Category Archives: Blog

Secret Confessions of Shelter Workers


Most of the time, we shelter folk have to exercise a higher level of restraint than the general public. Most of the time, we manage. We manage to grit our teeth and not let the emotions spill out when someone says they’re surrendering their dog because it snapped at their child. Perfectly reasonable. Until you hear the circumstances. The child was pulling the dog’s ears to get the dog out of its bed.

All you can do is nod politely when in your head you are looking at the dog thinking, “You amazing creature. You could have bitten the child and you – you! – showed restraint! I’m so sorry that it ended like this for you, but I promise to do my best to find you a family where nobody will pull your ears and where there are people who understand animals.”

That’s hard for most people to get their head around.

How could life in a cold shelter be better than life in a home?

Until I tell you that many of the animals surrendered to us have lived with mindless, thoughtless, brainless excuses for humans who have some mysterious misunderstanding of the fact that the dog in their home is a domesticated wolf, complete with a domesticated wolf’s set of specialist killing tools… teeth and claws. Yes, even your shi tzu. Respect for that has usually been sadly lacking.

Add to that all the people who really don’t seem to have been expecting a dog to do, you know, dog stuff. Digging, barking, whining, crying, wanting to be with people, killing kittens, wanting to run, licking their arseholes, eating from dustbins, digging up guinea pig corpses… all par for the course for your usual dog.

That aside, other than momentary explosions behind closed doors, we manage to restrain ourselves pretty well.

You might overhear us having conversations that go like this…

“Well, I wanted to tell him that he should tell his kids the facts of life… Daddy was too stupid to keep the guinea pig away from the dog… the dog killed the guinea pig… now Daddy’s taking the dog to the vet to be killed.”

“That couple that surrendered the labrador on Tuesday? Have you got their address? I need to add them to the black list because they’re now looking for a German Shepherd.”

“That dog that just came into the pound? Was it identified? That’s the dog that came from that farm I was at in June to investigate. Under no circumstances give that dog back to the guy without sterilising it… if he bothers to claim it.”

“Please can you add her to the black list? She’s just picked up two dogs from another shelter, including the five she already has and I’m worried about a hoarding situation.”

And that’s just in our shelter hours!

Some of us come home only have to rein in our tongues on Facebook as well.

With the lady advertising the four-year-old poodle of an 87-year-old neighbour…

With the woman who wants a “cheap” miniature pinscher (or a giveaway if possible)…

With the woman giving away a Malinois puppy…

With the people asking for 50€ for unchipped, unvaccinated labrador-mix puppies…

With the woman who wants a cheap or free French bulldog…

With the woman who says she can’t possibly consider a six-year-old dog, because that dog might die…

With the woman giving away free, unidentified, unvaccinated kittens…

With the person looking for a free puppy…

With the person who says they want a cheap or free puppy because they don’t have loads of money…

With the person who’s lost their six-month old unidentified puppy…

With the person who is pissed off that they have to pay to identify their puppy…

With the person who paid 50€ to identify a kitten and then the kitten disappeared, so they think they wasted 50€…

With the woman who always has four or five kittens to give away each year, but “they’re not her cats”…

With the woman asking for 700€ for her French bulldog puppies… who don’t have pedigree papers…

With the people who never go to shelters but happily post ‘Adopt, don’t Shop’ stickers on everything…

You just have no idea what is going on in their tiny, tiny brains.

Our work at the shelter is quadrupled because of people who have not identified their animals. In 2014, 22 cats were returned to their owners out of the hundreds that passed through our doors. Sure, you may very well lose an identified animal. It may be stolen. It might be expensive. Your dog might never go anywhere without  you. But if you don’t identify your cat or dog, be prepared for the fine you’ll get when we pick it up. That’ll be the price of the chip AND vaccines AND a fine for letting the animal stray. And we might also charge you kennel rates too. That’s going to work out a lot more expensive than the amount it cost to identify your animals.

Poverty does limit animal ownership, no doubt about it. If it didn’t, I’d happily keep Effel my foster dog for ever and ever and ever. I’d have kept Mimire and Vanille and Fripouille instead of finding homes for them. I’d have adopted Hagrid and put him in a big pen in the garden that was all to himself. I’d have my full quotient of nine dogs. I’d have whipped Amon and Aster out of the refuge and given them a home. Four is my hard limit, and when Tobby goes, I’ll probably stick to three for a time. Between specialist foods, dental hygiene, bedding, leads, blankets, medicines, vaccinations and regular check-ups, pets are expensive. If you can’t afford a cat or dog, get a gerbil. I had a gerbil. He was great. He was also cheaper to look after. But don’t go on Facebook and ask for a cheap puppy if you don’t have the means to look after it. You certainly won’t have the means to sterilise it. Don’t ask me to get out my violins because you’ve not got the money to own a dog. Most of us would have more animals if we had the means. Yes, being too poor means you shouldn’t own a dog. There, I said it.

Age should also limit animal ownership as well. Who on earth sells a puppy to a senior? Someone actually said that they couldn’t bear it if the animal died before they did the other day. There is something disgustingly selfish about people taking on young animals knowing that they will outlive the animal, that no provision has been made for it after the owner dies and that whoever clears up the estate will become responsible for taking the animal to the shelter. I am always gentle when I say “Do you think this dog is right for you? He’s very young and very strong.” but inside I am furious. What life is it to offer to a young dog? Even poodles need exercise. Really, what I am saying in my head is “selfish selfish selfish selfish selfish” … and that’s just the nice stuff I am saying inside my head. Yes, being too old means you shouldn’t buy a puppy. Glad to get that off my chest.

Your means and lifestyle should also influence your animal ownership too. If you don’t have time, don’t get a dog. Get a cat maybe. Many cats can tolerate a more independent life. Or get a fish. Unless you are dedicated to walking the dog before and after work, and sometimes in lunch-times too, don’t get a dog. Don’t assume that a garden is sufficient exercise for a dog. It’s not. If you want to get a dog and keep it in a room whilst you work, or keep it in a garden pen whilst you go about your daily business, don’t get a dog. Dogs are social creatures and they suffer when we deprive them of companionship. Yes, you are a knob if you expect a husky to be happy with a tiny back yard.

Don’t get me started on the people who feed “feral” cats. First, if they’ll approach you, they’re not feral. They’re people cats. If you feed it, that cat is now your cat. I don’t care if the law makes it your cat after one meal or fifty. Feed it once and you’re encouraging it. Feed it twice and you’re creating a habit. Feed it three times and the cat has certain expectations. If you are feeding it, it’s your job to also ensure its other physical needs are met, including sterilisation. Please don’t give me the “it was starving” line. Unless the cat is too weak to move, it’s not starving. Feed if you like. Trap and take it to the vet if you like. But above all, know that the food you give it has strong implications and that nobody in rescue will pat you on the back and say “Wow! Well done!”. If you feed stray cats and you want gratitude, you’re miaowing to the wrong person. What you are doing, and let’s not mince words about this, is creating and encouraging the baby steps of a giant ownerless kitten community who, given two or three years, will be plagued with diseases and illnesses from interbreeding. Unless you want to end by feeding twenty ill and yucky cats, don’t start feeding one. If you have genuinely found a cat you think is lost, please please call us BEFORE you feed it. Yes, lady, I really do think you wanted to have a pet, not pay for it and wash your hands of any responsibility when the inevitable happens. Don’t tell me you do it for kindness.

And puppies… oh, puppies. First, there’s a law to stop you selling your puppies. No good telling me that the 50€ from each of the puppies will be used to castrate dad. A castration is around 110€ for a big dog. That’s the profit from a couple of puppies. Shelter workers are not stupid. We can do adding up. Or you’ve got another litter due by the end of the year? You’re not a person who has accidents with your dog, you are a feckless breeder who has netted almost 1000€ without paying out. Selling a non-pedigree puppy for 600€? That dog is a mutt. A mutt! Look at the other people selling mutts. They sell for 50€. They shouldn’t, because it’s illegal, but they try. That is the going price for a mutt. A puppy without papers is not an Amstaff or a bulldog, it is a mutt. A mutt who looks like a bulldog or an Amstaff, but a mutt nonetheless. Yes, you are far too money-grubbing to be involved in dog breeding.

And the people who say “Adopt, don’t shop!”. Not every breeder is a back-yard breeder. If nobody took cautions with dogs, there would be more dogs abandoned at the shelter. The simple fact is that indiscriminate breeding leads to Marleys who eat plasterboard, have excessive energy or unmanageable character flaws. Do you think shelter pups are the best option? Sure. I like the idea that pedigrees should be done away with, but the pups that result from accidents, where dad isn’t known… they’re the pups that turn into mastiff crosses rather than boxers, who take “bounce” to the next level. Don’t even get me started on the science of stress for in-utero pups, for inherited fear or aggression, the science behind orphaned puppies and the risk of becoming a reactive, fearful dog as a result. The refuge is not bursting full of pedigree dogs with paperwork who are identified and vaccinated on arrival. That tells you all you need to know about the correlation between breeding and rescue. There isn’t a correlation. The dogs who stay a long time at the refuge are not ones born with papers. They are crazy, unregistered offspring of random dogs, sold for 50€ to people who didn’t bother to get them chipped or vaccinated. If you want to see what orphaned puppies without parents turn out like, I want you to meet my dog Heston. He is super-smart. Just so you know, my whole day is arranged so that he gets the stimulation he needs. The world doesn’t need a thousand Hestons. So what do I really think? I think you should stop being a Facebook warrior and get yourself involved in rescue. Properly. You should understand personality traits that are inherited and how stress affects canine foetuses, the difficulties of raising a dog whose very DNA demands something different. You should understand the uphill battle it can be to adopt a puppy whose parents are not known. Hestons are not for the faint-hearted or the weak of spirit. Be smart. Or be quiet. The last thing we need is to close the dialogue between breeders and rescue.

Rescue dogs are not for everyone. Dogs are not for everyone. Dogs are not really even for most people. You are not entitled to own a dog. It’s not some right you have. If you do own a dog, you owe it to that animal to look after it, to consider life from its perspective, to be respectful of its physical and emotional needs. That’s not to say there aren’t tragic or sad circumstances where people are forced to surrender a dog that they can’t handle through no fault of their own. There will always be dogs who need owners with a skill level that surpasses our own or who need a home which we can’t offer.

That said, if you live in an apartment and you want a husky, if you live in town and you want a pointer, if you work long hours and you want a shepherd, you are buying into a breed who have basic needs that you are never likely to be able to give it. No wonder so many shelter workers end up all…




Luckily, there are plenty of people to keep us from going completely insane, from the foster families who take on a mum and her puppies to the people who come and adopt an ancient German shepherd even though they’d only lost theirs a few weeks ago, or volunteers who bring a packet of biscuits with them as well as a smile.


Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool


A couple of weeks ago, I was at an adoption drive with a few of my kittens. There were a good number of dogs there from local rescues, who were by and large really well behaved given that some had come straight to the event from the pound or rescue facility.

At one point, a guy and his family came in with a beautiful Australian shepherd. Nothing wrong with that. The first thing I noticed was that the dog was wearing a halti. Nothing wrong with that, either, if you want to control rather than eliminate a behaviour. The second thing I noticed was a prong collar.

Yes, a halti and a prong collar. No prizes for guessing that the guy is finding the dog hard to walk.

No prizes either for guessing that neither the prong nor the halti are working. Definitely not on their own, and probably not in combination.

And it’s not hard to realise why.

The dog is severely stressed because he’s come into a place and guess what… right in front of him there are five dogs, two kittens in a cage, at least ten people, all the usual garden centre weirdnesses and smells. There are birds and hamsters, rabbits and fish. You can imagine it, I’m sure.

An environment like this can be either extremely exciting or extremely frightening for a dog. If I brought my super-reactive Heston in here, every single thing would be setting him off. Dogs first. He’d be yanking on the lead to get to them, pulling and making lunges towards them because he really, really, really wants to say hi. Like really. And if I brought my spaniel in here, she’d be barking her head off about stranger dangers. Amigo would be hiding behind my skirt and Tobby would be trying to lick everything that moved. Dogs, like all animals, are either attracted to novelty, or they’re not. For dogs like Heston and Tobby, they love new stuff. Neophilia means that your dog will be interested and curious about new animals or experiences and want to investigate. For dogs like Tilly and Amigo, they are neophobic, and find new experiences, things, people or animals to be overwhelming. Dogs who aren’t bothered either way… I never saw one of those. Even my mattress-back uber-zen Ralf would pull me on my arse through a field full of cows to go see a dog he’d never seen before.

Some dogs are going to be pulling to get nearer, and some dogs are going to be pulling to get away. Either way, they’re less likely to obey your commands whenever you introduce novelty into their lives.

It’s not rocket science to know that I’m not going to take my dogs into a garden centre like this during an adoption event unless I want to see them at their very worst. If I got there and it was a surprise to me, I’d have backed right off and put the dog in the car if I needed to go into the shop to buy something. Avoiding problems is perfectly okay. Our dogs don’t have to be equipped to go into garden centres and meet five strange dogs and twenty strange people at an adoption event. That’s not a usual, daily event for most dogs.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my dogs to socialise and to become habituated to novelty. I like that very much. I like them to go into populated or new areas. I regularly set up situations where my dogs go into town and see all kinds of strange things. I take Heston to the shelter when I drop the van off specifically because he likes meeting other dogs off lead and the dogs who live free at the heart of the shelter are all great dogs for him to do that with. But those are situations I set up as training events to make sure they are prepared for times when they meet other people and dogs, since we don’t meet other people and dogs often on a walk. We don’t walk in urban areas. I don’t ever plan to either. But I never know if I need to go to town with my dogs, or if I’d need to move house at any point to a more urban area, so it’s my duty to ensure that my dogs are not lacking in the ability to cope with novelty, or environments where there is a lot of novelty.

You can read a lot more about this here on Dr Jen’s Dog Blog about why avoiding a problem can work.

As she says, “you have to pick your battles”.

And this guy with the Australian shepherd had clearly picked a battle that he was losing.

I’ll describe what happened next.

He forced his dog to be restrained in approach, getting nearer and nearer to all the adoption dogs. His level of yanking and correction increased to one every ten seconds over a ten-metre approach. Then he stood with his dog, forbidding it to approach the other dogs, holding the dog’s muzzle and preventing it from growling. Finally, the dog gave in, rolled on its back and just lay there.

I’m sure some people would think that looks cute.

That, though, is a dog who is completely broken and has given up. Not cute if you ask me.

And what has the dog learnt?

