All posts by emmalee72

Improving your desensitisation and counterconditioning

In the last few posts, I’ve been taking you through some of the training methods I use most with clients: desensitisation and counterconditioning in particular. Where there are emotional undercurrents behind the behaviour, if you don’t address them, your very best training programme in the world will fail. This is why these two skills underpin everything I do.

These two techniques – especially together – are particularly useful for dogs who are excited, fearful or aggressive. If you’ve got a chaser, a worrier or a warrior, you can no doubt put gradual desensitisation to work and add a little counterconditioning where appropriate to give things a boost.

But there are ways you can sharpen your planning and make sure your dog stays in that cool learning zone without flooding them. When you have this final piece of the puzzle down and it’s really tight, you are set up for success.

Today, we’re all about stimulus gradients!

Fancy ridiculous psychology term for a super-useful concept that will help you with your desensitisation and counterconditioning programmes.

Stimulus just means any kind of environmental thing that sets your dog off, whatever that may be.

A trigger, if you will. A cue. A thing in the world that says, “Hey, you there! Feel this amazing feeling now!”

Kind of like me when I hear the sound of an ice-cream van or the smell of sun-cream, and I feel all wonderful and summery. Or like when I feel the solemn cool air of a church or old building and I get all serious and contemplative. That kind of stuff. Chanel Number 5 making me ache to give my grandma a hug, or the smell of fresh coffee that puts me in a positive frame of mind to get on with work.

Those things are stimuli.

A gradient, then, is just a factor that determines its difficulty or easiness to cope with. For example, sun-cream makes me feel nice, but it doesn’t really compel me to do anything with that floaty-light summer feeling. If it made me so yearn for the sun that within seconds of smelling it, I booked a holiday, then that would be pretty difficult to cope with. And expensive.

It’s kind of important to understand the emotional undercurrent behind canine behaviour, but not always. That’s not what’s at stake here. I don’t really care whether the stimulus makes them feel excited, aggressive, predatory or fearful, I just care how much of it they need to be exposed to before walking them becomes like an exercise in wrestling greased pigs. I don’t even need to know what they would do if they could get to the trigger. I never know what Flika would do for instance with a field of cows, because, guess what, I never let her in a field of cows.

I mean, you know gradients, right? Those graphs from school on an incline?

Slopes, if you will.

Most people get the idea that we need to expose our dogs to stuff, and I’ve practically no client at all who has ever said to me that they haven’t already tried getting the dog used to whatever they find scary or fun or annoying.

“Tried that,” they say. “Didn’t work.”

Mostly that goes back to the fact that their dog is waaaay over threshold (see last week’s post here if you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about) or that they are exposing their dog to far too much stuff for far too long or far too close.

Or, we were just getting it and our dogs were coping-coping-coping only for us to get far too near and boom, we’ve lost the dog to the thrill of the chase or a need to protect themselves.

Those triggers usually come in four main flavours for dogs: stuff that excites me, stuff that frightens me, stuff I want to chase and stuff that annoys me. BIG crossover between stuff that frightens me and stuff that annoys me, too. I’m just going to call that category “Stuff I Hate”.

Generally speaking, for my three, I can generally divide up their triggers into Stuff I Want To Chase, Stuff That Excites Me or Stuff I Hate.

When we think about our dogs, we can think about stuff they can see that triggers an emotional response to chase, like chickens, sheep and cows do. Or like joggers, scooters, bikes and cars might. We can so think about things they can hear, like planes and thunder. We can think about things they can smell – a world that is so potent for dogs and so insignificant and puny for humans that we’re seriously in danger of massively underestimating how something smells to our dogs. Smell is everything. We put visual stuff first but stuff they can smell is much more likely to signal the proximity of those triggers.

We should also include other experiences that our individual dogs find unpleasant like being trapped, being confined, being restrained or loneliness too.

Flika is a hot mess of sixteen-year-old one-eyed neurotic chaser. I’ll refrain from sharing my theories about that here, but if stuff moves, she’s got the Way of the Shepherd: control the moving stuff, s’il vous plaît. And the more anxious she gets, the more she needs to control the moving stuff around her.

Heston is way easier and truth be told, his triggers have come and gone in his life. He’s way less bothered about stuff than he was. Chasing – well, we got past a loose flock of chickens the other day without raising our pulses, but cats set him off these days, although he lived with cats and was well socialised with all my kitten fosters over the years. Hares, yes; rabbits, no. Deer, definitely yes. It’s all about the thrill of the chase across open ground for him. He reminds me that what once did not trigger behaviours may come to, and also that dogs may get used to certain things other than others. I don’t know why he’s okay with chickens and not cats – he grew up with both and I’ve had cats in his life much more recently that he never showed an inclination to chase. He’s a very empathic dog and was always very sensitive to the kittens I had here.

And he’s still not always able to cope with people who run at him. Fair enough. Scary things.

Ah, Lidy, where to start? She is nothing but a hot mess of hair triggers. The firstlings of her mind are the firstlings of her mouth, to misquote Macbeth. There’s a reason she’s here with me and not with some unsuspecting member of the public. Chasing is good. Everything from flies and lizards upwards is good to chase. And where Heston just enjoys the thrill of the chase, Lidy enjoys the thrill of the kill. So there’s that.

Then she has stuff that makes her scared. She’s on a bite-first, ask-questions-later kind of protocol. Other predators – whether they’re people or bigger dogs – scare the bejesus out of her, but she’ll fight to the death if necessary.

She’s not a fan of storms, but she habituated to gunshots and road noises and people outside the gate. She’s also less sensitive to loneliness and time alone too.

So when you’re thinking of what sets your reactive dog off, think multisensory, and start with smell. Then sounds. Then sights. Think about experiences and feelings too. Don’t get too trapped by thinking of what once triggered your dog’s emotional responses as those things may have changed.

If you like, you can categorise it as “stuff to chase” and “stuff I hate” but sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.

A stimulus gradient is the most essential part of a desensitisation programme where you’re gradually exposing your dog to those things that trigger an emotional reaction. You’re absolutely aiming to start at a point where your dog notices the thing, but where you can still get their attention. That magical threshold. But it’s not hard…. well, depending on the sense they’re using. Nose down, tail up is definitely a smell worth investigating. But this…

… generally means “I’ve spotted it.” It also means “I’m fine with it at that distance.”

Tongue out, mouth open, body still means “I’m not going to do anything about it just yet.”

Do I need to be bothered? Not quite yet. Mouth closed, eyes focused and Heston and Lidy are in “deciding” mode.

This is the point I want to work at. Deciding phase. Thinking is still happening but give it a second, should said thing come any closer, I might not be able to get their attention any more.

Useful if you’ve got a dog who thinks with their mouth closed. Tilly usually had her mouth closed, which was not helpful at all. She had a little ear twitch and eyebrow crinkle. That was her deciding face. Know your dog’s deciding face and you’ll get to know how near is acceptable. The fewer the body parts involved in “deciding”, generally speaking the better I find it. When the whole body is involved and you’ve got a lot of energy involved in keeping them away from the trigger, then you’ve got a problem, Houston. The first thing to do though is understand your dog’s body language and make sure you’re not working too far over threshold.

Trainers usually work in two main ways around triggers: using distance and using duration. They increase the distance your dog is at related to the trigger, and then gradually decrease it. Or they start with very small amounts and then gradually increase.

But it can be so much more subtle than that, and for my mind, the more we’re aware of those subtleties, the less likely we are to write these two processes off as inefficient.

Of course we understand the basics. We understand that you need to start with the smallest amount of the thing (and yes, that includes scent).

We know that dogs don’t generalise well and we need to teach them to do what we ask of them in more and more challenging circumstances. Like if I do one lesson of loose leash walking, I’m not expecting my dog to get it straight away. Or to be able to do it in the middle of a Venetian carnival. Start small and easy, work up through multiple trials to the big stuff. We know this.

We know how to do it. Start with the smallest dose possible for your dog that the dog notices but is not showing whole body emotional responses to (like nose to tail kind of reactions). Keep under that threshold. And gradually move up that difficulty/exposure gradient without too steep an increase. That’s basically it. It’s not complex. Slow and steady wins the day.

You can see that in this link here. I massively encourage you to watch this marvellous video not least because it wasn’t an option to work under threshold with the dog, although I would say the dog isn’t massively lost in an emotional whirlwind there. Worthwhile reading the description in the post too. Really useful.

Here, the guy is working closer and closer at proximity.

You can also add another gradient: duration. That means you’re gradually exposing your dog to longer and longer periods where they can see or smell or hear their triggers.

A stimulus gradient is not just about working from low doses to high doses. There are so many ways you can alter the difficulty of the trigger. I’m going to run with my Keira Knightley example to explain. And then Miss Flika with her car chasing.

  1. Frequency and Rate. How often do I see the po-faced one, especially in a given period? Maybe I’d cope with once in a month, but five times a day would be too much. Fifty times in an hour would be intolerable. We can decrease the frequency or rate our dogs see their triggers for if that makes it easier. For instance, if I’m working with cars for Flika, I may only do one or two views in a day. And then I can build up to seeing lots of cars. One or two on a walk would be fine. Fifteen and I think she’d meet her limit. A steady stream and I might as well give up and go home.
  2. Duration. How long am I exposed to Keira? I could perhaps cope with an accidental flash of her in a Chanel printed advert if someone turns the page really quickly, but 2 hours of Anna Karenina and I’d be a gibbering wreck. And a weekend movie festival of all her most Serious Acting? Waaay beyond my skills right now. This works for dogs too – how long is a dog is exposed to things for. So you can start at the easy side of the scale. Flika can cope with short bursts of cars that come and go, but asking her to cope with really long arrivals and really long departures is just too much. When I started working with Lidy on people, the people were in view for literally a second. Then two. Then four. Then eight. When you take something the dog would like to chase, you work around that thing for a really short time at first, like the time a hare shot across the path. It was so fast, Heston was all “Was it?”. Bit different than twenty wild boar running up a 400m pathway in view for at least four minutes. A millisecond is low down on that sliding scale. You just build up to more challenging durations. But don’t push it, I will say. Coping with people for an hour when you’re not a people-friendly kind of a dog runs the risk of trigger stacking and pushing dogs over the edge.
  3. Interresponse time. How long between the Keiras? Back-to-back Keira-thon? Not in my lifetime. Sometimes having longer periods between seeing our triggers can give us time to get over them. Say for instance I’m on a walk with Flika and we see a car, then we have 60 minutes without one, that’s easier to cope with for her than seeing two cars with a minute break. If you know about trigger stacking, then you understand why that break is useful from a neurotransmitter and hormonal point of view, but it’s another gradient I can mess with. Building up to a minute between cars might be something we’re working on if brief intervals between occurrences are the problem. Like Heston. He tends to cope with a steady stream of neighbourhood noises, but when the gap between them is too small, he’s not truly finished coping with the last one yet.
  4. Response latency. How long between seeing Keira, assuming she stays at a steady distance and level of wooden-faced acting before I’m gritting my teeth and itching for the remote? How long between seeing the car, steady in the distance, and Flika starting to pull on the lead? This is another gradient I can work on – creating longer and longer gaps between seeing, smelling or hearing a trigger and then acting on it.
  5. Magnitude. How much po-faced Keira can I cope with? I can cope with less intense acting from Ms K, such as Bend it Like Beckham but the more she dials up the Acting and Serious Face, the less I can cope with it. The same for dogs. Lidy is really, really impossible with cats. Desensitising her to the smell of them is a start. Visuals are too much. I might have had to do this with Keira if the smell of her Chanel set me off before I’d even seen her. Work with scent if you need to. So I’ve got a slept-on set of cat blankets for Lidy. I can alter the intensity by: using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for a minute > using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for ten minutes > using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for an hour > using blankets that have touched the cat for a single stroke > using blankets that have been slept on briefly > using blankets that have been slept on for longer > using blankets that have been slept on repeatedly.

    I can also alter the intensity of a smell by leaving blankets longer before using them. I’ve some I’ve left out for a week. Others are fresh from the cat.

    You can use intensity to start at lesser intensities with sounds (like starting on a programme for thunder or fireworks) and with smells, like the example above, and also with visual triggers too. It’s not so easy to find a hare who is willing to sleep on a blanket for 10 minutes just to desensitise a dog, and some of the synthetic prey scents that are used in the gundog world are too synthetic for Heston for example. The synthetic hare smells were not interesting to him. But you may also find dogs who need the real life sounds rather than synthetic ones on a laptop or phone (or ones created by humans compared to real sounds). For instance, Heston knows the difference between manufactured sounds of dogs barking and real dogs barking for real on my laptop. Only your dog will be able to tell you.

    Making the intensity of the sight, sound or scent less is a very easy way to start at the lowest point of the gradient.
  6. Proximity. How close am I to Ms Knightley? I might be able to stomach being 500m away in a drive-in movie, but unable to cope with sitting on the front row at the National whilst she plays Portia. We use this all the time in training programmes. How far are you away from the scary/exciting thing? Distance is your friend. I’ve written about this at length here, so I’m not going to labour the point, but I always start with the baseline that my sixteen-year-old one-eyed girl can see a car 350m away and for some dogs, working at a proximity of 750m – 900m may be necessary at first. Most humans understand gradual exposure to scary/exciting stuff really well. What we don’t understand is the distance we might need to work at to start with. I find a lot of my clients have already started these kind of things and instinctively know “ok, my dog is fine at this distance, but as soon as we get here, they snap!”. It’s about understanding the nuances of those earlier signs in many cases and also about working further back. Most of my clients’ dogs are okay up to about 20 – 50m but some need to work further back if the other stimulus gradients are at the steep end. That’s to say if they’re too intense, if they’re too fast or slow to approach and disappear, if they’re too frequent, if the rate is too high etc.
  7. The topography of the trigger. How’s it moving? For Keira, if I see her suck her cheeks in and gawp, that sets my teeth on edge. I can feel my buttocks clench and my fists curl. The more she looks like Munch’s The Scream, the worse it is. So smiling is easier than pouting. That’s true of dogs too. Lidy can cope with dogs who ignore her. Can’t cope at all with dogs who posture – you know, who stand there looking all hard eyeballing her. So if dogs are eyeballing her, I want to make sure the other gradients are really mild – the dog is really far away, that it’s a really brief exposure. I saw this in the vet yesterday with Flika and a very statuesque streetie from Guadaloupe. Every time Flika looked at the dog, the dog growled. When we can see that slow behaviours or inoffensive behaviours are acceptable but fast or more challenging behaviours like hard postures or direct stares are an issue, then we can mess with that gradient too. Lidy copes with squatting humans. If you’re low, you’re okay. Stand up and WHAT the absolute Devil are you Doing?!! I think I’ve had at least twenty dogs on my books who couldn’t stand people looking at them. So work with that. Not looking at all > slight look vaguely towards > more direct looking > head turned towards, eyes shut > head turned towards, eyes lowered… You get the picture. Build up to the body language that your dog finds a challenge. Like a lot of dogs are okay with cats until those beggars move. So you want to start with still cats and then slow moving cats and then … (and always, always put the cat first – if it’s not okay for the cat, it’s not acceptable to use them as a training trigger).
  8. Locus. Where am I most likely to react to Ms Keira? If it’s easier to cope with her in the home than in a movie cinema, start there. Similarly, dogs can be very sensitive to do with place – they know when you’re turning up the road to the vet. So start far away from where you normally see the behaviour and get gradually closer to the scene of the crime.

So when you’re thinking of your dog’s problems, those triggers (or even your own!) it’s often easy to think about what sets it off. It’s not just about distance or duration.

If we’re just thinking about how near stuff is to us or how long we’re asking dogs to cope with it, we might be missing a trick.

Imagine fireworks, for instance. Sure, I can get far away and I can try with firework sounds on tape for very short periods. But I could also try having fewer fireworks on the tape at first, and building up to more in the same timespan, having progressively shorter gaps between the fireworks on the tape, having less loud fireworks on the tapes and building up to the screamers, or considering what specific type of firework sets my dog off. Thinking about subtleties of stimulus and planning a careful and gradual gradient

In the final post in this series, I’ll talk you through how all these posts fit together to give you everything you need to help your dog problems – be it pulling on the lead, reacting to the doorbell or barking at construction workers outside your dog.


I’ve got a confession to make. I talk about threshold all the time. I can’t think of a training session I’ve done where I’ve not talked about threshold in the last four years. And yet, I know I talk about it as if it’s just self-evident, when I know it’s not.

When we’re working to habituate, socialise, desensitise or countercondition our dogs to various things in the environment, we’re looking for an optimal training level. A teaching zone. There’s zero learning going on if our dogs don’t even notice the things we’re supposed to be exposing them to and yet at the same time, we don’t want to tip them over the edge. Before you start reading, I also need to confess that I’m intending this to be a full primer on threshold, so get yourself comfortable or break this up into small doses. I didn’t want four or five posts all on the same topic, so it’s all in here. I make no apologies, but don’t feel you have to digest in one sitting.

It’s easiest to think of threshold on a spectrum like the one below. Green would be that state where everything is fine and you’re humming along happily through life without any stuff to bother you. You start to move to yellow when you’ve seen something that excites you or frightens you or you’ve noticed it and you’re coping with it. There comes a threshold – and that may be related to closeness or length of time you’re exposed to it – and other stuff as well that I’ll talk about next week – but at some point, we’ll start feeling uncomfortable or stressed, or on the contrary, excited and over-aroused.

So you might be freaked out by scary clowns… it’s normal. You might just about cope with seeing a tiny picture on a screen on the other side of the room… and then not be able to cope with Pennywise up close and personal. There’s a threshold at which you go from coping to not being able to cope at all.

The same is true for dogs. Imagine your dog has a thing about other dogs…

There are subtleties to the not coping at all – it’s not just all about how near or far a thing is from you, but I’ll explore those in the next post when we’re looking at those exciting things known as stimulus gradients. For now, I’m sticking with simple as this is probably the most common scenario that many of us know.

Some of our dogs may have a very low threshold. These are the hair trigger dogs like my own dog Lidy. She’s going into that red zone within microseconds. She’s not only super-sensitive to things but she’s also got a very narrow green-yellow bit.

