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Start and stop buttons: anxiety, fear and aggression in dogs

When we discuss behaviour, we so often talk about the behavioural triggers, the ‘on’ buttons that say, ‘Go! Go! Go!’

Without those ‘on’ buttons, those behaviours would just be spilling out willy-hilly, hither and thither. Our dogs would bark for no reason. Growls really would come from nowhere. Bouncy labradors would bounce with the random whimsy of a cartoon puppet. Those ‘on’ buttons, sometimes known as triggers, put the edges in. They are the fanfare that announce that the performance of the behaviour is about to start. It’s the MGM lion that says, “Show’s about to start, people!”

That’s what I love about behaviour: the buttons. The triggers. The antecedents. The environmental cues that say, ‘Now would be a REALLY good time to do that thing you do!’. Behaviourists are in the business of finding the fanfare. We’re looking for the MGM lions that announce a behaviour will be required.

That’s logical. Behaviour doesn’t just spill out of us randomly.

As behaviourists, we’re obsessed by the starter guns, the triggers. The cars that lead to arousal. The appearance of a squirrel that leads to chasing. The presentation of a toy that leads to play sessions. The appearance of another dog that leads to barking and lunges. Find the trigger, you can desensitise. You can counter-condition. You can work out the emotional drivers behind the behaviour. You could, if you wanted, arrange the environment so that the MGM lion never appears ever again to say that a behaviour is required.

Our dogs are obsessed by our starter cues and fanfares as well. The way you brush your teeth immediately before a walk. The way you get bowls out right around 5pm. The sound of a van that means the post lady is in town. Boots on, walkies. Doorbells and knockers that announce visitors. Standing up and moving near the refrigerator.

We talk all the time about those triggers, those fanfares that announce the performance of the behaviour is imminent. Pavlov was obsessed with them. Metronomes. People in white coats. Footsteps …. he gave us a very nice phrase for them: conditioned and unconditioned stimuli. Nicer than fanfares and MGM lions and triggers and cues and antecedents and signals and a whole dictionary of confusing metaphors.

Cialdini in his book Influence said these stimuli, antecedents, cues or triggers tell the brain ‘do this now’ and set off an automatic chain of events leading to a behaviour or biological change. He called the stimuli the ‘click’ and the behaviour the ‘whirr’ as if the environment presses a button and behaviour clicks into play mode. We chimps love our metaphors.

I think that notion is pretty well dissected and described in the animal training world. There are lots of metaphors we use for the stimuli that create the ideal stage for a behaviour to be performed upon, that announce performance is about to start.

But what tells behaviour to stop? What says, ‘No point…. pack it in.’ What brings the curtains down? What says “That’s all, folks!”

Usually that is when the function of the behaviour has been met or we see it is unlikely to be met. The behaviour met its goal: success. The behaviour was ineffective: failure.

This is what I care about. Triggers and stimuli are all well and good but I care about what turns the behaviour off again. The fact is if behaviour exists, by and large it exists because once upon a time it was useful. It may even be useful even now. It may be so very successful that it’s the immediate go-to behaviour to achieve that result. Where behaviour fails to achieve that result, it tends to die out. No point.

So I want to know when the behaviour stops, as that tells me what is keeping it alive. What are the consequences that lead to repeat performances?

For me, what makes me stop running for a departing bus? (Apart from a mild heart attack?)

There are only two real-life consequences. I either catch the bus or know that catching the bus is impossible. Success or failure. If I succeed, I’m more likely to choose that behaviour in the same circumstances in the future. If it fails, I’m less likely.

But success or failure is an immediate thing.

What makes the running stop? I mean I’m not Forrest Gump. I don’t keep running. Or I’m not running on the bus when I get it. At some point, I quit. What makes that behaviour say, ‘That’s all, folks!’

That’s what I care about. When does the behaviour stop? Because when it does, that’s highly probable to be your reinforcer – the result that keeps the behaviour alive and makes it a reliable choice for success.

What makes Flika bark?

The increasing noise of planes in the sky.

What makes it stop? At what point does it actually stop?

The plane either goes away, or she realises her barking is not influencing the noise. Usually the former. Success (in her eyes anyway). Today, she very effectively (in her eyes anyway) told a low-flying plane to sod off. She barked, and as the plane sound got less loud, she stopped. The thing keeping the behaviour alive is that barking clearly makes airborne noises go away. Success.

What makes Heston bark?

The sound of the post lady’s van slowing down outside our gate.

What makes him increase that barking? Her getting out of the van.

What makes the barking decrease? The post lady going away. Success.

What is the moment at which it stops? When the post lady drives off.

We don’t talk about those off-switches enough, in my opinion. Success fuels the continuation of that behaviour. It marks it as a potentially useful action to get success in the future. It makes it more likely to happen again.

Those off-switches or consequences tell us what the function of the behaviour is. Why it’s necessary. They tell us what the dog wants. They tell us when the dog thinks it’s being effective. What did the behaviour succeed at doing? What happened as a result? What were the consequences?

I love this. It’s so non-invasive and observational. It tells us all about motivation. I don’t need MRI scanners to see that. I don’t need to make up fictional reasons to explain their motivation. I can see really clearly what’s fuelling the behaviour.

If the behaviour increases in the future, the function of the behaviour was met the last time, and it’s more likely to happen again in order to bring about the same result.

The cue, stimulus or trigger simply says WHEN. It says ‘DO THAT THING NOW!’

That’s all.

When the behaviour stops or decreases is the important bit, as it tells you the WHY. It says, ‘Success!’ or ‘Failure!’

This is why I like working aggression cases with dogs. Dogs don’t go around with aggression spilling out of them all the time, unless they’ve got something crazy going on. Aggression doesn’t usually happen in a trigger vacuum. Heston is not out barking at crows all day every day. Flika is sleeping. They’re not doing the target behaviour all the time just for random. Aggression – be that barking, growling, lunges, snaps or bites – has pretty clear-cut on and off signals.

My job is then easy. Extinction schedule for the aggression. I’ve got to show the dog that they’re going to miss the bus every time, so there’s no point. Desensitisation to take the sting out of the cue, so that every time the bus passes, they don’t think they have to run for it. Counterconditioning so the bus doesn’t bring out the same emotional response. Trust-building so the dog doesn’t think it has to fend for itself. Breaking the magical thinking that connects X behaviour to Y result. Dealing with superstitions and helping dogs ‘see’ more clearly to choose another behaviour for the same result.