That when they see other dogs, you hurt him. The more you see other dogs, the more you hurt him. You cut off his oxygen so he can’t think straight. You add a little pain which also increases adrenaline (just ask anyone who loves a little spanking in the bedroom!). In fact, cutting off oxygen, increasing adrenaline and adding pain are three things that people do with other people to ENHANCE excitement in the bedroom!! Yet they are things we do to dogs when they are excited.

Why do we think that they would work to decrease a dog’s stimulation?

In fact, they’re also what we do to other human beings in another setting too. When we cut off the oxygen of another human being, when we hurt them, when we cause them pain to get them to do what we want… it’s called torture. Sometimes it works. Often, just like our dogs, you can increase the pain and it hardens resolve to do a thing. Then you have to increase it more until you ‘break’ the person who’s resisting.

Of course, most of us don’t increase the pain our dogs are enduring to this point. You might think that low levels of ‘correction’ are okay.

But are they really as efficient as you think?

The fact is that pain works. At first. Correction works. At first. Give someone a speeding ticket, and for a few days, they’ll be careful to follow the law. That’s how we work – human beings – rational thinking beings with our giant neo-cortexes who have the power of language to be able to understand cause and punishment.

Imagine though living in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language. A police officer follows you around everywhere, and every time you think you’re doing something right, he tasers you.

And that’s what was happening to the Australian shepherd. In fact, he was just being a dog. In his eyes, he was doing a normal dog thing: wanting to get closer to other dogs to suss them out. In his eyes, it was something natural. Something normal. Something right. He saw other dogs and he wanted to approach them. He’s a social creature. That’s what dogs do. He wanted to go and see these dogs and sort out friends from foes. And every time he tried to, his owner hurt him, restrained him and punished him.

In the 1960s, Dr Martin Seligman and his colleagues undertook a series of what are, quite frankly, disgusting experiments. They wanted to find out about “learned helplessness”. Post-war Americans want to know why people don’t run away or try to escape. It’s a theme that dominates cognitive and behavioural psychology in the post-war era: human beings and what makes us hurt others, what stops us from escaping. 20 years on from the Holocaust and you too might be wondering why so few people tried moves like “The Great Escape”. Why did people just give up? And even when they could escape, why didn’t they? You can imagine the questions in Seligman’s head about why people – with our rational thinking brains, let me stress – give up. Seligman used dogs to find out. It wasn’t intended to be comparative psychology or even animal psychology. It was intended to teach us about humans. Inadvertently, it taught us about dogs.


First, he put them in something called a Pavlovian hammock. That’s a nice way to describe an “inescapable” situation in which a number of dogs were placed. And then he used electric shocks. He taught them that pain was inescapable and unpredictable. He found that these dogs, when later placed in a situation from which they could easily escape, chose not to… even if shocked to the point where their muscles no longer functioned.

His conclusion was that once you have been subject to inescapable punishment, you are so broken that you would choose not to escape even if you could. He called this “learned helplessness”. He thought that this was why people with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety or other disorders might choose not to end their anguish, even if they could. The escape routes just weren’t visible to them.


And that is exactly what this Australian shepherd went through, just on a less scientific level. He couldn’t escape the situation and so you can inflict as much pain as you like: he’s just given up.

He’s learned that there is no point resisting. He’s learned something else too.

Like being followed around by a police officer who slaps a fine on you for leaving chopsticks in rice, for blowing your nose, for looking someone in the eye, what you learn is not that you shouldn’t do certain things, but that you are in the company of someone who, to use the words of Nando Brown, is “a bit of a knob”. In other words, you don’t learn that in this foreign country, it’s bad manners to leave chopsticks in rice, to blow your nose in public or to eyeball someone (all things that are well-established cultural patterns in Japan, by the way) what you learn is that the presence of the police officer is a reliable indicator that you might get punished.

The first consequence of using punishment, then, is that you may have to administer increasing ‘doses’ of correction once the dog realises that the punishment is insufficient to make their ‘bad’ behaviour not worth doing. Like if you give me a 1o cent fine every time I swear, the swear box will be filled in no time. In fact, you’re going to have to increase the punishment if what I get from the behaviour is more pleasurable than the punishment is a deterrent. Remember that scene in The Breakfast Club where Paul Gleason is having a showdown with Judd Nelson? The teacher is trying to threaten Judd’s character, student John Bender. In the end, the teacher threatens to put Judd’s character in detention “for the rest of your natural born life if you don’t watch your step”. It doesn’t make much difference and ends up escalating the situation.

That’s what you have to do with punishment and correction: be prepared to escalate it.

In fact though, John Bender is doing resisting for all sorts of reasons. But dogs resist your punishments for one very good one. It’s not resentment. It’s not because they think they’re better than you, they’re dominating you or they’re showing off to their friends. It’s not because they’re social misfits who’ve had a hard life or a sucky home environment. Dogs resist because whatever it is you don’t want them to do is simply more rewarding and reinforcing than you can ever punish them for.

So the dog who wants to run off from the yard and needs a shock collar? The call of the wild is really powerful, or the urge to escape is overwhelming. The dog who barks and needs a shock collar? Barking is obviously really rewarding and reinforcing. You better get a collar that you can turn up, because once your dog realises that the shock isn’t enough to put them off, you’ll need to increase it. And increase it. In fact, you and the collar will probably fail long before the dog’s desire to bark does.

That’s the first consequence of punishment. You’ll need to be prepared to increase it if the dog’s desire to do whatever it was doing is more powerful than the punishment.

The second consequence of punishment is that even if it is predictable, if it works, the dog has not really overcome its behaviour. You’ve just taught the dog that it might as well give in. There is no escape, so give in and you’ll avoid the punishment. That’s not a dog who has mastered its desires or frustrations. It’s a broken dog whose spirit is crushed. That’s “learned helplessness” in action. We see this in concentration camps and in hostage situations, as well as in people suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

That, then, is not an obedient dog. It is a dog who has learned there is no point.

A third consequence of using punishment is that the main thing your dog will learn is that your presence is a reliable indicator that he might get punished. YOU are the common denominator. Why do you think companies are offering “remote” punishments, so that you don’t even have to be near the dog when you administer a shock? Because the thing the dog learns is not that its behaviour is not desirable to you, only that you are a bit of a knob. But if you use a choke collar, prong collar, a physical reprimand or a physical punishment that you have to be present to administer, YOU become the reliable indicator of pain, not the behaviour.

Some “dog trainers” will tell you that it’s not just this random and dogs will quickly learn that it’s only in certain conditions that you would punish your dog, this is nonsense too. Back to the mean cop example… Even if this police officer restricts himself to only fining you for chopsticks, and you can kind of work out a pattern, that doesn’t work either. That’s why anyone who tells you that a prong collar will work because the dog will learn that it only hurts if he pulls (i.e. there’s a clear condition attached to the punishment) actually is spinning you a line that is quite anti-experience and anti-science. In other words, they’re telling you a complete fabrication that is not rooted in reality.

The reality is that, like this Aussie shepherd, you just become habituated to the pain and need more and more. Where do you go next when a prong collar AND a halti isn’t working? A zappy collar as well? Punches in the nose? A kick to the backside? At what point have you crossed a line into abuse?

Some countries have already decided that shock collars and prong collars have crossed the line.

A final really, really important reason is that punishment is proven to make dogs more aggressive. One day, that dog might really turn around and bite you. If you’ve used physical correction with a dog, you’ve destroyed all trust between you. If you hurt a dog, don’t be surprised if one day it says that enough is enough. It may never get to a bite. But who wants a dog who growls at them, who snarls or snaps out of anger or fear?

It doesn’t take the law of the land to make me realise that punishment is not working as a training tool. Whether you don’t want to have to escalate the punishment to abusive levels, whether you realise that your dog is not obeying and has just learned to give in, whether you don’t want to destroy the trust between you and your dog and ensure your dog ends up more reactive, not less… there are plenty of reasons not to choose punishment as a tool when training.

I want to finish with the story of a malinois who came in the next day. He was wearing a muzzle, so for one reason or another, this is a dog who has a history. His owners had a really loose lead, and whenever the lead got a little tight or the dog was responding negatively, they backed up a little. They went up different aisles. They took their time, gave the dog space, allowed it distance. The muzzle was a very effective way of telling other people to keep their distance as well. Ironic, really. Ten minutes later, the muzzle was off, and the malinois was happily nose-to-nose with some of the dogs for adoption.

These weren’t expert dog trainers. They were just people who understood and responded in ways that got a wanted behaviour from their dog, rather than failing with haltis and prong collars, perhaps leaving the dog with a residual memory that means “when I see other dogs, my owner hurts me” rather than the response you wanted to instill.

I long for the days when we have more Malis in muzzles than Aussie shepherds in haltis and prong collars.

Travelling between France and the UK with your dog


Many people these days take advantage of EU laws making it easier to transport domestic animals between the UK and France. Gone are the times of long quarantines. Hopefully, DEFRA will continue to honour the EU passport as the UK leaves Europe. Only time will tell.

There are three main ways that pets travel to the UK from the continent. One is with their owners. Another is with a pet transfer service. The final way is as a newly adopted animal into the UK from a shelter or rescue association on the continent. The system for transferring animals from a shelter in France to a home in the UK is different and usually follows a system called TRACES which helps track animals and ensure that their health is regularly checked. It is also important to consider your own health while travelling with pets, London Travel Clinic has clinics throughout London and the south of England that provide vaccines for a range of diseases. Its well worth checking out before finalising any travel plans.

Travel with owners

For the most part, pets who travel with their owners are either travelling on holiday to the UK or on holiday to France.

All major crossings accept dogs.

For details of P&O crossings with pets from Dover to Calais, click here

For details of DFDS crossings with pets from Newhaven to Dieppe, Dover to Calais and Dover to Dunkirk, click here

For details of Brittany Ferries crossings with pets from Portsmouth to Caen, Poole to Cherbourg, Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Portsmouth to Le Havre, Plymouth to Roscoff, Plymouth to St Malo, or Portsmouth to St Malo, click here

Longer ferry crossings usually have kennels in which you can put your dogs, and shorter crossings usually expect your dog to stay in the car. Please be aware that you cannot stay in the vehicle bays with your animals so you will have to leave them for the journey or return to your vehicle only if accompanied by a member of staff. This has implications for dogs who have separation anxiety or who may find the voyage stressful. Foot passengers cannot usually travel with dogs.

You can also travel by Eurotunnel. This is ideal if you wish to stay with your pet and if you want the shortest crossing time.

Several airlines also fly dogs in the hold on short and long-haul flights. Some airlines have a maximum weight for dogs they will accept. Occasionally, airlines will fly dogs of less than certain weights in the cabin. Both Air France and British Airways will fly pets. In some cases if the combined weight of the dog and its crate are more than certain weights, your pet will be required to travel freight. For very long journeys, the advantages of flying a pet may outweigh the disadvantages, especially in comparison to leaving a dog for long periods of time in kennels on a ferry. Nonetheless, RV travel with dogs can be very ideal, given you can stop fairly frequently. On top of that, an RV is a great way to see a large area in one trip, in which case you might want to look at a one way rv rental.

All cross-channel services require you to follow the PETS passport scheme.

Travel with a pet transfer service

Several companies exist to take animals back to the UK for you. These can be expensive and spaces are booked well in advance, particularly at peak times (summer holidays and Christmas). If you intend to use a pet transport service, book well in advance and make sure you have all the details of your animal to hand. You will be expected to pay in advance, have photocopies of all relevant passport pages and conform to their standards. Spaces for bigger dogs often go more quickly. Check that vans are suitable for transporting animals, and that regular breaks are scheduled. If you have a nervous or flighty dog, this may not be the most suitable method for them. Expect to pay at least 200€ for transport from France to the UK and to book a good few weeks in advance. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that communication from pet transfer services can be quite poor if they are on the road.

PETS passport system

Whether you are travelling with your pet or not, the PETS travel system is a simplified way to ensure animals are transported without the need for long quarantine periods.

The first requirement is that your dog is microchipped. Please be advised that there have been some issues with animals who have been tattooed. It is worth checking with the carrier. DEFRA specifically requests animals be microchipped.

Once your dog has been microchipped, they can be vaccinated against rabies. Usually this is done on the same day. The vet will complete an EU pet passport for you. All of the animal’s essential details must be included. Please note that changes came into play at the end of 2014, and that passports must have sealed sections so that they cannot be tampered with.

The passport includes:

  • Owner details
  • A description of the animal
  • Markings or colour
  • All relevant rabies stamps, stickers and signatures
  • Details of the vet issuing the passport
  • Details of tapeworm treatments

For dogs travelling from France, they do not need to have a blood test to prove the efficacy of the rabies vaccination. You can only travel twenty-one days after the rabies vaccination has been administered.

A vet must have administered a tapeworm treatment (and recorded it) not less than 24 hours before the crossing and not more than 120 hours (five days) before the time of the crossing. The treatment must include praziquantel or an equivalent. For short trips from the UK, you will need to administer the wormer before you leave and worm 28 days later.

Some transport companies may require you to have a letter from the vet before you leave certifying that the animal is in good health.

You can find clear details about the PETS travel scheme on the DEFRA website.

Travel from a foreign shelter (TRACES)

If you have adopted an animal from a foreign shelter and the dog is being brought to England, you will need to follow additional guidance. This is called the TRACES tracking system.

There are rules in place to ensure animals are not trafficked across borders. These rules are the same for animals from breeders on the continent, who must also adhere to these rules.

The shelter will contact the department vet around 48 hours before the animal is due to travel. A shelter or association must have been approved before this point by the department vet. At Mornac, our team contact the state vet with all the necessary information, including your address. The state vet then issues a certificate (usually duplicate) that needs to travel with the animal and its passport.

The shelter or association is not the only side with obligations: you must notify your nearest animal health office in the UK at least more than twenty-four hours before the animal is due to arrive. They reserve the right to ask you to go to the centre with the animal, to visit the animal or even to ask for the animal to stay in quarantine.

Although you will find a number of unscrupulous “charities” transporting dogs from various shelters in Europe, please be careful. There are daily arrests at Calais of people who are transporting animals without passports or TRACES paperwork. These animals are often transported in articulated lorries without adequate air. Some of them are driven over seventy hours without breaks. Even some very well-known charities in Europe transport large numbers of animals (around 70) on one crossing in one container, running the risk of getting caught against the profit of doing it without paperwork (some charge around 400€ to transport and adopt an animal).