She sees the scary thing, she is supersensitised to the scary thing and she goes right into biting. Or, at least this was her when I first met her. I’ll tell you about how we can mess with these thresholds later.

Other dogs may be sensitive to certain things. Heston is sensitive to people running towards us. He notices them quickly. But he takes a really long time to escalate through behaviours. So we start with a “I’ve seen them” and it takes a really long time for him to build up into grrrs and then a really long time for him to build up into barking.

Except this morning. He yipped at a person getting out of a car next door. We’d just left for a walk and he was already very excited already. You see, these spectrums are SO not set in stone. Trigger stacking and flashpoints play a crucial role.

But that’s what dog trainers are talking about when they talk about reactivity and thresholds and even red zones.

When you know that spectrum though – even for those exceptional moments like this morning – you can find the teaching zone.

The teaching zone is that period from noticing the stuff and then throwing out ‘loud’ behaviours like growling, barking, airsnapping and biting as well as those other fear responses such as trembling, cowering, trying to escape and so on. You’re always working sub-threshold in that ideal little ground between “Seen It – Coping “and “Woah, not so fast there Buster!”

It’s that sweet spot between noticing things (and remember, that can be scents and sounds too) and being hijacked by emotions or predictable behaviour patterns. You should always be working where a dog can be distracted and is still able to switch their big brain on rather than just getting carried along on a tidal wave of emotion.

It can be really hard to find that sweet spot and stay in it. But when you find it, for reasons I’m about to explore, you will make amazing progress. Where you will make less effective progress, especially if you want the dog to listen to you and follow cues like ‘Watch Me’ or ‘Look At That!’ as we looked at last week in the two taught behaviours every reactive dog owner should know. It’s less bad to be a bit orangey if you’re still using counterconditioning. But you may find that your dog is not even interested in food, for reasons I’m about to explain. If you’re working on desensitisation, though, ALL the exposures should be in that teaching zone. If they’re not, and especially if you have your dog on a lead or in a small enclosed space, then you run the risk of flooding them. The only thing they’re learning there is to suppress their behaviours or practising existing ones until they’re really good at them. There are a lot of dogs who’ve had a lot of practice at barking or growling.

What I wanted to do today is talk about that threshold from the bottom up. Neurons to Biting. Neurobiology to Barking. Anatomy to Escaping. Threshold means different things you see depending on who you are, but they kind of all sit together in the end. If you’re a neurologist studying action potentials, threshold means something different to you. If you’re an endocrinologist studying the threshold for activation of the sympathetic nervous system, then threshold means something different to you too.

For those little grey cells, they need a bit of stimulation to make them fire. The firing is called an action potential, and cells have a threshold at which a stimulus will make them fire.

From: Moleculardevices .com

In order to fire, our neurons in our brain need stimulation. That can be so many things, of course, but could include sensory stimulation for sure.

Lidy’s nose recognises a cat is in the neighbourhood. Her eyes confirm it with a visual. They send electrical and then chemical impulses to various parts of the brain, not least the dopaminergic system of her ventral tegmental area, the reward and learning centre of her brain that says, “Now would be a really good time to chase that cat!”

The first threshold is at a neural level. Every neuron needs a certain level of excitement to get it to send a signal to its friends. Whether that’s an electrical communication like we find in the eye, or a chemical communication like we find with things like serotonin and dopamine, neurons are pretty much sitting around doing their own thing automatically until something excites them. Psychiatrist John Ratey says it’s a bit like the staff in a department store. Just because it’s not open for business doesn’t mean all the staff aren’t working, but as soon as someone walks in, some of the staff will notice you and start to change their behaviour. I like that notion that neurons are just kind of doing stuff right up until that moment when something appears to change their normal routines.

So that’s the first threshold – the level of stimulation needed to make your neurons start firing. If you’ve not seen the excellent Hank Green explaining action potentials for the Crash Course series, you can find it here. Definitely worth a watch if you want to start understanding thresholds at a neural level.

Around 2.10, he says something that is hugely familiar to most dog trainers, and most owners of reactive dogs: “it just needs an event to trigger the action”… same for the whole animal as it is for a neuron. You’ll see also later that he talks about a threshold that action potentials need to be triggered (oh, another word dog trainers know!) and boom, a signal is sent.

As Hank Green explains, a weak stimulus (oh, more words dog trainers know!) might not set off very frequent action potentials, whereas a strong stimulus sets off intense action potentials. As dog trainers and as their guardians, what we’re doing when we’re working below threshold is working with weak stimuli that are not setting off frequent messages to the rest of the brain in a “hello, boys!” kind of a way.

Green also talks about myelin sheaths that coat the axons turning them into supereffective and efficient neural pathways: myelination we know is a process that takes place during early socialisation (only weeks for puppies) meaning that some neurons are hardwired to send action potentials down routes our dogs learned long ago. That means good socialisation and habituation is vital for puppies – a post for another time, for sure.

But neural connections – and a massive oversimplification from someone clearly an interested laywoman not a neuroscientist – work on a “Use it Or Lose it” kind of process. If you don’t use it early in life, then the brain just trims the connections and neurons die a lonely, unused death. And if you don’t keep using it, the same. However, the more you use it, especially in those critical periods as our puppies grow up, those neural pathways become superhighways insulated with myelin making those signals superefficient. The brain even pushes certain actions down into automatic behaviour. Like you don’t still have to think about Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre every time you drive the car, and all that effort you put in to learn to ride your bike gets pushed into automaticity. You just do it. That said, if you leave it 20 years between your first tentative experiences of driving, you’re probably not going to want to get in on the Le Mans 24 hour race or try to navigate Milan in rush hour. Automaticity can get rusty. If our dogs learn early enough that barking puts people off coming any closer, and it’s myelinated not long after, as well as repeated, what you’ve got there is a bunch of neurons that are not only sensitised to that particular stimulus or trigger, but also really, really efficient at doing it. But if their early learning was only superficial and they never really learned to cope, then it may not be as automatic or well learnt as you assume.

Puppyhood and early learning count very much indeed, and habits are really tough to break, especially if you learned them at an early age and you’ve had history of practising them. This is why knitting came back easily to me after a twenty year hiatus, but learning to crochet was like learning Ancient Greek because I’d never done it before. Sure, I didn’t start off knitting complex things, but gradually easing myself into it got me on to multiple thread, double pointed needles kind of stuff in no time at all. Whereas I’d never learned crochet at all. No wonder it was hard. Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.

It all means that our neural pathways can become more efficient or less efficient, can give way to automatic reactions rather than thoughtful conscious actions, and can also become sensitised.

Our thresholds for brain activity change, become more sensitive or even die off. The action potential threshold might not change, but when you’ve got a bunch of neurons firing really quickly, other bits of the brain listen – especially, and this is so important, when it’s the amygdala that’s shouting it. You know, those almond-shaped bits that are in charge of fear learning. The amygdala shouts really loudly to the hippocampus, in charge of the nervous system. When you’ve got a sensitised amygdala, your threshold for reaction is much lower.

We see this all the time with our dogs, how they become more sensitive to certain events. Especially if these events happen in puppyhood, our dogs learn quickly and easily and that myelin sheath lays down insulation so that it’s even easier for the brain to send messages from one part to another.

Triggering the threshold of a dog (and a human) works, then, at a neural level.

It also works at a behavioural level. At first, signals are weaker. Like me, when my brother harasses me. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it! Stop it!! Pack it in!! STOP it!!!! STOPPPPP ITTTT!!! And then the knives come out….

There will be a threshold at which whatever irritating, annoying thing he is doing will trigger me to say “Stop it!” and the more he does it, the more sensitive I’ll get. Plus, I’ll learn that “Stop it!” doesn’t work and I need to stab him with a fork much earlier, since that’s effective.

For our reactive dogs, that’s the same. And just as some people are very tolerant of aggravation, and some are set on a hair trigger, the same is true with dogs. That threshold – the stimulation you need to set you off – will be higher or lower depending on loads of factors. And each trigger – or type of trigger – is different. I’m super tolerant of children and animals. Very, very intolerant of grown ups. I’m also bound by social conventions, just as dogs can be, and I’ll give warnings before I explode.

That’s essentially what threshold is, from the neurons upwards: the level of excitatory stimulation I need before I react. Complicated as it is, that’s why my dog Flika needs a certain volume of low-flying aircraft before she needs to bark at it, why Heston needs a certain proximity of people to the property before he needs to bark at it, and why Lidy has five hundred triggers for her super-sensitive neural networks.

Impulses – like my desire to stab my brother with a fork – can be mitigated and suppressed by punishers, like my parents hanging around. Also by social convention that says you shouldn’t stab your brother with a fork. Also by cognitive processing and rationalising that says although it would be fun to stab him with a fork for teasing me, that in actual fact, it would be a very inefficient way of getting him to stop and I’m likely to look like a crazy woman. Those things alter our thresholds too.

Dogs have things that mitigate their impulses too. Just like us, good socialisation can help us learn how to deal with grievance without stabbing people with forks. Rules and restrictions can be inculcated just as they are when we teach dogs not to bite us or that it’s not acceptable to draw blood and so on. Lack of practice can help neurons die off. Habituation and habit building create other patterns of behaviour that we learn are very effective, like telling Mum that the brother could do with some Time Out, thank you very much.

Pain also affects thresholds for reaction – you know yourself if you’re having a bad day, you’re more likely to be reactive to stuff that doesn’t normally trigger you.

Collective triggers can also push you over the edge. You know this too if you’ve been working all week and you’ve had to cope with innumerable stressors. Trigger-stacking 101.

Hunger, lack of sleep and other basic physiological needs can also make that threshold more sensitive to triggers. Basically, the whole system is set up to make us more sensitive, not less.

But essentially, those triggered action potentials are not very much of a problem for us unless they trip the autonomic nervous system.

I’m sure you remember the autonomic nervous system from high school biology. Those automatic actions our bodies just get on with, kind of like the software humming beneath the surface of your laptop or phone that just happen in the background. Virus checking and temperature monitoring and input analysis. And if something should trip that parasympathetic nervous system from rest-and-digest, feed-and-breed, then we’re into life-or-death sympathetic nervous system stuff. You know, pulses racing, digestion stops, lung capacity changes, large muscles gear up for flight or fight. This fight-or-flight response is well known (and don’t forget flirting and fidgeting for dogs too, especially if you have social dogs who may be using these behaviours to signal their discomfort). That trigger – the switch from parasympathetic to sympathetic – is what OUR threshold in dog training is all about. Not triggering emotional responses that demonstrate the dog’s sympathetic nervous system is at work.

Hank Green gives another really useful explanation of the autonomic nervous system here:

And the bit you’re really interested in NOT triggering… the sympathetic nervous system.

It’s just useful to bear in mind that when that threat system is triggered, digestion is not the primary focus. That’s a sensible reason to keep under threshold when we’re training with food. Don’t forget too that things like twisted stomachs can be linked to stress and the engaged sympathetic system – that food isn’t being digested; it’s just sitting there if your dog is even eating at all. I know a couple of dogs who’ve had stomach torsions as a result of eating big meals too close to their sympathetic nervous system having been triggered by things like grooming or vet trips. You should be alright with small pieces of highly digestible food, but even so, it’s a stark reminder of why we need to stay under threshold. As Green says, the frequent triggering of the stress response can have nasty consequences. That’s not just for people, but for dogs too. If your aim is that they get used to or habituate to stressors and triggers and stimuli – whatever name you’re sticking on them – then keeping putting them into stressful situations can cause all sorts of health complications. Cushings dogs are another type of dog who definitely don’t need the cortisol of a stress response, thank you very much. But you don’t have to be a deep-chested dog or a dog with Cushings to suffer the consequences of triggering repeated stress responses. Another reason why we need to stay in the safe zone under threshold.

If your food isn’t working and your dog is normally pretty food motivated, then you may want to work out if you’re too far over threshold or not. Clue: you probably are, and it’s not just going to hurt your ability to train your dog, who is in fight-or-flight mode, or ready to chase some small critter, but you also may run the risk of long-term health fallout. A small amount of positive stimulation is good; a prolonged or acute amount of negative stressors is incredibly bad.

For most of our dogs, we just don’t realise that they’re close to threshold. We miss the quiet signalling and the occasional behaviours. We miss the lip licks and the shoulder turns and the yawns and the eye contact. We only listen to the shouty, arsey behaviou

Here’s a video of the Baby-faced Killer, Miss Lidy La Moo, playing with Heston. Or attempting to. Let’s look at those various behaviours and discuss thresholds a little.

I usually don’t let her attempts to engage him go on this long. He doesn’t like it. I shall tell you why. Not loads of signalling, but he doesn’t reciprocate. He’s just tolerating her. There’s a couple of moments of whites of eyes and a little lip licking, a few looks to me to reassure him that I’ll step in. He stands and there are very few bodily parts involved.

The more she pushes, the more muscles and limbs are involved. At first, it’s just his ears flat back, a bit of turning away, a bit of a lip lick, a shift in body weight. Single body parts, small movements, quiet communication. Then he steps in as she moved away. More body parts, bigger movements, louder communication. Another lip lick. Some concerned whites of eyes. Not sure if her scratch is displacement or a real scratch as she had a bit of an itch at the same spot earlier off video.

Around 20 seconds, he neatly steps away. There’s some amazing and incredibly subtle communication after that. She stands, he looks at her, her tail position drops from big old rudder tail to slower, lower less offensive wagging, That little twitch of her ears before she pounces on him… so subtle. Single body parts and quiet communication. She then forces him into moving because her behaviour gets bigger, forcing him off his spot, involving all those body parts. Bigger behaviours. She triggers his threshold for movement with that little head going to his manly undercarriage (oh, that’s what makes the big black dog move, Lidy may realise!) and a behaviour has been made to happen – not unlike my little brother keeping up with low level tormenting until he gets what he really wants – the Emma Explosion. Small to big, single body parts to whole body, quiet to noisy.

This, of course, is just something fairly innocuous. I don’t let her keep pushing him because it never ends well. But recognising all those little signs are absolutely vital. Know what your dog looks like at the bottom end of the spectrum. We focus too much on the top. I can’t begin to tell you how many clients have wanted me to “see” their dog reacting. I promise you I know what barky, growly or bitey dogs look like, as well as dogs who are afraid. What I want to see is what do they look like when they’re not reacting and what behaviour marks that change that the neurons are starting to get excited and what marks the moments before your dog will have an emotional reactions. Really, in my opinion, we focus far too much on what our dogs look like when reacting and we’re not thinking about those moments when they’re figuring out whether they need to or not.

Knowing the way your dog looks when they’re in that ‘teaching zone’ – ie they know the scary/fun stuff is there but the big brain is still switched on and they’ve not tripped the fight-flight-flirt-fidget sympathetic nervous system – is essential. This photo is exactly that.

This is Heston’s teaching zone behaviour: still, head and eyes looking at the thing (in this case a departing dog and his minders). Ears alert, head following, mouth open, is vital. In that teaching zone, you’ve got a tiny teachable moment when your dog is still deciding what to do about stuff.

Here, you can see Lidy move from green zone – just scoping – to yellow. Ha-ha. Noticed you! Mouth closed. Head pointing in the direction of the stimulus. Even for my dog with the tiny, tiny teaching zone, there still IS a teaching zone. And by keeping within it, over time it has – miracle of miracles! – got bigger. She moved from yellow to biting as quickly as you or I might move if faced by Pennywise. Seen You – Bite You. Now there is a teensy tiny reflective moment between Seen You and the next bit. A tiny moment where decisions are made. Growls sometimes come out. You don’t know how glad I was to hear those teensy growls! Sometimes she does barks now. Lidy is literally learning the stuff in between green and red behaviours.

Dr Kendal Shepherd’s very useful ladder of aggression is a good tool to see those behaviours in a gradient:

Kendal Shepherd Ladder of Aggression

It can be tough for us to recognise those low level behaviours and I’m yet to be convinced that they happen in a continuum, but I think they’re absolutely bang on in terms of the seriousness of the level of stress they communicate, even if I think they don’t follow on from one another. You can see in the video those tiny microcommunications Heston gives, the lip lick, the turning away. There are loads and loads of other useful signals you can find on Silent Conversations

So with Lidy, I’m just filling in the blanks and stretching out the yellow bits, shrinking the red. It’s not easy and it’s not fast, but I didn’t adopt her thinking it would be.

Case in hand: I had to go away briefly recently and I needed to depend on a very lovely friend to look after Lidy. They’d met once for a test on site and things went swimmingly. The day I was dropping Lidy off, I took off her lead – and she went bombing over to my friend as if to do a full-on Malinois take-down. My amazing friend crouched, made nonthreatening and did a mammoth “well, Lidy! How are you?!” and defused that bomb in the time it takes a Malinois to go 10m at full pelt. You know when you see superheroes change in mid-air? My little Jekyll and Hyde girl went from Hyde to Jekyll within that 10m run. The fact that she can even change from one tactic to another at hyperspeed is testament to how far she’s come. At the same time, it’s also an example of how hair-trigger some dogs can be. But also how you can work on that. What you end up with – eventually – is a much bigger teaching zone and being able to move those red zones back to much less sensitive yellow and green zones. Said friend reminded me about PTSD last night too, and it really does make me wonder if I need to reframe Lidy’s behaviour a little. I’m glad to be able to offer you her story though as I know it’s very easy for trainers to talk the talk with their purpose-bred, carefully reared showdogs and agility dogs. I’m walking the walk, I promise. Her journey has been an education for both of us. But it makes a difference when people can send you photos of your chilled out dog having an absolute blast with someone who is not you. Learning to love humans is not easy, but she does have a good number of friends among the staff and volunteers of the refuge where she lived for 3 years.

Her world will always be a small one. She is never going to be able to cope with all of life’s triggers. Her green zone will always be small. That’s fine. Unless you are a fine and robust person yourself, you probably can’t either. Spiders, scary clowns, flying, public speaking… there’s probably something in there that does it for you. I’m a pretty robust person myself but I can’t stop myself being creeped out by ants crawling on me, by spider webs and by bats. And I love all creatures. Expecting Lidy to cope like an assistance dog bred specifically not to have that very tiny green bit of the spectrum is too much of an ask.

Despite that, a number of clients start off with the notion that they can turn their nervous Nelly or their bitey Betty into a dog who will cope with all triggers and whose threshold will never be tripped. A dog with a huge green zone. One of the most important things I can say about that is to reassess what your dog is capable of.

