog has just had surgery on his foot and it reminded me of a dog we took into the shelter a few years ago who’d licked most of the fur off his hind leg. A quick x-ray showed that he had an infection in the bone and some necrosis. Removing the metatarsal and a heavy dose of antibiotics and the ‘stereotypy’ stopped. In other words, his licking and nibbling had a function. It was a site of pain and just like scratching an itch, it was perhaps comforting, perhaps an attempt to remove the pain, perhaps both.

Even things like fly snapping can have underlying medical causes. For dogs who have a lot of ‘floaters’ – you know those moving pieces you sometimes seem to get on the surface of your eye – you can see how that could be interpreted as a fly you can never catch.

Ruling out medical causes is vital. Even things like licking walls and beds can be underpinned by health issues. Licking non-nutritional surfaces is a symptom sometimes seen in dogs who have gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pancreatitis (Bécuwe Bonnet et al. 2012). When Amigo used to occasionally lick the plastic of his dog bed, a quick chat with the vet and some stomach pills sorted him right out. Even things like compacted anal glands can lead to behaviours that seem stereotypical in nature. Tilly’s ‘froggie tongue’ or repetitive air licking was always a signal that she had an upset stomach as well.

It can really help the vet to know if the behaviour is directed at a specific body part, which can indicate something going on beneath the surface. If you’re going to the vet because you have a problem behaviour, make sure you explain how frequently you see the behaviour and when you see it. Vets aren’t good at guessing what’s wrong if you don’t tell them this is happening for three hours in a row.

It’s not unusual for the vet to clear the dog and say there’s nothing wrong with their eyes, their stomach, their anal glands or their bones. Usually, stereotypies are seen in captive animals who don’t have opportunities to forage or behave naturally, so your vet might have a point. You’re no doubt aware that seeing stereotypies is one of the most alarming signs of poor welfare in zoos, for instance, but it can also happen in farm animals too, as well as animals in lab. Keeling and Jensen (2002) say that stereotypies often occur when animals are prevented from performing ‘normal and strongly motivated behaviour patterns’, for example behaviours related to foraging or exploration. For this reason, working with a behaviour consultant who has a strong understanding of species-specific behaviours can really help.

Keeling and Jensen also point out that prey species who spend a lot of time foraging tend to develop oral behaviours, and predatory species like dogs tend to develop motor patterns like circling and pacing. That said, we’ve tinkered so much with dogs in making breeds that we also need to talk about genetic factors. I will talk about solutions later, but poor welfare and lack of opportunity to do ‘dog stuff’ isn’t the only other thing to rule out besides current medical health.

For instance, if I tell you that one of the behaviours is most often seen with shepherds, in particular the German shepherd, you’ll begin to see what I mean. In kennels, German shepherds, and sometimes Malinois or Dutch shepherds, can start tail chasing. If someone tells me their dog is chasing his or her tail, I’d put money on a shepherd or a terrier. Not something we often see in the shelter, but if someone tells me they have a dog chasing lights and shadows, it’s often a setter or a spaniel. Funnily enough, when I said this to my friend who’d sent me the video, she told me of a friend of hers who’d had an Irish setter who’d done the same. Setters, springers, sprockers, cockers, Brittany spaniels and all their cousins do seem to have a thing about repetitive behaviours.

Other breeds seem to go more for specific body parts. I’ve had three German short-haired pointers who had repetitive behaviours related to their feet and pads. It’s well-documented about flank sucking in the doberman. Collies are another breed who tend to fall into light and shadow chasing. Trancing seems to be an English bull terrier or greyhound thing.

That said, for every breed, there are outliers and anomalies. I’ve seen cockers trancing and flank sucking in many other dogs beyond the doberman.

My personal opinion is not that dogs have a genetic predisposition to develop stereotypies as such. Any dog can develop compulsive behaviours. That said, fearful natures can be inherited and there can be comorbidities with fearfulness in my experience. Also, geneticist Elaine Ostlander and her team have done a lot of work on the genetic factors behind canine compulsions. I do think, however, that when particular breeds are distressed for a number of reasons that I’ll explore shortly, or they’re not getting their needs met, or they’re in ill health, then these underlying issues tend to appear in oddly predictable ways.

Often, stereotypies appear early in life (Tiira et al. 2012) and can be present from 3-6 months, so it’s important to make sure you pay attention to your dog’s wellbeing during this time. There’s a little evidence in that same study that stereotypies can be more prevalent in dogs removed too early from their mother, suggesting developmental causes alongside genetics and nurturing.

Of course, being in a shelter, you can see many of these behaviours. Stressful experiences and change can often trigger these repetitive behaviours. For some dogs, they seem to be a way of coping. Lidy self-regulates by circling and pacing, as many of her Malinois brethren do. Thus, stress – whether acute or chronic – can worsen stereotypies. Stress doesn’t necessarily need to be some kind of traumatic experience: anticipation, frustration and excitement can also contribute to stereotypies. We’ve had a number of dogs who’ve damaged their tails (all malinois or shepherd crosses) either by chasing them or biting them who’ve had to have amputations, all of whom presented with some pretty sad and disturbing behaviour in the shelter, often despite being medicated, who went on to show those behaviours very rarely in the home. I’m also going to mention coprophagia here as well, as we see this as a sterotypy in the shelter too.

So what do we do when we recognise our animal might have a sterotypy or compulsive behaviour?

The first thing to do is accept that it’s usually multi-factorial. There are usually a number of contributing factors to the development of stereotypies including genes, personality, underlying medical factors, environmental triggers and behavioural consequences. No one thing will usually resolve your dog’s behaviour in entirety. There are no quick fixes and there may need to be many things to trial.

The second thing is create a journal. This doesn’t have to be very long, because these behaviours often cause welfare issues. However, a journal of two or three days is a good starting point.

Note how long the dog performed the behaviour. Note if you or any other individual (including your animals) tried to intervene, and how the dog responded. Note any variations. Then take the dog to the vet. A journal also helps you look back and see accurately and without bias whether there has been progress or not. There can be set-backs when dealing with stereotypies or compulsions, and it can be hard to see that in fact, it’s not actually as bad as it used to be. Also, we tend not to see that 20 minutes has now turned into 2 hours as we get used to the deterioration.

The vet may rule out underlying medical conditions or they may not. You may find that even if they give you treatment for a very clear medical condition, the dog continues to perform the behaviour – just less than they did. This may not be a sign that the cause hasn’t been treated, just that repetitive behaviours become habitual and it ends up being just what the animal does. Even if you get treatment or surgery, you will probably need to work with a behaviour consultant to make some changes to the dog’s life that minimise the chance of the dog reverting to that behaviour under stress.

One thing I often find is that if the dog has had a behaviour where they have been nibbling, licking or biting themselves, even if they haven’t damaged their skin, regrowth can cause a tingling sensation that can cause the stereotypy to recur, so it’s worth discussing a trial of anti-inflammatories or mild sedatives with your vet.

Know as well that behaviours can recur under stress in the future, even if the dog has had a long period of behavioural remission. Be mindful that sudden and stressful events can cause the behaviour to return.