Every single time a rescue in Europe transports animals without the right paperwork, without proper microchips, without rabies vaccinations or wormers, they increase the chance that the UK will return to a quarantine system or that animals will not be allowed to be adopted directly from the continent. These unscrupulous rescues and individuals spoil it for the rest of us, who happily microchip and vaccinate our dogs, who take them for vet visits, get all of their TRACES paperwork in place and vet homes very carefully. With thousands of dogs put to sleep every year in the UK, please consider your choices carefully. Although we are happy to help you adopt breeds that are rare in the UK, we are also mindful of how complicated it can be if things go wrong. A large number of our popular breeds that are less familiar in the UK are dogs who have lived outside, have lived as part of large packs or have been used to working. For that reason, we undertake extensive interviews and expect you to keep in touch at every point of the adoption process.

The sale of puppies and dogs in France: what you need to know

Since January 2016, new laws have been in place regarding the advertisement of dogs (and cats). This includes details about puppies too (and kittens!). In fact, laws and requirements have been in place for some time regarding identification. But, for the first time, animal welfare groups joined forces with vets and breeders to help the French government create a law that would put a stop to the backyard breeding. Or at least give the authorities powers to put a stop to it. It’s not a perfect law, but it’s a law nonetheless.

So if you’re buying a puppy, what do you need to know?

You’ll find here details relating to pedigree puppy sales and other puppy sales. Then you’ll find further details about the purchase of adult dogs, about the conditions that exist when giving dogs away, and then conditions relating to adoption of an animal from a shelter.

Pedigree puppies

A puppy is considered a pedigree if four rules have been conformed to. You need to know these rules if you are looking to buy a pedigree puppy.

  1. BOTH of its parents are “LOF confirmé”. LOF means the “Livre des origines françaises”. This is essentially the French Kennel Club papers. ONLY dogs with LOF papers have a right to be called a pedigree dog, or a “chien de race”.  However, pedigree is not granted automatically. All puppies that are born to LOF parents are LOF themselves. BUT…. they are not “LOF confirmé”. To be confirmed, the dog needs to have seen a pedigree judge. This happens at different times in a dog’s life depending on its breed, A dog can be confirmed between ten months and fifteen months. This means a judge has agreed that your dog conforms to breed standards and is a good example of the breed. There are specialist meetings for confirmation, and breeders must pay a price to do so. This means that you can’t slip a whippet X in as a Labrador LOF and breed from it. A judge will know straight away that it is not a pedigree dog and it ensures breed standards are kept to. There are fees to do this.
  2. The breeder has declared the mating. In French, this is called the “Déclaration de Saillie”. In the 8 weeks following a mating, the owner of the female must notify the Sociéte Centrale Canine in order to receive a certificate of mating. This is the first step in the process of ensuring breed standards are kept to. There are dossier fees to pay to get this document. If you try to do this after 4 months from the mating, the SCC will pay you a little visit. After 8 months, it is impossible to do.
  3. The breeder has registered the births of puppies. This must be done within two weeks of the birth.
  4. The breeder has asked for the litter to be registered. This can only be done once the puppies are microchipped or tattooed.

You’d expect such a breeder to have been on training courses, to have solid understanding of the breed and to provide all these documents without asking. They are proud of their dogs. If you can’t see mum or dad, if you can see they have more than two or three different types of dogs, if they have multiple litters, if they are advertising on the internet… they’re probably missing some vital part of this.

Non-pedigree puppies

In this case, what you are buying is considered “type”. This is only an issue if you are being asked to pay pedigree prices and if you expect a pedigree puppy, or if you are buying a dog that is subject to breed specific legislation. If you don’t mind having a poodle that looks like a poodle but doesn’t have a pedigree, then go for it. There are plenty of people who have great dogs who are mixed breeds, or, indeed, who would prefer a mixed breed.

If your dog does not have LOF confirmé parents, they are just a “type”. They may have the best and most beautiful parents in the canine kingdom, but if they haven’t been confirmed, their puppies are “type” not “race”.

Plenty of puppies slip through the net, it must be said, because their breeders have missed a vital part of the process, usually the declaration of mating, or a mating with a dog who is LOF, but not confirmed.

For some “type” dogs, you can apply to have your dog confirmed as a pedigree. Say, for instance, that I pick up a beautiful whippet and I intend to breed her. She may not have pedigree paperwork if I don’t know where she came from or she wasn’t chipped. I can apply to have her confirmed LOF even though she has no paperwork. She can go to a show and a judge will say, “yes, she is a marvellous version of a whippet” and grant her a LOF confirmé status. You would need to make a demand via the Société Centrale Canine for an inscription “à titre initial” You need to do other things, like have tests for inherited diseases, pass tests for sociability, behaviour or aptitude, and be judged as of the highest quality by an expert judge. But it’s possible.

You can, of course, do this even if you have no intention to breed, if you wanted to show them, or you just wanted to say what a marvellous example of a breed you have.

That is IF the SCC are accepting “new” dogs to the pool. For many breeds, they’ll accept a new dog who just turns up and has all the characteristics of a pure race dog. This is a good thing to improve the gene pool and make sure it doesn’t become too limited.

BUT… the register is closed for certain breeds where there are a large number of dogs or where the dogs are subject to regulations. Since 1978, the register has been closed for German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, dobermann, boxers, fox terriers, dachshunds, springer spaniels, cocker spaniels, American cocker spaniels and poodles among others. That means, even if you have the most marvellous example of a German shepherd that you intend to breed from, it doesn’t make any difference. If you don’t have pedigree papers, it’s just a “type” and it will always be so. You have no chance at all of ever breeding from that dog and it being accepted as pure race.

The register has been closed since 1994 for American staffordshires, bull terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. It is also closed for rottweilers (since 2001). That means if you own a “type” Amstaff, you have no chance at all of having it registered as a pedigree dog and no chance at all of removing the “Category 1” restrictions.

And lovely as your “type” cocker spaniel may be, it’s as muttley as the next dog. Not that I disapprove of that. But if you paid 50€ for a dog on the internet, you can call it a collie if you like, but it’s a muttley whatever it looks like.

Selling a puppy: the law since January 2016.

In January 2016, the law regarding the sale of animals changed in France. This was to shut the door on backyard breeders making 1000€ from a litter of “type” Yorkshire terriers that they’d sold on the internet for 200€ each.

Make no bones about it: for the government it’s a financial decision. This is a black market and therefore there is tax to be raised from it. By closing the door on backyard breeders, they are making sure nobody is pocketing a sneaky couple of thousand a year on the sly. Or more. The breeder we shut down in Juillaguet in March 2014 had 160 dogs on site, few of them registered. To sell them on the internet for 150€ a dog, you can imagine how much back tax she owed!

For breeders, the new law just makes it even more restrictive for unsavoury types to get involved. It gives them prestige and limits competition from those people who want to buy a yorkie. They’re no longer being undercut and the breed standard is maintained.

From an animal welfare point of view, it helps us stop backyard breeders and allows us to trace and track dogs more efficiently. In theory. In practice, some of those against the law predicted that we’d be inundated by litters that people could no longer sell. In reality, it’s not been any worse or any better this year for puppy litters than any other. We had the beagles thrown in the Charente that was obviously linked to the limitations on selling, but I have no idea if vets have been asked to put down more puppies than before.

What the new law says about selling animals

Anyone who sells a dog or cat is considered a breeder. To be a breeder, you must register at the Chambre d’Agriculture. You can get a dispensation from the Chambre d’Agriculture if you want to sell a litter a year.

If you sell more than a litter a year (and are therefore not a “hobby” breeder) you must also register with the departmental health authorities (DDPP) so that you can have obligatory training, be taxed and be subject to site visits. You must have proof of training to be a breeder.

All dogs or cats (and puppies and kittens) must be microchipped or tattooed before being sold. Normally, the law says that all dogs older than 4 months and all cats older than 7 months must be identified, but to sell, you will need to do it younger. Vets do this on tiny kittens of 700g at the refuge, so find a vet who will if yours is delaying and you want to sell your animals.

You must declare the sale on your tax return. (Told you… the governments will agree to anything if there is revenue for them!)

If you advertise your animal for sale you must:

  • Mention the age of the animal and state whether it is LOF or not
  • Give the number of its identification or that of the mother
  • Say how many animals were in the litter
  • Give the SIREN of the seller

If you sell your animal, you must also:

  • have an “attestation de cession” – basically a transfer document that shows you have given the animal up. This should mention: the seller’s name and address, the name of the animal, its ID number, the date of the sale, the name and address of the person buying the animal, the sex, race, type of fur and colour of the animal, the animal’s date of birth, any distinguishing features, LOF details (if LOF) and LOF details of parents (if LOF) and the price of the sale. It should be done in duplicate and signed by both parties.
  • have a document that explains to the buyer about how to care for the animal.
  • have a copy of the provisional or actual ICAD document.
  • have a health certificate from a vet for any animal over three months of age.

A health booklet is not necessary. You do not have to supply details of vaccinations as they are not obligatory. However, a good breeder will have a health booklet or “carnet de santé” for their puppies or dogs, cats or kittens.

If you buy a pedigree dog or “race”, you should get a birth certificate for the animal from the SCC.

You can see why breeding should really be left to people who know what they are doing.

You will also notice that shelters will have a contract for you to sign that includes much of the information. That’s why our dogs and cats leave vaccinated, with a health booklet, and identified. It’s why we stress that our fees are not to “buy” the animal but to cover the costs incurred. It is an adoption fee.

Free to a good home

Ahhhh, don’t get me started. Even if you offer kittens or puppies as “free” to get around the law, you STILL need to identify them. That is the law. Maybe the 50€ microchip cost puts people off, but it also means that anyone who has to pay 400€ to identify a litter of accidents just might think about sterilising their animal (or keeping them out of harm’s way if they’re in season)

It is not difficult to keep an in-season dog away from others. Thousands of breeders do it every year to give their females a rest between litters. Even if you have dogs in the home who live together, you’ll find breeders using kennels with secure facilities to ensure there are no accidents.

Ultimately, the “accidents” need to stop. People need to be more responsible about their animal’s reproduction. If you can’t be good, be careful, as my Grandmother says.

It is not a myth that these “free” dogs end up in shelters, or lost on the lam, or much, much worse. Where do you think the 350 unidentified dogs that the pound picks up every year in North West Charente come from?

They are free dogs. They were given away to neighbours. They were passed on to strangers in carparks.

They are not pedigree dogs, on the whole. And if they are, we can often get in touch with breeders who come and pick up their pedigree dogs to rehome themselves.

Responsible breeders are not causing shelter problems.

Backyard breeders selling dogs for 150€ on the internet are.

Irresponsible owners who don’t take precautions when their female is in season or their intact male is free to roam the streets are a massive contributing factor.

Don’t be a Dick.

Duddley Dog to Dog Skills Ninja in three easy steps


There are times when you may find your dog completely and utterly untrainable. Why is it that his sit in the house is perfect and his recall in certain place is amazing, but then he’s off like a shot in others? Why is it that you can walk past one house on your walk and you’ll find your dog absolutely and utterly going nuts at the dog behind the fence? Often, the moments when our dogs are Duddley Dogs and not Dog Ninjas is the time we seek out help from trainers. It’s also the number one reason I get a call back after adoption.

One of the questions I ask most often when problem behaviours occur is how reliable is your dog’s ‘Look at me’?, or how reliable is their ‘come’? Can they do a ‘sit’? 

“Oh yes,” say the owners. “Maniac is very good at sitting.” I can sense in their voice they are wondering what this has to do with Maniac’s running feud with the neighbour’s dog.

Sure enough, Maniac’s “come” is perfect… if he’s following you into the kitchen. On a walk, well, “Oh he’s never been so good at recall out of the house,” say the owners.

The truth is that dogs don’t generalise well. They don’t understand that the behaviour you’re asking them to do in one place is the same behaviour you want them to do outside. Example: I was trying to teach Heston to play bow on cue. He’d already started bowing every time I got the dustpan and brush out in the house, so I knew they 100% predicted a play bow. I took him out into the workshop to try there. 0%

Not the same at all, is it?

So when it comes to problem behaviours, if your dog has never, ever been asked to look at you outside, if they’ve never been asked to do a sit on a walk, or if their recall is atrocious, then you may find your dog looking at you all…



When it comes to training or replacing habits with new ones, there are 3 Ds that you have to take into consideration. This includes teaching behaviours like ‘Maniac, come here!’ and training replacement behaviours, like walking nicely on a lead around cows rather than dancing on hind legs barking at them. With the 3Ds, you can turn your Duddley to a Ninja much more easily.


As I tried to get Heston walking on a loose lead yesterday in the forest, the 1st D reminded me just how hard it can be. Distraction simply means all of those things that make it more difficult to get your dog’s attention. That can be things you can see, such as bikes, joggers, other dogs, cats, deer, toys and cars. It can also be things you can’t see, but your dog can hear or smell. For Heston, the sound of jays drives him mad. He can tolerate virtually every sound distraction but that. Don’t forget that whilst there are things you both might hear or see, your dog will be able to smell things that you just can’t. So when Amigo went after a deer that could have been no more than 10 metres into the forest from the path, I had no idea it was there, but he certainly did.

Distraction means that you are fighting for your dog’s attention. It means every single thing that you are fighting against. If your dog is a Duddley sometimes, this is mostly why. And this is also where we need them to be a Ninja.


There are two distances you should be aware of. The first is the distance that you are from your dog. Simply put, the closer you are to your dog, the more likely they are to respond to training. That’s why your dog may do a perfect sit right up close to you and struggle when you are two metres away. Mind you, sometimes that’s just a lack of ability to generalise and a firmly implanted habit. Your dog has always sat within 50cm of you and therefore he won’t think that you might ask him to sit when you are a metre from him.

The second distance you should be aware of is the distance between you and the distractions. Simply put, if you’re up-close and personal with a distraction, you may not have a cat in hell’s chance to get the dog’s attention back on you. Thus, if Heston is ten metres from another dog, the chances of him performing a requested behaviour is almost zero. When we’re two hundred metres away, it’s a good start.


So if I’m walking my dog or working with my dog and he’s right near me, the further he gets from me and the nearer he gets to a distraction (like a lovely bunny rabbit), the harder it will be to teach him new behaviours or to expect him to offer behaviours that are rock solid. If the rabbit is 200m away and Heston is 2m from me, he’ll do pretty much everything I ask of him. Likewise with Hagrid at the shelter. If we’re 10m from another dog, he’ll do everything I ask.