The other is to remember that these behaviours serve a purpose for our dogs. Sure, I don’t want Heston to bark at joggers. We’ve moved that threshold very nicely and made that teaching zone so very, very large to the point that it’s almost a non-issue.

At the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, if the jogger turns out to be a purse-snatcher and for Heston to bark and make them think twice about stealing his handbag. Or mine. Heston seems to be of the opinion most joggers might do this if you don’t keep an eye on them. But I’m happy it’s just a watchful interest rather than dressing down people breaking into a sweat some 200m away. Do I need him to be able to cope with the London Marathon? Nope. Not in this lifetime.

So let’s be kind to our dogs when we think about their triggers and their thresholds. Let’s be realistic.

Let’s also remember that engaging in desensitisation and counterconditioning should be below threshold but that you’re still asking your dog to do stuff that ultimately wouldn’t be their choice.

YOU may know that the long term goal is a net gain where feeling good is concerned, but what mostly feels good to scared dogs is stuff being far away, and what feels good to dogs who like chasing is doing exactly that.

We’re asking them to change their behaviour without them understanding that they may be able to lead a more full life that may be infinitely pleasurable. You know that. They don’t. They didn’t sign up for this, to have to you take the fun out of chasing sheep or to have to take the safety out of scary stuff being kept far away. So we need to remember to do it in the most innocuous ways we can – for their sake.

And let’s remember that we may have to compromise. I won’t take Heston to the London Marathon and he promises not to bark at the occasional jogger. I won’t expect Lidy to be a social butterfly when “Us” being Good and “Them” being Bad is part of her very dodgy DNA that her former owner did absolutely nothing to address that in her early life. And I promise that she doesn’t have to learn to cope with people who don’t really understand dogs – even if they like them. I promise nobody will hurt her. And that means accepting she needs a much smaller, safer life than I would really want for a dog. In turn, she’s learning to put trust in me that the world I offer her is a safe one. It means I need to accept that green comfort zone may always be relatively small compared to the average spaniel’s and will be minuscule compared to a super socialised labrador. And that is perfectly acceptable.

If you’re VERY interested in neurons, sympathetic nervous systems, triggers and learning, the eminent Robert Sapolsky is well worth 90 minutes of your time. I think I’m responsible for at least 100 of the watch count on this video.

Next week: stimulus gradients – what they are and how they can help you train your dog.

two skills every reactive dog owner should know

Over the last four posts, I’ve introduced you to the concepts of habituation, desensitisation and counter-conditioning. You’ve also had a proviso about flooding.

The limits of counter-conditioning are well-known. One of the limits is that you pretty much need to be doing counter-conditioning all the time to keep the pairing strong. Especially with emotionally salient stuff. You know, the things that make your dog fearful, reactive, agitated, annoyed.

Back to Ms. Knightley.

You remember me saying that if I wanted to get over my learned aversion to Keira Knightley, I’d need something good to reliably follow any sightings of the poker-faced one?

You remember me saying that the pairing needs to be reliable and proximal? That it needs to be a predictable vending machine that delivered within seconds of seeing her?

You also remember me saying that it needs to be gradual and planned? I need to start with a quick photograph of her looking her least offensive (to me)

So smiley Knightley at a level I’m comfortable with, so the full-on grrrr response isn’t prompted, building up gradually to po-faced Keira, building up to a few seconds of Bend it like Beckham before building up to a few minutes of said film, before paring back to a few seconds of something mildly more likely to set off my puckered lips and clenched fists and only – only then – a few seconds, then minutes, then hours of Anna Karenina.

Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to build up to Pride & Prejudice but we have to know our limitations.

And systematic desensitisation programmes (like the gradual exposure I described to Mademoiselle Pouty Face) coupled with counter-conditioning programmes ( like reaching for a bit of chocolate) work. They work. No two ways about it. Next week, I’m going to give you some ways to make them work better. But they work. That’s the best thing about them. Slow and steady they may be. Magic bullets and panaceas they are not. But they work.

However, counter-conditioning relies on the pairing. It relies on Ms Knightly always being paired up with something yummy. And if she’s not? I’ll soon find myself avoiding her films or grimacing every time I see her. This is why we do need to revisit our dogs’ bêtes noires. In other words, don’t expect your dog to keep remembering the sudden appearance of scary stuff like cars and bikes and joggers and people and other dogs and men in flak jackets is a good thing unless you keep that pairing relatively fresh.

This is where we need trained behaviours. It’s also why trained behaviours don’t work if you haven’t done the emotional bit yet. I see so many people trying to train dogs when the dog isn’t able to cope with the situation. I don’t think humans should be judgey about animals not being able to cope. Try teaching 7-year-olds on a snow day (or a rainy day, or a windy day, or when it’s too hot, or when it’s too cold, or when there’s a bee in the classroom) and you’ll see humans aren’t much better. If you can’t manage being hungry without getting angry at people, don’t expect your dog to be able to cope with scary stuff and still remember how to sit.

The brain works on a first-come, first-served kind of basis. Brain stem stuff first. All the automatic stuff like temperature regulation and balance and being able to run if you see a car hurtling towards you. Then the limbic system – the emotional system. Finally, the outer bits, the rational stuff like executive function and rational behaviour and cognition and all that marvellous thinking that says , “No, silly! The postman doesn’t want to kill you!”

Until you’ve dealt with the emotional stuff, your obedience training will go to hell in a handbasket if you keep placing your dog in situations where they can’t cope.

“But he just won’t listen!” is more “But he just can’t listen!”

The big brain switches off in fight-or-flight mode because what use is the ability to perform advanced trigonometry if you’re being faced down by a rampant highway killer in a truck like the madman in Duel?

It’s not any different for dogs with their scary stuff – or their exciting stuff – or stuff that just takes their last bit of ability to cope. It’s literally a matter of life-or-death. That big brain thinking like learning and inhibition and rules and sits and not pulling on the lead just gets lost in the shouty amygdala saying, “What the actual F&$# is that? Bark, you muppet, before it thinks you’re afraid!”

What I advise my clients to do is train two behaviours: an L-turn and a U-turn. An L-turn is a 90° turn and a U-turn is a 180° turn.

Part of the problem is facing things head on. Dogs generally don’t, unless we make them. A scary-looking thing coming towards you straight on can only mean one thing: attack. I mean, you know this, right? A strange bull or a bear starts moving towards you in a straight line and you don’t think they’re coming in for kisses, do you?

But humans are strange in our fusion-fission behaviour and our ability not to fight with all the strangers we meet. And also to move in straight lines towards other members of our species. We split up, we come together. We split up, we come together. We manage crowds of thousands of people without bopping them on the nose or causing aggravation. We’ve forgotten what walking up to someone straight on feels like to other animals. In fact, if we did like other animals and took our time or stood our ground or hid, then people would think we were very weird indeed. We forget that strangers moving in a direct line towards us probably have the worst intentions. Until, that is, a bull starts running towards us. Then we remember somewhere back in our primal brain that this Not A Good Thing.

We’d never see most animals being able to do this for example:

I mean all that walking confrontationally up to one another is beyond the scope of most other animals we share the planet with. Especially in these numbers and keeping our cool like Morpheus. But most people aren’t ready to understand that yet.

L-turns help you get out of the way, particularly if U-turns are not an option, or if you just want to politely let stuff past that doesn’t have bad intentions. You turn to the side, you get out of the way and you wait until they’ve gone past before resuming.

U-turns can be temporary or they can be permanent. Only humans think stubbornly that we absolutely must get past by going head-to-head and we can’t possibly take a couple of minutes to make the situation a little easier. Teaching your dog L-turns so you can get out of the way temporarily, or U-turns so that you can move away completely, are really useful. L-turns tend to be shorter – just a few paces out of the way of the scary oncoming stuff. You can add a sit or a stand or a watch me or something else if you like. The more reactive your dog and the less training and practice you’ve done, the further that L-turn will need to be. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your L might only be a metre or so out of the way of oncoming stuff.

A u-turn might be much longer or bigger. It might just be a way to get you into safety. U-turns are also good practice for loose-lead walking too.

A hand touch or watch me are really helpful when you’re changing direction. You can use these to move your dog and to prompt a turn to the side or a u-turn. You can also teach a ‘Let’s go!’ and do that as either a 90° turn or a 180° turn.

You can see me playing around with Lidy here, using touch to keep her at my side and to change her direction on the move. You can see me stringing together three touches for one treat as we’ve been moving away from 100% reinforcement, which is why we’re practising in a small space. Really, it’s just all about engaging with me and moving around me. A “middle” can also be a fun behaviour if your dog likes doing it – Lidy does, which is why I gave her food for doing it unprompted. I like her throwing out behaviours sometimes – it lets me know the things she likes doing or finds reinforcing. You’ll also see her avoid my hand twice when I don’t cue her with “touch” – that’s purposeful too. We’re just playing around here whilst I was making a drink. 2 or 3 times a day, we do a short two-minute burst in various places around the house. We’re sloppy – it’s fine. We’re not in robot mode.

You can also use a hand touch then to prompt a “Let’s go!” like this video here.

You start teaching these in the comfort of your own home, in the kitchen or living room, in a safe space like I was doing with Lidy. Then you add a bit of challenge, taking it to the next safest space, using leads if necessary. Planning in your training so that you’ve practised these a gazillion times in a gazillion gradually more complicated situations is vital.

What also helps is finding screens. Screens are things that just disrupt or break up the whole “I’m coming for you!” head-on walk.

Today, I got to use both the L-turn and the U-turn in real life. No barking, no lunges, no pulling, no dogs overwhelmed, no shouting, no frustration, no eyeballing. I didn’t end up being dragged along and my dogs didn’t show me up. Hoorah.

Let me tell you how it happened…

So the wheat and corn fields have just been harvested round my way, so we have miles and miles of farm tracks and empty fields. Usually, walks are pretty uneventful on the one I chose – little wildlife, no cows, no traffic, no dogs, no people. Today, the world and his wife decided to take advantage of the sunshine and cool temperatures.

So, the scenario. 550m farm track with an empty field on one side and a fenced field on the other. I’m walking my two dogs – 55kg between them and more than enough to pull me over. One is fine with other dogs but she’s less tolerant of poor greetings with unfamiliar dogs as she ages as her old bones are leaving her grumpy. The other is super-excited to see other dogs, also compounded by shepherdy genes (in-group, good; out-group, bad) and some territorial behaviour and also by my own lack of proper experience when he was young. We are what we are. Mostly okay. Probably as sloppy and casual as the video with Lidy – fine for us both. We’re not machines.

We were about 150m up the track when I saw a couple with an off-lead dog turn onto the track from the top end, heading towards us. They were about 400m away at that point. I see the couple walk on about 100m or so, and I’ve tentatively done the same. The path is about 2m wide, max. Also, we’re all still social distancing and I don’t have a mask. There’s no real sense of anything at all to screen us. I can’t get into one field because of the barbed wire. The other field is just stubble. If I turn around and walk back, Flika will struggle. We’re already walking at about 2.5km/hr for those old bones. She also hates u-turns with a passion. No doubt the people will catch us up and I’ll have added another half kilometre on to our walk if I back up to the safest passing point. If we can even get there before they catch us.

So I decide to make for a small hay bale. It’s just off the path, about 4 or 5m or so. It’s not going to block the dogs off from each other completely, but it means I avoid 150m of collective eyeballing and posturing and discomfort. I can see the couple are agitated and slowing, speeding up – you can see them making the same decisions I am. Are these dogs safe to pass?

Heston, Flika and I have a “Let’s Go!” and we make an L onto the stubble.

We veer off into the empty field, and I use the hay bale to break up the arrival of the other dog a little.

It’s not massively off the path – just enough. I’m not avoiding the other dog, just letting them pass. The hay bale is low but breaks up the sight-line. It’s enough. Heston is so used to this process that he automatically goes into “Look At That!” mode as soon as I say “Where’s the dog?”

We watch the dog go past – a very fine malinois, which I feel obliged to add just because you know my feelings about these mighty dogs – and his owners are relaxed, their dog is relaxed, Heston is relaxed, I’m relaxed. Flika doesn’t even notice there is a dog.

And they walk off down the track.

Just one example of using a number of taught behaviours to help manage a potentially tricky situation. I don’t know those lovely, polite people and their very handsome boy, but from their stop-starting, I reckon they felt like I did.

That L-turn along with a couple of other taught behaviours are perfectly possible when dogs aren’t overwhelmed by emotion and when it also promotes safety and good canine communication. My two immediately went back to much nicer ways of gathering information about strange dogs: sniffing where they’ve been.

What I knew, though, was that we were on a circuit. I was going anticlockwise and they were going clockwise. We had another passing to get through. I knew, too, that it was going to happen on a blind bend. Because, sod’s law, of course it was. No matter how slow or fast I went, or how slow or fast they went, that blind bend was inevitably going to be our Waterloo.

I knew it was coming though, so I started practising Heston’s heeling, got us to a space where I could do a U-turn and they could pass safely, and all the dogs and all the people escaped without pulses being raised. Of course it happened on the blind bend. But because I knew it was coming, all the shepherdy shoutings and bargings and inappropriate greetings were nicely avoided.

L-turns and U-turns using hand touches or other focused behaviours can be a real life saver. Teaching other things like watch, engage-disengage or “Look at That!” alongside are the most useful life skills your dog can possess if the world freaks them out. Remembering that everything moving in a straight line towards you probably feels like Keira Knightley riding an angry bull as far as your dog is concerned can really help. Some dogs deal with this by flirting and fidgeting, or by over-the-top friendly behaviours (Flika normally does). Some dogs deal with this by feeling like they want to run away. Not so easy on a lead. Other dogs like to shout and engage in a bit of noisy, big behaviour to say “Go away! I Mean Business You Big Scary Things!”

Giving them the ability to step off the track, to get out of the way, to find safety is vital. Not easy to do in places where dogs are not on leads. Some of our French hunting dogs pop up from time to time, but in general their social skills are so refined and they meet so many dogs that they don’t engage in poor behaviours. They’ve been bred for fusion-fission, as have some gundogs. Hence, the off-lead viszla we often run into is happy to just keep barrelling past us as long as we step out of her way. We’re just doing our thing. She carries on doing hers.

I know, however, that there are far too many people who let their dogs off-lead who would run up to other dogs, particularly those on leads, and honestly, I avoid places where people do this. Parks and beaches are not my scene. If you’ve got a reactive dog and you’re trying to work with them when dogs keep running up to them, then your progress will be much, much slower. Your dog may eventually be able to cope with this nasty habit eventually – both Heston and Flika can if I don’t ask it of them all the time and the dog is flirting/over-friendly rather than aggressive – but don’t expect them to be able to do it when they’re still a novice.

I’ve found these L and U turns can actually resolve a lot of problems with other dogs running up to us as well. Once dogs see that you’re not interested and you’re walking away or you’re not even engaging with them, a good number of well-socialised dogs will take that as their cue to disengage. I don’t like putting it to the test, but where I have, the whole process has worked really nicely. I find places with occasional traffic to be much more likely to have dogs on lead rather than off, as well. Roads are your friend. You may need to do some work around moving vehicles first, but that opens up a whole load of options for you.

Moving to learning like this, where you ask for a behaviour, like “Let’s go!” and where your dog’s big brain is still maintaining a modicum of control over the emotional bits means also you can switch to a less food-heavy schedule, or that you can start to use safety and distance as reinforcers as well. Two crossings today cost me 10 biscuits for 2 dogs.

How to teach a hand touch:

How to teach watch me:

I confess, there were a lot of kissy noises this morning!

How to teach Look at That:

Teaching turns and pivots can also really help

Just remember to teach these behaviours at home, in the garden, in quiet places, in non-challenging areas and then in areas of increasing complexity. What you don’t want is your dog realising that treats and training only happen when the scary stuff is present, as it can become a massive cue that the scary stuff is about to arrive. I only used ten biscuits on this training because we practised a bunch of other stuff on our walk too.

I guess what it boils down to is avoiding head-on confrontations when you can’t 100% guarantee that both dogs can cope with it. Teaching behaviours you want to see when this happens – like L-turns and U-turns – needs to happen out of context and a very large number of times if you want it to be reliable out in the real world. Do those two things and you’ll find your dogs can cope with whatever the world throws at them.

If you’re really stuck, find a good force-free trainer to help you with these behaviours. You will probably find Grisha Stewart’s excellent Behaviour Adjustment Training 2.0 an absolute must-buy. If you’re looking for something more involved and you’re fairly comfortable training your dog yourself, the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has two courses by the most excellent Amy Cook: Dealing
with the Bogeyman, and Management for Reactive Dogs. Whenever I’m working with reactive dogs, I’m not doing much differently than these. Amy has some particularly nice videos on her course for L-turns and U-turns as well as a whole load of other taught skills that are super helpful for people who have really challenging dogs.

Next week, I’ll be looking at stimulus gradients – ways to make learning easier for your dog.


So in the last three posts, I’ve been looking at three key concepts for dog guardians: habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning. Today I’m going to talk about flooding, which can be an accidental by-product of all three.

Let’s get into what flooding is exactly and make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. What do I mean when I talk about flooding? First, I want to talk about what it is and what it isn’t, and then we’ll consider the ethics and the fallout of it once we’re all clear on what flooding is in psychology.

Flooding is the deliberate exposure to inescapable negatively conditioned stimuli at a strength that elicits the full emotional response. So that’s a textbook definition.

First off, flooding is purposeful and deliberate. I do think there are accidental moments when we’re flooding our dogs, but I’ll come back to that distinction later. It’s also to things that the dog thinks are aversive, unpleasant, even frightening, painful or scary – that’s the negatively conditioned stimuli bit.

And it is also at full strength.

Let me just focus on that word inescapable, because it’s crucial. The dog cannot escape. Either they’re in a confined space or they’re trapped. They’re on a leash or behind a gate. It may also be inescapable without a confined space or being on a leash because of the caregiver bond. We sometimes use our dogs’ trust in us and put them in situations that they could escape from but they just don’t, because, well, it’s us.