Once you have sorted out appropriate treatment or ruled out medical causes, it’s time then to have a really good look at the animal’s life. A dog who is anxious or fearful a lot of the time may benefit from a consultation for behavioural medication. Clomipramine or Clomicalm has had a number of trials with dogs who have stereotypies such as tail chasing (Moon-Fanelli and Dodman 1998)

There may be a benefit to checking out your dog’s diet anyway, as some small studies have found that vitamin supplements have decreased performance of compulsive behaviour. We’re learning so much about the gut microbiota and behaviour but the fact that a number of these behaviours correlate with poor intestinal health is one sign that diet is worth investigating. As always, diet is never going to cause an instant change in your health and behaviour, so effects may be gradual. Ok, those Haribo sours make me high as a kite, but the spinach I eat to improve my iron levels isn’t going to turn me into a well-adjusted person any time soon. Some foods may have an instant effect where others may take their time. Still, Tiira et al. (2012) did find that some compulsive behaviours decreased when the dog was given supplements.

We tend to think that such behaviours are medical or genetic, rooted in welfare and coping skills, and that can lead us to overlook the consequences of the behaviour for the dog, making it very difficult to extinguish the behaviour completely.

It’s very important when you’re doing the journal to make sure you take a video of the dog when you are not present. It sounds odd, but some dogs increase their behaviour as it gets attention. Even if you are telling the dog off or you are just looking at the dog, this can reinforce behaviour and you will need to be aware of that. If the dog does less of the behaviour when you’re not present, then that tells you something important: you are a factor. Sometimes, it can be that we inadvertently contribute to the stress of others around us. Other times, it’s purely that we’ve laughed at the terrier chasing their tail or we’ve not realised that we pay attention to the dog every time they do the behaviour. One thing I saw with the video my friend sent me was that every time the person holding the camera spoke, the dog moved position. Professor Susan Friedman gave the example of a flank-sucking doberman in her Living and Learning with Animals course… a behaviour often seen as ‘purely’ genetic. What video showed was that the dog sucked their flank more when the guardians were present than when they were absent. This is vital information. Our relationships are a factor we need to consider. One tail chasing dog in our shelter only span when people passed his kennel. At other times, he was relatively calm. It may be a coping mechanism but we still need to rule out our own involvement in the situation. This can be tough, so a behaviour consultant will be better placed to help you decide, and to understand just how your behaviour is influencing the situation.

Other times, dogs have performed more stereotypies in the absence of company. This usually has two mechanisms. The first is that our presence has stopped the dog doing the behaviour as much. We’re a punisher. I don’t mean to say we’re smacking the dog or reprimanding them, just that our presence might reduce behaviours and the dog then is more able to do what they feel the need to do when nobody is present.

Our presence can also be comforting to the dog and relieve some of the stress. Many people who call me when their dog has what appears to be a compulsive behaviour, we do need to rule out separation-related behaviours if the dog is doing more of it when the guardian is absent. However, as I said in the last paragraph and here, our presence can either simply inhibit the dog or can even comfort the dog. It might be nothing at all to do with their inability or ability to cope without us.

Besides our presence inadvertently reinforcing the behaviour, punishing the behaviour or removing the need to perform the behaviour, dogs can also be performing the stereotypy for their own internal reinforcement. Injuries and locomotion cause the body to release opioids and endorphins. I can attest to this having done a marathon with shin splints and a dodgy Achilles. Locomotion can be stimulating in itself. Many of us have little repetitive behaviours that we don’t even notice, from hair flicking and touching to finger tapping to tapping our feet. I’m a compulsive shredder. Some days, I find little piles of the tag from my tea bags in a little pile next to my laptop and I have no idea how they even got there, shredded into tiny, tiny pieces. This might explain, though, why dogs removed too early from their mothers can be at risk of developing stereotypies. What we know from rats is that maternal licking builds more robust offspring. Perhaps if dogs are removed too early from the home or they have mothers who do not care for them in the way they should, they may be less able to cope with life’s little stresses. Who knows? It’s not beyond doubt, however.

Knowing the causes is essential. Only when you know the causes can you effectively and efficiently reduce compulsive behaviours. Otherwise, it’s a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something will stick. If your dog needs medication, a change in diet or dietary supplements, if they have underlying anxieties or maladaptive responses to stress where behavioural medication may help, if you try and deal with your dog’s behaviours without these, you are likely to be much less effective than you could be. Since stereotypies are a welfare issue, it’s vital we deal with these quickly and effectively otherwise we are prolonging our dog’s suffering. Just because the dog doesn’t seem to be in pain or suffering from spending 4 hours a day chasing shadows in the kitchen doesn’t mean that it’s a harmless activity.

Likewise, if your dog’s behaviour is caused by them seeking sensory stimulation, if it is related to coping with stress or if it is related to your presence, if you don’t understand an aspect of this, you’re less likely to find that one piece of spaghetti that really will stick to the wall. If you want a resolution, you absolutely have to have an understanding of the many factors currently contributing to your dog’s behaviour.

Once you understand the problem, you can work with your vet and a behaviour consultant to manage the behaviour, to modify it and to medicate if necessary.

Management may involve preventing the dog from accessing places where they perform the behaviour, or using things like Elizabethan collars to stop them chewing their tail or flank sucking. It might involve shutting the curtains on sunny days, removing collar tags or jewellery that’s causing light to dance, even preventing your dog from accessing the yard on brightly lit days, or only accessing parts of the garden where there are no shadows moving. Management doesn’t prevent the need to perform the behaviour, however, so muzzling, restricting the dog, removing lights and shadows won’t stop your dog. We had to unfortunately amputate the tail of a dog who was damaging their tail in the shelter. The vet said at the time that removing the dog’s tail wouldn’t change much and the dog might then refocus on other body parts. Behavioural medication and anti-inflammatories played a large role in management and treatment too.

Management can also involve providing environmental enrichment for the dog. For me, this is one of the key ways to treat stereotypies and compulsions. The right level of physical activity, the right level of mental stimulation, plenty of opportunities to be more dog, and you’ve got a dog who’ll cope better. That might involve social relationships and friendships. I suspect my friend’s home with her two dogs will reduce the light chasing of the dog in the video she sent me. Plus, my friend has dogs who are dogs. They go on long walks, they smell, they do dog things. It’s very hard with busy, working dogs to offer them the level of support that will meet their needs, and I think there’s a clear correlation between dogs bred for work and the performance of some of these behaviours. French Brittany spaniels and setters are ‘busy’ dogs, like collies can be… a sedentary, sedate life is one that some find it hard to cope with. Overdoing the physical exertion can make things much worse, so offering lots of dog-specific enrichment is an absolute essential. My little cocker Tilly did not have stereotypies when she arrived, but she was a nervous, aggressive, piddling ball of anxieties… Being more dog and having a good bond with me turned her into an almost well-adjusted dog. Even so, for a lazy little spaniel, she still had more stamina for enrichment activities than any other dog I’ve ever had (including three malinois!) and therefore a book like Allie Bender & Emily Strong’s Canine Enrichment for the Real World is an absolute boon. Think of your dog’s social relationships, their ability to play interactively, their bonds, their mental enrichment, being more dog… Play can often meet our dog’s needs, and I find that many dogs with stereotypies have developed them in lieu of other dogs or people who’ll interact with them. I find that really sad. Play is a very underestimated cure for many ailments, but it has to be interactive. Dogs are social species, and a lot of their malaise can come from a lack of appropriate social contact. This doesn’t mean solely play with other dogs. Play with humans can be just as fulfilling. I’ll never, ever forget Lidy’s first morning at home. Despite having been three years in the shelter with all kinds of dogs, she had never played with them. I’d never even seen her try to play with another dog, though she’d played often with me. The first thing she did with Heston that first morning was try to play with him. She plays like someone who has brought knives and throwing stars to the playground, but even so, the fact that she tried to engage in a bit of conspecific play for the first time in three years showed me that she finally felt safe. Dogs, like humans, aren’t designed to be starved of relationships.