But if the distraction is right there in my space up close, the task is suddenly impossible. For Hagrid, if a dog is within 4m, I could be waving a leg of lamb and he wouldn’t care less. For Tricki Woo dancing on his lead when he sees a cow, nothing is pulling him back from that. And for Heston, if there are swallows dive-bombing us, what I’m asking him to do will be impossible.


The longer I ask my dog to give a behaviour, the harder it is. Not all behaviours have a duration. Holding a sit, keeping eye contact, staying in a down position, keeping in a stay position… all get harder the longer I need a dog to hold them.

Put all three together and you’ve got three Ds that make learning either very easy or very hard. They are also things that we can manipulate to get the best out of our dog and to make sure that learning is rock solid under all circumstances.


You can see them here on this simple diagram.

Step 1: Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy



Here, I’m starting to teach a behaviour (and yes, I’ve just realised the smiley face and the Duddley face are the wrong way round for Distance, but hey ho)

There are few distractions. There is a long and large distance between me/the dog and any potential distractions (I’m taking it as read that you are close to the dog at all points for the 3Ds and that you might start putting distance between you and the dog at another point). And I ask for a very brief behaviour. Here, the learning is most likely to succeed. No distractions. Plenty of distance. Short duration.

So… can I get Tricki Woo to stop dancing when he sees a cow and to walk calmly when he sees them? It’s easiest when there are no other distractions (so a quiet road or space with no other dogs, passers-by or crazy cyclists) and when there is a big distance between us and the cows, and when I don’t ask him to walk calmly when looking in the direction of the cows for very long before stopping and rewarding him.

Can I get Maniac to stop barking and lungeing at other dogs? Again, easy when it’s a calm environment with few other distractions, when there is a huge distance between us and the other dogs, and when I expect him to walk calmly for just a short burst. I might even then walk away completely. Those first times, I have no intention of changing the bars on this chart. He has achieved the learning goal for the session so I’m not going to add more challenge.

Step 2: Increasing the challenge


For this, I’m going to expect a little longer duration for the behaviour. If I’m teaching my dog to heel around people, I’ll ask them to do it a little longer. Not much longer. I don’t want to do it until they fail. I want to stop whilst they are succeeding and reward them for their learning. I’ll keep the distance the same and the low level of distraction the same. So if I want Loobi Loo to stop and stand when a cyclist goes by, I’m going to ask him to do that for a little bit longer than he was doing before, and I’m going to stop before he fails.


Once I’ve upped the duration a little, I’m going to bring them a little nearer to the distractiony things. Thus, if teaching Tilly to walk to heel when we pass cow pats and not scamper off to feast on such delights, I’m going to keep doing a heel and start just that bit closer than before.

When Heston was barking at cyclists out of the car window, I asked him to look at them from a distance. The looks got longer and I got closer. Like before, quit whilst you’re winning.


When I want to add in distractions again, I’m going to take away some of the other challenge and go back to a shorter duration (or even a safer distance). Thus, rabbits might be a distraction for Amigo, but rabbits and pheasants is going to require a bit less of him in terms of duration. I might even up the distance again.


Some days the universe does not cooperate and gives me a world with a lot of distractions. This can even happen in the garden if there are vans going past or stopping, or the post lady, or there are dogs barking or tractors. In the forest, it is full of unseen distractions and asking for a behaviour is tough. For instance, if I want to improve Heston’s recall, I’m going to put a big space between us and those distractions. That might be 400 metres or more.


This is how I use the three Ds for recall.

First, I know where the distractions are (red). These are areas where I will get recall only when Heston has completely exhausted his sniffing. Therefore, he is on the lead when I get too close to those distractions. Distance is my friend.

You can see there are parts of the walk that are green, because his recall is 100% here. There are parts that are orange, where I will get a fab recall about nine times out of ten.

Then there are pink bits where I might as well have gone home.

The red bit on the left is either uninhabited most of the time, or the deer graze on the other side, or the smell is weakest. Thus, even though it is only 300m away from the path, it is less distracting.

The red bit at the top of the diagram is heavily distracting (and of course, is filled with hunters and their dogs at the moment) and there are plenty of deer in that small bit. So although it’s 500m away, if the smells are strong, Heston is off.

Off the map on the right is a heavily wooded area with boar, deer, roe deer and plenty of other things. Thus, there is no way he goes off lead here because it is too close and too distracting. Although he could happily (if he wanted) run off into this forest from his ‘green’ bits (it’s only a kilometre across the field to the forest off to the right of the map) he never does. Thus, on a good day, as long as the wooded areas are more than 300m away, his recall is NINJA level!

That means I need to set 300m as his default ‘distance’ and work on his recall with maybe a less distracting environment at 250m, then take it back out and trial it at 300m in a more distracting environment. At the same time, I have to say “Wow, you’re doing great, Dog Ninja… a 450m recall is AMAZING!”

PS… here, his recall is zero metres.


Why? A gamillion gazillion distractions all far, far too near. He’ll come back when he’s good and ready if he’s off lead here. There might as well be lions, elephants and ogres here.

I also have to think of the task I’m asking him to do. Recall is TOUGH NINJA stuff. Doing a sit on a lead and a down… well even Duddley here can manage that despite the distractions.

Step 3: Moving to Mastery


So in a distracting environment, I’m going to keep duration short and my expectations low. I’m going to manage distance carefully and know that 500m is safe but 450m is not.


I can then ask for longer behaviours. This doesn’t need to be Heston’s recall over a 500m testing ground. It can be Hagrid and his 4m comfort zone for giving eye contact instead of lunging and air-snapping at a passing dog. I’m only going to ask him to do it for a short while at first as we have more and more dogs about invading his space, but we’ll step up the length gradually and I’ll be happy to have eye contact for a couple of seconds as those dogs get nearer. I still don’t want any fail moments though. Time for us to put distance between us before he fails. It’s also true of Tricki Woo and his field of cows. I’ll ask for that 4-paws/non-dance loose lead walk for a longer duration before turning around and saving the next step for another day.


Just before we get to Ninja Dog Skills, I’ll ask for a longer duration and a very close distance to fewer or less challenging distractions. For Dances-at-Cows, that will be to be up-close-and-personal doing a loose-lead walk with all four feet on the floor… and I’ll make it a less challenging distraction – a non-moving cow facing away from us minding its own business.

Finally, when my dog is ready, we’re ready to master Ninja Dog Skills Level: Expert. He can handle multiple distractions at a close distance and for a longer period of time.

If you just have the 3Ds in the back of your head when you are asking your dog to do stuff, you’ll be able to help make their learning much more effective. Be aware though that if you’re constantly asking your dog to do difficult stuff over a long period of time in a highly-distracting environment in close proximity to those distractions, they are likely to fail even if they never have before.

Notch back on one of the Ds and you’ll find your dog much more able to cope. So for Toby today finding it very hard to sit and NOT be fixated on a cat sitting on the table whilst his owner ate his lunch, distance made things much more manageable. I’m pretty sure he could cope with that usually, but then he was also surrounded by a lot of very distracting stimuli.

So when we talk about challenge for our dogs, we need to think in these terms, and then we will find that our dogs are much more able to make great progress in their learning. Next time your dog has selective deafness, ask yourself how next time you can keep within safe limits and you’ll find your distracted, reactive dog is biddable, willing and keen.


How to help your rescue dog become more resilient


With the number of people who read and shared my post about trigger stacking, I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in making a difference to the lives of their rescue dogs. Having listened recently to the very excellent Dr Patricia McConnell’s talk for the ASPCA about building resilience in dogs, which you can listen to in full here, I thought I would share some of the ideas I found most interesting, as well as a few of my own comments.

If you work in a shelter, if you volunteer, if you adopt a dog who comes with a range of traumas and terrors, the webinar is a fabulous guide that will give you a better understanding, a lot of inspiration and plenty of practical ideas. I thought some of the ideas I found most interesting, and share with you the story of a resilient little soul named Lucky, and a family of not-so-resilient spaniels (namely Zakari, Zouzou, Zoe, Zelda, Suzette and Teddy) so that you can see some of these ideas in practice.

Why is resilience such an important quality for our dogs to have?

Resilience is the ability we have to bounce back from adversity, trauma or tragedy. It’s how we cope with stress, how quickly we deal with those flight, fight or freeze hormones.

With shelter dogs who come in having faced a range of traumatic and tragic events, you can see how important it is that they have that “bouce-back-ability”. Resilience can prevent stress and can help us cope with physical or psychological trauma. It can also help us heal more quickly. But it can be damaged by trauma. It can also be healed through careful training. Resilience is also how quickly we bounce back, be it seconds or minutes, or even months or years.

What does a traumatic event entail?

In short, it’s any event the animal deems it to be. Sometimes, dogs face enormous adversity without batting an eyelid. We call these dogs “bomb-proof”. For others, even the arrival of a familiar face can stir up feelings of unrest and agitation. For some “bomb-proof” dogs, they can have exposure to events from which they don’t bounce back. But we have common ones that we see more often in the shelter:

  • dogs who have been hurt in some way, physically or emotionally;
  • dogs who have been exposed to aversive training methods or who have been punished during their training;
  • dogs who have come in from “backyard breeders”, kept in squallid conditions;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from other animals;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from human beings;
  • dogs whose owners have been sick or ill for a long time;
  • dogs who have been neglected;
  • dogs who have come in from a puppy farm;
  • dogs whose owners have died.

In short, these are dogs who have had a situational stress. For Lucky, that was living in an abusive household where he was eventually thrown out of a second-floor window, breaking his back leg and fracturing his pelvis. For the seven spaniels, that was living in a barn with little light, with minimal contact from human beings except for food. Why then is Lucky a resilient little soul and Zakari a shadow of a dog?

What we know about resilience

Some of what we know is related to our studies of fear and anxiety. Resilience is, after all, how we cope with fear and anxiety, as well as the stress from trauma. Thus, for Lucky, his traumatic past has not made him a fearful or anxious dog. The opposite happened for Zakari and his family: trauma has resulted in a family of fearful, anxious dogs. Why do dogs have such different reactions to trauma? Why do some dogs bounce back and others don’t?

We should be clear here. It’s not just trauma that makes for a fearful, anxious dog, we’re talking about a dog who finds it hard to cope with traumatic events and harder still to bounce back.

Science tells us that much of how we deal with fear and trauma is inherited – either through genes or through how we are nurtured as we grow up. Our understanding of that comes from much post-war study of the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on humans. Research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has also given us insights into the effects of psychological stress. Many studies of the offspring of Holocaust victims showed that they were more likely to suffer from a lack of resilience: anxiety, depression, PTSD. What studies are telling us is that if you take a stressful event, it can affect generations to come.

You would expect their parents to be more likely to suffer anxiety or depression, but how does that affect their children?

Some of that is no doubt as a way the events affected parenting, how the children were nurtured. However, one small study pointed to something worth further consideration, that compared with a control group, there were epigenetic changes as well, suggesting that the effects of trauma on our parents and grand-parents can cause changes at an epigenetic level in us. We know that the environment can cause genetic changes in plants; what we don’t know is exactly how that functions in creatures. In other words, trauma may cause changes in our biology that we can pass on to our children.

Further studies in animals (Dias & Ressler, 2014) have shown that animals can inherit a fear of certain smells from their fathers. Epigenetic inheritance studies are trying to say more about this tendency, but it’s a new science and there is a lot to learn. For now it’s safe to say that qualities like fearfulness pass through the generations in more ways than just learned behaviours we’ve picked up from our parents.

That said, our early experiences are also important. Studies have also shown that animal offspring that are nurtured become less fearful than animal offspring who are not. This passes down the generations too (Weaver et al, 2004). This suggests that a mother dog who is not nurturing towards her puppies may pass on not only fearfulness to her puppies but also the lack of nurturing will pass forward down the years too. This has huge implications for puppies removed from their mothers, like my dog Heston who was found in a box at a day old. Without that nurturing, fearfulness is a likely consequence. Either through lack of contact with their mother or through poor mothering, a dog may become fearful – and therefore less resilient – as a consequence. That behaviour too is at a genetic level. Licking and nurturing literally makes a baby animal less likely to be stressed as an adult.

And that’s not all. Parenting and a nurturing infancy is vital for a resilient dog. It’s also necessary that mums have a pregnancy that is free from traumatic stress. There are many studies in animals (though none in dogs) that show that there are links between traumatic stress and the way offspring process cortisol, the stress hormone.

So, who a dog’s parents are, what they dog’s parents are afraid of, what stress their mother was subjected to during pregnancy and how the puppies were reared are all vital in giving a dog a solid genetic predisposition for handling stress.

Can you see how important it is then to choose a puppy that comes from great parents with a responsible breeder? And why cheap backyard breeder pups are a catastrophe for resilience? For Lucky, his bounce-back-ability is no doubt a result of his parents, his time in the womb and his puppyhood. Life has thrown all kinds of crap his way and he’s just his happy-go-lucky self. But for Suzette, Zakari and Teddy, as well as their various offspring… take a fearful mum, a stressful environment during pregnancy and you’re two-thirds of the way to creating a dog who has less resilience from birth.

We also saw this lack of resilience with the twenty-odd GSDs taken by another shelter, (three of whom came to us) or indeed the seventy mixed-breed cane corso/doberman that were seized last year, six of whom came to us. More work needs doing before we can fully understand this. It’d be interesting to see those genetic changes under the microscope, but I don’t need science to tell me that – for whatever reason, be it nature or nurture – change is passed on from parents and early experience.

What this tells us is that shelters would do well to work closely with good breeders (and that’s not necessarily a pedigree paperwork thing) to ensure that we think as much about the emotional state of the parents we choose for our puppies. Fearful parents breed fearful offspring.

As McConnell says, you can only work with what you’ve got. If you think of resilience on a scale of 1 – 10, with lack of resilience being 1 and ease of resilience being 10, some dogs don’t come to us having anything more than the ability to reach a 6. You are either bomb-proof from the base, or you are not. Not only that, there is a limit to just how bomb-proof a trainer or behaviorist can make a dog. For Heston, deprived of early parental nurture, he is never going to be a super-resilient bomb-proof dog. 10 is not in his range. For Suzette and her offspring, they are never going to be bomb-proof either. For Lucky, well, he’s a “bomb-proof from the base” kind of guy.

That has a big impact for shelter work and for you as rescuers. What you expect of your dog may be too much: you’ve got to respect your dog’s limits. Depending on how resilient your dog is also impacts upon how they can cope with new stimuli.

It doesn’t mean that we should give up hope though. Even if we have a dog who is genetically predisposed to be fearful and anxious, or less likely to have that bounce-back-ability, there is still a lot we can do.