Aggression cases are fairly ‘clean’ in identifying on and off switches, triggers and functions, antecedents and consequences.

This is not always the case for fear and anxiety. Just to be clear, there is no agreed definition of the difference between these two states. I’m going to talk about the two as if there’s a distinction that is absolutely not agreed by the psychological sciences, or the world at large. You may think of them as scales on a spectrum, with anxiety being a milder state of fear. I don’t define them in that way. This is all my own artificial, crazy dichotomy between the two. Bear with me and I hope you’ll see why.

For me, anxiety has less clear-cut functions. Fear has a biological function and clear-cut on/off switches. The MGM lion appears to say a spider is about to skitter across the floor. I feel afraid. I scream. I don’t keep screaming for the rest of my natural life thankfully as the spider skitters off and my brain says, “That’s all, folks!”

For example: see a snake, feel fear, run away. Fear stops when the threat stops. That’s all folks! You’re safe.

See postlady. Feel fear. Bark. Make threat go away. Job done; nothing to see here.

Fear, for me, is right there on the fight-flight response. It has clear, well-defined on and off switches. It serves a purpose to help us avoid inconvenient things like being attacked or dying. Fear may very well underly aggression and aggressive behavioural choices, just as anger may. But anxiety is something else altogether, and it’s why I find it tough to work with anxious dogs.

Here’s why.

Anxiety often develops through rumination on the absence of the ‘on’ button for fear. There’s not often an MGM lion that appears to tell you to start feeling anxious. You’re actually living in anticipation of the lion, which – and this is the horrible kicker – may never, ever appear. You expect a life-threatening or stressful event, but it hasn’t happened yet. You’re waiting for the bell to ring, the spider to appear, the snake to slither, the buzzer to sound. Anxiety for me is the state of anticipating a fear-inducing event. In fact, instead of the MGM lion, the fear-inducing stimuli, marking the beginning of the behaviour, some nasty messed-up circuitry makes it the ‘That’s all, folks!’

We can actually feel a sense of relief when the crappy thing eventually happens! It puts us out of our anxious misery.

Unlike fear, which comes AFTER the stimuli, and ends when safety has been secured, anxiety doesn’t always have a clear ‘on’ switch. And it doesn’t always have an off-switch. Sometimes the on-switch for fear is the off-switch for anxiety. No more anticipation and waiting with dread.

Take for instance the following example. Heston has epilepsy. He’s on a 3 week-ish predictable cycle. The last time that cycle happened, I was away. My dad was looking after Heston. Because I was ruminating on the anticipation of a fit, I became anxious. No MGM lion appeared to tell me to start feeling fearful or anxious: I just expected that it was imminent for no good reason. The fit hadn’t happened but I was afraid it would happen. Then, as rumination does, it snowballs. I texted my dad to put an end to my anxiety and I had no response. Give me 30 minutes and I was in a full-blown panic that Heston had somehow come out of his fit, been startled by my dad, attacked him and left him for dead. Or Heston had had a fit and had died and my dad didn’t want to say. I went straight to constant messages and phone calls. The only time it ended was when my dad texted me back to say things were fine.

That’s why I hate anxiety. And that’s anxiety that has clear-cut on/off switches. Thought about something predictably unpleasant happening, Click-whirr for anxiety. Reassurance that the predictably unpleasant thing has not happened. Whirr-click for calm.

But most anxiety is not so on-off. I worry about my car. I worry that there will be some unfortunate mechanical problem. It wakes me up in the night. This anxiety has no beginning – there’s no reason to think like this. My car isn’t making noises and doesn’t have lights flicking on. My car is in good mechanical health. And there’s nothing I can do to switch the anxiety off – not even stopping by at the garage. If I stop and they say nothing is wrong, I distrust them. If I stop and something was wrong, then my anxiety was fruitful and it is ruminations were successful and useful.

The same with my dogs. I worry about Flika. She’s old. I worry she has some undiagnosed thing. It keeps me awake at night. There’s no reason for my worry other than her age. She’s in good health for an old bird. But nothing can switch that anxiety off. If I see the vet and he gives her a blood test, I suspect it’s something blood tests can’t pick up, and if I’m right, then my worrying behaviour is reinforced.

Usually it’s history that’s made us like this. I had 6 months of problems on my last car and now I drive thinking all cars will break at any moment. I’ve had 5 old dogs in 4 years and I spend all my life fussing over them.

But anxiety is a largely cognitive process built off anticipation of the likelihood of bad stuff happening. That’s why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is so effective with it. Breathing properly, yoga, meditation and mindfulness are our ways to reset our fight-flight nervous system response. We’re working off the probability that something bad will happen and it’s largely cognitive without any specific ‘on’ stimuli or trigger.

Anxiety, unlike fear and aggression, DOES spill out all the time, cue or no cue. No on-switch, no off-switch. The more you sensitise your system to it, the more you become anxious.

You may argue that since it’s a cognitive process, dogs don’t feel anxiety. Dogs, you may argue, in light of lack of evidence, do not think. As always absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And there’s plenty of evidence that dogs do anticipate things anyway. If they can anticipate things like walks and become excited, there’s no reason they can’t anticipate bad stuff happening. Maybe, by my own definition, you’d prefer to say anxiety is fearfulness without a clearly-defined on-button and off-button.

But I work with dogs who live in a state of panic that bad stuff will happen. They are constantly anticipating threat where none is present. Anxiety happens in a stimulus vacuum. I watch videos of dogs who are on edge because they are expecting something to happen, and until it does, that feeling will just grow and grow and grow. We maybe call this something else: nervousness, fearfulness. We think of it as a personality trait. I never watch videos of dogs in yards who just become randomly aggressive – there’s always a trigger. But I watch videos of dogs in yards who are constantly anxious – no trigger necessary.

Anxiety doesn’t work on Success or Failure criterion. My anxiety about my car is on the leanest reinforcement schedule. My worries have paid off 1 day out of 365. Compulsive behaviours don’t always work on success or failure criteria, either. In fact, I’d say a behaviour is compulsive when it too has no “That’s all, folks!” signal to say “Stop doing this now!” and compulsions also seem to have weak or undefined triggers that can be hard to pin down.