Watching dogs with stereotypies can be hard. It can also be something we laugh at and don’t understand because we fail to see what it is. Understanding these maladaptive behaviours for what they are is the first step in addressing them. Stereotypies are often multifactorial. It’s not just a case of throwing the dog a stuffed Kong from time to time. It’s so much more than that. It’s not something that you can often deal with in isolation, though I’ve known dogs with stereotypies in the shelter stop them completely when moving to a home. If you’ve got a dog who is exhibiting any of these behaviours, you might need to work with a team of people including your vet and a behaviour consultant, but prognosis is often very good when you do.

My book Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from Your Clients is out now


Bécuwe-Bonnet, V., Bélanger, M., Frank, D. et al. (2012) Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 7:4 pp.194-204

Keeling, L. and Jensen, P. (2002) Behavioural disturbances, stress and welfare in Jensen, P. (ed) The Ethology of Domestic Animals. Wallingford: CABI

Moon-Fanelli, A. A., and Dodman, N. H. (1998) Description and development of compulsive tail chasing in terriers and response to clomipramine treatment. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 212:8 pp.1252-1257

Tiira, K., Hakasalo, O., Kareinen, L et al. (2012) Environmental effects on compulsive tail chasing in dogs. Plos One. 7:7

Am I Causing My Dog’s Problem Behaviours?

I doubt that there is a single person in the world who thinks that they are either the direct cause or the indirect cause of their dog’s behaviour, but the reality is that there are numerous ways we can worsen our dog’s problem behaviours or even cause them. I want to take all the blame out of every single one of these because I’m absolutely sure that not a single one of us would like to think we’re worsening our dog’s problems and that we wouldn’t do better if we knew how.

So what type of behaviour am I talking about?

You name it… digging, escaping, barking, barking at the neighbours, trying to catch invisible flies, shadow chasing, self-mutilation, over-arousal, over-excitement, chasing animals on the TV, puppy and adolescent biting, separation related behaviour, fearfulness, reactivity and even aggression.

None of this is to say that it’s our fault. None of this is to say it’s actually things we could do anything about. This post isn’t about apportioning blame… it’s just an explanation of how we can sometimes contribute to our dog’s problems.

#1 Accidental cues

Cues are just signs for dogs. They tell dogs that stuff is about to happen and allow them to predict the things that come next. For instance, when I switch the lights out, my dogs head for the bedroom. They know what happens next. When I put my earphones in to start an online class, that’s a cue that I won’t be playing tug with them anymore. Cues show dogs that stuff will happen and that it won’t.

Generally speaking, this is not problematic for our dogs. We do hundreds of predictable things that help them work out what will happen.

Where it becomes a problem is where that cue releases an emotional cascade that only stops when another predictable thing happens. For instance, every morning when we get up, the first thing I do is take the dogs out. Thus, everything I do from waking up to brushing my teeth to putting my boots on (and especially putting my boots on!) adds to my dogs’ excitement because each thing I do is a cue that predicts a walk. The only thing that brings the excitement down is… going for the walk.

Likewise when I pick up my car keys. This is the cue that says the next predictable thing that will happen will be going on a car journey, which my dogs love. Thus, the longer between picking the keys up and getting out of the house, the more excitement, anticipation and frustration that causes, only stopping when we’re in the car and on our way.

It’s not all about good emotions, either. If I go out of the front door and shut it behind me, Lidy panics. She’ll then spend the intervening time trying to find ways to cope with her panic which is only brought to an end when I return.

Worse, for some of my clients and even for some of the dogs who’ve lived with me, that panic may be anxiety that isn’t based on the occurrence of a particular behaviour or event. For instance, lightning made Flika panic and generally her panic didn’t subside until well after any thunderstorms had stopped.

Dogs can be very good at backchaining too, where they pick up the previous cue in the chain. For example, it used to be just my boots that triggered excitement. Then it was putting my socks on before my boots. My dogs can’t be the only ones in the land who are delirious with joy when I go for a pee, I’m sure.

That’s the other thing… Dogs are very contextual learners, so they know the difference between that first toilet trip and the rest during the day. It’s not always true: I can’t even move my car keys without unleashing mayhem.

Our accidental cues can become triggers for behaviour that the dog cannot control. The more predictable they are, the harder it can be to reduce the behaviour. These accidental cues are often the problem behind separation-related behaviour but also behind excitement-related behaviour.

In trainer speak: is Pavlov causing your client problems?

#2 Accidental reinforcement

If dogs do stuff, I hate to say this out, but it’s probably because it’s reinforcing to them. It means that for one reason or another, that dogs do stuff that nets them specific things.

Not all of these specific things are good: it might help them escape or avoid stuff too.

Not all of these things are visible, either. Sometimes dogs do stuff because it helps calm themselves, it helps them manage their frustration or it helps them soothe themselves.

Dogs behave because that behaviour leads them to get stuff they want or need… when Lidy claws me with her great big paws, it’s because sometimes, it nets her affection and petting. When Heston comes and stares at me around 3:50, he knows more often than not, it nets him his dinner. Or, at least he thinks it does. Animals can have superstitious behaviours too.

Virtually all of my clients who have dogs with aggression issues have dogs who’ve found that aggression is very, very effective at making stuff NOT happen. Growling makes hands back off. Barking at the neighbours makes them spring back from the fence. Biting the vet is a quick way to stop them manipulating them. Nipping the groomer is a quick way to stop them grooming you.

If it worked, dogs are likely to do it again.

There can be very weird and wonderful behaviours that are reinforced by things we do. You perhaps wouldn’t think that a dog who barks at a window is actually doing it to get your attention.

Quick test: video your dog when you’re out and tell me if they react as frequently or as dramatically when you’re not there.

I know so many dogs whose alert and alarm barking at noises outside is very much connected to what the family do after the dog barks. It’s one reason I suspect that my alert and alarm barking protocol in the link above is very effective. The dog isn’t barking for food. They’re barking a) to make stuff stop in a superstitious fashion and b) they’re barking because they want us to notice the scary stuff.

Of course, it may not simply be our behaviour when dogs bark that gets our attention that’s causing the problem if your dogs bark less when you’re out. Remember that if you engage at all with the dog – if you physically interrupt them by moving them away, if you tell them off, if you pull them away, if you tell them how ace they are, if you look at them even – that’s all attention that can be altering what your dog does. Being told off is just attention to the dog. The other problem can be, though, that our presence is a confidence boost to an anxious or fearful dog. Our presence motivates the dog to bark when they wouldn’t if we weren’t there.