There’s a bit of a myth in the dog training world that if you’re habituating a dog to an experience, or even if you’re desensitising them, then if you accidentally go over their threshold, you’re flooding them. Well, this may or may not be true: it depends on whether or not the dog can get away.

As soon as we enclose a dog in a space or we get the leashes out, though, we’re in potential flooding territory. Flooding is about removing choice. It’s about removing consent.

I’ve heard several voices in the dog training community discuss flooding in human terms, and you know I like to give you human examples. In this case, I can’t, as it would be completely unethical to deliberately expose someone to things they are afraid of. Now some therapies in the past, such as conversion therapies for homosexuality or aversion therapies have deliberately exposed someone to inescapable shock or nausea-inducing drugs paired up with homoerotic images in attempts to cure them. I think we’re a good 50 years into realising this is unacceptable. If I have a fear of spiders and your therapeutic solution is to lock me in a room with spiders until I get over it, you’re not creating a therapeutic setting, you’re creating something out of a dystopian work of fiction.

Whilst I’ve no doubt that some disreputable therapists may flood patients on purpose, you sign up for it (usually). So you can escape. You know it is going to happen and you consent. Even if that means you know it will be inescapable.

When we flood dogs, they do not consent. They do not know what is going to happen and they have no option to sign up or not.

So for kind of the first time in my life, I cannot make an analogy that you would understand because for the vast majority of us, we have no concept of a therapist forcing us against our will to face up to our fears in an inescapable situation.

We, as humans, mostly have no concept of what that is like. If it did happen to us, it would be abuse. Hands down. Both morally and legally. If a therapist seized you against your will or without your prior consent and deliberately exposed you to levels of things you found unpleasant at full strength, that’d probably be a prison sentence. That would definitely be a prison sentence if they did it to a child or to a vulnerable person.

This is why I can’t justify its use as a training method with animals.

Flooding is not just habituating a dog past their coping levels in the hopes that they’ll realise things are okay. It’s the inescapable element of it. So for instance, I watched one dog owner forcing her terrified dog around a local fair because a trainer had said the dog needed to get used to social events. Well, first, habituation does not involve flooding. Or it should not. But the dog was on a lead and clearly could not cope. And what happens when our sympathetic nervous system is engaged and we are unable to escape? There are lots of Fs, here: fight and flight being two of them. When we take away flight, we remove one of those options. But be aware that some dogs may fidget, may seem to be over-excited, may get over-friendly and may fool around. So for example, once, when I had to trap a stray dog to catch her and stop her getting squashed, first she tried flight until we removed that option. Then she got fidgety. Then she froze. Then she tried fighting. Working your way through all the remaining Fs is one thing dogs may do before they eventually give up.

Many, many dogs will try aggression in this circumstance. And they learn it can be really effective.

Flooding is not just about inescapable exposure, though, but exposure at full strength. No attempts are made to mitigate or soften the stimulus. 

So having set out my stall, let me explain why I feel the way that I do and why flooding – whether purposeful or accidental – should be avoided at all costs. Also, please notice that I used “as an ‘education’ method”. That was purposeful.

We, as enlightened modern human beings who’ve never been subject to inescapable stimuli in a therapeutic setting, have very little understanding of what it’s like for an animal. We can understand habituation and desensitisation, counterconditioning and so on, because these are human therapies too. But we have no concept of flooding in educational or therapeutic settings, which is why we’re less aware of its fallout. 

First, its fallout is learned helplessness. In the 60s and 70s, psychologist Martin Seligman used dogs to learn about why people don’t take help when it’s offered or why they don’t seem to be able to get themselves out of certain situations. In this case, it’s not admissible to say dogs don’t experience learned helplessness because they literally were the subject of the experiments Seligman conducted using inescapable shock.

Some dogs were placed in a sling like this one and subjected to inescapable shock. Others had a way to switch the shock off. Some were no shocked at all.

Then the dogs were placed in a shuttle box like the one below, and subjected to shock. Those who had previously learned there was no way to stop the shock did not even try to hop over the wall. They just gave in. Just by the by, some psychologists gloss over the fact that the shocks administered in the shuttlebox were enough to induce muscle seizure…. and still the dogs wouldn’t even try to escape.

That’s how being flooded works. You are subjected to inescapable aversives and you learn to shut down. It stops our problem solving and a lot of our other behaviours.

All reactions are muted. We stop reacting because we’ve learned we cannot escape. Thus to the untrained eye, it may seem like the dog is ‘coping’ when in reality, the dog has simply learned that there is no point trying to escape.

Honestly, flooded dogs are a nightmare. Especially those who’ve been purposely flooded by other dog trainers. It enrages me, quite honestly. One local trainer who held a dog down to be petted by strangers… 40 injurious bites later and the dog finally “submitted”. Another who repeatedly alpha rolled fearful dogs and demanded their euthanasia if not. Vets who don’t understand fear free handling. Groomers who think their ‘still’ dogs are a sign of calmness.

It’s the absolute antithesis of my work. Dogs who are flooded often lose all trust in their guardians and trainers, or in humans full stop. I can feel a lot of sympathy for guardians who have accidentally flooded their dog because they didn’t know better, haven’t seen their relationship as one of consent and choice rather than compliance, dominance and force. After all, our media has often been complicit in promoting these myths because they make good television. No wonder people believe in miracle cures and 30-minute turnarounds!

But what I can’t forgive are other professionals who do it. You’re basically stealing a living if you deliberately and wilfully use flooding with a dog. It is ethically worse for me than using punishers like shock or chokes because at least there, if they’re cued and the dog is clear about their use, then they can avoid the punisher. The whole purpose of flooding when done by trainers as an ‘education’ method is to subject dogs to such levels of inescapable aversives that they have no choice but to submit, perhaps having worked through the whole gamut of aggression first.

The problem comes when we consider the ethics – and this is where it gets complicated. Imagine I hit a stray dog by accident when driving my car. The dog is panicking and I use a blanket to stop them struggling and to put them in my car. If they didn’t like strangers or cars, what I’m doing is deliberately subjecting them to inescapable stimulus at full strength. Likewise, if I have to trap a dog who has been running loose for weeks, even if I use a humane trap and sedatives. The second is thankfully not frequent, but in working for the pound, it’s something I might have to do. I just can’t work to desensitise a dog to myself over weeks and weeks if the dog will starve in the meantime. So it depends. Sometimes we knowingly flood animals and we know that the damage we’re doing is likely to be significant. Likewise, for new arrivals in the shelter, there are times we flood the dog simply by cleaning their kennel or even by bringing them their food. These real life situations are not training, however, and hoping the dog will just “get over it” is like putting money on a coin toss – you just don’t know which way it will go. 

Real life situations means we have no other choice other than leaving the dog to roam about or die of their injuries. It’s a knowing choice but one that I’m fully aware of the consequences and try to avoid wherever possible. But it’s not a method I’d choose if there were any other options available to me.

If you think that gives you free rein to use it as a training method, it doesn’t.

People get hit by buses, get struck by lightning or drown in swimming pools. I don’t include them in my teaching repertoire.

Just because something happens in real life does not make it a fit tool for use in teaching. Abuse happens in real life and perpetrators of domestic abuse use flooding on their victims. That’s real life. I don’t see those as educative situations, and I hope you don’t either.

We need to stop using this Appeal to Nature fallacy to say that just because it’s natural and it happens in real life, it must be okay. It isn’t. It wouldn’t be okay for a therapist to deliberately prevent you from escaping from something you’re afraid of,. It wouldn’t be okay for a therapist to do this to a pre-verbal child. It wouldn’t be okay for them to do it to a non-verbal adult. It’s not okay to do it with animals, either. Not as a training method.

This is why, when we use habituation, we need to be careful we don’t overdo it and tip-toe into flooding territory if our dogs are trapped by walls or a leash.

It’s why, when we use desensitisation, we need to make sure we’re in the “I know it’s there, but I’m coping” territory.

And likewise for counterconditioning.

The problem is that it can be very hard to know if your dog really is calm or whether they’re shut down, so you absolutely need a good understanding of canine body language to know the difference. Understanding stress signals is absolutely vital. Whenever you’re working within four walls or you have the dog on a leash, be mindful of the fact you may accidentally be flooding your dog even if that’s not what you intended.

So make sure you stick to the easy, the gentle, the minimal, especially if you’re working with a leash or indoors. Whilst I understand accidental flooding – I know I definitely did it by accident to Heston when I was new to the whole world of dogs – and Tilly’s sensitive bladder was a really good indicator that we’d pushed her over the edge – it’s something I should have been told about. Sadly, few people in animal training talk about it.

But, as Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we do better.

Let’s take purposeful flooding out of our repertoire and stop conning ourselves that “getting over it” is a valid reason to cause the complete suppression of behaviour. After all, our dogs are not okay. They’ve just learned not to show that they’re not okay.

Three concepts every dog guardian should know: counterconditioning

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking at skills that would really help every dog guardian out. The first of those is habituation, that process of getting used to the world around us through repeated exposure. The second of those is desensitisation, the planned and gradual systematic process by which we break connections between exciting or fear-eliciting things in the universe that freak us out.

Today, we’ll look at the third skill I think dog guardians should have in their toolkit: counterconditioning.

Like desensitisation, counterconditioning is a process by which we work on things dogs find exciting or fear-eliciting. It should also be working at a level that the fearful or exciting response is not elicited. Sometimes, these two processes are confused because dog trainers and behaviourists often do them together, so people don’t always know which is which. That’s fine – I argue that this is usually the best possible process but there are times when I’m just desensitising – usually on things my dog would like to chase.

Counterconditioning is the process by which we take an emotionally charged conditioned stimuli (so we already have learned to like it or not) and remove the emotional charge so that the stimuli is neutral once again.

We can also change the emotional response. Usually, we’re working with dogs who are afraid of things in the world. When we work on counterconditioning, we work to change that emotional response from a negative one to a positive one.

I guess you could do that also with exciting stimuli – and this does happen – where you accidentally or even purposefully change their response to a negative one instead. I’ve seen a lot of dogs who’ve been inefficiently socialised and habituated to other dogs then walked on a choke or prong and then learn to fear the dogs or people they see rather than feel excited by them. I don’t think anyone really does that on purpose unless they’re completely unethical. I guess mostly that happens by accident because our dogs are too close to others, we don’t have room for them to escape or avoid the other dogs since they’re on the lead and then the dog has no choice but to react.

Counterconditioning breaks existing associations just like desensitisation does. It’s also used to form new and different associations, so that conditioned stimuli no longer elicit fear but elicit joyfulness, and so on. In such cases, the stimuli stays the same but the conditioned emotional response is changed. It works by pairing that scary thing with something we love to return them to a neutral state and then to reform and reshape emotional responses. Usually, and just to be clear, I often find myself using a food-less approach and desensitising a dog who likes chasing (or I also throw in a bit of groundwork) whereas I use food and other stuff like safety for dogs who are feeling fearful.

I often give the example of Keira Knightley as I have a very strong negative reaction to her – not least because she’s in many adaptations of my favourite books, and they’re films I really want to see, but I find her acting insufferable. Even just a flash of her makes me feel quite grrr inside.

In order to countercondition this, a strong pairing with something lovely would need to be made – say for instance that every time I saw Keira Knightley, Keanu Reeves would appear with a box of chocolates, some kittens and a fine French rosé. Or a dog.

Eventually, with enough pairings, Keira Knightley would come to become a reliable predictor of something wonderful and lovely. I might even start to look out her movies and her images in the knowledge that she cues the arrival of wonderful things.

As you can see, I’m never going to become a great lover of Keira in  herself but it will make her wooden acting much less painful. That we cope with stressful, aversive or unpleasant experiences by turning to alcohol, food or other pleasant stimuli is not a new concept.  Who doesn’t treat themselves after doing something they didn’t want to?

So… just to be clear…

… must reliably mean…

And it has to be in that order too.

Keira… THEN … Keanu

Do it the other way, which is known as backwards conditioning, Keanu Reeves just becomes a reliable predictor that Ms Knightley will appear, kind of like when your mum appeared to call you back in off the street when you were a kid, and your heart sank because you knew what was coming next.

Order is important. Food does not come out until the dog has seen the thing it doesn’t like or that it’s scared of, if you’re counter conditioning.

Counterconditioning on its own is sometimes called ‘contrived’, often by trainers who primarily use clicker training or operant methods and don’t always see the benefits of it. They argue that we don’t ever really change our emotional response to the negative stimuli. The irony is that we did learn to dislike a conditioned stimuli – I wasn’t born hating Keira Knightley. I learned to. In fact, I liked her in Bend it Like Beckham and I like her in movies where she smiles.

This just doesn’t have the same effect on me. I think she seems quite lovely here. That tells us something too in relation to our dogs: it can be very dependent on a very narrow set of circumstances. Know the circumstances and it’ll help you desensitise and countercondition.

So I did learn to feel all grrrr about Keira. It really came off the back of associating her with one of my favourite literary characters, Elizabeth Bennet, and it was very much a learned response. Of course my feelings to her have been conditioned. That initial learning wasn’t contrived. It wasn’t deliberately created. Why should unlearning it be considered as contrived or in some way false?

Conditioning is all about perception. Here’s an example. Last night, I stood in the garden watching nesting swallows swoop in and out of the barn. It was almost twilight. It felt quite magical watching them. All of a sudden, I became convinced it was actually my two friendly nesting bats. I shuddered. I actually just shuddered now – quite literally – just imagining the bats. The way they were moving was no different. They nest in the same spot. The bats actually give me as much joy as the swallows to know I’m a custodian of their home. But even the thought that they were bats freaked me out. And that was all perception.

In that example, we can see we are born with a tendency to have innate fears of things like snakes, mice and bats. Where we have what Goulding called a biophilia or an innate love of the natural, it is true that it’s easier to teach lab animals to fear certain things than others. For instance, you can teach a monkey to fear snakes by pairing them up with a shock, and you can teach them to fear flowers and bananas too in the same way. Just it happens more quickly with snakes and it’s much harder to erase. Be mindful for your dogs that if you have a dog bred for particular behaviours like guarding or protection or chasing stuff, then you’re going uphill in counterconditioning them to cope with unfamiliar people or unfamiliar animals who pose a threat, or to help them feel comfortable with people coming and going on the property. That is a job for early social experiences and habituation, and it is certainly harder to do it remedially, no matter what some trainers may have you believe. Be kind to your dogs and understand which fears they’ve got an innate sensitivity to – and if you’re getting a puppy, make sure you understand those innate tendencies and get in early with plenty of great quality habituation to normalise it whilst they can cope. You need to be mindful not to flood your dog too, and you can read about that next time.

So is counterconditioning contrived or fake?

The problem is where there is no true counterconditioning, there is just learning that the disliked item is a cue for positive experiences. If I’m heavily reliant on Keanu Reeves to help me cope, then that’s an issue. Weaning me off him by desensitisation to Keira at the same time will be necessary too. I might need Keanu Reeves and a full box of Belgian chocolates to get through Never Let Me Go, but if you start with a brief image of Keira smiling – my least bad Keira image – and you pair it with a chocolate, you’ll be able to repeat that and build up gradually to sitting through Anna Karenina without me needing a full emotional support team.

Another thing to bear in mind is that pairing: the good stuff absolutely has to be more powerful than the bad stuff. This is again why you need a gradual and systematic programme of gentle exposure alongside it. It goes without saying that a reaction should not be provoked. Of course my fear of a photo of a mouse is not the same as my fear of an actual mouse. A very brief exposure to a friendly, happy mouse at a distance should not elicit the same experiences as sitting in the dark with a room full of mice. A photo of Keira in a magazine is not the same as sitting through Atonement. Of course I’m going to need Keanu Reeves for the whole of the movie and I’m probably just going to try to distract myself by looking at him. But if I just have a flash of a Chanel advert, I’m probably going to be able to cope with just a photo of John Wick right after.


… will eventually become

But if you start me off on the full 108 minute Anna Karenina experience, you’re going to need a lot more to make it barely tolerable for me.

And that is why you need the benefits that desensitisation offers too. Especially that planned, gradual, systematic and gentle approach. Otherwise, you’re going to need the heavy artillery of good stuff – and let me tell you, if it was a fear rather than a mild dislike, your heavy artillery might not be anywhere near powerful enough if I think it’s life or death. And when our dogs are afraid, that’s what their nervous systems are telling them.

If your absolute best of the best stuff – dog stuff, that is – paté, liver, steak, stinky cheese – if they aren’t more powerful (ie the dog isn’t choosing them) then you’re a) in fight-or-flight mode and it’s too late or b) working far too close or c) both. If the conditioned stimulus is truly fear-eliciting, then my sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight mode – is switched on, and digestion is NOT high on a list of priorities. If food isn’t working then you’ve got to consider whether you’re too far gone.  You need to back up, add space and lower the intensity.

Counterconditioning should never simply turn a conditioned stimulus into a cue for good stuff. You need the desensitisation too. Otherwise the bad stuff doesn’t stop being bad. It just starts being a cue for good stuff. Kind of like a dentist with a lollipop afterwards. We all know the dentist doesn’t stop being a dentist. We just start expecting a lollipop afterwards.

You may also think about what other stuff you can offer will also help the dog out. What we are seeking when we’re afraid is safety. I’ve called it here ‘safeness’ because you can be safe and not feel safe. Safety may allow us to feel safe, but not always. Of course our dogs are safe when they’re around things they’re scared of. Of course my dog’s fears of the vet are completely irrational as I would never allow him to be unsafe. I know that’s not true for all dogs, and we’ll have clients who do put their dogs at risk, but I don’t do that. My dog has no logical reason to feel scared at the vet’s. But safeness isn’t dependent on what the environment does or does not do. It’s an internal state that depends on our own subjective experience. Only Heston decides if he feels safe. But I can use that feeling of safeness to pair up with emotional stimuli.

Performing emergency u-turns are a key way we can allow dogs to desensitise safely and learn that they are safe. Thousands of safe exposures to other dogs, where we’re deliberately pairing that up with a feeling of safeness elicited from a u-turn, maybe with food involved too, is a good way to learn that nothing bad will happen. Many people don’t like public speaking. But you don’t have those same sweaty feelings of fear and panic the thousandth time you face your fears if those thousand audiences have been kind and gentle. In fact, for humans at least, that sense that you have conquered your fears can be powerful indeed. We can’t say the same for dogs, of course, but I know my feelings of pride that my dog has conquered his own fears translates into praise, to my own congratulatory attitude towards him, and I know that my feelings of relief at least are socially contagious. 