The trouble is, when I see an anxious dog on video, no aural, visual or odorant ‘start’ buttons, what I’m watching is a dog whose emotions are spilling out everywhere at random. I’m watching a dog engaged in cognitive processes that I can’t put an off-switch on. It’s a cognitive process that I can train humans to override (or medicate as well) but I can’t use CBT on dogs. It’s exactly the same with compulsions.

That’s what I hate. Fear and anger have such clear on and off switches with such clear functions that it’s easy to work with them. Empowering dogs so they understand the universe and can learn to operate it better is crucial, as is trusting the guardian to behave in a way that has the same function. I’ll never forget the look of relief on one dog’s face when I yelled at a person hurtling towards us. It was a look of understanding that I dealt with the threat for her. I told the MGM lion, ‘Not Today!’

But I can’t teach a dog so easily to rationalise the things that make them anxious. Sure, breathing is crucial. But teaching a panicking dog to breathe is no easy task. There ARE things I can do – lowering stress levels is huge, and empowering the dog through desensitisation to environmental stimuli is another. I can do all kinds of things to help them understand that they are safe. But it’s not as easy. Anxiety doesn’t have a function as such. It just puts you in a heightened state of arousal just in case. That’s pretty crappy, to be wired on a hair trigger ‘just in case’ something bad happens. As the saying goes, “Worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”

But you can’t tell that to a dog who thinks that their anxiety and high-alert behaviour is saving them from who knows what harms. You can’t tell that to a dog engaging in compulsive behaviours that seem to have no function.

So be kind to your anxious dogs and do as much as you can to help them understand that the world is a safe place. Understand that it is a curse that there are no easy cures for, and that if dogs could deal with it, they would. Nobody likes feeling anxious. However, understanding that there may be no clear on and off switches can help – as well as helping your dog become more resilient. Work hard at identifying those MGM lions and “That’s all, folks!” signs. They do exist for anxiety and compulsions. There may be lots of them, or ones we’ve not worked out yet, but they do exist.

And don’t think that just because aggression and fear are sometimes ‘cleaner’ and ‘clearer’ than anxiety that they are easier to work with. The stakes are higher when extremes of the fight-flight pathway is involved, that’s for sure. But just because you’ve found the things that make the MGM lion appear, or the reinforcers that tell the behaviour “That’s all, folks!” to end it, doesn’t mean it’s an easy job to overcome them. Theoretically, they are nice, neat learning processes, but real life is messy. Those MGM lions can pop up without warning. Still, it’s not quite so difficult to work them out.

I think we should spend a little less time, though, thinking about the signals that say ‘Now!’ and focus on the things that tell the behaviour that its job has been achieved. Once you work out that, it’s so much easier to work on those unproductive behaviours.

More on resilience, I promise!


A reflection on dangerous dogs, breed-specific legislation, dog bites and shelters

A new study published on the relationship between dog bites and breed-specific legislation (BSL) in Denmark was published in 2018, and an article by Zazie Todd has been subject to much discussion on social media. As usual, that discussion is rarely positive about BSL, and anecdote after anecdote roll in about how great our ‘dangerous’ dogs are. I don’t usually class lots of anecdotes as data as some are wont to do, but a pattern was evident. Nobody had been saved from being bitten by BSL, and a large number of people have dogs who are affected by it. Including us at the Refuge de l’Angoumois in France.

Those of you who know me will know that canine aggression is an interest of mine. Most of the dogs who come to me for behavioural modification have issues with aggression. I don’t have the patience or the nature for fearfulness, and although the two things may go hand in hand, I feel I have a better grip on the aggression cases I work, and I’m glad to have worked with a lot of people who’ve come through the other side.

Aggression is such an interest of mine that I wrote my diploma for my canine behaviour practitioner course on it.

That happens when you’ve spent 20-odd years working with teenagers, I think. “They’re not aggressive, they’re just misunderstood!” I find myself saying.

So I compile case studies of my own – not subjective anecdotes but heavily-documented objective case studies. And I read statistics from France, from Ireland and the most recent from Denmark. It’s a morbid obsession I know.

Most of my private clients arrive with dogs who either have bitten and been reported or have bitten and have luckily escaped the legal hoo-ha that can follow a bite. So I know bite law and responsibility and insurance and all that malarky inside out for France.

Bites, for instance, of any kind are supposed to be reported by the person bitten to the town hall. Sometimes other things are included in that, such as attacks on other dogs – whether fatal or not – or on cats, livestock or wildlife. That, not to trivialise bites, ranges from the slightest graze of a tooth in play to bites that kill a person. It makes no account of context, motivation or emotion. The municipal staff should then request the owner present their dog to a vétérinaire sanitaire (sanitation vet) for what is called a protocole mordeur or bite protocol. Loi 2008-582 published on 20 June 2008 makes what happens next a clear pathway. On the day of the bite (Day 1), the dog should be seen by the sanitation vet, then again on Day 7 and then again on Day 15. There is only one purpose for this: to check whether the dog has rabies.

Since dogs don’t have rabies in France (it is rare enough to be reported by the decade) this is largely just due process.

The municipal staff can also insist (and ‘should’ insist, according to the law) that an ‘évaluation comportementale’ or behavioural evaluation be carried out by a specialist vet.

I say specialist with a large caveat. I am not a vet basher by any means, not by any. But there are vets in our community for sure who work exclusively with equines or farm livestock who are ‘qualified’ to do this test. Since it was based on inscription numbers and the region must have a certain number, only when those vets decide to remove themselves from the list or they retire can another vet step up. That means one of our local horse vets who shoved an unknown dog presenting aggressively into the back of a strange car and got very badly bitten is as qualified to ‘evaluate’ a dog’s behaviour as vets who work as vétérinaire comportementaliste – behavioural vets who mainly work with dogs.