Even if you don’t reinforce the dog every single time, it can be really challenging to eradicate this behaviour, and the sporadic reinforcement actually makes it harder to kill the behaviour. One experiment in the 1970s with a chimpanzee had 1 reinforcer for 57000 behaviours. No, that’s not an error. That’s like you hitting the coffee machine button 57000 times to make a coffee come out.

Humans are so often involved in building behaviours, including if we’ve laughed at a dog for humping, if we’ve encouraged them, if we interact with them at all. I do know dogs who chase TV shapes or only bark at animal noises on TV when their guardian is there…. we simply have no comprehension of just how much our behaviour affects our dogs.

The quickest way to find out is to video your dogs when you’re not there but the triggers that cause the behaviour are there. In other words, what happens when the schoolkids next door go past the house when you’re not in. Does your dog still go nuts? What happens when people pass your car and you’re not in it. Does your dog still bark?

The saddest thing is that this can often happen with dogs who engage in stereotypical, compulsive or even self-mutilating behaviour. Sometimes, dogs can cause a lot of damage to themselves that is sometimes worsened by what we do when the dog is doing it. For one dog, every time he’d start snapping at invisible flies, the guardian would intervene. Video showed that the dog did it much less when the guardian wasn’t there. What that tells us is that what the guardian did was in some way reinforcing for the dog. For that specific guardian, they were interrupting the dog and inadvertently giving the dog a way to get their attention.

Alternatively, we can also be an accidental punisher. For instance, my boy Heston, since he started on phenobarbital two years ago, has become a stomach on legs. When I go out, he nips into the kitchen to help himself. Now I have never punished him for countersurfing or impromptu foraging, but the clear evidence is that, whether I like it or not, my presense inhibits his kitchen foraging.

In trainer speak: have you ruled out all reinforcement including human interaction, and have you ruled out human presence as an establishing event? Have you also ruled out if the human is acting as a purposeful or accidental punisher if the behaviour only happens in their absence?

#3 Accidental vacuums in guidance and training

Not vacuum cleaners. That would be weird.

Here, I’m talking about the fact that our dogs sometimes do stuff in lieu of guidance from us. In other words, they go Full Dog because we’ve not taught them how to not be Full Dog or because we’ve not given them other things to do.

You remember my tale about the mental spaniels who chased my car down the hill? That’s an accidental vacuum in both guidance and in training. Perhaps the dogs have never been taught what to do when something happens (and bless my little Lidy yesterday morning who is in the process of learning to stand between my legs when she sees a cat, who, as I was bent over trying to poop scoop holding a torch in my mouth – do NOT ask! – saw a cat and did that very thing, smashing the torch into my nose and causing me to drop both the poop and the poop bag and then the torch in the poop… and then expected a sausage for the privilege of ALL THE POOP ON EVERYTHING) or the dogs haven’t had guidance that said, ‘oh, you mean NOW as well??! Ok!’

Flika, for instance, would go nuts at any passing car that had the audacity to slow down in front of our house. If I didn’t call her away (with the purposeful reinforcer of biscuits, natch) she would happily run up and down along the gate barking.

In trainer speak: have you got competing schedules of reinforcement or has the behaviour not been proofed in a variety of contexts?

#4 Accidental lack of management

I’m guilty of this. In the car, we have two lengths of harness attachment for Lidy. One is short for sitting-up kind of journeys. It’s not long enough to let her lie down or move, but it’d stop her slamming around if I crashed. It keeps her on a literal short lead. Then there is a longer attachment for longer journeys so that she can lie down. That one, however, gives her more space to get into trouble should anyone stick a hand through Heston’s slightly open window. In other words, I don’t want her on a long attachment in the car should people get too close to the car. Yet sometimes I forget to switch from the long to the short if I pull up for petrol or for a snack break.

It’s human nature to give our dogs more freedom than we probably should. We let them off lead, we take them to the vet without a muzzle, we don’t have some kind of secure gate if the front door is open that stops our dogs dashing out into the garden. We get lucky more than we should, and we take our foot off the pedal. It can feel like we don’t trust our dog or that we’re not giving them adequate freedoms.

I always say they’re dogs. The only thing I trust is a very, very long training history. They’re going to be dogs, and we’re just lucky if nobody gets harmed as a result. Dogs gonna Dog. It’s up to us to manage it.

In trainer speak: is the dog living in a secure environment where there are two lines of protection?

#5 Accidental failure to acknowledge we’ve got a dog

This sounds terrible, doesn’t it? How do we forget we’ve got a dog?

Yet people do it all the time.

They also forget that they’ve got a specific breed or a specific type of dog, and that specific breed comes with specific behaviours that are more of a tendency than they’d want.

We forget to put in enough enrichment into our dogs’ daily lives. We forget that enrichment involves social needs and interactive play needs. Or we forget that our dogs have mental needs as well as physical needs.

We forget that our previous puppies were arseholes through their teen years. We forget how hard puppy training is.

Worse still, no matter how informed we think we are when we get our first dog as adults, we are never informed enough. We don’t know enough about canine body language, about canine needs, even about how to be around dogs. I have to say that I’ve benefited hugely from a more ‘Rural French’ approach to dog approaches. That’s to say, ‘you’ve got a dog, good for you… I’ll keep my hands to myself and stop staring at your dog’ instead of ‘How cute! You’ve got an enormous grumpy-looking German Shepherd. Can I pet him?

We are all learning.

In trainer speak: is your client skilled up enough about the dog they have and the lifestyle that would suit their dog?

#6 Accidentally putting our dog in past their coping level

I think this is one we’re all guilty of. We thought their training was better than it was. We thought their recall was more reliable. We thought they would cope with sitting at a café. We thought they would enjoy going for a walk with all our friends.

Whether we’re asking too much of our dogs’ current level of training, or whether we’re immersing the dog in situations they’re not yet ready for, this can be another way that we expect too much of our dogs and end up contributing to their behaviour.

I can’t tell you how many reactive dogs I’ve worked with, or dogs who are fearful in public, whose guardians haven’t quite got their head around the fact that the lead is the thing causing the problem because it interferes with the dog’s abilty to make good choices. This is not to say we should take the lead off. This is to say that we absolutely need to make safer choices for our dogs. Why would our dog feel the need to sort things out for themselves and navigate complex situations? Largely because we keep attaching a lead to them or trapping them within four walls and then exposing the dog to things they’re not yet ready for, but they can’t escape from.

In trainer speak: has your client accidentally been flooding the dog or working too quickly through stimulus gradients?


The point of this post is not to apportion blame. We feel guilty enough, I know. Accepting that our behaviour and our habits, our interactions with our dogs, our lack of training or guidance, our lack of management or our lack of awareness of our dog’s needs may be part of the dog’s problem can be a big enough ego burst. We think we’re doing such a great job and it’s pretty ugly when we look at what’s going on and realise we’re responsible for some of it.

I like to remind myself that much of this is just human nature to forget. Our lives with dogs are different and we’re all involved in the pursuit of knowledge that helps us help them lead more successful and enjoyable lives. Not a single one of us would like to admit that we are quite likely for our dog’s problem behaviour. Nobody’s sitting there wondering if they hadn’t laughed so much that first time their dog humped Uncle Eric, that Uncle Eric might not have been the first in a long line of humpees. Nobody is glad that they’ve turned their dog into a barking machine.