Don’t ever underestimate the value and role of safety too. For dogs who are fearful or relying on aggression to avoid the fearful stuff, safety is way more powerful than food. Make sure you’re using that too!

The power of the things you are using don’t need to be as amped up if you start with small doses. Of course I’ll need an emotional support team to get through a full pouty movie. No, I don’t need that if I’m just casting a quick glance through a magazine and I see an advert for Coco Mademoiselle. It might even be enough if I always turn the page to see Mr Reeves with a puppy. The same is true for our dogs. If we start counterconditioning at full strength, of course, we’ll need immensely good stuff to follow. We don’t need to do that if we dial it back a bit and work with systematic desensitisation and gradual exposure at the same time.

So… keep your distance. Plan your counterconditioning and keep it small, manageable, regular and brief. Use good value stuff. Remember the vital role that safeness plays when we feel afraid. Keep the pairing ‘aversive’ then ‘positive’. Of all the three concepts, this one is the toughest, but once you’ve mastered it once, you’ve got it. A good trainer or behaviourist should be able to give you a class to start you off.

What happens when you know how to do this is that you’re armed with a strategy that will help you with so much: pill taking, grooming, nail clipping, being lifted, being handled, wearing a muzzle, wearing a harness, being bandaged, having treatments, having mouths inspected, being handled by strangers, seeing scary joggers, seeing cyclists, being scared in storms, coping with fireworks, dealing with tractors or noisy machinery, coping with loud traffic, coping with new experiences, coping with people coming on and off the property, going in the car, being alone, coping with strange people, coping with cows and sheep and geese and ducks, coping with dogs on walks, coping with people in the vets……. once you’ve got this in the bag, you have the most useful tool of all. If there was one thing I wish all my clients could do already, this would be it. Forget learning to sit or giving a paw, this is the one skill I wish we taught in puppy class because it’s the one thing that most dogs will need. Even those bombproof dogs need it. I’ll never forget our first dog, Molly, and her fear of snowmen. Molly was such a great dog – scared of nothing. Except snowmen. Now if I could have counterconditioned her to them, I wouldn’t have been quite so unprepared come winter.

Make sure it’s the one thing you truly know how to do and there’ll be so much more you’ll be able to do with your dog. It doesn’t mean being disrespectful of things they can’t cope with, but it will make both of your lives much easier if you can do the stuff you need to do without medication or sedation.

Next week: when habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning go wrong. I’m going to tell you all about flooding.

three concepts every dog owner should know: desensitisation

So last time, we were looking at habituation: that ‘getting used to’ factor that helps animals and humans cope with the overwhelming number of external stimuli that assault us every day.

The more canny among you may have noticed that I included things that were inherently aversive or unpleasant, such as wearing contact lenses or getting used to loud noises. Habituation happens, as we notice so often in the allegory of frogs staying in water that gets increasingly hot until they are boiled, where that gradual creep of unpleasant sensation is not even noticed. We might get used to traffic smog or air traffic or traffic noise just as much as we might get used to birdsong and clean grass smells.

Technically, getting used to unpleasant stimuli has another name: desensitisation. This technique, sometimes known in human terms as exposure therapy, is with things that we are sensitive to, that we’ve already had a reaction to and either find very pleasant or very unpleasant. I sometimes hear desensitisation bandied about as if it’s habituation. It’s not. I’m a linguist. I revel in clean definitions and those loose applications of meaning make me itch.

Habituation, then, is getting used to neutral stuff. Not actually like my contact lenses, which were uncomfortable to start with, or like bird scarers. You see, even I don’t stick to those clean definitions. It’s hard. But habituation just happens with fairly innocuous stuff.

Desensitisation, on the other hand, is literally that: removing the sensation, making something non-salient or non-important.

Desensitisation is a careful, gradual, planned, systematic exposure to events.

Let me delineate those adjectives.





Desensitisation shouldn’t be an impromptu, “Oops, got ourselves surrounded by a Venetian Carnival!” if your dog is working on desensitising to people.

It moves from very low levels of exposure, either at distance or shortened duration (or both) until the dog is ready to cope with more.

Let me outline those bits too.

Very low levels of exposure: that means without provoking a fear or aggression or excitement response in your dog. They should notice the scary or exciting thing, but they should not be pulling on the lead or barking.

If they are, you’re too close.

And the other part of that statement is until the dog is ready to cope with more. Notice there that it’s the dog who chooses. Not you. The dog says they’re ready to move on. You can of course test this with things like engage-disengage games or look-dismiss games. I did it this morning. I saw Heston noticed shadows moving in the trees. I’d noticed them before. You know, hairless biped with dominant visual senses. But I saw him notice. We moved forward and the shadows moved and he looked again. Both times, he looked away and carried on sniffing or doing other stuff. He looked, he registered and he dismissed it as not that salient.

That’s the vital bit.

I do it with Flika too. She needs a bit more encouragement around cows and she’s not as able to cope with them as Heston is, so if I were asking myself “how much exposure do they need?” Heston could have moved closer, but Flika may have found it hard to work just where we were. It depends on the dog. Only your dog decides if they can’t cope at 100m or at 10m. And that depends on the subject. Knowing your dog is vital if you’re going to do the essential bit of desensitisation, which is planning it.

So one example for Heston when he was but a babe with his barking at cows, we went and did some work around 800m away from the cows. Gradually and systematically, we got closer and closer over repeated sessions, with repeated exposure until we were right alongside a number of frisky cows and they did not elicit a fear response. It was gradual. It was at his pace. It was boring.

In desensitisation, an emotional response should never be triggered. That’s the golden standard – the goal. Does it always go like that? No…. this is real life. But that’s the aim, for sure. You aren’t just putting the dog into a reactive state and letting them work themselves out of it; I wasn’t just standing there with Heston barking at the cows until he stopped. You should never see that emotional response. In order to do this, you need a very good understanding of your individual dog’s body language. Part of the problem with desensitisation is that many people understand the principles but they’re exposing their dog to far too much of the stuff They’re too close, or for too long. Most people totally get exposure therapy and have been doing it – just not at the dog’s pace and not in small enough doses at first.

Desensitisation should go at the dog’s pace. That too can be frustrating for clients. Yes, you may have to start work at 800m away. I’ve seen – and this embarrasses me about our profession – so-called professionals trying this at 2m from the scary or exciting stuff. The tendency to use punishers in these cases to suppress emotional responses is huge. We just want the dog to get over it and get used to it. It seems unfathomable that we might have to do this for a month or so and do a little practice every day or so until they’ve got it. We’ve got to put our own frustration aside and realise that suppressing behaviour is not the goal.

The most vital thing about desensitisation is that the dog is relaxed. You are pairing a state of relaxation up with a conditioned trigger. That’s to say, the dog has learned that the cars, cuckoo clocks, cyclists, wheelie bins and so on are scary, and you’re working at a level where the dog is relaxed. You’re then going to do hundreds of exposures to the triggers, gradually and systematically lowering one stimulus gradient or another. That’s all. You are probably not using food. You are definitely not reinforcing anything. Pairing relaxation up with small doses of the trigger is all you are doing – on a carefully controlled programme. You’re not just winging it and hoping for the best. You don’t need a clicker or a marker word or anything like ‘rewards’. You don’t need to speak. You’re just being – relaxed being – around the stuff.

Why don’t I just stick a choke chain on or a prong or a shock collar, or tell my dog to pack it in? Why don’t I just say, “No! No!” and tell them off?

Because even if it worked, punishment simply suppresses behaviour.

That means that if it’s something really important, it’ll just pop back out when I’m not there to punish or ‘correct’ it. Dogs are smart like that. No human, no punishment. And you can use a shock collar to try and overcome that, but you better hope that the collar never fails, which they do. You also have to know that if I’m faced with two competing consequences, I’m going to choose the fun one, hands down. You better hope your punishment is bad enough and strong enough to put the fear of God in me to suppress that behaviour permanently. If it’s something I’m afraid of and behaving aggressively to or fearfully around, punishers just contribute to the awfulness of the experience. This is where punishment fails. I know so very many dogs with predatory urges whose owners have been recommended shock collars only to find that if the dog gets out of range or escapes, they end up doing exactly what they wanted to all along. The behaviour was just waiting for the moment to get the chance. I’ve had a number of clients who arrive with dogs who’ve killed cats or other dogs, poultry, wildlife or even farm animals and they’ve all tried punishers in the past. Punishment and ‘interruptors’ don’t remove the urge; they just suppress the behaviour.

Another reason punishment (even things like saying “no!”) is not effective is because desensitisation is a process that isn’t about consequences. Punishment is all about consequences. It doesn’t deal with the relationship between the scary or fun thing and the behaviour that follows. If you want to consciously uncouple those behaviours, to steal a phrase from Ms. Paltrow, then you need Pavlovian extinction, not Skinnerian punishers. Punishment has no effect on emotional reactions other than suppressing the outward expression of those emotions. If you tell me off every time I make a run towards a patisserie, then you might suppress the outward expression of my longing and love, but I still feel it. If you tell me off every time I shriek when a spider crawls on me, I might stop shrieking, but it won’t stop being unpleasant. Punishment just leads us to suppress behaviour and think the situation is dealt with. It isn’t. It may, if you get out of the habit long enough, become extinct behaviour if you use punishers, but there’s no guarantee. Plus, we habituate to punishers, so you have to use stronger and stronger ones. You know my feelings on punishers already – from water sprays to citronella collars right up to the heavy artillery – so I won’t labour the point. I’m just not happy living with the uncertainty over whether a behaviour is suppressed or extinct. Those are two very big differences behind the absence of a behaviour. Suppressed behaviours are way more likely to emerge once the punishment stops. I can’t live with that doubt.

Using desensitisation properly and effectively means the dog isn’t practising the behaviour and that connection is phased out. It’s slow but miles more effective. For instance, should Heston get out and go wandering, I’m mostly sure – as sure as I can be – that he could go past or even through a field of sheep or cows without a problem. Lidy? Not a chance. Guess which one came with a history of punishers? It’s not a trust exercise and I always keep my dogs on leads around things they might chase or have chased in the past even if they don’t seem to want to now and if they’re very fearful, I’m going to be doing a lot of desensitisation gradually, systematically, carefully and with full planning so that they won’t feel the need to be aggressive or run away.

It can be really tempting to want to skip gradual and planned desensitisation that works at the dog’s pace. I mean it 100% works but it is not a magic pill. Desensitisation is not a quick fix. It can’t be achieved in a day. The main problem when it’s not working is that you’re too close, going too long or your dog wasn’t calm enough in the first place.

All you’re doing is scaling up exposures little by little, day by day, time by time, until your dog has had loads and loads of exposure without reacting. I try and plan in at least 50 of those opportunities. 50 exposures is not a lot really.

Desensitisation is perfect for chasing behaviours around cows, cars, cats, sheep, horses, cyclists, joggers and so on. It’s not perfect if your dog cannot disengage at any distance. I have one of those. We do other things alongside it, one of which you’ll read about in the next post, but if your dog can look away and dismiss the thing from 500m or so, then that may be all you need. Some dogs, once they get it, they get it. That does happen. Flika’s had 14 years of practice before she arrived and she now copes with most cars and knows what we do instead. She can cope with cows too, which is something I never believed would happen.

Your setups to do this are crucial. When using desensitisation with dogs who react to other dogs, we do 5 minute blasts at long distance where the dogs are only in sight for a second, maximum and then a 30 or 40 second break. Brief exposure, long distances, short durations. Those build up to long exposure, short distances and long durations. Eventually, you should reach a point where the stuff you notice just are part of the furniture like I did this morning when walking within a metre of a cow field and a cow stuck her head through.

A word of caution: ALL behaviour can be ‘spontaneously recovered’ meaning it can re-emerge when you thought it was long since dead. This is as true of behaviours trained without punishment as it is with it. You need to keep up exposure from time to time and make sure you do it in a careful and planned way to gauge reactions otherwise one day, that chasing or fearful or aggressive behaviour may pop right out again. That’s fine. You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve done this before and you’ve got this. Don’t change methods and think you’ll try something new. What you desensitised before you can do again in the same way.

Exposure therapy – or desensitisation for humans – is the single most effective way to overcome fears and phobias. There’s zero reason it shouldn’t be the most effective way with animals too. It’s also used with PTSD in virtual reality scenarios and with obsessive-compulsive disorders. It’s highly effective when it’s handled properly.

And just a note before we move on to counterconditioning in the next post… these two things are not the same although they are often paired up. Classic exposure therapy is simply that: exposure. If you’re using food or reinforcers, clicks or marker words, that’s great, and you may be desensitising as well, but desensitisation in itself is not about food or alternative reinforcement. It’s just about normalising stuff that your dog was sensitive to before.

You can see why this is such an effective tool for pet guardians to know: once you have this in the bag and you know how to do it (key: it’s gradual!) then you’ve got your own tool to work with your own problems as and when they emerge.

Three concepts every dog guardian should know: habituation

I found a picture of my dog Heston this morning from his puppyhood eight years ago. When I got him, I had no idea what I was doing and it’s only thanks, first to YouTube and then to my own learning journey that I now know what I really needed.

I mean, I taught him tricks and he learned good manners. We managed chewing and teething. Somehow or other, we forged a solid bond. I did lots less well on teaching him life skills though. It’s probably why I think the three concepts I’m about to take you through are the most essential things a dog guardian should know. When you have these three tools in your bag, LOTS of other problems, from barking and chasing to pulling on the lead just evaporate. It especially helps you with the Big Two: fearfulness and aggression.

Take this morning. It was a DEFCON 1 kind of a morning. All the scary stuff that could happen did happen. All the exciting stuff that could happen did happen. We had packs of joggers, packs of (very noisy!) cyclists, a cow stick her head through a fence, a dog growling, barking and going mental behind a very flimsy gate iron fretwork gate, a hare dart out, two deer, several cats, some speedy cars and a man appear with a wheelbarrow and a hoe.

Oh, and then a bird scarer went off right next to us. I don’t know if you have these in your part of the world, but they are basically a big noisy gas-powered cannon that is louder than any gunfire I’ve ever encountered and we often walk near an army base, we live down the road from a rifle range and people hunt only metres from my garden.

Six years ago, this would have been a nightmare. I’d have got home and railed about the inconsiderate universe. As it is, Heston and I got through without going past DEFCON 5.

There are three fundamental skills that will help you cope at a DEFCON 5 level. These three life skills are the absolute foundation of coping with life. Whilst we may teach tricks and house manners, house training and food manners, if you understand the following three concepts, you are set for life. Those are habituation, which I’m going to discuss today, desensitisation, which will be the next post, and counterconditioning which will be the final one. I’m also going to write about flooding – when these go wrong.

Habituation then. Habituation is one of the simplest forms of learning. This one might rightly be called “getting used to” the environment.

Each second, we’re assaulted by hundreds of different sensory stimuli. It’s only when I stop and listen that I become aware of the bird noise outside, the gentle hum of the laptop, the fact that it is 9.53 and I have a lesson to teach, the taste of coffee that lingers in my mouth, the Skype icon that shows I have two messages, the small fly hovering about above my camera, the inordinate amount of wires on my table, the fact my glasses need cleaning… that’s just the beginning of the list!

It’s only when I stop and focus that I see and hear and smell and feel all the things that I have habituated to – the slight pain in my side from too much gardening, the pain in my foot from a small stone in my shoe, the sensation of my legs crossing each other. Those are just some of the very small number of tactile sensations I’m aware of. Besides tactile and pain receptors, our balance receptors and temperature receptors, visual receptors and sound receptors, taste receptors and scent receptors are just busy running like software in the background, processing all the information and deciding if it’s relevant or not relevant, worth paying attention to or not worth paying attention to, salient or not salient.

It’s only when I stop and consciously focus that I become aware of them. The brain can’t cope with all of this sensory stimuli. It’s overwhelming and it doesn’t know which to prioritise. Habituation, then, is the process by which repeated exposure to these sensory stimuli means that the brain learns to ignore them. Someone moving here from the city might notice the number of different birds – the black redstarts, the robins, the chaffinches, the blue tits, the crows, the magpies – but because they are part of my daily lifestyle, I ignore them. Likewise the cars passing. Now it’s only the particularly noticeable that get my attention – those who speed, those with noisy engines, tractors or rapid lorries. Flika is the same – she doesn’t notice the hundreds of cars that pass – or, at the least, she ignores them – yet she will bark at the occasional speeding lorry or noisy tractor. Habituation is the process by which we get used to neutral stimuli, blocking it out to focus only on the novel or the salient. Our initial response or noticing of the stimuli fades, like we don’t hear traffic or fridges or birdsong, or how we can go on a walk and not notice many millions of individual bits of sensory data, focusing only on a dropped pair of gloves or a flower that wasn’t there yesterday. I’m thinking right now of those two tiny plastic contact lenses I’m wearing and how it took me 48 hours to get used to the sensation of them in my eye, and to put them in, though now I don’t think about them at all, for example. I certainly can’t feel them anymore, even if I try to. That’s habituation.

Salience is vital for habituation: our brain is perpetually involved in the process of deciding salience – what is important, what is noticeable, what stands out. Were it not for that process of response fading, everything would remain salient and we would be overwhelmed. For Lidy, my newest canine arrival who’d spent three years in a shelter, she spent a few months acclimating, habituating, deciding on the salient and the not. Now she ignores the traffic, the children playing, the gas powered bird scarers, though she’s still trying to get to grips with some of the sounds of our daily life: the cows, the tractors and the heavy machinery. 

Habituation can be temporary: that’s particularly noticeable for me as we move back to hunting season. I tend to habituate to gunshot through the hunting season and then find after a break that I notice once again the sounds. The same is true following Covid – 19: at first the lack of air traffic was noticeable, then it was the new normal. When air traffic resumed, it was salient again: now it’s the new normal. 

Lack of habituation can temporarily be spontaneously recovered, just like it was in the examples with the planes and gunshot. What we’d become acclimated to, accustomed to, now becomes salient once more.