There are anecdotes out there about the disparity between results of the behavioural evaluation and how those results are achieved. Dogs are assessed as being level 1 (no danger beyond the usual dangers presented by owning a large predator) to level 4 (unpredictably and explosively aggressive with high likelihood of wounding). But no peer assessment is done. No standard battery of tests. Nothing to prevent vets from provoking dogs, or not taking it seriously and letting you off with a 1. Basically, not worth the paper it’s written on, and very easy to cheat if your dog bites and you pick your vet carefully. One vet will give a 4 and one vet will give a 1 or a 2. Hardly fair. Just to put that in perspective, my former vet made my dog literally crap himself. My current vet told my dog how handsome he is and what a good boy, and gave him a chew. Which vet do you think my dog would be likely to behave as a level 1 dog with, or a level 4? There isn’t even an attempt to make sure the behavioural evaluation is conducted in an egalitarian and fair way, and your dog’s reaction to the vet is the main factor in the evaluation. It’s highly subjective at best.

After this, the vet will write a letter back to the town hall to account for the rabies tests and the second vet (if the first cannot conduct the behavioural assessment) will state what level of risk the dog presents, perhaps recommending euthanasia for dogs who are level 3 or 4. It is the town hall’s choice as to what happens next.

Some will issue an arrêté municipal or legally-binding statement. That might say you will do a training course, walk your dog on a lead if in public and muzzle your dog. It may say the dog needs to be removed because you are incapable of handling it and it would therefore be okay in the right hands. Or it could be a destruction order. Unlike the UK where destruction orders are frequent, this is rare. I’ve only known a handful in all my time here in France – and usually for dogs who have a high level of danger, are owned by irresponsible owners and are subject to breed-specific legislation.

As you can imagine, most dog bites are not reported. I’ve been bitten I’d guess about 8 times. One was by my old malinois Tobby. He was irritated and I got in the way. One was my old Amigo who bit me when I grabbed his collar during one of his dementia-driven midnight wanderings where deafness meant he’d not heard he was about to get into bed with another dog and cause a fight. Technically I should have reported all of those bites. Just recently, a dog from our shelter bit his owner. The owner told the town hall. The town hall told him to report to a vet for the 15-day visits. The guy did. The vet recommended the dog be euthanised. Another vet realised the dog had health issues, an enlarged heart, and the town hall had to then choose between a very well respected vet saying ‘kill this old dog’ and one saying ‘treat this old dog’.

I know I don’t need to tell you how utterly heartbroken I’d have been if my old Amigo had been put to sleep because I grabbed him to stop a fight breaking out.

This is why I am very clear that owners whose dogs have bitten are very welcome to get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to find them a fair vet. It is not fair for a sick dog to be judged on behaviour during sickness – you may think differently and I’m happy to hear that – but those are circumstances that need to be considered. It wasn’t like the dog had mauled the owner. It was a very bad-tempered ‘Get off me’ bite that left no bruise, broke no skin and was intended as a warning.

Do you see what I mean about playing the system though? Ridiculous isn’t it? And as it says in the legislation, it is the owner who chooses the vet they report to for the behaviour test. So choose carefully.

And if you don’t get the behavioural evaluation, the town hall can decide to issue an arrêté for the immediate euthanasia of the dog once the 15 days rabies check is up. The clock ticks.

All of this is rien à voir as the French say with breed-specific legislation. Nothing to do with it at all.

Following on from the US (1987) and then from the UK and Norway (1991) many European countries followed suit. France’s legislature came into play in 1999.

Let’s just stop for a minute to think about the media-driven climate of fear that led to BSL in the UK… largely driven by a series of events in the late 80s and early 90s, this culminated in the well-publicised death of Kellie Lynch, an 11 year old girl in Argyll who was killed by two rottweilers she was walking with a friend.

Did that launch an investigation into the levels of danger presented by rottweilers? An exploration of when and where dogs might bite?

No.

It led to the banning of four other completely unrelated breeds, including two that were not represented in the canine population in the UK at the time.

Reports in Mills and Westgarth’s excellent Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Approach states that rottweilers and German shepherds, who ranked most highly for both fatal and non-fatal attack numbers (irrespective of the population size) were not included in UK legislation because that would have caused issues with the security industry and the police who used a number of these dogs.

It led to the banning of the Dogo Argentino (DA) – non-existent in the UK at the time.

Minus, Dogo Argentino : un bon chien or a dangerous dog?

The dogo and the rottie are fascinating because in France, one is banned where the other is not, and in the UK, it is the other way around. 20 miles of water and a dog will be destroyed in the UK.

And in the other direction, it’s life on a lead or muzzled, regardless of whether you are a good boy or un chien méchant.

tellement méchant

So that’s my first bone to pick with BSL: it’s based on media-inspired nonsense and not on actual statistics, epidemiology or anything sensible. And if you’re a rottie in the UK, well done for avoiding BSL when most of those media shitstorms were about you!

In France, it’s similar to the UK. Two breeds of dog that aren’t even ever seen here (the Boerbull and the Tosa) and some spurious deciding that something is a breed (American Staffordshire) that isn’t a breed in other places. There was a lot of hoo-ha about staffordshire terriers (not an actual breed) that were initially included in French legislation and then a quick addendum was sent out to say NOT Staffordshire Bull Terriers as if to make up for that huge faux pas. Well not pedigree staffies, anyway.

Now France, it must be said, has kinder legislature and kinder authorities on the whole. There was outrage at our shelter when I explained what happens to non-pedigree pitbull types in the UK. To be fair, those things also happen in France, but there are plenty of easy-to-exploit loopholes that make a mockery of things but also make it virtually impossible to find homes for our slobbery ‘dangerous’ dogs.

So, the two types / breeds that this mostly refers to in France is American Staffordshires (Amstaffs) and rotties. If you have pedigree ones, you still have to do some hoop-jumping. Always on a lead in public (though no legal maximum length) always muzzled in public, public liability insurance, annual rabies jabs and the owner has to have a permit. If you have a ‘type’ rottweiler (ie they’re not kennel-club registered) then you still have to submit to the same rules. You can legally buy, sell or breed your Amstaff or rottie as long as you don’t have a criminal record.

If your dog is ‘non-pedigree’ and conforms to a ‘type’ then they can be classed as category 1, which means you cannot sell them, give them away, breed them (they must be sterilised) and you will have a devil of a job getting your house insurance to cover you.