We’re not doing it on purpose.

But that’s not to say we don’t have to Adult the F*ck Up and accept our role in things. We’re grown ups. We can do this without crying in the corner for weeks. We don’t have to get out the hair shirts, the bells and the ashes. We can accept it and decide to do better in future. We’ve not got such fragile egos that we can’t cope in the slightest that *shock, horror* we may be in some way responsible for what our dogs do.

As Maya Angelou said, ‘When we know better, we do better’.

Now we know better, let’s do better.

If you’re a trainer and you hate having these kind of conversations with your clients, why not check out my book? It’s ace. I would say that, wouldn’t I? It’d make a good Christmas present for your dog trainer friends, too.

Available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. Leave a review if you’ve already read it!

Help! My Dog is Destroying All Their Toys!

As the guardian of two dogs who always relinquish anything I ask them to, I feel pretty blessed. Lidy was so destructive in the shelter that she chewed her wooden kennel and also couldn’t be left with any bedding at all. She did have three or four good toys which she often carried about, but sheets and towels, dog beds and cushions were all things that she’d likely tear to pieces given half the chance.

Yet here, with her collection of stuffed animals, she might give them a good shake from time to time, but she never pulls them to pieces.

If you have a destructive dog, it can be a nightmare. If they’re tearing things to shreds, you can end up having to clear up a real mess. If they’re tearing things to pieces and consuming them, you may end up with a rush to the emergency vet, an x-ray and a day of starvation if not a surgical procedure to open them up and remove whatever it is they’ve ingested.

Destruction can be pretty natural behaviour. You may even be adding it to your dog’s day as a form of enrichment if they really enjoy doing it and it’s not dangerous. Most of us would be pretty happy if we had ‘controlled’ destruction: that our dogs understood what they were free to destroy and they stopped when we asked.

If you’re the guardian of a dog with powerful jaws and a tendency to tear things to pieces, a dog whose destruction is uncontrolled, then it may be driving you to distraction. How do we move a dog whose destruction is uncontrolled to a dog who knows what they can chew and what they can’t, what they’re supposed to do with things and when they need to stop?

The first is to understand that destruction is a perfectly natural part of the dog’s behavioural repertoire. Whether they are eating things or they are playing, chewing things and pulling things apart can feel pretty good to the dog. They may be chewing and destroying things that resemble food items that wolves or other canids would catch in the wild: it’s not a great leap of manufacturing to go from a buffalo to a shoe, after all. Many things that dogs like to destroy can be things that they resemble prey species – or, at least, part of them. I can’t tell you how many spaniels and golden retrievers I’ve known who had a thing for tissues. My nana’s American cocker spaniel would have happily pulled every single tissue out of the box and left them strewn around the bedroom. I’ve worked with a few English cocker spaniels who had a real problem with tissues and would growl or bite their guardians if they tried to remove them. Having never pulled feathers from a bird myself, I can’t really say that it feels the same at a neurological level as killing pheasant and wood pigeons, but I imagine it might, just a little bit.

Other dogs I’ve worked with have had a real thing for fabric, especially floaty fabrics. It’s not uncommon for dogs to really like the rip of fabric. Having never shredded fascia, ligaments, skin or muscle, I can’t tell you if it feels the same to pull a towel apart, but I imagine it might well.

The first thing you need to do is rule out any age-related causes like still being a puppy or a teenager. That’s not to say that it’s inevitable or unpreventable just because the dog is young, but that you’re going to need some more management as their brain isn’t working at full capacity to inhibit impulses yet.

You also need to rule out developmental issues, health issues and self-soothing. Heston hadn’t chewed anything for years, and now he likes to suck holes in soft fabrics. He only does it before he sleeps or if he is coping with being alone. It’s very much his way of comforting himself. Destruction and chewing can be clues as to illnesses and imbalances, particularly anxiety. Lidy destroyed things in the shelter because she couldn’t cope. The only time she destroyed anything here (she ripped some of my clothes that were in a washing basket) was when there was a storm and I was teaching in the next room. She couldn’t get to me because she was behind a baby gate and I couldn’t hear what she was doing because I had headphones in. Destruction can be a sign of psychological distress as much as any other behaviour.

Also, rule out lack of supervision. Is the dog only destroying things when you’re not there? If so, the first thing you’ll need is video so that you can work with a professional to rule out separation-related issues, to rule out boredom, to rule out whether a punishment schedule is in play when the guardian is present and to work out the function of the behaviour. Why don’t Heston and Lidy destroy things when I’m there? Well, I hate to say it and I’ve never actively punished them – or even inadvertently punished them – but my presence inhibits their behaviour. Even if we interrupt or remove a toy, if they’d naturally tear it to pieces in our absence, then our absence means there’s no external pressure to comply. You don’t need to have even yelled at your dog – but if you intervene in any way, you’re an external force rather than the dog really knowing not to chew. I’m fine with that, by the way. I don’t expect my dogs to have the willpower not to destroy things in my absence. They’re dogs, not people. I used to teach classes of 16-year-olds who’d hide classwork if I was absent and they had a supply teacher. That other beings will behave differently in my absence is just a fact of life. It doesn’t mean I’m an ogre. It just means that my interventions to support them in the choices they make are scaffolds, not straitjackets, but scaffolds they need, nevertheless.

So, with those brief provisos in mind, and with this more detailed exploration of why dogs chew and destroy things also considered, I’m going to take the example of a dog who is destroying toys and chews in the presence of their guardians.

What do they need to know?

#1 How to cope with frustration

If you’re going to remove things from a dog, the dog first needs to know how to cope when you do. If they can’t, you’re potentially going to end up with worse behaviours.

They need to know how to cope when they don’t get what they want or they can’t have what they want. Given that frustration can very easily tip over into aggression, you need a dog who can cope with that. Coping with frustration is also about learning to manage your own emotions and self-regulate better.

If you’re looking for ideas about where to start, this post should help.

#2 How to have control over impulses

If your dog can’t control their own behaviour and they can’t stop what they start, if they can’t self interrupt, you’re going to end up having to wrestle toys or chews from the dog, or try and distract them so you can steal their stuff. Unsurprisingly, dogs are wary of us doing this after the first time we do it, so it’s fine for a one-off emergency, but heaven help you if you need to do it again.

Dogs need to be able to self-interrupt as well as knowing how to stop when asked. Dogs who have no idea how to press their own off buttons are a liability. One of the drivers behind destruction, alongside frustration, is the inability to self-regulate. When Lidy holds her toys ever so gently or she stops pulling the ear off her elephant when I ask (like my mother, she’s a sod for being unable to leave a thread hanging) those skills are impulse control skills. I confess to having a very icky habit around scabs and peeling skin – other people’s scabs and peeling skin – I almost can’t stop myself from wanting to pull them off. I know, it’s disgusting. Even so, if I feel itchy about not being able to pull at some random stranger’s flappy scab or peeling skin, I shouldn’t expect my dog to cope any better than I do. The only thing that stops me is a very long history of rules about socially acceptable behaviour. In other words, I stop myself.

If we want dogs to stop themselves, then we need to teach them how.