Most of the habituation we do with dogs is when they are very young. What many people call ‘socialisation’ is in fact habituation. We also need to allow time for our adult dogs to habituate if we move to new environments. This is one reason my canine behaviour consultation form asks if you’ve moved house, taken a holiday or had the dog in kennels recently. And we especially need to allow our newly acquired shelter dogs time to habituate to our homes and our lives. This is especially true if they come from a life much different than the one we’re offering, say for instance from country to town or from a foreign country.

Puppy habituation in itself can be fraught with problems. One thing that is particularly important is how, especially if we are trying to habituate a dog, we can end up sensitising them by accident, putting them into inescapable situations with things they cannot control or exposing them to things that set off innate behaviours like chasing or biting.

This is so true with puppies. Heston, my boy who’s now eight years old, he had a problem with cows when he was about 16 weeks. We’d been walking past them daily for 8 weeks or so, but around this second fear period, he’d started barking at them instead of having habituated to them. Thankfully this was only true of cows, as if he’d become sensitised to other aspects of our daily environment, it would be impossible to live, yet I’ve had clients whose puppies have become sensitised to traffic, to passers-by, to things they see on walks, to gunshots, to the television and so on. Just because you experience it daily does not mean you’ll get used to it.

We should be very mindful of the need for dogs to habituate when we move environment too – especially for dogs who arrive as adult rehomings and very especially for those who arrive from foreign countries. I can’t imagine the sensory overload of arriving in a country where the whole world smells different. We tend to only think of this for those very strong smells – for instance, Brazil to me will always smell of diesel engines and cars, and Belgium always smells of waffles, but imagine that experience for a dog – especially one that arrives from a rural part of a foreign country. It would be something akin to arriving into Akihabara, Tokyo’s high tech electrical district, or into Time Square when you’ve lived in rural Lincolnshire or Wisconsin all your life. Whilst it might be a bit of a shock to the system at first, you could imagine trying to sleep or live among all that ruckus. 

Let’s just have a brief detour to discuss socialisation: this is often used to mean habituation. We talk of socialising our puppies when what we mean is habituating them to noises, trains, planes, buses, cars, people, towns, joggers, cyclists. Socialisation is a subset of habituation, but it is distinct and relates only to experiences that are social, where dogs interact. Because we misunderstand the term socialisation, we focus on puppies interacting with hundreds of individuals, when habituation is actually the more essential skill in my opinion. Imagine growing up thinking you must greet, or that you can greet, every single person you come across. Yet we teach our puppies that this is the case. Habituating our dogs to other dogs and people that they don’t get to interact with is absolutely crucial. On Wednesday, Heston and I were at the vet, and surrounded by little dogs, who Heston loves. If he thought he had the right to interact with them all, who knows what trauma might have followed for those trembling littlies? I needed him to sit just as I do when I’m in a train station or restaurant, only paying attention and interacting to the people I’m with. That means habituating to others around us. Puppyhood ends up being 100% interaction, without preparing our dogs for a life where 99% of their experiences with people and animals won’t involve interaction at all. 

Finally, you hear some trainers talk of habituation as if it is inoculating the young dog against noises, scents and novel stimulation. It is, but remember inoculation is a one-off event – or a small series at best – inoculation not an on-going process, and habituation is not some giant tick list that we can just tick off ‘planes, trains, cars, joggers, cyclists, cows, horses’ and say ‘Done it!’ – it’s a process, not an event. Habituation can be lost. It’s not enough to say, “Well, gosh! I habituated him to horses at eight weeks. What the devil’s got into him?” when your six year old dog is freaked out by horses later. Same for me, if I stop wearing contact lenses. I’m sure if I have a long time without, it’ll feel just as strange as it does when I go back into long, tight trousers after the summer.

How best to habituate? Just the same as with desensitision and counterconditioning which I’ll explore in the next two posts. Start small and easy and slow. Give the dogs the ability to move away or to find a quiet space away from more intense smells and noises. Build up a secure base so they know they can come back to you and check in when they’re feeling unsafe or unsure, and avoid flooding – which I’ll explore in more detail in the final post. Make sure new experiences are safe, are positive, are brief and end on a good note. The worst thing we can do is overdo it.

It also helps to keep a bit of controlled novelty in your dog’s life. I like to do one or two novel walks every week, amply supported by good planning so nothing too dramatic occurs (like the time we ended up in the middle of a Venetian parade, I kid you not!) and treats in case I need to do some additional work on the go. Make sure as your dogs age that they don’t lose a grasp on things they were once habituated to. Sometimes I go and hang out near the vets or the park just because we’ve not done it for a while.

And as we come out of Covid-19 lockdown and society returns to normal levels of smell or sound, understand that your dogs might be finding it a little tricky to adapt. After all, if you’re anything like me, we’ve just had two months with no planes, few cars, no motorbikes, no hunters, few unfamiliar dogs or people on walks and very little change. Now the world is waking up again, it’s tough on our dogs who’d habituated to life. That’s also true for our presence as well: they’ve habituated to having us around. It’s important to introduce them to the new normal gradually and carefully without making it too much of a challenge. We started with a few trips to the supermarket and a bit of time hanging around shopping centre car parks at a distance, choosing some slightly busier walks and going out at times when we’re more likely to encounter the world. Avoid trigger stacking and keep it short, sweet and simple!

If you’re normally used to taking your dog everywhere and you’re moving back to life as normal, remember that where once they might have been used to markets or car boot sales, shops and car parks, crowds and scooters, pushbikes, prams, hoverboards and bicycles, they may not find it as easy to go back to the world at full strength straight away.

Take it easy on your dogs and allow them to take in the world once again. If you’ve got puppies, remember habituation is a process not an event. If you’ve rehomed an adult dog, remember it takes time for them to acclimatise. If you’re taking a dog from another country or environment, remember they may need longer to acclimitise too. And remember that moving house, going on holiday and family change aren’t just stressful for humans: they are for dogs too. Build a resilient dog and make sure you practise.

Next time, I’ll be looking at the second tool in your kit: desensitisation, exploring what it is, what it means and how you do it. Then we’ll move on to counterconditioning before finishing off with a quick look at the dangers of flooding.

should we ignore our dogs’ bad behaviour?

One popular form of advice I often see bandied about on social media relating to those unwanted behaviours is, “Oh, just ignore it. They’ll stop eventually.”

I’m sure there are times that must be true. After all, if it didn’t work, we’d have stopped recommending ignoring behaviour a long time ago. I’m sure, somewhere in the world, ignoring jumping up, pawing, barking, nipping and humping has worked at some point. Perhaps.

But what’s the reasoning behind this?

Sometimes it comes from well-meaning people who aren’t experts in dog behaviour who think that ignoring behaviour is better than rewarding it or punishing it. That it’ll sort of go away on its own. Right now, I’ve got a dog looking under my arm as I type because he thinks it’s dinner time and in lieu of dinner, he wants petting. The nudging is pretty irritating. Should I just ignore it? Tell him off? Give in?

Well, we all know that what gets rewarded gets repeated. Behaviour is a function of its consequences. Somewhere along the line, something has worked to reinforce that behaviour, something fuelling its flames. We definitely don’t want to do that, do we? Do something that keeps that bad behaviour going. Yet we – or the environment – have been. If we hadn’t, the behaviour would have died out long ago. For instance, I was thinking today about my ability to type on a QWERTY keyboard; I use a French AZERTY one which meant relearning touch typing. But my need to type in French was strong. It fanned the flames and my touch typing on a US or UK keyboard has gone extinct. The QWERTY is dead. Reinforced by my need to type in French and do this é and this ç at a drop of a hat, â, I found that behaviour growing. It’s just the same for dogs. When one thing isn’t serving them, it’ll die off. And when it works, they’ll keep doing it.

We know that, right? We know we don’t want that naughty dog behaviour to keep going, so something inside of us is saying “well, stop rewarding it then!”

I think that’s one reason we say to people to ignore bad behaviour.

And we know that punishment is pointless. It just suppresses behaviour temporarily, and it doesn’t get rid of the need that’s driving it in the first place. I’m pretty sure Heston’s stomach is driving his nudging behaviour right now – he’s telling me he’s hungry. Me yelling at him, telling him “No!” or spraying him with compressed air or a water spray won’t remove that need. He’ll still be hungry – he just might not tell me in the future. That might be fine with you if that’s your bag, but we also know that punishment decreases a dog’s trust in us and can result in aggression. I’m very sure if I sprayed him in the face with compressed air for nuzzling my elbow, he might stop doing it temporarily, but my care of him depends on our good relationship and I won’t jeopardise his trust in me. Also, I have another dog who, if she got punished, will just tell me where I can stick my compressed air canister. It wouldn’t be a polite place, either.

Punishment only suppresses behaviour temporarily, increases distance, doesn’t respect a dog’s need and costs us in the long term. Punishment also doesn’t teach us what to do – only what not to. Thus, you could spray me in the face with cold water to stop me from using a QWERTY keyboard but it wouldn’t make me be better at using an AZERTY one.

So we don’t want to punish the behaviour either.

Which brings us back to ignoring it again.

So you can see why some people might recommend ignoring it. And here, with the nudging, it’s worked. He’s gone to lie down, although his needs have not been met. But that has costs too. I’ve ignored what he was telling me (yes, he’s bored – it’s been raining all day – and, like guardian, like dog, he’s turning to boredom eating to fill the day. I promise it will be bountiful with food enrichment toys and some play later to make up for it.) One of the costs is that I’ve not listened to what he needs. That’s not really a great way to build a trusting relationship, is it?

Ignoring behaviour has a scientific name that trainers might use. It’s called an extinction protocol. Unlike suppressing behaviour, when the reinforcers that fuel it stop (like me stroking him or feeding him), behaviour can die off. If you’re good at ignoring things – and you’re consistently good at it – then it can work. I ignored Heston’s early jumping up as a puppy and I did so 100% by reinforcing other behaviours, like stroking him and greeting him on all fours, it really works. It works best when you meet their needs, just in another way. But you’ve got to have nerves of steel.

Why you’ve got to have nerves of steel is because a behaviour that was once reinforced – so there’s something out there that has once worked – it may go through what is known as an extinction burst. What that means in real terms, I’m going to explain.

It takes me back to my days as a school advisor. I once watched a boy who kept misbehaving. I made a little running tally of all the times he tried to disrupt the learning in a 50 minute lesson. He made 150 interruptions, from silly things like noises, right through to repeated coughing, messing with his gloves, trying to melt his gloves (don’t ask!) and it worked out at 3 per minute. An interruption every 20 seconds. Sure, he’d have a burst, like shouting “Miss! Miss! Miss! Miss! Miss!” and then be quiet for a couple of minutes, but that was his average – of the ones I was quick enough to count.

That boy’s behaviour is an extinction burst that comes through trying to ignore it. And do you you know why he kept doing it? Because sometimes it worked. Sometimes he got the teacher’s attention. Sure, that was usually when he did something extreme, nuisance-like or violent – like kicking the boy’s chair in front. The teacher yelled at him. The student got attention. Teachers are in the same boat, not wanting to punish poor behaviour (especially not in front of an inspector, where ordinarily they might have blown a fuse) but also not wanting to reward it with the one thing they know the student wants – attention. We’re stubbornly resistant to giving in. Though we do it. The teacher told him off four times. It was enough to fuel the repeated behaviours. She gave in even though she wanted to ignore it. See what I said? You need nerves of steel. It’s really hard to ignore annoying or unwanted behaviour.

Ignoring behaviour also has other side effects.

Let’s break down the fallout from extinction schedules (a.k.a. ignoring stuff).

  1. It may cause behaviour to increase temporarily.

Heston’s nudging got more insistent before he gave up. The boy in the example never gave up. A client had a foster dog who barked pretty consistently all night for almost two weeks and never gave up – I think they did well to last two weeks before contacting me.

Sure, the behaviour may die off. But if you respond in the way the dog needs you to, you’ve reinforced it and boom – the behaviour is that much harder to remove. You’ve just made your job even tougher. Oh, it gets worse. You’ve also just taught your dog that they need to exhibit much bigger behaviours to get a response. And that doing so will work. You’ve not just made the behaviour less resistant to being erased but you’ve also made it bigger, louder, noiser, last longer or be more dramatic. What that teacher taught that boy was to kick the student’s chair in front, to set fire to his gloves, to punch the boy next to him. Why bother with the small stuff like coughing or putting your hand up when bigger, noisier, louder and more dramatic behaviours get you what you want?


Well done!

Trying to ignore it has just made it worse. Wonderful.

2. Behaviour may change shape to get the same response.

Just like the student experimenting with different ways to get his needs met, animals do the same. So my example here was a dog called Nesquik. Sometimes, in kennels, I’ve got to get quick and dirty photos of dogs for the shelter records. There’s not always anyone to hand and often I’m trying to manage a camera as well as manage two off-lead excited dogs. So very occasionally I ignore jumping up if I’m just there for business. After I get a photo, I do give dogs plenty of attention, I promise. But I know the risks. Nesquik moved from jumping up to barking. And when I ignored the barking, he then started dismantling me. Quite literally. Luckily I was wearing clothes, and quite a lot of them. Lesson learned. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision of, “oh, that didn’t work – will try something else!” but for instance if a vending machine is broken, I may give it a bit of a punch and if that doesn’t work, I’m going to give it a wobble. Or if my car doesn’t start, I’ll keep trying to turn it over and then if that doesn’t work, I’ll get out, pop the bonnet and make sure the battery is attached. We try different things when we don’t get the response we want… until we get the response we want. Setting fire to your gloves is just one example of how creative we can be in order to get what we need. Thankfully dogs are lots less complex or inventive.

3. Behaviour may turn aggressive.

When we don’t get what we want or need, it’s frustrating. And if we’re perpetually frustrated, we need an outlet. I’ve seen redirected aggression (the boy in the class turned on his classmate and started punching his arm) and I’ve seen targeted aggression. We tend to think that aggression is only fallout from punishers, but it can be fallout from extinction protocols too.

4. Ignoring behaviour is frustrating

What happened to the teacher? She got frustrated and angry and she caved. What happened to the lady with the foster dog who barked all night? She caved. It makes us angry that we’ve abandoned our plan. It’s frustrating for us as dog guardians, as parents, as teachers. It turns us quickly to using punishers instead because we don’t understand the consequences of extinction protocols. I could quite easily have told Nesquik off or left (negative punishment) to put him in a “Time Out” in the hopes his manners would be better next time. It makes us think less of the dog or the person we’re trying to ignore. I know you can understand how hard that teacher felt she’d tried and how little warmth she felt to that very irritating student without understanding that ignoring his needs was causing it. It makes us lose sight of what we like about the person or animal exhibiting this extinction burst. Heston nudging me is irritating. Me ignoring him is frustrating. He does it more and I get more cross that it’s not dinner time yet… you can see where this goes.

5. Extinction also increases the likelihood of stress responses such as increased drinking or the performance of repetitive or compulsive behaviours.

Ignoring behaviour is supposed to weaken it. It’s supposed to break the cycle. It’s supposed to nip it in the bud.

And it might, in the right circumstances, if we provide an alternative way for them to get the same rewards and if we have nerves of steel.

But mostly, it doesn’t work like that.

Ignoring behaviour runs the risk of causing more of it, of changing to a more persistent and pernicious behaviour to get what is wanted or of causing aggression. Congratulations! You just ordered more of the same, an escalation to much worse behaviours or even aggression. By ignoring that behaviour, the teacher just got more and more and more of it. By ignoring Nesquik, I turned that little spaniely jumping up to say hi into a very frustrated coat-grabbing session. And it without a doubt makes us feel worse about the person or animal exbiting this “stubborn” failure to stop being so bloody annoying.

Basil Fawlty showing us an extinction protocol at work:

a) Usual behaviour (key turning) which usually works (to start the car) stops working.

b) Target behaviour (key turning) increases, becomes more frequent and becomes more exaggerated in an “extinction burst”.

c) Lack of reward from formerly reinforced behaviour (key turning) causes aggression when it doesn’t work any longer

d) change of behaviour designed to evoke the normal response – in this case, counting to three. Not particularly effective at starting cars, I know. To be fair, that short break might have allowed a flooded engine to clear but even I know it was far too short a wait time!

e) frustration and aggression that is not designed to evoke a response but is a bloody good way of handling it for some people (and animals). And yes, if the car was sentient, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t like Basil Fawlty right now.

f) pretty sure Basil Fawlty will be heading to the bar for a quick drink to cope with the stress of being put on an extinction schedule. All those compulsive tics and ingrained behaviours just pop right out.

So next time you think of ignoring a behaviour, just remember that this can be some of the fairly predictable fallout of doing so. And you are causing it by ignoring it…

Now as I’ve said, sometimes it can work, although you should always consider the underlying reason that is driving the behaviour. It’s not something I’d ever do, though, with certain types of behaviour, and I’ll explain why. There are certain behaviours that I think we should take a hard pass on ignoring.

The first kind of behaviour where I think we should err on the side of caution is aggression. Now, it’s always complicated and nuanced. Sometimes my dogs will have a little snark at one another. Flika sometimes barks at Heston or growls if he’s in her space because he’s over-excited. I’m not going to be calling out behaviour police for that. I might, however, realise that she is doing this because she is old and he is bouncing Tigger-like in her general vicinity. I could make sure that doesn’t happen. For instance, mealtimes, going out on walks or getting in the car. I’m not ignoring the behaviour, here, I’m consciously making a decision that this is two really sensible dogs who have a good rapport sorting it out peacefully among themselves. I’m not the kind of person to expect dogs to keep it polite and happy all the time. But if her behaviour changes or becomes more frequent, I’ll definitely think of arranging her world better (ie taking bouncing Tigger dogs out of it) so that she doesn’t feel the need to remind him she’s old and doesn’t want bouncing.

Other dog-dog aggression, I don’t ignore. Probably the majority of aggression, to be honest, even low level stuff. You remember how that student started with low level coughing and putting his hand up? That’s the time to intervene. One example with dog-dog aggression where I’d intervene with low level stuff would be that Lidy can be very hard in play and whilst she’s a bit OTT with her very loud play behaviours, there can be moments where it needs an intervention. But to intervene then – at the moment it becomes noteworthy – is too late. She’ll have barreled into Heston, sent him flying, decided that felt really fun to harass another dog and be ready for round 2. I see this so often in young dogs – either puppies or adolescents – who are learning that hassling others can be incredible fun. Prevention, just as it would be with Flika and her old bones, means not letting her get to that point where she’s overaroused. There are two times this happens: at the beginning of their daily hellos, and when Heston is tired. That means noticing when Heston is tired and finding something for Lidy to do instead. It means managing their greetings too.