And, let’s face it, if we didn’t believe that, every single one of us should give up our work in rescue right now.

There are four strategies McConnell says that we can use to help our dogs be more resilient: safety and security, social support, autonomy, and a healthy and balanced physionomy. Two of those are ones that I’d like to explore in a little more detail here.

Safety and security

One of the major things you can do to make your dog feel safe and secure is to remove sensory overload. When you are not resilient, every walk can be the equivalent of a PTSD sufferer walking through a warzone. This can be hard in a shelter. It’s why our least resilient dogs are in quieter enclosures, sometimes on the periphery of the shelter. McConnell talks about limiting exposure to noise, sights, smells to make it less overwhelming to a dog. Shelters can do much by removing novelty for fearful dogs, whether it’s new smells or new sights. The same is true for rescue dogs too, especially in those first moments out of the shelter.

For many of us, we take our new dogs home and subject them to an endless onslaught of new stimuli. We show them new beds, take them round our homes which are filled with new smells, give them new toys, new food, new water bowls.

New is not always good for dogs. Some dogs love new experiences. Neophilia – or the love of new things/novelty – is a key sign of an extrovert. For an extroverted dog who enjoys and thrives off novelty, new things are curious and interesting, not frightening. For an introverted or neophobic animal who is fearful of new experiences, the adoption process can be very hard, even though you think it is a great thing. The shelter, for all its faults, is predictable. It is familiar. It was new once and the dog has adapted. Routines are obvious. Smells are familiar. Sights have become expected. Don’t be upset if your newly rescued dog seems to be more terrified at first, not less.

The ASPCA rehabilitation centre has done some interesting initial work with dogs who come to their centre from animal hoarding situations. It’s only small scale, but it’s very promising and has implications for shelters and rescuers.

One group of their rescued dogs have been kept in kennels where the stimuli has been minimised but where they are quickly introduced to shelter routines: they can’t see other dogs, they have little human contact, routines are established after three days. They are counter-conditioned, desensitised to their fear, involved in active rehab programmes right away.

The other group have a very limited stimuli for three weeks. They have muted sound, few distractions, no sensory overload.

Guess what? The animals who bounce back quickest are those who have three weeks of limited exposure to sensory overload and who are just left to “be” for a little while in a quiet, unstimulating place with limited interaction.

For me, this is very promising. It ties in to what we know about cortisol, the stress hormone, and its “bodily shelf life”. Cortisol can take up to eight weeks to be completely reabsorbed (especially in those dogs who have a genetic glass ceiling on their resilience levels) and until then, it’s floating around in the body. What this shows is that our dogs need time for those cortisol levels to return to normal.

To help them do that, a stress-free, stimuli-free environment is crucial. You should think about how your dogs acclimatise to the noise of your home, and minimise unfamiliar noises. You can also think about keeping novelty to a minimum. Is taking them for a four-km walk every day through what is essentially a warzone for a stressed dog going to help them build resilience? Far better to keep those things to a minimum so a dog can feel safe and secure. Gradually reintroduce walks, new stimuli and new experiences and you’ll find your new rescue dog better able to cope.

McConnell suggests that we take each sense in turn and try to eliminate as much as we can control. Closing curtains or shutters in the home can help if the dog can see a lot of activity outside. Putting a screen up across French windows if you live on a road can also help. Likewise in the garden.

In shelters, there are also things we can do to help stressed dogs recover. Ensuring dogs aren’t facing other dogs’ enclosures in shelter situations is one way we can eliminate visual stimulus (or at least putting a screen up so they aren’t permanently faced with other dogs) and putting them in a low-traffic zone in the shelter can also help. If you have rescued a fearful or anxious dog, ask how you can remove as much visual stimulation from outside as possible so that they can acclimatise quickly to what there is, and not be bombarded with additional stuff to process. A quiet corner can help those who are aversive to noise. At the Refuge de l’Angoumois, we use our ‘satellite’ blocks for this, as the dogs aren’t facing one another in the same way across a corridor. Even in the main block where dogs are, we keep the corridor dim for the most part. Some of our enclosures are out of the way of all other dogs. It’s why Hagrid and Daluk, who find it harder to deal with stimuli, are in the outer parks. I don’t need to tell you the difference in Hagrid when a quiet, non-reactive GSD moved in next door and took the place of two dogs who would regularly run the length of the park barking and jumping up at the panels that separated them from Hagrid. Actually, it wasn’t good for me as a walker: Hagrid was more alert, more energetic, more his “normal self”. He was quite literally worn out from all the noise!

Aim for predictability and as little novelty as possible for a good three or four-week period, longer if necessary. If you must walk your dog, walk them in predictable, open spaces where there is little sensory stimulation from other humans or dogs. For Teddy and Zakari, adopted from our pack of spaniels, having regularity, stability and a lack of stimulation has been vital. Their progress has happened largely because Liliane, their owner, has made sure that everything is the same. They live in a quiet house with few visitors. They have an open, secure garden. Liliane has regular routines. The dogs have regular routines. Their progress has happened because Liliane has turned away visitors and has stuck to those routines. Safety and security has been her path forward and it has made a huge difference. She has also used her regular dog walk in a quiet, predictable space to ‘mop up’ some of those stress hormones.

As for Lucky, there’s a dog who thrives off novelty but has also come to appreciate regularity. Novelty does not frighten Lucky. Rat poison? I’m not going to sniff it – I’m going to scoff it right out. New shoes? Well I’m just going to run down the garden with them as they must be a marvellous new toy. A resilient dog is one who loves new experiences, or, at the very least isn’t frightened by them.

Once your dog has had a chance to reset its stress hormones, it’s time to reintroduce them gradually and carefully to some of those stimuli. Bear in mind too that exercise is a good way to use up adrenaline (and release endorphins) and that movement uses up adrenaline. Mental and physical exercise are vital for dogs to help them build resilience as they use up those stress hormones.

Social support

Social support helps us build resilience and overcome stress. This is also something that is true for dogs. Dogs are social creatures. Living in complete isolation can be stressful for them. Some dogs prefer other dogs, especially if they have not been socialised with people. For our hounds who arrive, many have had little handling. The presence of other dogs is critical. It’s why we refused to adopt our pack of seven spaniels to single-dog homes and why it is best for our scared hounds to go with other dogs. To cut them off from the only social support they have ever had would be akin to removing all connection with the rest of the world. When Zoe and Zouzou were adopted together, Teddy and Zakari went rapidly downhill. Sure, they made each other more fearful, but they also supported each other. Now Teddy and Zakari have been adopted, they need each other to make progress. If a dog comes from a hoarding situation or a pack group, they NEED other dogs. If they come from a home where it has been them and a treasured master, they NEED human contact. Dogs who have been completely isolated from both humans and dogs can take an awfully long time to build resilience with.

Even for our bomb-proof little Lucky, having a stable family home and owners with whom he can find support from has no doubt made that bomb-proof-ness even more rock solid rather than being passed from pillar to post in those first twelve months of his life.

Some final thoughts

Balancing a lack of stimuli to reduce stress, and then building in appropriate mental and physical stimulation to use up stress hormones is a challenge. It depends on each dog to tell you when they are ready for novelty and when they are ready to move on. There will be failures. There will be set-backs. There will be times that your Zakari comes in contact with something that really freaks him out and it may set him back for weeks. There may be times that your bomb-proof Lucky, who has lived through trauma after trauma, finally decides there IS something after all that he is afraid of. Resilience is easy to damage and hard to build.

For shelter workers and rescuers, there WILL be dogs you will fail. There will be dogs that you can never teach to be resilient. For every traumatised Kiki and Coco, eating out of my hand within two minutes, there are uncountable hounds who will never, ever be bomb-proof and for whom life is equivalent to living in a warzone.

We should remember too that learning curves peter out and level off, that learning and progress are not linear. Learning resilience can come in fits and starts. There will be days when there is a lot of progress, and days when there is very little. There will be setbacks.

As we set off on our mission to desensitise our rescue dogs to the stimuli around them, we should remember that the opposite of desensitisation is sensitisation. We can very easily, and accidentally, render our dogs more sensitive to stimuli, not less. Our daily walk may start with the intention of habituating our dog to the world beyond the fence, but can end up putting our dog on edge. Our attempts to introduce sounds and novelty can easily backfire.

But despite the fact that dogs are a result of their genes and their early experiences, we need to remember something. All dogs are more than their genes. Ask any geneticist. Genes are not our destiny. Or, should I say, they are not our only destiny. Nor do they have to be our destiny. Nor are they for a dog. The way we help them to be resilient is vital as well. We can teach our dogs to be resilient, through providing safe and secure environments that do not overwhelm them. I’d like to leave you with something that McConnell said that really resonated with me.

You don’t know how much difference you can make until you start

Pre-walk excitement and how to deal with it

At the shelter, we have a number of dogs who get really, really excited before you take them out for a walk. Whether it’s circling, excited barking, jumping up or biting the leash, they’re behaviours that dogs find very rewarding but can also be dangerous. For some of those dogs, they are so excited that they end up biting their walker. These are not behaviours that are isolated to shelter dogs, though, and I see plenty of frayed leashes and chest-height mud-prints that show lots of owners have similar problems in the home.

In the home, you may find that your dog quickly associates the putting on of shoes or the picking up of keys or a leash to be a predictor of a walk. And when we know we’re about to do our most exciting thing of the day, what do we do? We might bark. We might circle. We might decide that the leash is a marvellous opportunity for a game of tug. We might be much harder than usual to bring back down to a level where we are a thinking dog, not a reacting dog.

The thing about excitement is… it’s like a big wad of €100 notes. You’ve got lots to play with and you’re like a gambler at the roulette wheel. I call these ‘Excitement Dollars’. Those dollars accumulate through natural energy levels, age, genetics and associations. Some dogs are Excitement Dollar Paupers, turning up with a few to spare when there’s a walk on offer. And some are Excitement Dollar Millionaires who seem to regenerate those millions in minutes.

Take your average doggy pensioner who came from great doggy lines (no crazy-eyed loons in the old family tree) … a pensioner who’s pottered about the garden all day and is sprung a walk from out of nowhere. Well, there’s fairly few dollars available there.

But take a one-year-old Breton spaniel with excitable parents, negligible training, who’s had a nap and had food and can see people walking around with leashes… who knows that after sleeping and eating and cleaning, people come with leashes and walk him… it’s 2pm and he is BOUNCING with Excitement Dollars. One huge wad of excitement dollars.

Between those two, there are a million different dogs with different amounts of excitement stored up when a walk is on the cards.

Until that wad of excitement is down to a manageable level, you may find that your dog simply won’t listen to you. And if you close the roulette, they’re just going to go and try and spend it at the dice. In other words, you may well deal with leash biting only to end up with a jack-in-a-box Zebedee dog on a spring.

Let’s not forget that a walk for many dogs is the highlight of their day. It’s an arrival in Las Vegas with a million dollars to spend.

Take my young collie x retriever cross Heston. Excitable genes, youth and a lifetime of getting used to my habits. Those dollars stack up quickly. Add shoes, keys and a lead…. 2 + 2 = TWO MILLION EXCITEMENT DOLLARS TO SPEND! It used to be that I couldn’t put my socks on, or even look as if I might put my socks on without frenzied barking and circling. Heston LOVES his walk. Now we’re at the point where he’ll wait until I’m at the door. It’s progress. Shoes are on, socks are on, teeth are brushed, keys are picked up and then we have a 30-second bark and circle burst until we’re out of the gate. To be honest, it’s not perfect, but I can live with it.

Part of the process is realising that sometimes, we’re paying out dividends on those Excitement Dollars. Whenever I get excited, whenever I put on my shoes, whenever I put my keys in my pocket, it’s like I’m that roulette ball slowing down and getting closer and closer to PAYDAY!!!! Those cues that a walk is on the cards give a dog even more to spend. Sometimes, they’re the reminder that they’ve got two gazillion Excitement Dollars burning a hole in their fur.

What worked were removing a lot of the cues and also repeating a lot of the cues. I had to stop giving Heston more dollars to play with. I wanted him to understand that me picking up the keys didn’t mean that he was going out. So I picked up my keys a hundred times a day and made for the door. I rewarded calm behaviour and Heston quickly picked up on the fact that keys didn’t always mean a walk. I did the same for my shoes as well. And then I did the same for the lead.

He still gets a bit excited when I pick up a lead but he’s still biddable and his excitement dissipates quickly once he realises we’re not going for a walk.

I walk Heston for 4km at least once a day and mostly twice. At least 2km of each walk is off-lead unless there’s a reason to put him on the lead, like other dogs or joggers. He runs for that time and a lot of it is at full gallop, chasing swallows or distant rabbits. I want those dollars spent, please. We do scentwork, agility and obedience for a good thirty minutes at least every other day and we play fetch a lot too. More expenditure. He doesn’t have as much exercise as he needs to tire him out, but he has more than many dogs and his behaviour as a result is pretty biddable. That’s a lot of work, but he’s not your normal dog. He came with a big vault of everyday excitement in the bank. I just had to find more ways for him to spend it.

Still, that’s a dog in a home, who doesn’t have 200 other dogs barking at him, circling next to him, snapping at him from behind bars. Talk about other dogs giving you a payday! Heston’s a dog who is exercised in the day, has obedience training and an owner he can bond with. For dogs in the shelter, it’s a bit different.

Imagine your dismay at walking past a house with a reactive dog behind a fence. And then times that by at least thirty that you have to get past before you can get out for a walk. Imagine the excitement of your dog if you’ve had a couple of days off from a usual walk, or your dog who hasn’t had any way at all to let off steam. Those dollars have just been sitting there gathering interest unless they found a way to spend it themselves, like racing a figure-of-eight in the garden or digging a giant hole.

Our dogs at the shelter, even if they go out for a walk every single day of the week, only have a maximum of 30 minutes of one-to-one with a volunteer. That is a very short amount of time to expend all that excitement. This is what life is like for Regis, Estas and Hagrid. No wonder they’re bouncy or leash biters. When I had a couple of weeks of high temperatures and other shelter work to do, I realised Hagrid had not been walked for ten days. Other than a bowl of food twice a day or occasional people who stop by, or the staff who bob in for a few minutes, Hadrid had perhaps two hours of human contact and two hundred and thirty-eight hours with no contact at all. And we wonder why he is so excited to see a walker that he’ll launch himself off the ground, bite at their hands or air-snap at the other dogs as he’s leaving the site for his walk. Just think of all those dollars sitting there, waiting to be spent.