#3 Teach them to relinquish items when you ask

Teach them how to drop. Your dog needs to learn to relinquish things. To be fair, most of the dogs I’ve known other than my toy-guardy dogs Tilly, Tobby and Amigo, have all been happy relinquishers of their stuff. If your dog has any kind of history of running off with stuff or reluctance about forced removal, you need Chirag Patel’s Drop. To the letter, no skimping.

Until you’ve mastered this (6-12 weeks of daily practice, I’d say), I’d manage the chewables very carefully. This technique is so good that Lidy spat out a found pigeon wing the other day. She didn’t want to eat it, so there’s that, but it can be such an instinctive reaction that the dog has relinquished before they’ve had time to think that they didn’t want to.

Don’t bother with trading if your dog is destructive. You’re never going to be trading. You’re not giving them something else to destroy. You need a safe way to get them to drop and leave items that also brings them back to you. Chirag isn’t teaching relinquishment, really. He’s teaching the dog that when you say a word, then it’ll be advantageous to come back to you from wherever they are and have an empty mouth, kind of like when my mum said, ‘Tea’s ready!’

Play stopped because tea was valuable and also because of ingrained habit. This method of drop is exactly the same.

#4 Teach the Counting Game

This is another Chirag Patel classic. You may wonder at its use with chewing and destruction. It works perfectly in kind of similar lines to Drop…. ‘Hey! I’m doing something really fun here. Come see!’

You can move the dog away from items, slow them down (spread out your timing and slow down) and speed them up. I use it often when I have novice dogs who have no skills with drop. The Counting Game can be a really good way if I’m doing freework sessions or other stuff to get a dog to come nearer to me.

The added bonus is that the moment you start counting and you bend down in future sessions, the more likely it will be that dogs will stop what they’re doing and come to join you.

#5 Add a wider range of non-destructive enrichment

Like dogs who chase compulsively, destruction can be compulsive too. It scratches a biological itch that other things don’t. Destruction and chewing are part of the predatory motor sequence: the ways that predatory species seek and acquire food. Of course, your dog is not destroying things to consume them, usually. Even chewing of bones can offer very little nutritional value once the marrow has gone. Kill-bites, shaking, tearing things apart and even eating them are much, much later in the sequence. Just like you would with a dog who is compulsively chasing, your job is to do things earlier in the sequence. Scentwork can be really useful. Doing activities like mantrailing or scentwork can help build a behaviourally more balanced dog who doesn’t only have one way to get their kicks. I’m a huge fan of scatter feeding with dogs who destroy. I confess I prefer grass for this – it’s less problematic if they tear up some grass and you can scatter it further away. Snuffle mats are great, but I’ve seen dogs dismantle them in minutes. They just don’t afford you the ability to manage arousal in the same way. I have never, ever known dogs escalate from scatter feeding to vaccuuming the floor, by the way. If your dog does this, that’s something else entirely. Sometimes, it’s just a free buffet and what dog would turn that down? But dogs don’t graduate from scatter feeding to eating anything on the ground. Scatter feeding lasts much longer – I’ve never known a snuffle mat last more than 10 minutes with a single ration of food – and I’ve two enormous snuffle mats. I’ve had dogs still scouting for one single handful of chopped ham over 45 minutes later. Tilly once was out there for two hours still endlessly searching for the last bit of ham.

#6 Recognise destructive behaviour as part of adolescence and deal with it accordingly

Most destructive behaviours start young and fade, but some dogs get more excited by the destruction than others, particularly during their teenage years when it can provide an outlet.

Make sure you’re clear about the suite of behaviours that destruction might fit in to. If you recognise a number from this post, then you might want to think about ways you can channel your dog more appropriately through focus games, through the activities listed above and through careful management. Dogs who don’t learn what a thrill destruction can be from 8 weeks to 2 years of age are generally dogs who don’t destroy things the rest of their life either. For instance, rural France is not a toy-based dog culture as a whole and so a lot of our dogs have no idea what toys are. That doesn’t mean they’re not destructive: some are destructive despite the presence of toys. Many, though, if they are destructive do so because their behaviour early on wasn’t managed and their needs weren’t met. Meet a dog’s needs and you don’t tend to find them destroying the kitchen cabinets.

#7 Interact more with your dog

Destroying things is not just a predatory motor sequence thing, it’s also a form of entertainment and a way to engage with the environment. When we play more with our dogs and we interact with them, then we can meet their needs in other ways. To be honest, a dog who only enjoys life when they’re pulling the stuffing from cushions seems to be a pretty miserable dog if you ask me. Massage, petting sessions and training sessions can be ways of building up your own bond, as can interactive play.

Before everyone clutches their pearls, I’m not talking about turning your dog into a ball addict or doing irreparable damage to them physically and mentally. A balanced diet of a bit of tug, a bit of chasing, a bit of scentwork, a bit of massage, a bit of frisbee, even – dare I say it – physical play with your dog can be different ways for you to meet your dog’s needs to play. As one of our lovely DoGenius students wrote in their essay at the weekend, pseudopredation (so, finding, stalking, herding, pouncing, biting, shaking, grabbing, dissecting) could well be as much about play as it is about predation. Play more, and choose more interactive or social ways of doing so. A broad range of play skills is also a muscle you can build, just as you can build up scent work and so on. If dogs are making their own fun – essentially what destruction is – then get involved with them.

#8 Build bite inhibition

Some people seem to think that bite inhibition and bite strength are things dogs are born with. They’re not. They’re taught skills that they learn through life. Being born a dog teaches them to bite. Being socialised teaches them WHEN and HOW to bite. Destruction is sometimes about learning to hold back.

The mouth is bones and teeth secured by and operated by muscles. Bite inhibition is just choosing the right bite strength (or none at all) for the moment. Given that the mouth is controlled by muscles, it is an eminently trainable thing. It’s no different than our hands. Remember how you used to paint when you were four? Half the battle was holding the brush. We learn skills with our muscles that stop us over or under-reacting to the process we’re about to undertake. We don’t still paint and write like four-year-old children. Burly, muscley men can still learn to knit delicately if they try, just as dogs can learn to bite less hard.

How do I suggest you do this? Play! A great tug programme like Craig Ogilvie’s INTERACTIVE programme is ideal. Like any other muscular skill, it can be shaped over time. Of course, it’s easiest when you’re working with a fairly young dog, but it’s something all dogs can learn.

It’s not a question of finding more robust toys that can outlast your dog’s jaws. If your dog is that much of a chewer or a destroyer, the likelihood of hairline fractures and other dental damage is huge. Ideally, all dogs should be able to choose a grip that suits the thing they’re gripping. Many people are too afraid to intervene or don’t know how without causing frustration and potential aggression. It’s really important that we help our dogs get their needs met, but that their needs don’t end up bordering on a compulsion.

PS: I’ve got a book out, as if you didn’t already know! If you’ve read it already, please leave me some feedback! Pop over to Amazon now and wax lyrical.

Improve your training with fearful dogs

Many of my clients have struggled in the past with training their fearful dog. Whether your dog is nervous on walks or whether they’re reactive, it can feel like you’re getting nowhere.

Part of the problem is that unless we deal with the emotions underpinning the behaviour, our training isn’t going to make much headway. It’s vital that we help our dogs feel better about the world in which they find themselves.

If you don’t, all you’re doing is trying to put training on the most shaky of foundations. You can read why here.