Always get a trainer or behaviourist in if you can’t cope with it yourself, or if aggression escalates. It is not a time to tinker or try out solutions when you aren’t sure of the consequences, just as most people are not sure of the consequences of ignoring behaviour. I’m sure if we knew it was likely to make it worse, to harden it and make it less likely to fade, or to evoke anger or frustration from both parties, we’d not bother.

So yes, there are nuances and subtleties. There are times when I’ll choose to leave it. In general, though, other than the fairly typical grrs between dogs, I think ignoring aggression is a really, really bad policy. Putting it on an extinction schedule can have real fallout.

For human-directed aggression, it’s absolutely vital it’s not ignored. If that’s owner-directed, that’s especially important. I don’t mean you should stop giving your dog space to eat and rest in peace. I mean that you should address the causes of that growling, barking, snapping or biting and that you should do so the very first time it happens.

For instance, the love of my life, Amigo, got all senior at the end of his life. He’d wander around from bed to bed, half-blind, deaf and disoriented. Once, and only once, I grabbed his collar as he couldn’t see or hear he was about to get into bed with another dog who was growling at him. He nipped me. No harm, no foul. I did wrong and I know it – though I saved him from what might have been a bit of a mauling. But I didn’t ignore what happened and just let it happen again. The next day, I got nightlights in the sockets, I put up x-pens and I limited his ability to get into other dogs’ beds in the middle of the night. Aggression is a message. If we ignore it, we do so at our peril. It will escalate or be used again.

Other times, you might use counterconditioning or desensitisation to help a dog realise it’s actually okay and you are no threat. I do this so often that it’s practically a daily occurrence on my client list. I do it with my own dogs. I did it with Tilly, my guardy little cocker, when she arrived. She would growl if people accidentally got too close to her, and I needed her to know that sometimes that might happen. The first thing I did again was arrange that environment: give her a space where she could be, hers alone. Problem mostly solved. And then every time I got close, I gave her a biscuit and went away. It wasn’t long before my approach wasn’t a threat.

With dogs who are aggressive towards other humans, counterconditioning works there too. If you’ve got a dog who is aggressive towards people – joggers, passers-by, cyclists – then don’t ignore that either. I don’t just hold my breath any more and hope my embarrassment will soon be over. Just this morning, an unexpected jogger came running down the hill as we were on a walk and we all stopped, had a biscuit picnic and carried on once the jogger went away. It’s so familiar a behaviour to my dogs now that they’re actively looking for people and turning back like, “Hey… where’s the picnic?”

We even survive those times when there isn’t a picnic.

But one thing is true – ignoring aggression just means your dog is more likely to use it again if it worked. And that is not something you want, I promise. Don’t ever just hope it will go away.

Since extinction protocols also engender aggression, I also would never use one on its own with an aggressive dog. One example would be that if a dog barks and snaps, it gets the human to go away. If the human stops going away and just stands there, eventually the dog will give up. That’s the theory. Have enough occasions where aggressive behaviour is not reinforced by going away, and I truly mean never, then you could, potentially, theoretically, get rid of it completely. Some training programmes use this method. It’s not one I ever use. One reason for that is the fallout of ignoring behaviour: barking, growling and snarling will get bigger, more frequent or more dramatic before it drops off and the dog gives up; it also runs the risk of escalating to bites. Finally, it also runs the risk of worsening aggression towards anyone near – be they guardian, human or dog. Plus, I’ve got to let the dog run through their whole repertoire of aggression repeatedly in order to move to extinction, facing all those bursts of behaviour until it’s well and truly dead. That can be bloody hard. It’s also tough on the dog – and, since there are other, effective, ethical ways of working – it’s also unethical.

Another reason I don’t ignore aggression is that behaviours that have been ignored on an extinction protocol like this can be easily recovered. It’s a behaviour that has worked for the dog in the past. If they’re in the same circumstances again, even if you think you ignored the living daylights out of it for two years, once it comes back, it finds smooth neural pathways to ease its resurrection. Boom. Two years without aggression and you’ve suddenly got a spontaneous resurgence of the behaviour.

So I don’t ignore aggression. Even if, like Flika and Heston, I choose to acknowledge it, understand it and leave it alone. Leaving it alone for the meanwhile is a decision, but ignoring it is not a decision that I think most of us should make. In fact, I know she hates it when he is excited so I’ve been managing the pair and splitting them up when I’m putting harnesses on and getting bowls out, or putting them in the car. So even that, I’ve not left alone.

Adult aggression is not the only behaviour I never ignore. I also don’t ignore puppy biting. I’ve seen some very, very injurious behaviour recently. All from dogs that you’d expect to be great family dogs – pointers, labradors, golden retrievers. I also know fellow dog trainers who won’t work with malinois who don’t have bite control if they’re older than 8 weeks. Shutting that door after that particular horse has bolted can be really hard. Like it or not, we have to accept that puppies can learn aggression works – that is not a lesson you want them to learn with you, I promise. And we also have puppies who enjoy biting. Maybe it’s a breed thing, but those pointers, labs and goldens are not your usual suspects. As Dr. Ian Dunbar says, your dog will not grow out of those behaviours, they will grow into them. It very quickly becomes a habit.

Whilst there is well-meaning advice like “Be a tree” or “Be a statue” for puppies who nip or bite, I think this can really fail. And when it does, it’s spectacular. Yes, children and certain nervous flappy adults set off a frenzy in young dogs and reminding them to be calm around dogs can help. That’s a time that being a statue can help.

But there are a number of things that need to happen with young bitey dogs. One is they need more rest, more enrichment, more mental entertainment and shorter bursts of physical activity. One main reason puppies bite is that they lose bite inhibition when they’re overaroused and boom, they realise they LOVE biting. You’re a great squeaky toy. A live one. And you keep coming back. And you give biscuits. How Wonderful!

You can read my full guidance on puppy biting here. I stand by this. I really don’t think ignoring it works. I think using negative punishment and putting them in Time Out or removing ourselves is not an efficient or humane thing to do with a young dog. Again, though, ignoring the behaviour will evoke more of it, will make it bigger, faster, more frequent or more dramatic and it may cause a lot of frustration that a young dog is not able to cope with. So yes, if your flapping or your children’s nervous energy is causing your Aussie Heeler to break out into herding them like cattle, by all means encourage your children to be less exaggerated. But it’s really hard for kids to ignore dogs, and it’s hard for puppies to be ignored.

Other, slightly less injurious behaviours like jumping up, humping and barking at you benefit also from you working with a trainer or behaviourist to identify what’s keeping that behaviour alive and to help you overcome them. Ignoring it may or may not work and what they’re designed to do is less likely to spill over into aggression in my opinion. If barking at you is to get your attention (rather than to warn you not to get any closer) then barking and jumping up are less likely to spill over into biting because they’re attention-seeking behaviours or contact behaviours. But some dogs do like to get contact in that way… so it’s still a potential fallout. Jumping up is also not good when you’re a 50kg person and you’ve got a 50kg dog. The same with pulling or humping. In all honesty, I’m hard pushed to think of a circumstance in which I’d honestly prescribe ignoring behaviour as a training approach…

So what can you do? First, seek out a qualified behaviourist or trainer who can perform a functional analysis. If they can’t, give them a wide berth. Ask them what intermittent reinforcement is and what differential reinforcement is, too. If they can’t explain in ways you understand, give them a wide berth too. When you’ve got trainers who know how best to change behaviour in a technical way, then they’ll go forward in predictable ways: making sure the dog’s underlying motivation is well met, making sure the dog is healthy through vet referral if necessary (see how Flika’s growling and Heston’s lack of tolerance of Lidy’s large play behaviour are both caused by pain? Just saying…. ), making sure that you can arrange the world differently to help you stop behaviour before it starts or other approaches like teaching the dog a different behaviour or making them feel better about the world at large.

Of course, ultimately, we do put aggressive behaviour on an extinction schedule. The first thing I said to Miss Bitey Lidy was “this is the last time you’re ever going to need to use these behaviours” – that is an extinction schedule of a sort. But through arranging her world more carefully, through counterconditioning, through careful work and through teaching her what to do instead to get the same result (like come touch my hand to tell me you’re not going to be coping in two minutes) then you can use an extinction protocol. It’s different because I’m not ignoring behaviours. They just don’t occur. She has other stuff to do instead of biting or stealing people’s handbags. But I’m not ignoring it. I don’t walk her past fields of cows and ignore her attempts to attack them. She is never going to grow out of those behaviours without other stuff going on. In fact, she just gets better at trying to attack things and more sensitised to doing it.

There are of course lots of ifs and buts. On the whole, though, you hopefully can see now why I don’t ignore puppy biting and I don’t ignore aggression. I also don’t ignore attention getting behaviours. A good behaviourist will certainly be able to work with you on a replacement behaviour. Amigo was a very soulful attention seeker – nudger of arms and pawing with his big old feet. Teaching a chin rest is just one example of how I taught him how to get his own needs met in a much less disruptive way. Replacement behaviours that get the same reinforcers are just excellent.

Having dogs who know how to ask nicely for attention, for food, for love, for touch, for play, for safety or for you to go away… well those are dogs who live with us harmoniously and get their own needs met. I think that’s my final line on why I don’t ignore behaviours: clearly there is something the dog needs or wants and to just ignore it as if they’re an irritation, well, that’s just unkind in my view. Yes, there are velcro dogs who need to learn how to cope without being stuck to you. No, you don’t have to give in to their every need. No, it’s not about being at the dog’s beck and call or “giving in”. I didn’t give in to Heston and his arm nudging (which stopped half way through this post when I got up to sort out dinner and made sure he had his favourite sausage-stuffed snake to keep him busy on a boring day) because that way madness lies. Tomorrow, he’d be up at 5am needing breakfast, then hungry by 3.30pm and so it would continue.

So next time you feel tempted to ignore a behaviour in the hopes that it will go away, I hope you reflect on what the behaviour is designed to do. I hope too you realise the down sides of ignoring it – especially frustration and aggression – and those extinction bursts. If you’ve got a thorny problem with an unwanted behaviour and you’ve tried all sorts, including ignoring it, but to no avail, make sure you find a professional who can help.

Help! My dog hates car journeys!

Many dogs do not like being in the car. 

Whether that is because it has been paired with negative emotional experiences like feeling trapped or confined, whether it has been paired with negative physical experiences like feeling sick or being forced into a car, or whether it has been paired up with an event the dog finds unpleasant like going to a vet or groomer, there are many reasons a dog may quickly learn that cars are unpleasant. Some dogs, on the flip side, are hugely over-aroused on car journeys and need to find a little calm.

Dogs need to have learned from a young age how to find cars pleasurable and have been gradually habituated to long journeys. Sadly for many puppies, their first experience of a journey is traumatic, as they leave their canine family, embark on their first long drive and may experience car sickness. This can set up a pattern for the rest of their life if you don’t address it quickly.  On the other hand, dogs who arrive with us as an adult may already have learned that car journeys are unpleasant or exciting and we may find ourselves needing to remedy this.

If your dog experiences car sickness, please also consult your veterinarian. You will need both medication and to have followed a programme to help your dog overcome their anxiety. If your dog has high levels of generalised anxiety, you may also need to work with a veterinarian and/or behaviourist. Be mindful that some issues like stomach problems, arthritis, joint dysplasia or inner ear problems can also make journeys very unpleasant for your dog. A sound bill of health might not be necessary or even possible, but it’s worthwhile considering how a dog’s physical health may impact on their experience of journeys.

There are five essential steps to changing your dog’s behaviour around cars.

The first is recognising canine body language that is indicative of stress. Remember, aggression, freezing and fear are not the only ways we respond to stress (the fight, flight or freeze responses) and dogs may also react by “fooling around”, seeming more giddy, more exuberant or more silly than normal.

Understanding lip licks, head turns and posture will help, alongside other things such as their ear position and tail position.

For instance, here is one dog showing she’s nervous about a stranger with a camera:

Can you see the bow, the lip lick, the hard eyes? There are all low-level signs that this dog feels fearful around me. She won’t take her eyes off me.

Here you can see that tiny little tongue, the paw lift and a quite still position as she tries to work me out. Still those eyes are on me!

Here we’ve got “joke face” – what looks like a smile, but is an appeasement gesture, the physical backing away as she has moved back into the kennel, the slight head turn and the long, slow blinks.

Looks kind of friendly, but she’s panting and it’s cold, she still has those hard eyes and her ears pricked as she tries to suss me out.

And here, the spread body posture, as she moves out of her literal, physical comfort zone to get a treat, but a little worried brow, a bit of white from her eye, her back legs ready to retreat, her posture low as she comes forward but ready to flee if necessary.

These (and more!) are all signs of ambivalent feelings, fearfulness and appeasement as she tries to make sense of me. You’ll notice some of these around your dog and cars, for sure. They’re tell-tale signs that a dog feels uncomfortable when taken in context, and can tell you that you are pushing your dog a little too far.

Once you’ve understood some of the common body language dogs exhibit to show low levels of ambivalence, anxiety or fear, you should be ready then to check them out with your own dog. What you will need is a partner (or a camera on a stand) to video you and your dog as you approach your car on lead with the door open where you usually put your dog. That might be the rear doors or the back hatch. You don’t need to get in. In fact, you won’t need to get in. If you’re safe, by the way, and your dog is behind closed gates, you can always do this off-lead. Doing so will enable you much more clearly to see how your dog feels about getting in the car. You’ll see exactly where they freeze, exactly where they feel nervous.

The best way to do this would be to go through your usual routine that you’d go through before getting in the car. The open door says very clearly that it is your intention to get in.

The video will enable you to see the distances you’ll be best to work at. This should be long before your dog freezes or starts showing changes in the body language. You can also play it in slow motion and pull stills from it to see all those tiny behaviours you can look for, such as turning their head away or licking lips, or yawning.

What you then have is your own dog’s behaviour profile.

When you can see what your dog is doing and at what distance, you are then ready to start the third step: goal-setting. As with all behaviours, this didn’t start in a second and it won’t be over with a quick fix. So start with a 3 or 6 month goal. Make sure it is realistic. Turning your dog into a dream in the car won’t happen overnight, and neither should you expect your dog to be able to go for a 2 hour car drive if they can’t currently even get in the car.

A realistic 6 month goal for a dog like that might be to go for a 10-minute drive without frequent stress signals.

What you then do is plan back. What does that look like at 5 months? At 4 months? At 3? At 1? At 2 weeks? At 1?

Make yourself a back-planned list of weekly goals. At five months, I might want them to go for a 2 minute drive (remember that it gets easier to do longer durations as you work towards the end of the plan. At four months, I might want them to manage a 20-second drive. At three months, I might expect them to show no stress signals when the engine is turned on and the car rolls 5m forwards. At two months, I might want to see no stress signals between them getting in the car and me getting in. At one month, I might want to see few stress signals and them choosing to get in the car themselves. At a week, I might want to see few stress signals around a car with an open door from 20m away.

That may sound ridiculously slow, but it depends on your dog. Other dogs might do this in 3 months, working up to a journey of an hour by 6 months.

Break down the component parts as well:
Going near the car on their own
Getting in the car on their own
Getting out of the car on their own
Sitting in the car whilst you get in the driver’s seat.
Sitting alone in the car
Settling as you clip them in.
Settling as you close the door.
Settling whilst you turn the ignition.
Settled as the car idles.
Settled as the car rolls in 1st gear.
Settled as you change gears.
Settled on straight roads.
Settled on turns.
Settled on bendy roads.
Settled at high speeds.
Settled on bendy, hilly roads.
Settle over bumpy terrain.

Those are just some examples. Most of the time, people know the idea of gradual exposure in small doses, they just have never thought small enough or gradual enough. When you make small, graded, incremental changes at your dog’s pace, you’ll see success. The only thing I ever seem to do with clients is show them how to go more slowly and simply. And when they commit to doing so, they are always successful. The joys of a 100% successful training programme!

In the meantime, you’ll need to suspend all car journeys, I’m afraid. Exposure therapies fail if you suddenly are forced to deal with your fears. For instance, I hate heights as I have vertigo. Gradually getting used to looking out of differently-sized windows over different floors is wonderful, working up to plate-glass walls at the 60th floor, or glass floors etc. What is not fine is if I’m still working around looking out of a small window on the third floor and then you zoom me up to the top of the Burj al Arab. It will destroy my trust in you and send me straight back to the beginning.

The tough thing is that sometimes this is inevitable. Like you’d been working up to a 25-minute drive to the vet’s for the anniversary of your dog’s vaccinations in 6 months’ time, and suddenly your dog rips a dewclaw and needs to go now. If you’re still working at getting in and out of the car, you’ll need to take that on the chin. The good thing is that it rarely takes as long to re-cover the steps that you’ve made as long as you go back to basics again.

But if you interrupt every single gradual stage with a 90-minute car journey through busy, winding lanes, then you’ll not make any progress.

Once you have your weekly goal, break it down backwards into daily tasks. If Week 1’s goal is to feel comfortable 5m from a car with open doors, then Day 6 will be to feel comfortable 10m from a car with open doors. Day 5, 20m away. Day 4 20m away with closed doors. Day 3 20m away with closed doors for 1 minute. Day 2 20m away with closed doors for 30 seconds. Day 1 20m away with closed doors for 15 seconds.

You can then use things your dog finds reinforcing to meet those distance and duration goals. For instance, I could set out our massage rugs and do a brief bit of massage. I could use a game and get gradually closer to the car for longer periods. For me, it’s a no-brainer… it’s food! So I’ll be using scatter feeding, snuffle mats, licki-mats, kongs and so on.