I have a confession to make too. I have, in all my years walking dogs at the shelter, only ever ‘lost’ one. His name was Jony. He was a one-year-old beagle who needed to blow off some of that excitement more than others.

Let me describe what happened, because it’s very relevant here.

Jony came to us with a good level of obedience. Here he is doing a sit when he first arrived. What a great, attentive, focused dog!

Soon, though, all that excitement and lack of stimulation got a bit much. Normally, for safety, we lasso the dogs from one side of the gates with a slip lead. We’d use harnesses but with 200 dogs on site, we’d need 200 good-quality harnesses of varying sizes. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to fit a harness to an over-excited Anglo who’s not used to touch, or a fearful Ariegeois who doesn’t like to be cornered, or an untrained shepherd who’s a bit mouthy. Ethically, my heart is with harnesses. Practically, slip leads fail less than the alternatives and they fit all. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is. A dog can easily slip out of a harness if it’s not fitted properly. I don’t believe haltis are a solution for our dogs. We don’t use flat collars because we can’t leave it on a dog as they can accidentally hang themselves far too easily if a collar is on. Jony was just new in, which is why he still had his collar. Usually, collars are removed. Only very few dogs have a collar. They are never housed with another dog and we have to be very careful that there are no pegs, nails or edges that a collar could get stuck on. Thus, every time our dogs go for a walk, a pair of hands materialise and offer them a cord slip-lead. Or, in doggy terms, what looks like both a walk and a great tug toy all in one.

Anyway, fast forward twelve months. Jony had been getting more and more frustrated. Once, he learned that the fabric slip-lead coming at him through the gate was actually a very great game of tug. We see us trying to lasso an excited dog. They see a human being offering a game of tug. For that reason, I went in to put Jony’s lead on inside the enclosure. Usually we avoid doing this because dogs can rush out. You don’t want a loose dog on site with dogs being walked, with cats on the prowl… you just don’t. So I went into the enclosure to get Jony. Bear in mind, too, that we have to make a choice. Go in and you risk an over-excited dog putting their teeth into your body if a leash is not on offer or even if it is. I got a slip leash on him, and he grabbed the leash. Thus, the leash wasn’t securely fastened and every time he tugged or shook his head, he was actually getting looser. The only reason he was still “inside” the slip leash is that he was enjoying this wonderful game of tug. I put another on him and he did the same with that.

You can see how this is also a vicious circle, because which volunteer wants to walk an over-exuberant dog who’s hard to handle on the lead? It’s the same reason that people stop walking their excited dog: no matter how much you want to, the situation is a nightmare, so you just try to avoid it as best you can. We do the same at home. Hence why many people also let their dog off the leash when really they shouldn’t. If leash skills are poor, we often either let our dogs walk off-leash, stick an aversive shock or prong collar on, or stop taking them out rather than deal with the problem. Poor leash skills are the number one reason for a whole host of poor decisions we make as owners.

Anyway, here’s Jony… And here’s Emma. And I’d just not realised how loose Jony had the slips, how his tug was the only thing keeping it on, and how he was one back up away from running off into the wilds. Which is exactly what happened. He dropped both leashes. He backed up. He was out. He was off.

Luckily, he did no damage and we got him back on in seconds. We were still inside the compound and the gates were shut. Plenty of staff were around to shout him over. He was such an affectionate guy that he went to the first person who called him, and we could then make sure his leash was absolutely secure. By the way, just because you’ve never taught a dog to play tug doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyway… although some dogs who’ve never been taught to have anything in their mouth have a natural aversion to doing so, and will probably exhibit another displacement behaviour instead like circling, leaping on you or barking.

So, for dogs who are over-excited, who leap, who tug the leash, who bite hands… what do you do? Here, I’m thinking about dogs who are not in a shelter situation, but is tailored for dogs who range from gentle over-excitement where you can easily distract them with a high-value treat or favourite toy, to dogs who are extremely over-excited and either have no training at all, no play experience at all or are too excited and focused to want to do anything other than play tug with the lead, jump all over you or nibble your hands. In this article, I’m just looking at leash biting behaviours and will explore jumping up and excited barking or circling in the next.

Leash biting

The simple solutions to this come in several forms and it depends very much on the level of excitement your dog is presenting as well as the level of obedience training they can demonstrate at this moment.

If your dog knows how to play and has some obedience training (even just a sit) the first thing that will make a real difference is to expend that energy before you go for a walk. A dog who has lost that initial burst of energy is less likely to want to pull on the leash and play tug with you. A good game of fetch, frisbee or catch is just a great way for your dogs to get rid of that burst of energy. Ten minutes followed by some simple routine obedience like ‘sit, focus, paw, down, stand’ and you’ll have a dog who has already worked a bit of their steam off and who is more in control of their choices.

You should think carefully about playing tug before a walk… sometimes it is exactly what your dog wants to do, and a good game of tug before a walk can get rid of the desire or need to play tug if your dog will tire of it, but if your dog is the type who can play tug for hours, you should avoid encouraging that tug instinct right before the walk itself. At least have a good period (at least five minutes) of doing something else. I do try to encourage a range of play from my dogs. Whilst I like them to have preferences, I don’t want those preferences to become obsessions. That is very true in this situation.

For dogs who will sit and can be distracted with a high-value treat or toy. 

When the dog takes the leash in its mouth, simply ask them to ‘sit’ and do a couple of other things instead. If they start to bite the leash, interrupt them, ask for a behaviour and then reward it. Distract and refocus. You can use a high-value treat (like chicken, ham or turkey) or a favourite toy as a lure, but don’t give the dog the reward until they’ve done the behaviour you’ve asked for.

In other words, distract with the lure, ask for a different behaviour, use the lure as a reward for the new behaviour.

Be vigilant and watchful, and as soon as you see your dog beginning to look as if they might bite, interrupt the behaviour, ask for another behaviour and refocus your dog. This builds up the connection with you and they’re paying more attention to you, and less to the leash. You can also “tease” your dog with the leash a little to ensure your dog understands that the leash is not a chew toy. Once you’ve done it a fair few times, offer the lure less frequently to get the behaviour and phase it out completely over time. Use it as a reward if they give the behaviour and transition that to a more intermittent reward over time.

You can see the first part of this in the video here: distract with a lure, refocus with a new command, use the lure as a reward.

I would caution however to watch for other behaviours popping out as ways to expend that excitement. You can see this dog will also need a little work to make sure that excitement is not popping out as a jump rather than tug-of-war on the leash.

Also, remember that the dog in the video IS easier and more biddable even after two minutes, because sometimes that’s enough for that burst of Excitement Notes to be spent. That’s why you could make LOADS of progress in one session, but it’s the beginning of the next session that will be vital, when you wonder why Johnny has forgotten exactly what you did the session before.

What about dogs who are too excited to be distracted with even half a leg of lamb or the best of frisbees? 

Pre-walk exercise is really, really important here. I can’t stress that enough. Don’t use your walk as exercise with a dog who is over-excited. Let them burn it off a bit and you’ll have a biddable dog once more. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a no-win situation.

You also need to avoid all the cues that a walk will happen. If you put your shoes on and your dog knows, put your shoes on at the beginning of the day, take them off, put them on, take them off… you get the picture. Break every single clue that your dog can use to get excited.

The third thing you should do is think about the type of leash, harness and collar you are using.

Anything that has to go over the head (and is thus presented face first to the dog, like a slip lead) is more likely to be something they want to chew. The same is true of a front-clipping harness. Haltis for dogs who bite the leash can be very frustrating.

The best solution for a dog who bites the leash is to have the leash out of the dog’s mouth area, so a leash that fits to the top/rear of a harness is the best solution. If the dog can’t reach the leash easily, they can’t grab it to pull. It’s that simple.

The type of harness you fit is important too: you want to avoid your arms going near the dog’s mouth. A playful, mouthy dog who doesn’t have good control at that moment in time has a stronger propensity to bite and to present yourself to a dog in an excited state with poor bite control is a recipe for disaster. It must be quick-fitting and something you can fit from behind or above.

The best solution, until you have eliminated mouthing altogether at walk time is to keep the harness on for much longer periods, so that the harness itself doesn’t become associated with the walk ritual. For instance, fitting it immediately after breakfast and leaving on until you’ve walked your dog can break the habit of thinking ‘harness = walk’. For this reason, it should be a high-end harness that does not rub and does not give your dog anything to chew. For those first few days, supervise your dog very carefully to ensure they are not chewing the harness during this time.

For over-excited dogs, I cannot stress enough the need to have a securely-fitted harness. They are more likely than many dogs to make a bid for freedom. If you’re lucky, like I was with Jony, no harm will come of it. If not, an over-excited dog could run into traffic, could chase another animal or could simply run off.


I’d also advise you to wear good gloves. They will shield you from nips and will make it easier to control the leash.

Having chosen a harness that is less easy to chew, you will then find it much easier to present your dog with great choices to bite, mouth and chew instead. Don’t expect that mouthy energy just to disappear: an excited dog wants to use its mouth to express its excitement, just as some dogs bark or circle. Encourage them to have something in their mouth and you will find your job much more easy. That can be a treat or a toy. I find toys work better here as the energy levels are higher.

Why do you think my Mali Tobby ended up with a toy at the shelter? Because he was a mouthy leash biter who thought he was being presented a toy.


As a consequence, he was given a toy. Tobby loved that toy. He’d only put the toy down to eat, and that toy-habit is one he still has. That came out of our need to stop him biting at the slip leash when it was presented to him.

The tactic here is exactly the same: ‘distract and refocus’. You distract with a toy, especially one they are happy to carry, and you can begin your walk in peace. Be prepared for them to drop the toy after a couple of minutes as their excitement level drops though. That toy will stop being a great thing to carry the minute that first burst of excitement is gone, I bet you.

Absolutely never walk a dog like this until you’ve got rid of that energy burst though.

I also want to take the excitement out of the leash. Here’s Emily from Kikopup showing how to do it with a young pup. I would do this AFTER the walk when the dog is calm and relaxed. And I am really, really with her about using a partner to help if it’s very challenging indeed.

What about dogs who’ve never learned to play, or have no obedience skills and have taught themselves tug?

We have a number of dogs adopted every year as adults who have never learned to play. I have four of my six who have never been taught (or appear not to have been). Tobby will carry a toy but never give it. Tilly only cares if her toy has wings and feathers and goes by the name of ‘pheasant’. Mimire doesn’t care for toys and Féfelle wouldn’t know a toy if it bit him. Heston dropped every single toy in his possession at Féfelle’s feet and Féfelle was completely disinterested. Worse still, though Tilly and Tobby have obedience training, Mim and Féfelle don’t. What do you do with a big lump who has no training?

Surprisingly, most dogs who don’t do toys don’t actually understand tug. It would never cross their mind to put something in their mouth in that way. That’s what it is like with Hagrid. He never, ever grabs the lead and though I’ve tried all sorts of toys with him, it all means nothing to him. Féfelle is the same. Don’t understand toys = don’t think a human will ever play tug with a bit of rope. I mean, why would you?! I don’t go up to Japanese people, drop sticks at their feet and expect them to Morris Dance.

For these dogs, they may pull, they may bounce, they may bite through displacement, but they don’t often put the leash in their mouth and play tug.

Worse is with a dog who has taught themselves to play tug but don’t have any other tricks in their magic box and/or you don’t have the facilities to allow them to expend that energy.

The first thing to do is to teach them some skills. Féfelle doesn’t do sit. But we’ve done ‘focus’ and we’ve done ‘follow me’ and ‘play bow’. Even six-year-olds with nothing have something they can learn. At least with this, we can get somewhere.

The second thing is to condition calmness around the leash, as shown in the Kikopup video. Again, a partner is a really valuable tool here so that you can add some distance. You want a calm, non-stimulating environment when all those Excitement Dollars have already been spent.

When I’m attaching a leash in these circumstances, I want to make sure that we are in closed quarters and that it doesn’t matter if I drop the leash. This is precisely what I’m going to do. I’m going to drop it. Instead of participating in the super-fun walk-tug game, I’m opting out. I’ll even go and stand in the corner and face away from the dog. I’m so totally not interested in that game of tug. And tug is only fun when someone is providing resistance. I’m going to drop that leash as soon as the dog’s mouth makes contact with it. I’m going to turn around and I’m going to ignore any jumping up or barking, or other ways this frustrated dog is going to get me to interact. If I bend down and the dog goes for the leash, I’m going to stand up, back off, disengage. The very first time I get hold of the leash and the dog has not got the leash in his mouth, I am going to give him such a massive celebration that he is going to forget about the leash altogether. I’m going to keep the dog in those close confines with the leash, dropping every time it looks like becoming tug and reward every time the dog doesn’t. I want this to be rock solid and I want to be absolutely sure that I can move it on beyond the closed quarters because dropping the leash is not something I want to do outside.

With Regis and Estas yesterday, I spent twenty minutes dropping the leash and picking it up, practising sit, habituating them to the leash itself. I didn’t get to the point where I walked them (they’d both been walked already anyway, which is great). I want to stop the leash being such a fun item so it becomes as meaningless as my t-shirt is. I say this with a degree of irony, having had my jean cuffs involved in a game of tug with a terrier puppy. Both Estas and Regis can sit, and they both responded to a tug rope and a toy too – they might be older gents, but it’s this precise combination of savvy tug knowledge and the stressful environment of the shelter that is leading them to ‘play up’ in this way. Like I said, dogs who have no toy or chew experience usually don’t think to pop the leash in their mouth. In all the times I’ve walked Hagrid, when the leash is accidentally in his mouth, he’s like a young horse in halter for the first time: he can’t get it out of his mouth quick enough. But then Hagrid doesn’t respond to a ball or ever walk around with a toy in his mouth. Luckily, dogs who know toys often know some obedience (both Regis and Estas can sit when asked) and that makes it much easier to teach them to stop tugging the leash when we walk. It’s the dogs who don’t tug – who circle, bark or jump – who often have little by way of training and who face a bigger battle.

I’m looking forward to continuing with them as well. They’re both lovely dogs who just have a lot of excitement to expend.

Hopefully with these tips, you’ve got a good range of ideas to help you manage leash biting and reactivity. I promise to make a video of a couple of our worst leash biters (and sorry Kevin and Emily, but they make your dogs look like stage props!) and demonstrate how these techniques can stop frantic tug-of-wars with a leash that can end very badly indeed.