Essentially, if your dog doesn’t feel safe, the only thing that matters to them is safety. Food doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. Asking them to sit and face their fears doesn’t even register. If your dog feels like they can’t cope in the outside world, then nothing you can do will even register. It’s every dog for themselves.

And there you are, with your biscuits, hoping that teaching them to sit will make the slightest difference.

Sorry to break it to you, but you’re going to need a bit more than that.

Training can have miraculous results with fearful, anxious or nervous dogs. I wholeheartedly endorse Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games that you can find in Control Unleashed and I also thoroughly encourage you to follow Sarah Stremming of Cog Dog Radio. Both women are amazing trainers who use training to help dogs cope in the world in which they find themselves.

These methods work by creating a structure or ritual. That seems to work by predictability and routine. They seem to reassure the dog that, sure, we’re in a new environment… sure, scary things may be going on around us… but you and I, we have our thing. Having moved around madly these last four months, my dogs know that, as soon as the bed goes down, as soon as the blankets go down, this is where we are. This is home.

Wherever we do our routines, that’s our home. That kind of thing.

Many dog trainers can try to implement these strategies with fearful or nervous dogs with little success, however.

Partly, for me, that’s based on an over-reliance on training as the only way to make a difference to a dog. Dog trainers do what they know, and they feel less comfortable about other procedures, just as I would feel uncomfortable teaching all the bits and pieces for a Kennel Club award. I mean, I can, but I wouldn’t be as efficient.

How do we deal with the dog’s underlying emotions?

Here are ten ways that you can improve your dog’s progress and help them feel happier in the world.

#1 Medication or supplements

The first is to consider medication. While you may very well find some success with supplements and natural remedies, if you’ve got a dog who spends most of the day in a state of anxiety and then is hypervigilant outdoors, to the point that they won’t even pee outside, then this is a welfare issue, not a training issue. You may find some success with supplements, and certainly I’ve known dogs for whom they were effective, but if your dog is spending 16 hours a day in a state of nervous tension, trying to train them is more than likely to be completely inefficient.

If you are going to consult your vet, make sure you carefully document your dog’s behaviour. It can be very difficult for vets to see just how miserable your dog is. Make a diary, make videos and make sure you describe your dog’s behaviour objectively so that the vet can make the best decision.

#2 Lower anxiety in the home

If your dog is spending all hours of the day on high alert, they won’t be sleeping or resting properly. One of the easiest things to do is to reduce alert behaviours to noise outside the home and to add a little enrichment. I highly recommend Ali Bender and Emily Strong’s book Canine Enrichment for the Real World instead of feeding from bowls or forcing your dog to go out on walks that they clearly find distressing. Enrichment has other benefits: it focuses the dog’s attention on the good stuff and helps them block out the bad, even just for a little while.

If you’re aiming to add even just ten extra minutes a day, it can make a real difference. Anyone who suffers with anxiety will tell you that being able to immerse yourself in something – while it doesn’t treat the problem – as long as the ‘something’ doesn’t induce anxiety itself – can really help to give you a break from it. I always remember one time when I’d left my dogs with my dad. One of my dogs was newly epileptic. He was occasionally disoriented and I hadn’t heard from my dad all morning. I was in full on panic mode. However, I’d got a conference to deliver and that at least occupied me. By the time I’d delivered it, my dad had responded to my 53 messages and everything was fine. If I’d not been distracted by delivering a conference, I think I’d have driven 2000 miles back home just to check on them all. Doing stuff gives us a break from anxiety.

If your dog is alert and alarm barking all the time, you can also put this simple protocol into place.

#3 Make sure your dog is safe

Fearful dogs need to be safe. You can’t make them feel safe if they aren’t actually safe. Safety’s not some kind of illusion.

The first thing this means is stopping putting them in situations they can’t cope with, at least for a little while as you work with a trainer or behaviourist.

Because we often keep fearful dogs on the lead, it can run the risk that they don’t have a choice in where they go or what they do. If they weren’t on lead, they’d probably vote with their feet and go home. Having dogs in a crate or on a lead means they can’t escape from situations if they want to. As a result, it’s really important that we’re mindful of the fact our dogs can’t choose and therefore, we must choose venues and times for our walks that feel safer to our dogs. It’s all very well us thinking that our walks are safe, but it’s not our feelings that count.

This also means making sure your dog IS safe in the home, in the garden and on walks. Flat leads and comfortable harnesses are an absolute must.

#4 Make eating outside the home a habit

Many people assume that their dogs won’t eat outside because they’re in a panic or they’re not interested in food. Please check out this post and make sure you’re not just failing to teach your dog to eat in a variety of different places.

Since counterconditioning is very often done through pairing scary stuff with food, you do need a dog who’ll accept food outside the home. Eating is a habit. It’s a behaviour like anything else. When I think of how afraid Lidy is of strange people and being handled, or being at the vets and I know that she was taking paté from the vet, then I know that there is literally nowhere we can’t do a little work on her emotions.

If your dog won’t eat outside the home, however, it may not simply be that your dog is too afraid to eat (in which case, I’d say your dog was a really good candidate for #1 medication) but that your dog just doesn’t eat out of context. It’s a skill we need to practise, so rule out the common problems.

#5 Stop asking people to feed your dog

You can train very effectively without people giving food to your dog. Food is a positive thing. Scary people are a negative thing. When we give food to people to distribute to our fearful dogs in the hopes of teaching them that people are not so scary, it can really backfire. Your dog ends up bribed into the space of the scary human and when the food runs out, they’re often left in a state of ambivalence and ambiguity.

Keep the food yourself and use a training programme to help your dog that doesn’t involve this:

#6 Keep sessions short

Most of my clients have already tried to change their dog’s emotional state before they get to me. Most of them have tried to habituate their dog to the scary stuff by gently exposing them to the world outside.

Where I find most surprise from clients is that our first session might literally be 5-6 minutes long and only have 5-6 exposures to the scary stuff.

Pavlovian conditioning (pairing the scary stuff up with food) shouldn’t take hundreds of exposures for the dog to learn to associate the food with the scary stuff. If you follow #7 to #9 properly, the dog should make the association really quickly.

I often hear a lot of apologists for poor methodology from the dog training community. ‘Oh counterconditioning won’t work for me!’ they say, using cities or frequency of triggers as a reason.

I make no apologies for saying that I’ve counterconditioned dogs in one of France’s largest shelters where dogs have been surrounded by all the stuff they’re scared of and want to chase. You think your city is bad? Hello??!

Cars, wheelbarrows, hundreds of dogs barking, colonies of cats darting in and out, passers-by, would-be adopters, dogs coming in and out, vets on site, queues of people waiting for the vet with animals, well-wishers, volunteers, staff members, kennel stench, infernal noise, pound vans coming in and out, delivery vans arriving with food and kit, children wandering around, babies in pushchairs, then the wildness of national forest with teams of hunters, loose scenthounds, wild boar, deer, snakes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels…

If I can countercondition in a shelter environment in 5-6 trials, something is wrong with your methods, dude.

As Ginger Rogers reportedly said when asked how it was to dance with Fred Astaire, ‘Darling, I did everything he did… just backwards and in high heels.’