I’ll also be starting to teach behaviours to help dogs choose to get in the car themselves. That may be walking on a ramp. It may be hopping up into my arms so I can lift them if they’re small. It may be learning to hop up onto a bench couch. What I absolutely do not want to do is force, grab, lift or coerce the dog. Now, with an old or invalid big dog, I may need to get them used to me grabbing their front end or back end to hoist them. I have to do this with Flika from time to time. That means I’ll need to get dogs like this used to being helped up and into things. Ideally, though, your aim is that your dog should always get in and out unaided. A dog that makes a choice is a dog who is consenting.

The fifth thing you’ll need to consider is your dog’s general levels of anxiety. If your dog is anxious in many aspect of life, you’ll need to work on bringing those levels down beforehand. That might be with trust-building work, with relationship work, with work on concepts like optimism and confidence, or with changes in diet and handling. Supplements may also help.

For those of you who want further guidance, I’ve written this more detailed mini-book to help you understand the small step-by-step approaches to success, explaining in more detail about how to plan a gradual and systematic programme to help your dog cope better in the car.

Next week: Knowing better and doing better

Constraint, Consent and Choice

I’d like you to meet Amigo, if you’ve never met him before.

I adopted him in 2014, and he was part of my life for a very wonderful 4 years. He came in through the pound, I fell in love immediately (he was truly my heart dog) and I adopted him as soon as I could.

In 2017, he had a stroke and the remaining 14 months or so were spent in a fog of canine cognitive dysfunction. He never regained his hearing, and he was rarely truly comfortable after this, particularly at night.

I can’t tell you what a gentle soul he was. He was never a dog’s dog, but the couple of scraps he had never involved teeth.

The last thing I expected was for Amigo, my lovely, gentle, sweet dog, to bite me in the middle of the night.

He was quite often a midnight wanderer and it would disturb the others. They’d grrr-grrrr and Amigo blithely walked all over them, got in their beds when the resident dog was already in it. Once, he was getting himself ready to go and invade Heston’s very quiet spot and I could tell it would be a fight if I didn’t intervene.

But you can’t call a deaf dog who’s disoriented anyway.

So I grabbed his collar.

And he bit my hand.

Not hard, but enough to say, “don’t grab me!”

It was the only time he bit me.

In the past, we’d have perhaps had a more extreme reaction. Indeed, many of my clients whose dogs have bitten think that the dog can’t be trusted, can’t be with children, should be muzzled… and sometimes they’re right. For some, it’s a red line and no matter how hard the contact, the dog is euthanised. For many of my clients, it can often be the one behaviour that drives them to call me.

When I do an diagnostic interview for post-bite behaviour consultations – which makes up about 70% of my work – I want to know the context, the circumstances, the triggers, the consequences and the underlying emotions. Mills and Westgarth (2017) say similar things in Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Each bite will be different, and often driven by different emotions. Other trainers might like to put a label on the bite as this kind of aggression or that kind of aggression, but I’m not such a fan of doing so.

In one famous study, veterinary behaviourist Dr Ilana Reisner found 27 labels in use for aggression, some of which were used to label dogs. Many were based on late 1960s work on aggression in humans. Many behaviourists have tried to categorise aggression with constructs like dominance, possessive aggression, predatory aggression and fear aggression. These terms are quite often meaningless. One term that did not come up in Dr Reisner’s review, though, and yet is frequently used by French veterinarians is irritation. In French, irritation is not emotional irritation like I might have with my brother if he keeps poking me, but physical irritation, like sunburn or itches or pain. I know some people might call this defensive aggression but for me, that’s really not the same.

Now I said before all bites are different, and that’s the principal I work off. But quite a few happen in very similar circumstances. For that reason, I do actually like this term as it describes a number of bites dogs I’ve worked with have presented with. Including Amigo. Often these bites may seem to come “out of the blue” since it may happen really fast but they’re ALWAYS preceded by a grabby human hand in close proximity. By and large, many of the bites vets sustain would probably come into this category. Pound workers are another group of people who may find themselves bitten in such circumstances, especially if the animal is already afraid or trapped. Also dog groomers. Nobody said Fido was willing to have a buzzcut. The purpose of the bite is a cease-and-desist warning to the hand.

But how do we react to such bites? Many of my clients ask me what they should do next time.

What did I do when my Meegie bit me? Was it the end of our relationship? Had he destroyed all my trust in him? What would I do next time?

I told myself there would be no next time.

That’s not to say it was his final warning and it was curtains for Meegie if he bit me again.

It’s to say that I told myself not to grab an old, deaf dog by the collar when it is dark and he is disoriented. I mean I know I’m only human and I was sleep deprived and I trusted Amigo as he’d never bitten me before. But even so.

I said he would never again be put into the position where he would need to bite me. I said sorry and said I’d do better.

I set up x-pens the next day and that was the end of the wandering into other dogs’ beds that had caused me to grab his collar. Sure, the other dogs had more limited roaming too – but for Effel, he stayed always in the same bed. Tilly always slept on my bed. So it really was easy to put pens around Effel’s bed, with open gates, and to block off the corner where Heston sometimes chose to sleep that he couldn’t get out of should Amigo wander into him.

Amigo still wandered, but it never again bothered my other dogs, and he was safe. No collar grabs needed.

I also realised he might not trust me very much any more, so we went back to basics. I did lots of practice grabbing his collar and giving him treats. We played games and had lots of massage sessions.

Now I’m not a dog bite apologist, going around blaming people for dogs biting. I don’t think dogs’ teeth should touch flesh full stop. But it happens. Neither am I screaming about “forcing” dogs to have haircuts and how pinning them down to look at a dewclaw is an abuse of their rights. Needs must, from time to time. I don’t advocate a totally hands-off life, as it’s not possible. Nor do I feel like we should tread on eggshells around our own dogs.

But I do know that I’m the thinking part of the human-canine partnership, and it’s up to me to sort it out, rather than it being up to the dog to tolerate things they find deeply unpleasant.

Yet it still surprises me that we know that so many of those bites are preceded by our grabby, chimpy, monkey hands, and we continue to do it anyway.

As I said, my motto is that the dog will never again be placed in a situation where they needed to use teeth. That’s what I don’t get about some people who are repeatedly bitten in the exact same situation over a number of occasions.

“My God! My dog bit me again!”

“What were you doing?”

“Well, exactly the same thing I was doing last time!”

Insanity: repeating the same behaviour and expecting different results. Newsflash, people. YOU are the one with the super-size neocortex and rational decision-making skills. Not your dog. Don’t expect them to change if you won’t.

For me, the first thing to check out any health issues. I appreciate this will be with another grabby monkey in a turquoise smock. You may need to do some work before you get there, or make really, really sure your vet is not a grabby monkey. None of my vets are, which is why I like them.

Underlying pain is such a huge factor in a sudden dislike of manipulation. I saw one dog a few weeks ago who didn’t like having his neck touched… vet checks are still ongoing, and it may be nothing, but the vet also felt it necessary to shuffle the dog up the line to a veterinary hospital. On Wednesday, one of our shelter dogs was adopted and knowing her history, lifting a 40kg dog into the back of an SUV with a high tailgate was not a risk I was willing to take given her hip dysplasia and arthritis, coupled with a history of not liking being manipulated. And our award for Most Grumbly Dog in the Vets 2019 at the shelter surely should go to ten-year-old Elzo the shih tzu who needs eye-drops twice daily and who needed three people to wrestle him into a headlock to do it. Itchy eyes, bad skin, wobbly legs… recipe for animals who decide they don’t like being touched thank you very much.

But shock can also contribute to this too. Like Amigo. And my non-grabby vet laughed so hard the other week when doing a blood draw from Heston as I was right near his face and as she was about to stick him with a great big syringe, I said “Don’t bite my face!”

She laughed, but she wasn’t at the bitey end of a big, scared dog about to get stuck with a fat syringe.

These issues can arise with grooming too. We had one beautiful Bernese mountain dog with us for months who’d been brought in with chronic ear infections and a dire need for grooming. He said no. Hence the untreated ear infection and the lack of grooming… making everything so much worse.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

I’m not a fan of wild animals in facilities, but I know there are such things, so if there are, I’d prefer to do things kindly.

What they don’t tell you is that many animals in experimentation are trained to present body parts for blood draws, for cables to be attached or restraints to be applied. Madness. If we take one thing from this, it’s that even in the world of animal testing, they’re not wrestling dogs to the floor and using four people to hold the animal down.

Zoos also picked up on this trend:

Now I’m not a fan of zoos for many reasons but this did make me think how much easier it would have been to have had my cat do this rather than having to trick him, ball him up in a towel and hope none of my scratches went septic. Can you even do that with a tiger?

And when you can’t, that’s when sedatives come in. But that isn’t a good thing and it can really interfere with your health checks, particularly if the animal has heart problems.

We spend so much time thinking it’s our right as animal guardians to wrestle our “stubborn” companions onto vet tables or at the groomers, or drug them, that I think we get a little trapped in that. It doesn’t cross our tiny minds to teach our dogs the same stuff that animals are taught in zoos or labs. I mean they’re our dogs, right?

But it doesn’t take much to build up a ‘yeah, I’m not such a fan, Sharon, so I’m sitting this one out!’ from your “stubborn” dog when grooming, handling or putting on harnesses even. Certainly when attaching leads or putting on collars, securing in vehicles or lifting dogs up and down. Then we think there’s something wrong with our “aggressive” dog. Trouble is, the bite usually works to stop the irritating thing (you) and that’s NOT a good thing for a dog to learn…. because, as we know, DOGS DO WHAT WORKS. So says Jean Donaldson. And she’s right. Dogs who’ve bitten when a hand approached are likely to do the same again if it stopped the hand doing stuff to them. These bites, by and large, are often bites to the hand. But I’ve seen bites to the face for people who were crowding their dogs.

Dogs are quick to work out what hurts and to find ways to stop it. I caught a moment of this the other week. Lidy, my reprobate malinois, got her lip caught by a dog a few months back. It bled profusely and the skin is still a bit delicate. I was doing a video for a client about how to get her to approach the brush. Things were great through seven trials. Then she just stopped. Stopped looking at the brush, wouldn’t orient towards it.

I was a bit stumped. I let her finish the remnants of the treats thinking we needed to refresh our training, and only then did I see she’d caught her lip on the brush and it was bleeding a little.

She is such an obedient and operant girl – she loves learning. She does practically everything I asked, and she played dumb.

“Bumped brush, brush hurt, won’t look at brush…”

Can you see why a more sensitive dog might quickly build up a link between you and the tools you like to use to hurt them with?

This is worsened by one of the most controversial behaviours in dog training (and most abusive – let’s start from there) that has been sadly popularised by barbaric trainers and by TV programmes. The Alpha Roll. You know, force your dog to submit and pin him to the floor.

This “technique” was dreamed up by the Monks of New Skete (actual monks, not some name for a family of expert dog trainers, just in case you thought they might know about dogs rather than gods) who popularised it, passed it on to Cesar Millan …. and then …. retracted their guidance. They said it was too complex for most people to do and it could backfire. Bless ’em. The general population are just too crap at wrestling dogs into submission. Sure it could backfire. This Alpha Rolling or forced submission is behind so many irritation bites I can’t even begin to tell you.

Forcing dogs into grooming, handling or veterinary care causes such a breakdown of trust that it can be impossible to overcome completely. And yes, you might be able to force the dog once. But woe betide you the next time. It kind of made me laugh to see on one dog’s vet notes that the first time the dog was presented, the vet thought there was a suspicion of hip dysplasia and was able to manipulate the dog. Strangely, yes, strangely, and he’d written that word on the notes, the second time the dog went back, she was too aggressive to be manipulated. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? Don’t think so.

Some dogs will submit and will seem to tolerate it. I say “seem” and that’s important.

In the late 60s and early 70s, a psychology professor named Martin Seligman did some studies on a concept called learned helplessness. It informed us why people sometimes don’t act to change things when they can, or why they tolerate the intolerable. Dogs are the same. If you’re scoffing about me making anthropomorphic comparisons, you need to know he figured out human motivations using dogs. So no anthropomorphism at all.

First, he “restrained” dogs in what’s known as a Pavlovian hammock. Basically an inescapable mechanism for keeping dogs still.

You may be disgusted and thinking ‘how inhumane!’ but if you use your hands any time to restrain your dog, no matter the circumstances, it’s not much different if you ask me. All shades of grey.

So these dogs he shocked. Because they were restrained, they couldn’t escape it.

He also used some other dogs in a different system: a shuttlebox. This has an electrified floor on one side, and an escape hatch to a no-electrified bit. They were shocked, but they learn to hop over the other side.

What he learned was dogs who’d been subject to shocks they couldn’t escape from in the past would just accept shocks and not seek to escape even if they could.

They basically just shut down completely.

Now, yes, this tells us a lot about resilience and depression and learned helplessness and why battered spouses stay in the relationship and why depressed people don’t seem to help themselves.

But it also tells us that dogs who’ve been restrained and punished may just shut down and give up.

So your pinning a dog may seem to work.

However, I’m not comfortable with that; I mean, I know in emergencies, you do what you need to – and I know I’ve had to do that sometimes, knowing what the repercussions are, just because it was medically necessary. But I’m still not comfortable with it.

I also know that such behaviours, in almost half the times it’s used, come out fighting (and biting).

It may also be that your dog will tolerate it, tolerate it, tolerate it, and then won’t.

So I don’t choose to restrain my dogs because a) if they tolerate it, it may be that they’ve just shut down, and ethically, I can’t disapprove of Seligman shocking dogs in hammocks or slings if I’m hypocritically pinning my dog to do things to them that they find offensive, and b) because one day, my dog might decide to become one of the very, very large number of dogs who become more aggressive when restrained.

Does that mean I’m just some sensitive soul who doesn’t touch my dogs or that I tread on eggshells around them?

Not at all. Just like the guy with the tiger, I know I’ll need to do some stuff to my dog that if my dog had their say, they’d say a loud “no thank you!”. You don’t have to be some kind of sensitive soul who goes through life never handling your dog. That way madness and even neglect lie. But when dogs feel they have a choice, a marvellous thing happens.

First, you don’t put your back out yoinking your dog around.

Second, your dog (because they’re dogs and dogs are great) will perform many amazing things. After all, if they can teach a tiger, you can teach your dog. My whole epiphany about animal care came from watching a walrus opening its mouth on cue. I was quite ashamed that I had to wrestle my dogs to look in their mouth.

Here’s the crucial bit…

When a dog has choice and consents willingly (be very clear about this… it is not coercion or force!) then you find they’re more relaxed, it’s less stressful and you can stop being afraid your dog will bite you.

You ask and they consent.

It really is a request, too.

The requests we make of our dogs also get easier with cold trials and repetition and practice. The more they do it, the more they say, “fine!”

It requires a change in mindset though. I was never a very grabby dog person anyway. Now I rarely grab them (if ever?) but you know, when it does, say for instance, an escaped dog at the shelter, then I know I have work to do to both practise it for next time and to smooth out the ugly fallout from having grabbed them in the first place. You know, most of the time, dogs put up with it. This morning, we had an escapee, and one of our staff had to corner him and then picked him up. But just because we may need to do it and dogs tolerate it doesn’t mean they always will. Also, what we do in emergencies is one thing; what we can plan for is another entirely.

Heston and Lidy both know “open!” to open their mouths without handling. Heston knows “show me your wiener!” which seemed like an impossibly cute trick to teach a 6 week old dog, but turned out to be a stroke of genius when the vet wanted to ogle his undercarriage. By the end of her life, Tilly rattled she had that many pills and drops, but she presented her eyes and ears willingly right up until the end. That was a long way to come for a girl who bit a vet, aged 4. Likewise Elzo, the grumpy shih tzu, who grumbles but comes to get his eyes done by his foster dad and then trots off with a treat. No fingers bitten! Heston knows “up!” to come and stand on the back of a chair for me to check for ticks. He knows “hup!” to get in the car (although he does that with any open door, cars are that much fun).

Teaching dogs “up!” and “on!” and “off!” and “down!” helps cut out so very much of the handling that ends up being classed as resource guarding or handling sensitivity.

Giving them choice about putting muzzles on or harnesses on also sets up dogs to say yes rather than no. This brings up a crucial point about Lidy, my little work-in-progress. Vets are not for her. There is no way by the time her vaccinations are due that I will have got her up to a chin rest whilst other people stick her with pointy objects. But I can make the muzzle a less unpleasant experience for her as we make steps towards cooperative care. And you know what? She may never tolerate vets. That’s fine too. She tolerates the things I need to do to her and that’s the important bit.

As you can see in the following video with the chihuahua, when the dog chooses, it stops the vicious circle of aggression and punishment. Little dogs are far more likely to have been restrained, sadly. One of the best things I ever say to my clients is to imagine how they’d do things if they had a 50kg grumbly big dog. That’s one reason I’m less of a grabber these days. When you’ve had big dogs, you do a lot of this stuff instinctively.

There are literally so many ways you can allow your dog to choose. Refusal isn’t a big deal, telling you that the dog isn’t able to handle it right now. But refusal gets less and less because, guess what, you’re not having to use force in the first place.

Whilst I’m not a fan of the Julius harness used in this video, I am certainly a fan of teaching your dog to consent to harnesses rather than have the damn thing forced on.

Two things that I find really helpful as well are teaching your dog to nose touch to hand and to rest their chin on your hand or lap. Those two behaviours can build up nicely into so many others. Using target sticks like the tiger can also help. I like my hand as I’ve always got that with me though.

The good news is that more and more vets are getting on board with fear free cooperative care, as are groomers.

If only, when I got Mr Basil back in 1997, I’d known you can clicker train cats… how different our relationship would have been. Luckily, through many people who have pioneered cooperative husbandry in companion animals, it has been the saving grace of my relationship with my dogs. That my cat was so terrified of the crate and the car need not have depended on me forcing him to comply or removing his choice.

The best thing about cooperation and choice is that your dog is much more “compliant”. The tough thing is that this doesn’t happen overnight. I do a little a day and repurposing tricks like playing dead, giving a paw or tilting their head can be really great ways to turn something terrible like tummy inspections, blood draws or ear checks into something fun.

The best things you can work on to start you off are nose-to-hand targets, chin rests and getting up and off things themselves. But there are literally so many things you can teach your dog that make vet care and grooming an absolute doddle. Start small and keep it fun, and you’ll keep building up the trust you’ll need to get your dog through the pains of old age.

Next week: how to help dogs with car journeys.