For a shelter, this means our ‘type’ Amstaffs / pit bulls can never legally be adopted. They can go on long-term fosters but never be adopted. Some shelters opt to kill the dog rather than find long-term fosters. I understand that – many of our legally-adoptable category 2 dogs (rotties and pedigree Amstaffs) have been waiting an age for a home. Some shelters also don’t have the space. This was not what the legislation intended: it intended an end to non-pedigree Amstaffs and pitbull types. It didn’t bank on shelters saying, “okay, so the dog has to stay in our name? Fine – we’ll let them go on long term foster contracts” which is what many shelters and associations do. Just one flaw in the system.

But there are plenty of flaws in the system.

One is at initial identification time. At 8 weeks, when you take your puppy to be chipped, the vet has to write a breed.

The vet wrote collie x for Heston.

He is in fact predominantly shepherd – Groenendael and GSD – and no collie at all.

The vet could equally have put flat-coated retriever, because he often looks a bit flattie…

At 8 weeks, a vet (who has no particular specialism in confirming pedigree per se) has to decide groenendael vs GSD vs collie vs retriever …

For most dogs, that doesn’t matter.

Billy’s identifying vet wrote bull terrier x shepherd. Not a problem in France. Big problem in Germany where EBTs are subject to BSL.

Some vets are happy to steer clear of identifying a dog in a way that will condemn it for life. Others are happy to damn a dog forever – even one already decided by another vet!

My case in point is the Molly dog. I made sure before we moved to France that Molly was clearly identified as ironically, I didn’t want problems moving her back to the UK. As you can see from the photo, I didn’t want dispute.

So Molly could have been boxer, labrador, ridgeback or any number of things. Most likely she was nothing much – she resembles quite a lot of completely average street dogs with her hair, colour, ears and tail. Those dogs who’ve been happily breeding for years without any hint of a breed. But she was deep of chest and slightly wedge-shaped for the head and I didn’t want problems getting her back into the UK. The vet wrote labrador mix I think, and off we went. Except when it came time to redo her vaccinations. The same vet who made Heston pee his pants decided Molly was a pitbull. They didn’t have my name and address, so I walked out and went elsewhere.

Whilst this may seem like an a-typical story, a number of Brits arriving with short-haired, semi-brachycephalic dogs fell foul of the same situation.

So identification matters whether it’s at 8 weeks (and I’ve had arguments with vets over the ‘brindle’ in a coat being the mark of pitbull type because, you know, boxers, bulldogs, Frenchies, fila de sao Miguel, Dutch shepherds…) or at 5 years. And when you know there are vets who are happy to slap a BSL breed on a dog that could be just about anything, you need to know to pick your vet carefully.

That way, you can avoid all kinds of problems.

The second relates again to that behavioural evaluation. It’s the same one they use for dog bites – no standard test, no peer-review, no comeback – and with a level 1, you’ve got a dog who never needs to do it again, and with a level 4, you’ve got a dog who needs to see the vet yearly for behavioural assessments.

Pick one vet and you have a get out of jail free card. Pick another and you’ve got a catalogue of problems that will follow. It’s a lottery.

Now excuse me for thinking that it shouldn’t be a lottery when a dog’s life is literally at stake. Excuse me for thinking that something that affects a growing number of dogs should be taken seriously and peer-reviewed evaluations from a standard battery of situations could be deployed (and none of your ridiculous Assess-a-Hand or taking food off a dog tests, please)

Finally, like handsome Zorro in the title, you can also be decategorised – which means a vet is happy to go up against the opinion of another vet and say the dog is not what it was first classified as. That takes a brave vet though, and it could cost them dearly if anyone challenges their decision. Justifying euthanasia is easy; justifying why you decided a mutt could be anything means your reputation could end up on the line.

So that’s my problem with BSL. It has both huge loopholes AND huge obstacles.

And it doesn’t work. There is no connection between BSL and dog bites. The paltry evidence of bite-statistics in France suggests no connection at all. Even my own bite history – one terrier, one collie, one mutt, three malis (because I work more with them and have owned two), one shepherd mix – probably dutch shepherd – and one accidentally-gnawed finger joint mistaken for cheese from a briard x – bears no correlation with the popularity of Amstaffs and rotties. I’m still waiting for my first call ironically enough from someone who has a dog subject to BSL. Don’t you think, for someone specialising in aggression, I’d have had one? Just one? Among the cockers and the collies, the shepherds and the terriers, the bitey westie and the grumpy goldens (more of them than you’d think!) I’ve never had anyone call me about an Amstaff.

Now you may want to argue that BSL is probably keeping idiots from owning them, and you may have a point. Except…. Amstaffs are the same status avatars for disenfranchised young men in France as this ‘type’ of dog is across the rest of the world. All BSL does is make them desirable. At least 5 of the pedigree Amstaffs currently in the refuge care were removed from poor owners – BSL does at least make that easier – but has this combination of breed and impoverished background impacted their behaviour? Not a jot. They are – to a dog – irascible, joyous, friendly, jovial dogs who have a great affinity with people. Often fairly crappy with other dogs – and dog/dog aggression can be an issue for all terriers, from the little-bitty ones up to the bigguns. Partly, I’ve always thought they aren’t very ‘readable’ – they are muscley, bow-legged dogs who just aren’t as flexible with the old facial muscles. Plus, they play hard and lots of their play relates to their hunting sequence, which is often fine for other, similar dogs, but overwhelming for the shrinking violets or those who don’t play quite so physically. One of the main things I think that makes terriers popular is their ability to live happily without other dogs – not always, but more often, if my casebook is anything to go off. Not one that I’ve ever met – whether they’ve come from the best breeder or the worst – has ever been anything but a little smasher. As for the rotties – my personal experience is that they’re more temperamental than UK rotties – and I think that some of them are somewhat more true to their original working purpose – but that’s just my view of French rotties. That said, I’ve only worked with one single rottie as an aggression case, and that was over a learned response to forced muzzling which worked the first time and turned into a nightmare the second.

I guess that tells you all you need to know.

I thoroughly concur that BSL is Breed-specific bullshit. It bears no relation to danger or threat – both actual through reported bites – and hypothetical. The widely-circulated information about bite strength has been proved to be a circuitous daisy chain with no clear origin and no supporting data. In fact, the last two Amstaffs I know who did bite had a real good hold for a good minute or more, and actually did little damage at all to the other dog. One of our female staffs got a good grip on a GSD who got too close – his lip was torn by the handler pulling him back. She, on the other hand, sustained quite a nasty cheek wound.