Changes in environment and its effects on dog bite behaviour


Today, the shelter accepted the fifth dog in as many weeks that had been surrendered for biting a child. It seems more and more that we are having to write “NO CHILDREN” on dogs’ files as they come into our facility rambunctious around adults, boisterous around children or unpredictably over-excited. Whilst some dogs bite out of fear, biting, mouthing and unruly over-excitement can be just as challenging: they are often the reasons given for dog bites that have led to a surrender to our shelter.

Some would argue that we are irresponsible in rehoming dogs who have bitten children, whether the bite is driven by fear or excitement. There are plenty of people who would throw their hands up and say “oh, well, but it was a child! We can’t have that!” and many, many more who would agree with them. It’s a very tough call indeed.

Sadly, a vast majority of dog-human bites are directed at children. Evidence would show that we are in fact facing more and more situations than we ever have before where children are bitten by the family pet. How is it that we are failing our dogs so badly? How is this happening in a week where my post on trigger stacking is once again doing the rounds and people are so happy to share it?

That fifth dog gave me a lot of answers to these two questions. That answer pointed to changes in a dog’s life and changes in environment.

I only had to listen to the story to know exactly what had gone wrong and how it caused an eight-year-old dog who had never bitten before to nip two children.

In fact, she is very similar to my foster dog Féfelle in many ways. Both are herding/working pedigree. He is a beauceron, she is apparently a border collie although she seems like she is crossed with something else too. Both have lived their lives in caring homes, albeit homes where they have not been taught basic commands like ‘sit’. That’s important, and I’ll come back to it later. Both have lived in tranquil environments with elderly or infirm owners and have led unstimulating, cosseted, peaceful lives. I firmly believe Féfelle had never seen animals running before. I strongly suspect that the dog surrendered today had limited experience of children other than visits or holidays. Either way, for both of them, when they have moved to a new environment, they have lost touch with the security of their owner and been placed in a more stimulating environment with owners who knew them less well than their former owners, new families who had less of a connection with them and less familiarity with them. For Féfelle, that environmental and lifestyle change was to come here, with four new dogs (albeit three old codgers) and daily walks, exercise and hours in the outside. For the dog abandoned today, that was with the daughter of the original owner, and her young family. Both dogs have had an upheaval involving the long-term illness of their owner and then been placed in a new space where they haven’t perhaps (or definitely, in Féfelle’s case) had the same rules, connections, familiarity, routine, places to escape to or places to go to cool off.

And the result of that? For Féfelle, he started stalking the lawnmower and my dogs (you can insert ‘child on a bike’ in here as they are noisy and unpredictable too and I’m pretty sure he’d be stalking whatever moves, just as he does with my dogs) and he started air-snapping my other dogs. On Wednesday evening, that ended in a shouting fight between Féfelle and my other young male, Heston. Féfelle snapped in excitement, Heston took exception. Growling escalated into a “bring it on” from Féfelle. That all ended in a lot of noise and tension. Luckily it ended without bloodshed.

The result of that for the border collie? For her, she nipped an 11 year old on a bicycle (you can insert ‘Emma on a lawnmower’ here) and she nipped a child on a swing. She has never nipped before in her eight years.

So what caused this and what is the consequence? More importantly, how do you manage it?

The cause is simple: stimulation.

Any kind of stimulation can cause fear or excitement: they are feelings of arousal that are on the same spectrum. They can be bodily, physiological reactions. Let’s be clear about that excitement. I’m not talking about Tricky Woo getting excited when they are offered a treat, maybe a gleam in their eye. I’m talking about dogs playing tug of war with leads, barking, full-frontal leaping, manic circling, mouthing hands and even nipping or biting.


This is Hagrid, who I work with at the shelter. He mostly is a wonderfully obedient dog. He can sit, give a paw, walk to heel, lie down, stay, give eye contact, hold a look. And when I take him out some days, he jumps at me, he bites my hand hard enough to bruise but not break skin. He doesn’t play tug with the lead, but he has never put anything in his mouth before other than my body parts. Sometimes, he turns around, races back to me, leaps up at me with all feet off the ground, body-slams me, grabs a body part or spare limb and tells me just how over-stimulated he is with his lovely teeth. For him, this is not a change in the environment particularly, but just a way to express those physiological changes coursing through his veins. Excitement at its most intimidating for a walker or dog owner.

Fear and excitement do the same things to our bodies in many ways. Adrenaline courses through our systems. Our hearts race. Our breathing is fast and shallow. We have a burst of energy. We stop digesting food and our blood vessels in our muscles expand. We talk of adrenaline junkies when we talk about people. I don’t know whether dogs can have the same desire to chase those feelings of stimulation and arousal as humans do, but adrenaline certainly is a key factor in over-arousal just as it is in fear.

Think how roller coasters make our normal feelings of fear into ones of excitement, or how horror movies take those same feelings and use our fears to excite us. For fear and excitement, our bodies do very similar things. That can be positive arousal in both humans and animals, like excitement, or negative arousal, like fear. Anything can cause arousal, and anything can cause fear. Sometimes those are the same things. How many people are phobic of things that are stimulating to others? Now imagine you’re a dog in car, moving to a new location. That’s as close as they’ll get to being on an actual roller-coaster! That’s why it’s important you take your dog into account when purchasing a new car, they need sufficient room and comfort. Luckily this survey ( found that 62% of drivers to take their dog into account. Additionally, remember that toys, food, treats and affection can be excitement triggers for dogs just as much as they can be rewards. It’s stimulation. You can’t decide as an owner whether it will be positive or negative: only the dog can do that. Thus a squeaky toy can be met with fear as well as excitement if a dog has never seen one before. It’s all just arousal.

For some dogs, those feelings of arousal can be hard-wired. We may call them dogs with a high-prey drive or dogs who have a strong genetic propensity to chase things. If something moves, it’s stimulating. Thus for my mali Tobby, if a kitten is sitting on my knee, no problem. If a kitten runs, he will be on it and it’s in his mouth. Today, I watched my super-reactive Heston race off into a wooded strip. Then there were four yips, three deer ran out and there was Heston doing his best impression of Benson, the internet’s favourite deer-chasing owner-ignoring Youtube dog. I have never taught him to chase, though I did teach him to fetch. I never taught my show-bred American cocker to forage excitedly in the undergrowth when she smells a pheasant, or to chase stags. In fact, she never plays anything. But she will chase a deer through a field or a hare along with the best of them. Add movement to arousal and several hundred years of selective breeding, and you’ve got a very good reason why lawnmowers, cars, kids on swings, kids skateboarding or other dogs running cause dogs to have a momentary spike of adrenaline. And once you have switched a creature’s reward system on, so that pleasure is derived from an adrenaline spike and the stimulus that caused it …. well, that is going to be one hard habit to break. This is why my dog Heston is like Charlie Sheen on the rampage in a cocaine factory, and Hagrid is like an over-amorous Jean-Claude Van Damme with bitey white snappy teeth.

The consequence however is those enhanced states where a dog is less likely to pay attention to you. Of course, we see that most in fear, with dogs who you’re shouting your head off at just to get their attention and they’re not listening at all. But we see it in excitement too. It’s why Heston’s recall is 100% when unstimulated and 0% when stimulated. My chance of getting him to come back when I’m competing with running deer: 0%.

Often, that can manifest in a loss of control for a dog, where their genes and dog behaviours take over rather than learning. If a dog hasn’t had any learning at all like Féfelle and the dog abandoned yesterday, well, that’s ten times more likely to happen. There’s a correlation between dogs who displacement bite and dogs who are not trained. Training opens a channel of communication between humans and dogs. It doesn’t even matter for the dogs in our shelter if that training was with some long-gone owner.

A dog who has had the training button switched on looks to humans for instructions more often than a dog who has not. You can also use those commands as a gauge for how much your dog is listening to you. Dog trainers and behaviorists do it all the time to gauge how well a dog is mastering its instincts. A dog who can sit and look at you is a dog who you can train easily to be calm around new experiences. I say easy, and it really is. Well, it’s an easy concept. It’s just time-consuming, repetitive and you have to plan it meticulously. That’s true for lead training as much as it is for your old feisty fidos who want to shout at other dogs on a walk.

And then you have Féfelle and this young lady today. For Féfelle when he’s excited, nothing is stopping him from showing you how excited he is… with his mouth. He’s not only air-snapped my dogs but nipped my elbow. He’s not the only one. A small percentage of our shelter dogs do it too when they play leash-tug, nip walkers’ legs or jump all over you mouthing you vigorously. Recently another surrendered dog also did it to a very experienced and wise handler, requiring the handler to have medical treatment. We call these misplaced energy or arousal bites and they happen fairly often in high-stress situations, like taking dogs out through narrow doorways or having to walk them down past 100 other over-stimulated dogs. For dogs and people alike, excitement can be contagious.

Sometimes at the shelter, excited dogs go for other dogs to sink their teeth into (which is why I always ask my partner to keep their dog well out of the reach of mine when we take them out in pairs) but if no other dog is available, well, you just might find yourself with a bite to the thigh, calf or ankle, or a dog playing tug of war with you.

There’s a level of energy that’s all WHOOOOOOOOOO! and if I’m a dog, I want to run, I want to hump my friend, I want to bark, I want to go mental… and a person is holding on to me. You can understand how frustrating that can be. You can see dogs bite metal fences, sink their teeth into the leash, even want to play tug of war with it. It’s all frustrated, excited energy. It’s not aggression. It’s just WHOOOOOOOOOOOO in a dog that has no outlet for their Whooing. That lead can be so exciting that it may lead to a bite. This is exactly what it’s like to take out four or five of the dogs at the shelter, including Hagrid.

And yes, this is going to happen more frequently in dogs with a strong desire for action. Collies and Australian Shepherds are known for the nipping at the ankles. Terriers – big or small – are also dogs who like a lot of stimulation and arousal. Other herding breeds are also known for that energy and love of action. Malinois are also prone to it: it’s not a surprise that Tobby my Mali got bitey around a high-energy hound pup.

So what is the prognosis for a dog like this?

It’s good, if they have tricks in their toolbox to fall back on. If you can get a sit or you can get a paw, you can build up frustration training. Thus, with Hagrid, we’re working on displacing that energy before we go out (we do ten minutes of scentwork, since he also doesn’t know how to play – tug would be great for him) and then I require him to be calm and quiet before we walk. My aim is to get him past his arousal point and slide him back down the spectrum into a neutral, calm point. Luckily, he’s really responsive and I can get a very good sit-paw-eyes-down-eyes-stay sequence even when he is highly stimulated even if I can’t get him to chase a ball. This is why he looks beautifully mannered at every single other point on that walk. People even ask me who it is, because they can’t believe it could be the same dog I was just being full-frontalled by moments before.

But if dogs don’t have those tricks, like Féfelle and the dog today, that’s when a bit of avoidance is crucial. Distance from the source of stimulation is vital. I’m going to put a lot of distance between a source of stimulation and do my best to be as far away from it as possible. I’m going to put out lots and lots of calm body language, no eye contact and zero movement (however, I am watchful of the fact that this can be frustrating too and a dog may bite to get you to hurry your own self up a bit). And I’m going to try to elicit a calmer state in the dog before I engage with them, whilst trying to ensure that I’m giving them an outlet for frustration too. I deal with frustration first, usually with something really distracting and an outlet for that adrenaline. For Hagrid, that’s two minutes of searching for high-value treats that I’ve hidden. That’s all he needs before I can get him to sit and give me eye contact. That is now all I need to stop him saying hi to my arms with his lovely white teeth.

Here’s another example. Féfelle is stimulated by seeing animals run. I keep him as far away as possible from running animals. Then I can work with him. In the meantime, I’m avoiding running animals like the plague, because I want every single occasion to be at my arrangement until he is rock solid. Counter-conditioning and desensitisation are the only tools I need here. And then, only then, will I up the challenge a little bit. For a dog who is stimulated by children’s energy, space and calm are absolutely essential. I can also reinforce and reward calm responses, or teach them a more appropriate response. For instance, when creatures run, I want Féfelle to look at me. When a dog walks by, I want Hagrid to sit and focus on me.

Here is a GREAT video of two Aussie ladies working with a reactive dog in the exact same way. I wouldn’t say the dog is excited, but it’s the exact same principle of reducing an unwanted behaviour and replacing it with a new one. I’d suggest everyone who has a trigger point with a dog finds a way that allows the dog to get rid of their adrenaline burst before trying to engage.

In the meantime, a muzzle is not a bad thing and can save your dog’s life if your dog is nipping. It can certainly save them from ending up in a shelter. If I avoid unpredictable situations, protect my dog from biting and help my dog through structured counter conditioning and desensitisation to move back to a more neutral response then I am onto a winner. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The video above shows how easy (and how structured/time-intensive) it is as a strategy.

Other things can also help: good quality physical stimulation or mental stimulation before the stimulus is a real lifesaver. For the over-excited lead-tuggers, a game of tug might be just too arousing. However, they could also learn that the toy is for tugging and the lead for walking if you go about it right, as well as when to tug and when not to. Tug is obviously a thing they are really enjoying! How wonderful would a structured teaching of tug-release-leave be to help this dog understand when to pull and tug and when not to? Anything like scentwork, chase, catch, fetch or mental puzzles can help dogs burn off that nervous energy and focus on you. As with fearful responses, you can see it happening and dogs’ body language is shouting about how excited they are. Avoiding or diffusing those moments is your goal.

Here’s the very excellent Donna Hill explaining about both counter conditioning and the arousal spectrum.

Identify the times and situations or stimuli that trigger the dog’s excitement, and then you can work easily with a good dog trainer or behaviourist to lessen the excitement at those points. But first you have to know what it is that is causing that perfect storm. For Hagrid, it’s going on a walk, but it’s also me crouching or moving my hands quickly. For Féfelle it’s the burst of energy as six dogs plough into the garden. For Angel, it was the excitement of a water hose or a lead.

Once you have identified these triggers, you can work to lower the response to them through appropriate energy outlets, desensitisation and counter-conditioning, to bring the dog back to a place of calm. You can also then build in a replacement behaviour for the dog to do instead.

As for the new arrival at the shelter, she may well have gone all her life without had she had owners a little more conscious of her obvious excitement and arousal, who then took the sensible measure of keeping her away from stimuli until they could get a bit of help. Sadly, because they ignored how excited she was, their children were injured and the shelter has yet again become a dog jail.

Should you have taken on a new dog, or changed the environment and stimuli that your dog meets on a daily basis, be mindful of the fact that the changing energy levels can be difficult for a dog to manage and that it’s up to you as the rational one in the relationship to help them manage those changes in ways that don’t hurt them, don’t hurt children and don’t hurt other animals. Just as it was true of fearful responses in trigger stacking, a calm, quiet structured environment can help overcome those moments of stimulation that can end so very badly. Leash-tug, yippy over-excited barking and Tigger leaping are other behaviours that you may also see with newly adopted dogs (or ones you’ve had for a long time!). In the next post, I’ll explore ways in which you can identify those unwanted excited behaviours, channel them appropriately and work to reduce them.