Working in a shelter is a bit like working backwards and in high heels. I don’t care where you’re working on your counterconditioning. It’s most likely much less stressful than a shelter and you can probably make better use of your environment. I’d love it if trainers stopped blaming their tools. I’m a very, very ordinary trainer and if I can make the pairing in 5-6 trials in 5-6 minutes in a shelter, I’m pretty sure anyone can do it. But you’ve got to be good at your craft.

That means doing less and making the pairing crystal clear. Choose a good set-up and make sure you’ve done your bit on #1 through to #5 and you’ll have a much better chance.

#7 Choose your time and venue carefully

If you want to be able to do #6 properly, you’ll need the right set-up. A set-up is just a carefully chosen area for where you’re going to make that pairing between food and scary stuff. It means working far enough away – sometimes 500m or so, but usually much less if you can organise or stage your venue carefully enough.

Sometimes that means using vistas as you’ll read in #8. It also means keeping counterconditioning sessions short and finishing on a win. Don’t keep going until the dog fails.

Another thing you can do is make sure you use time of day properly. Last week, I was staying at my mum’s. Turns out 5.30am in her neighbourhood is busier than 12.30pm. There were loads of people walking dogs before going to work, cats returning home from a night on the tiles, paperboys on bikes weaving in and out of driveways, people dropping in to the paper shop… it was mayhem. Here, at 5.30am, it’s me. Me and my dogs and a handful of cats. There’s a mass exodus of workers just before 6am and so there’s a few people moving about in high-vis jackets, and there’s cars, but there aren’t people walking shih tzus on flexi-leads, which is our worst nightmare. If I wait until 11am, then there are hundreds of crabby little shih tzus barking at everything they see.

So choose your time carefully.

At the shelter, I did make the most of this by doing sessions at 1.30pm when French people are mostly still in lunch mode. I didn’t do sessions on Saturday afternoon when 5-6 minute training sessions would be filled with 500 triggers. Take it easy on yourself and your dog and stop thinking you need to walk your dog when everybody else is too.

Get your set-up right and you can do almost anything.

#8 Go for vistas, not panoramas

If you’re forced by the universe to work closer to triggers than you’d like, being able to screen off much of the approach and retreat will help you keep exposures to triggers neat and precise. If the scary stuff is only in view for three seconds so you can open the food bar and close it in a very precise manner so the dog is absolutely clear on what’s causing food to rain from the sky, you’ll get much further.

Create a vista and watch counterconditioning become a cinch of a sprint rather than a torturous marathon. Work further away than you would normally think of doing and keep the dog under threshold if you can.

#9 Keep your clickers and marker words out of it for the beginning

Most people over-complicate counterconditioning. All you need is the scary stuff, the dog and something good to eat. You don’t need clickers or markers. If you’re using them, you’re doing something else entirely. That’s fine, but if you’re marking behaviour, you’re moving into operant training and that is something altogether different. I do use these, but not in my first three trials or so. Counterconditioning does not need a marker word or a clicker. Be silent and spend the time watching your dog, not adding more things in for them to cope with. Your voice gets in the way of them learning to pair up the scary stuff with the good stuff. It’s just noise. Literally.

You don’t need to cue the behaviour either – at least, not until later.

Keep your voice to yourself. Go zen. Be silent.

#10 Keep the dog moving

I will never understand why people stop with the dog to countercondition. All you’re doing is giving the dog a massive, massive cue that scary stuff will start. You’re telling them to be on the lookout.

Being still is the absolute opposite of what we need.

I know why – you might miss the triggers passing by. Standing still, even if you don’t ask for a sit, means not missing the trigger.

But so many times I see trainers making it harder for themselves, it’s because they’ve asked for a static behaviour. I can’t understand it. You might as well get a great big sign out that says to the dog, ‘The show’s about to start, buddy!’

Your standing still can be the biggest cue that triggers anxiety or fear. Worse, asking them for a sit and you’re not only telling them that zombies are about to appear, you’re asking them to sit through it. Not so much a show as a living, walking nightmare on legs.

Imagine if I did that with a human person. You know… You’ve got a fear of bats or something. I take you into a room, I ask you to sit down, I bring a load of bats in and then I ask if you’d like some cake.

Next time I take you to that room, I ask you to sit down… well, you’re going to know bats are next on the agenda. Do you think my cake will work?

There’s a very strong argument that cues can actually make aversive experiences less bad. Surprise dentistry or appearance of bats, spiders or snakes can actually be more scary than knowing that you’ve just got to get through it. Knowing when and where they appear can make it less scary.

So there’s that.

But there’s also a lot of evidence that when animals have learned to be afraid of things, often the cue itself can be enough to generate fear that’s as bad even when there’s none of the scary stuff. In laboratory experiments where scientists have deliberately created fear in dogs, they sometimes put a tone before shocking the animal. Even in experiments where there was no shock for hundreds of times, the animal acted as scared of the tone as they were of the shock. I’m not engaging in some melodramatic exaggeration for rhetorical effect, I literally mean hundreds of times. Three scientists in the 1960s paired a tone up with footshock 10 times. Then they just played the tone. The dogs in the experiment acted as fearfully as if they’d actually been shocked. That behaviour lasted hundreds of repeats where the dogs were just presented with the tone and not the shock.

In other words, stop telling your dog there’s going to be scary stuff. You’re just making the way you announce it – usually stillness – into a giant cue that scary stuff will happen.

Obviously, the best way to change your dog’s emotional response to scary stuff is to see a good trainer or behaviourist – one who does #1 to #10 without even thinking about it. But it’s more than feasible for everybody if you’re clued up on what you’re doing. Quite frankly, if you can follow the rules, you’re probably going to be 99% more effective anyway.

Don’t overlook the simplicity and effectiveness of counterconditioning to change your dog’s underlying emotions about things. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take months of work. It shouldn’t be complex or challenging… you’re literally letting your dog see the scary stuff and then giving them food. That’s all there is to it. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. It’s so simple.

But you do need to do some other stuff alongside it to make the pairing of scary stuff and food clear to your dog. Most dogs I work with, shelter or not, get it by the third repetition on the first day. Two minutes. They’re savvy.

That’s not an accident though. It’s because I know how to maximise my efficiency. I say often that I’m a lazy trainer. I really am. But that’s because I know that giving my dog a treat at the right moment on our daily walk, and doing that five times at the opportune moment, is a hell of a lot easier than spending eight months making no progress whatsoever. It’s not just easier, it’s more efficient.

Why do it the hard way and make life more difficult for both you and your dog? You’re adding months if not years on to your training plan and it’s bound to cause you nothing but frustration and disappointment. Be simple, be clear and be precise and you’ll be getting that head snap when you see the scary stuff within three or four trials.

Ultimately, as neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp reminds us, being aggressive or being fearful are not nice ways to feel. If we’re offered the choice between feeling nice and feeling rubbish, we’ll take feeling nice. Our bodies are desperate to feel safe. When we work with that knowledge and we keep our training clean and efficient, our dogs very quickly learn to do the stuff that feels nice and avoid feeling afraid.

Next week, I’ll look at ten ways you can improve your training with dogs who like to chase livestock, pets, wildlife, machinery or people.

I also have a book out! It’s over at Amazon. It’s pretty good, if you’re a dog trainer looking to get more out of your work. I would say that, wouldn’t I?!