If you want more reading about how society, the media and the government have created a climate for BSL, Mills & Westgarth’s book comes highly recommended. In particular, Jim Crosby’s two chapters highlight risks: big, unsocialised, uncastrated male yard dogs kept outside who are approached by young male children who are friends of the family seems to be a theme that crops up time and time again. Socialising our dogs and keeping them as family dogs, not yard dogs, will stop other countries following the path to the USA stats, which are certainly not a benchmark by which we should be comparing ourselves. For a start, you need a licence to teach bitework in France, and you need to be registered. Whilst you get rogues and amateurs, it serves no purpose because you can’t work with the dog and you can’t show the dog. That is not true in the US. The landscape of dog ownership in the USA leaves a lot to be desired and it behooves other developed Western cultures not to jump on board where things like dangerous dogs and breed are concerned. Social media has a noisy, populous North American bias that impacts significantly on values beyond their shores. The picture is very different in France and I surely wish Europe hadn’t jumped wholesale on the BSL wagon.

If you want to know more about the media’s role in creating a public enemy out of dog breeds, Janis Bradley’s excellent book Dogs Bite But Balloons And Slippers Are More Dangerous is also highly recommended. France has yet to be touched by the pitbull phenomenon, and a quick search for recent news articles found an anatolian shepherd, two malis, a collie, a shepherd cross, a labrador and a cane corso. Only one newspaper reported anything with Amstaffs or rottweilers, and their fervent reportage suggests a touch of the old media demonisation to sell papers rather than anything that could constitute useful data.

Finally, as to what this means for us as a shelter… BSL means we have a number of lovely dogs who need a home – dogs who’ve been waiting much longer than their non-BSL counterparts. You will need to jump the usual hoops, but we’re always happy to help you with that – especially as it means some of our fabulous ‘dangerous’ dogs find a home. Definitely time to put an end to the dog racism and remind ourselves that any dog can bite. But, as Janis Bradley’s wonderfully titled book says, balloons and slippers are more dangerous.

Dog problems: car chasing

Hands up if you’ve got a dog who’d run to the ends of the earth chasing a car? My hand is well and truly raised, isn’t it Miss Flika? Let me tell you, it’s not such an easy task to try to retrain a 14 year old girl who goes nuts at the sight of a van, lorry or car.

Let’s face it: for most dogs, up until the 20th century, life was not filled with mindless machinery. Horses were as likely to give you a kick to the head if you got a bit frisky with them. Carts didn’t go as fast, they weren’t as dangerous and they didn’t make all that noise and machine smell. Chances were there was a man attached to that cart who would have given you strong incentives not to chase. But kicking and whipping dogs are no solution.

Life was easier for dogs before we invented automated machinery and things that moved.

In such a world, it wouldn’t even matter if your dogs did chase things most of the time. I’d have little problem with my dogs buggering off if there weren’t cars about. I could probably even live without as much fencing. It’s the things that we’ve invented for dogs to chase that are the very reasons we don’t want them to chase: they’re dangerous.

The problem with our dogs getting off the property and chasing is that so many dogs – as with all kinds of wildlife – end up victims to the machines we’ve brought into their lives.

It’s fairly easy to say what is behind such behaviour, even if we don’t have a solution for it. Some of our very earliest work on canine vision back in the 1930s showed that dogs, like humans, more easily detect a moving object than a static one.

A study of police dogs in 1936 determined that they could see moving things almost a kilometre away. The same static things didn’t cause a speck of interest until they were less than 500m away.

That makes sense for a plains predator: whilst vision may not be a dog’s primary sense, being able to detect a fleeing animal is a helpful life skill. It’s also why Heston doesn’t see hares ‘frozen’ (even if he can smell them) and why as soon as they decide to flee, that’s when he decides to move.

Not only that, for long-nosed breeds, from sighthounds to German shepherds, daxies, poodles to collies, the placement of the eyes on the head give them superb binocular vision. That makes them exceptionally good at scanning the horizon for movement. They have wide-angle vision.

The difference between visual fields for long-nosed (b) and short-nosed breeds (c), taken from Miklosi: Dog behaviour, evolution and cognition

It gets worse: those long-nosed breeds often have a concentration of the sensory cells that capture light and shadow concentrated in a long horizontal visual streak whereas other breeds tend to have a much less pronounced visual streak. Better eyes to see things moving horizontally across that already enhanced binocular field of vision.

Add in long legs and what you essentially have is a dog designed not only for chasing (see you later, daxies!) but a better perspective.

Stick in a bit of desire to control moving prey species that we’ve bred for with mainland European shepherds and other herding dogs, and you have the perfect biological recipe for a dog that likes chasing stuff to speed it up and slow it down. That’s enhanced every single time they do it with a nice shot of dopamine to help them feel good, reinforcing your dog every time they do it and making them crave doing it when they’re unable.

The simple motion at speed of something in the distance sets off a set of age-old predatory pre-programmed behaviours that have clicked into ‘play’ mode long before the visual cortex says ‘hold on a second, I don’t think it’s an elk.’ A twinkle of light, a sudden shadow moving in the distance and boom – Chase Mode Engaged.

It’s not a surprise to find a lot of dogs who engage in these behaviours are herding dogs. Effel chased bikes, cars and lawnmowers in his misguided attempts to faire la rive like good beauceron are supposed to do when a distant sheep gets a jiggle on. His genes are saying ‘Keep The Moving Things from Moving, Effel!’ and I’m saying ‘Effel, get away from the flipping lawnmower, you idiot.’

It’s not a surprise that Miss Flika feels the need to go and tell that car that he has no right whatsoever to be causing flashes of light in the distance.

And it’s not a surprise that collies, GSDs and malis, when kept on a lead, will be so frustrated with the sodding, uncontrollable moving things that they will bark at it like a frustrated sergeant major watching his corporals run willy-nilly through a battlefield without a single sense of cohesion.