How to take great photos of your family dog


If the past three years have taught me anything, it is how to get any dog to feel comfortable around a camera. Shy ones, barky ones, worried ones, bouncy ones, crazy ones, sweet ones… I’m full of tricks these days.

What follows are ten tips to help you get a great photo of your family pet.

  • If you’ve got a shy dog or a scaredy dog, a bouncy dog or an over-exuberant dog, don’t be scared of the lead. You can always edit it out afterwards. Unless you are happy to keep trying to get a photo of a dog as they move about endlessly in and out of the sun, back and forward, in front of things you don’t want them in front of, a lead and a friend are your best friends. Even with a simple point-and-shoot camera, your camera will struggle to focus and you’ll get more blurry shots than not. These ones weren’t taken with a lead and as you can see, it took me a fair few shots (twenty in all) to get her closer to me, and even then, she was right over that nasty grid! A lead would have made it so much easier.


  • Do what the dog trainers do: counter-conditioning and desensitisation! If you’ve got a dog who’s camera-shy, try getting them used to the camera gradually. Hold it away from your face so they aren’t threatened by it. Give them a treat every time they look at it, come near it or come near you with it in your hand. Gradually put the camera in front of your face, giving them a treat every time they look at the camera. Then fire off one or two random shots in different angles away from your face, continuing the treats. What you want is for your dog to think that every time they see the camera, something good will happen. A camera can be a scary thing to a dog who’s not seen one before. This usually doesn’t take very long! Both the girl above and the boy below were scared of the camera and both were happy to pose within five minutes.


  • Use a lure to help you get their eyes on the lens. Photos where your dog connects with you through the lens are so much nicer on the whole. You can do this by holding a small treat just above or below of the camera lens so they look right at the camera. Often you’ll get a happy, smiley face too because who doesn’t smile for a treat, right?!


  • Get down to the dog’s level for some shots but don’t under-estimate the “look up” shot too. The first shots are ‘look up’ shots that I took at a 45° angle (at least).


  • Be prepared to kneel or lie on your front. The littler the dog, the lower you go! Kneeling will do for many dogs, but for smaller dogs like dachshunds and Yorkies, be prepared to lie down on the ground and get as low as you can. Alternatively, you can always find a small hill and have the dog a little higher up than you are!


  • Go for shade rather than sunlight where you can, and avoid dappled sun like the plague! The best days to photograph your dog outside are days when it is grey and overcast. That way, you don’t end up with a shiny, shiny dog who’s half in sunshine and half in shade like this handsome specimin on the right where you can’t see their eyes. Much nicer to have one in shade or one on an overcast day. You can always get yourself a portable reflector or use off-camera flash, but far easier to find a shady spot and shoot your photos there.


  • Make sure you’ve got a full-on repertoire of noises and switch the camera beep back on if necessary. I can’t tell you how many more curious dogs will look directly at the camera when it beeps to focus. If you have a Curious George, use your phone, camera or mouth to make noises and see if you can get the Curious Collie head tilt! But… if you have a scaredy dog, switch the beeps off and keep the noise to a minimum.


  • Try to capture a little of your dog’s personality in the photos, if they’re shy, curious, playful or just plain silly. You may not get it picture perfect, but these are always the photos you will treasure because they say so much about the character of your dog too.


  • Be patient. If your dog is young, over-excited, stressed or too focused on other things, there are several things you can do. The first is to tire them out before you try to take their photograph. The second is to have something of a high enough value that they’re interested in you and not the environment. The third thing to do is just stand. Stop wherever you are. Stop trying to get photographs. Stop trying to get their attention. Just wait. If you don’t move at all, the environment will soon get much less interesting and you’ll be able to get their focus on you. The more energetic and lively the dog, the more you need to ignore them. I had to take photos of six young adult dogs on Friday, all on my ownsome. No lead. No assistant. No rules. I didn’t have any treats (I’m enough to interest a bored teenager!) and I stood just ignoring them for ten minutes or so until they were much less jumpy and excited.


  • Take lots of photos and practise, practise, practise! You might throw lots away at first, but sooner or later, you’ll get to the point where every shot is a winning shot. Teach your dog a few tricks too and build up that trust with them, and you’ll end up with some amazing shots.


If you think that’s hard to take a few shots of dogs, go and find yourself some kittens. They should remind you how wonderfully easy a lead, a bit of cheese and a good sit make taking photos of your family dog. Those cat photographers deserve a special kind of medal!


Dog Commandments #4: A dog is what it eats


A dog is very much a Return on Investment product: what you invest, you get back. That’s as true of food as it is of many other things.

This week, I’ve been reading Canine Nutrigenomics by Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure-Dunetz. It’s a book which explores what things are good for your dog to eat, and what is not so good. The best thing about it is that it doesn’t make you feel guilty if you are feeding your dog a raw diet, a biscuit diet or a cooked diet, and has ways that you can improve your dog’s health whatever you feed them. It’s a brilliant book, scientific but not science-speak. If you are still deciding about what sort of diet you want to feed your dog, then you also might want to check out a website like Pet Food Exposed.

When I did a lot of fitness training, I was obsessed by what I put into my own body. Sugar was a dirty word. Carb-loading was a norm. I weighed and counted how much protein I had and from what sources. I was vegetarian and ate a mostly vegan diet, apart from occasional cheese and milk. Now I’m much less hardcore about it and accept more pleasures in life. After all those years of abstinence, cake is a joy.

To be honest, when I first got dogs, I was governed by the cat I’d had for 16 years in terms of what they ate. Basil the cat was a finicky eater. Whiskas was the only food he’d tolerate and he would literally starve if he didn’t have it. He would also only eat the ones in jelly. It also had to be fish. He’d eat rabbit, chicken and beef, but throw them up again. I tried my best to add biscuits so that he had something to balance all that soft food out, but it was a battle. He did love cheese, yoghurt and ham, though. I came very much from the generation of people who believed that cats ate cat food, with occasional tuna or chicken treats. Any cat who had hand-cooked food was a pampered primadonna.

When I got dogs, I did kind of the same. What they would eat was the thing that they ate every week. Mostly that was supermarket-bought dog biscuits. A new dog would kind of go through different biscuits until they hit on one that they kind of ate more than others. You just put your faith in pet food companies and hope for the best. This is also why, you should have a look into a food guide for huskies to be sure of the recommend food intake. Surely they would do the best for their clients, right? Absolutely. The same way that United Tobacco do the best for their clients and cake companies do for theirs.

There are of course lots of reasons why people go for dog biscuits. Firstly, they are convenient and they are entire in themselves. You don’t need to do anything other than put the recommended amount in a bowl. Some people feed once a day. Most people feed twice a day, thinking that it is not good for a dog to fast for so long between meals. I just posted a question on a specialist dog allergy group only to be told that I should be getting up in the middle of the night to feed my dogs and they should be allowed to graze. To be honest, this is nonsense. Nobody really knows what an optimal number should be, but based on a dog’s biology, two or three times in smaller meals seems ideal. Like us, really. They are no longer “carnivores” as such, having evolved along with us. Like pigs, it’s likely they made their living eating whatever by-products of humanity were available, and yes, that probably included the dirtiest by-product of all, human waste, which is why some scientists speculate that dogs relish fecal matter. Carnivores might get by on irregular feeding, and herbivores might need to graze all day, but dogs are neither pure carnivores nor herbivores. Even owners who feed their dogs raw diets include some vegetable matter. You only have to watch dogs to know what they like to eat – Tilly is a bin dipper. Three-week old rotten eggs are okay with her. Cat turds are also okay with her. I’ve seen her carry stale eggs in her mouth as delicately as if they were her offspring and wait for a cat to finish in the litter tray for a bit of a hot buffet Tilly lunch. Amigo likes fallen plums, though I pull the flesh off since I don’t want the stones in his stomach. Tobby loves windfall apples. My dogs are happy to graze in the garden, except for Heston, who has never been a bin dipper, a thief, a plum forager, or an apple scrumper. That dog is a fine example of training at work. He eats if it comes from a bowl or if it comes from a hand. All other eating is not his cup of tea. Dogs are not classic omnivores like chickens, pigs or people: they are primarily carnivorous. But they are still omnivorous scavengers. Anyone who tells you that a dog is a carnivore like its ancestor the wolf is wrong: wolves have a preference for flesh like dogs, but will voluntarily eat plant and fruit matter. What bearing does this have on meal times and frequency? Very little. Dogs do well on routine, so whatever works for you. For me, that’s twice a day, twelve hours apart.

So now you’ve navigated the bear-trap of how often you *should* feed your dog (and few topics are so hotly debated and defended) then you have to think about what you are feeding them.

As Canine Nutrigenomics explains, just like any other being, an animal is what you put in. With so many disorders in dogs related to diet, many of us end up medicating our dogs when food may be part of the problem. I have six dogs at the current time, including two in foster. Two have food intolerances (and the subsequent gastric, skin and yeast infections that go with that), one has advanced arthritis, one has a thyroid disorder and obesity issues, and two have food-related hyperactivity. That’s 100% of my dogs who can’t eat the stuff in the supermarket.

The food-related hyperactivity was quickly sorted by a good quality biscuit. Ask most professional dog trainers what the first question is that they ask if a dog presents with hyperactivity and they’ll say “What are they eating?” Bakers is a familiar answer. Purina dog foods are marketed under many guises, including ones that say ‘natural’ or ‘ultimate’ food, suggesting their premium quality. Of course, the US and the UK have great pet food suppliers who have organic, free-range biscuits made with natural ingredients and nothing else. Getting hold of those in France is less easy: luckily, I manage well with Acana, a company that, like Orijen, EVO and Taste of the Wild, do well in independent reviews. Amigo and Tobby have Royal Canin foods which are prescription-based and are essentially a dog biscuit with medical ingredients. Tobby’s arthritis is managed by both food and medication. One without the other and he struggles to move at all. Tilly and Mimir both have food allergies. It’s for guidance on Tilly’s diet that I bought the book: she has intolerances to beef and rice (gastrointestinal issues, skin issues, lesions, ear infections, yeast infections, diarrhea, vomiting) and to chicken and soy (the hypoallergenic product she was on) although arguably the chicken and soy was better, since she never suffered from wind, stomach acid reflux, bilious vomiting or diarrhea with them: the yeast infections did not clear up, however, and neither did the skin complaints.

Having been through a number of biscuits with proteins and carbohydrates she’s never had before, she’s back on an elimination diet of home-cooked stuff. Once that is done, I’ll be happier that her sensitivities are environmental, not food-related.

See… absolute minefield. You shouldn’t eat supermarket dog foods made with dodgy meat, bulked up with grains and ash, by-products and additives. But they are convenient and cheap. It’s easy to pop a bag in your trolley when you do your shopping. You are then left with navigating dog foods that are special order only but there’s no regulatory body to help you know who’s saying whether one food is a good food or another one is better. I look down the list of food constituents and try to add up the percentages given for protein, fibre, ash and the likes and I can’t get 100% – there’s always missing bits!

So what are the top tips from Canine Nutrigenomics?

  1. Try to add a little of the “canine superfoods” to your dog’s diet (even if you are just supplementing their biscuits) blueberries or cranberries, coconut oil, curcumin (turmeric) raw honey products (not for puppies) milk thistle, omega 3s, pomegranates, probiotics and spirulina.
  2. Try to add some organic products to supplement your dog’s diet. “Functional carbohydrates” can give your dog a boost of vitamins and cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Choose from cruciferous vegetables, fresh fruits (not grapes!), gluten-free grains, green leafy vegetables and legumes like lentils.
  3. Supplement your dog’s diet with high-quality protein. Whilst dairy products are out if they are from cows, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk are good examples, as are low-mercury fish (sardines, Alaskan salmon) and meat from novel sources such as rabbit, duck, fish or goat. Eggs have many great reasons to recommend them.
  4. Good fats will also give your dog a boost, especially with their coat. Fatty fish oils and things high in Omega-3, as is coconut oil, hemp oil, sunflower oil, olive oil and primrose oil. Try for expeller-pressed if you can rather than extracted with hexane.
  5. Avoid all the foods that are toxic to dogs: alcohol (that’s a food?!) chocolate, citrus fruits, caffeine, grapes, raisins, cultivated mushrooms, nutmeg, nuts, onions, peanuts, spoiled or mouldy foods (no bin dipping for Tilly!), strawberries, xylitol and yeast dough.
  6. Avoid high GI products like corn, sugar, white potatoes, wheat and white rice. Soy can also be difficult for dogs to process and can cause complications with the thyroid. Food-grade soy may have long since been proved not to interfere with humans, but is the soy in your dog food food-grade?
  7. Be careful with pet food packaging including plastic and tin cans.
  8. Don’t be taken in by a dog food’s claim to be “natural”, “premium”, “gourmet” or “holistic” – look at the ingredients.
  9. Build in the three key components to a healthy diet: a variety of nutriet-dense, whole foods.
  10. Make sure your dog gets plenty of calcium, if not from ingested raw bone.
  11. Puppies, mums and seniors have different needs: make sure they are catered for, not just in terms of calories.
  12. Don’t stick with one diet for a dog: change it up and supplement it. There are fewer health risks and more benefits from doing so, including less of a likelihood of building up a food intolerance.
  13. Food intolerances are not the only issue from a limited diet: chronic itching, gas, gastrointestinal issues, yeast infections and ear infections can also be present.
  14. Just like humans, dogs with existing health issues can find certain foods beneficial. Weight issues and arthritis can also be improved with a better diet.

It goes without saying that food is one of the first things you should ask your vet about if your dog is presenting with health problems. The same is true for behavioural problems too. If you can’t upgrade to better dog biscuits, a raw diet or a cooked diet, a little addition of something fresh at every meal time can really help your dog out, whether that’s a pot of organic goat’s milk yoghurt, a couple of cubes of feta cheese, some broccoli or cauliflower, or a handful of turkey or duck. Good-quality food shouldn’t be considered pampering or over-indulgent. We love our dogs and we want them to be with us as long as they can: food is an essential part of that deal. In terms of your dog’s lifetime, energy and health, they definitely are what you put in.

Canine Nutrigenomics by W. Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure-Dunetz is available from Dogwise, but is also available in a Kindle edition from Amazon.