For other dogs, it can certainly be a clear sense of fear. Moving machinery that seems to work on its own would be utterly incomprehensible if you weren’t used to it. Most of that is to do with a lack of habituation: most streeties, for instance, that grow up in towns, are used to the comings and goings of traffic. I was watching – with a certain sense of mirth – a dog trainer with a shepherd working on habituation to traffic. What made me laugh were the large number of streeties his videographer also captured who were just ‘meh, cars’ wandering in and out of doorways as they went past. But deprive a dog of those activities to see traffic regularly from a young age, and you’ll almost certainly have a dog who is fearful around traffic. That can be hard to see as different from dogs who chase cars, since predatory behaviours and aggression can look so alike. Certainly, I’ve worked with dogs whose main aim was to stop the scary, smelly thing from moving and the arrival of any car or motor noise was met with ambivalence and over-arousal but it looked like common-or-garden chasing behaviour.

Lack of vital learning is often a core factor whether the emotional roots of the behaviour are fear or chasing. Heston is sensible around cars, unfussed about machinery and not interested in the slightest by cars, bikes or skateboards going by him at any speed or distance – but then we live on a main road. He’s been used to cars and our local Tour de France types since he was 6 weeks old. The only cars that annoy him are ones that slow down outside our house, because cars don’t do that very often and who knows what crafty thieving and attacking they’d get up to if he didn’t tell them to bugger off. That’s much more about territorial behaviour. I could guarantee that he wouldn’t chase a car 100%.

Whether it’s a fear response or a chase response, you’re probably best working with someone who can help you determine the motivation behind the behaviour. Not that there’s very much difference in how you’d go about working with a dog who is chasing through fear or excitement, but on the one hand you are counter-conditioning as your dog is afraid, and on the other you are desensitising because your dog is over-excited and the predatory ‘play’ button is activating before the visual cortex is saying “it’s a car” and the rest of the cortex is saying “we don’t chase those”.

If your dog is fearful, you absolutely don’t want to use punishers or restriction. I picked up a client recently with a malinois who’d been car chasing and the previous trainer had ‘reminded’ or ‘interrupted’ (their exact words) the dog ‘with their foot’ (their words) not to chase cars by walking less than a metre away from cars going 40mph or more and ‘reminding/interrupting the dog with their foot’ if the dog started to panic. I’d not have said ‘reminding/interrupting with a foot’, I’d have said kicking the dog up the backside. Words are not meaningless and if you feel you’re being given euphemistic advice that involves physical contact with your dog, chokes, chains or shocks, then you need to find a better trainer.

The problem with such punishers is that the dog comes to associate moving objects with YOU giving it a kick up the backside. You’re part of the common denominator. And anyway, what does the dog do when you’re not there? They still chase. Punishments only suppress behaviours when you’re present: they do not teach the dog what to do.

Plus, you’ve got to punish them for every single element you want them not to chase rather than teaching them one single action to do in all cases. You may very well have spent all your time ‘reminding’ your dog and ‘interrupting their focus’ with cars at 10m, but what happens when they see one at 400m? Punishments can seem quick and they’re offered as simple remedies, but the reality is that they suppress behaviours lulling you into a false sense of security that the behaviour is dealt with, so that you let them off the lead only for them to chase the first moving thing they see. Punishments also rely on you being near the dog – and that’s counter-intuitive for recall. If you punish a dog around moving things, the first thing they’ll want to do off-lead is get the hell away from you. Say bye-bye to your recall.

Also, if that ‘nudge’ or ‘reminder’ stays a gentle prod, sooner or later your dog will ignore it. Then you’re faced with a choice to escalate because your dog has got used to your pokes and rib touches. So then you’re into the realms of heavy artillery punishers – chokes, prongs, shocks. If you’re here and you think these are acceptable things to use on a dog, then you’re probably going to need to read on.

These tools lull you into a false sense of security. We reason ourselves into ‘it’s for their own good’, ‘it’ll save their lives.’ Well, chase instincts are so much more basic and fundamental that fear of you zapping them with a taser probably won’t be enough eventually.

So please don’t punish your chaser or (especially!) your fearful dog if they are reacting around moving targets.

So what ARE you supposed to do?

As with everything in dog training, there are no quick fixes.

What we need to work on is habituating the dog to moving objects. That means desensitising them to moving targets at a distance, or counter-conditioning fearfulness. We need to activate learning that means your dog sees a moving target and they know how to handle it. Instead of having a sensitive ‘chase’ button, the neural pathways that help them sift out the wheat from the chaff become more adept at sorting ‘chase’ things from ‘not chase’ things. That’s much easier with mechanical objects because there’s really only one aspect of them that’s worth chasing – the movement – and once there’s been a bit of thinking, that’s easier than if you’re working with hare or deer and the likes. Dogs don’t bite static cars. Effel ignored the lawnmower 100% of the time when it was still. Well, he peed on the wheels, but that doesn’t count. What we’re teaching is ‘you see that thing in the distance? Give your brain time to process…. go on…. go on…. you got it! It’s NOT a wildebeest! Well done!’ I have never (yet!) worked with a dog who chased static cars. Interested in them, yes, but if your dog is racing up to parked engine-off cars from 100m away, you’ve got an anomaly for sure. It’s the movement that’s everything for a chaser. On the other hand, if the engine-on parked car is creating a reaction, you’ve either got a learned response that the engine on means the car will move soon – hoorah, good signal of a game of chase! – or you’ve got a dog who is afraid of the noise. Effel became very interested in the lawnmower when it was idling because it meant more than likely, a very good game of ‘being a beauceron’ was going to follow. So do a little thinking about how your dog behaves around ‘dead’ machinery, ‘noisy non-moving machinery’, ‘slow rolling machinery’ and ‘fast machinery’ – it’s all part of the picture.

For chase behaviours, the desensitisation is going to start REALLY far away. Do you remember I said the police dogs could see a moving target 900 metres away? We may need to start there!

What you need is a set up. A set up is an environment where you can control most of the factors. A good set up will mean easy, clinical progress. The fewer complications, the more ‘scientific’ and clean it becomes. For me with moving machines, that’s a T set up (see image below). The long bit of the T may need to be up to a kilometre long with a direct view – at the dog’s height – to the cars. The top of the T is a main road. I like the long bit of the T to have trees or buildings or something to mean that the cars are only going to pass into view for a very short second. Visual chasers are not usually that bothered by the sounds of traffic, but for a fearful dog or a dog who has practised chasing cars, I may even need to work on sound or smell alone. Basically, if I get into the field and the dog is way over-stimulated by traffic when we’re more than 500m away, I need to back it up and it’s probably sound that is setting them off rather than sight.

Set up zone

The yellow path is 1.2km long and if there are issues, I can always go to the other side of the slower road for a 1km path in a similar set-up and zero distractions. However, it’s harder to get to and there isn’t so much traffic on it which means I can wait hours for a single car.

On the dark blue road, there is lots of traffic at a fairly constant 80 or 90km. There are no other distractions – few other people on this section of track and as long as I check it out before, I can park far up it and start 600m away from the car. The traffic on the blue road is intermittent as well, and that’s REALLY important for what will happen next. What you don’t want is a steady stream of constant traffic with no gap between. There have to be gaps in the traffic for the connection to form with the dog.

Just as a side note, if you’re working with a noise-sensitive dog, pick a day without a temperature inversion or rain… those days make sounds much louder and can be a challenge.

So we start 600m away and start walking towards the dark blue road. I stop every 20m or so, allow lots of sniffing and interaction, but no toys and no food. Toys amp up the adrenaline and I need a calm ‘thinking’ dog not a ball maniac. The food can ONLY be associated with the traffic so I’m saving that for later.

I want to get to the perfect point where the dog is noticing the traffic but not pulling towards it, but I absolutely don’t want to do it without my secret weapon, so I’m going to listen for cars, watch for a reaction and wait until I’m getting to the ‘threshold’ point where the dog is likely to notice the next car along. As soon as they see it, I’m going to pull out my magic weapon: the very best food they’ve ever had… something disgusting and smelly and rich and full of dog yummies. And as soon as the car is gone, the food is gone.

The reason I go with something surprisingly tasty and amazing is because the more surprising the experience, the more we learn from it. The more we remember it. Think of all the nights out you’ve had, the restaurants you’ve been to, the sports matches you’ve watched… which ones stick with you? The ones that were surprising. Being surprising helps associations and memories form much more quickly.

After, the food goes away and we stay at the same distance. I like a short interval between the next car, but it has to be the very next car, and the food comes out again. Food-food-food until the car is gone, and then the food goes away. Car appears in view = food, car disappears = food stops.

I need to confess that dogs are SO quick at getting this. Two times with one collie. Three with the mali. The next car comes and I’ll hesitate the briefest of moments – I want that look back, that ‘where’s the food then?’. If the dog isn’t quite getting it, I won’t hesitate at all, just keep car-food-food-food-car gone-stop. It might be that this might happen twenty times and they don’t get the connection. If you’ve set it up properly though and the thinking brain is on rather than the chase mode, you’ll find they get it really quickly.

The moment the dog looks to the car and looks back to you, you have won a major, major victory. It has clicked.

All those lab-rat behaviourists said it should take 5-7 times of those surprising phenomena for an association to form. I’m with them on that.

And once I’ve done a few trials, that’s it, game over. We go home. Always finish on a win.

Next time, I start at the same distance, maybe even just a little further back, and a different set-up zone. I don’t want the dog to be thinking ‘right, we’re here, that means sausages’. I want them to think ‘Huh! That works here AS WELL?! COOOL!’

Set-up solutions – things to consider

As you can see above, the choice of set-up situation is really important. Here, I’ve got 4 possibilities. Set-up one and two have long, straight, quiet paths that give an eye-line to a road about 500m away. However, between the two there is a part of the wood that has been coppiced, and it means the dogs can see cars moving for about 10-15 seconds. They are okay for later in the programme – in fact, they’d be great for when I need to increase distance because I’m increasing the duration the dog is exposed to the moving car – but they are not good for my second experience. Set-up 3 involves a T that is on a part of the road with a bend and a steep hill, so cars are going 40-50kpm there – that slows them down and increases the time the dog is exposed to the moving vehicles – neither are good for a second experience either. Set-up 4 is perfect. Cars are speeding up again, short period of contact, long straight road and the trees either side of the pathway that help create a really short period the car is present for. The path gives a clear sight-line for the dog (and remember to check out the sight-line from your dog’s height, not yours! YOU might be able to see moving vehicles with your increased height of 1m70, but your dog, at 70cm will have a much reduced field of vision and even small inclines can completely obscure the dog’s sightline.

Check out the set-ups before you take your dog. No use doing them if the path is heavily-travelled or busy, or filled with other things your dog finds overwhelming like lots of scents. Working with a behaviourist who has done programmes like this before will mean they should have good local knowledge of where will work. I’ve got a bank of 50 or so good locations (including one with a sightline of 2000m to a burst of fast road with intermittent traffic that is the absolute dream set-up for dogs like this – former rifle range!) as the better your set up, the more chance of success.

I give them a couple of days of no-chase car-free days between training and so every single car they’ve seen is met with yummy, yummy goodness.

At this point, I also start to add another behaviour – a thing I’ve taught them to do that I want them to do when they see a car. For most dogs, I teach a hand touch or a shoulder target where they touch your hand with their nose or their shoulder to your knee. This time, when the first car goes past, I’ll do a free food session – just to show this is still the same here. And when the second goes by, I’ll ask for the behaviour – one I know they have really, really solidly. Sometimes that’s a sit, but there’s no reason it has to be anything particular. I like hand touch because it disrupts their looking at the car and I can also add duration later and get a 2-second or a 20-second nose-to-hand. That is one calm dog who is thinking, not a mad dog chasing a car. But Flika likes the ‘shepherd lean’ (you know that thing they do where they lean on your legs) so we went with that. She comes back to me when a car comes and leans on me. I also like this because I’ve been able to swap some food for cuddles – but not every dog appreciates that. Will Work For Petting is very dependent on you dog. And Flika still appreciates the sausage-petting combo SO much more than petting alone.

After that second session, we practise over the next few weeks at shorter and shorter distances, never ever letting the dog go into manic chase mode. If they feel over-excited and edgy, I’ll skip cars on that day and do a car-free walk instead. I also build in lots of non-training days. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your dog will pick up on the ‘no chase’ thing, but be prepared for it to take up to 6 months. That way, you won’t be disappointed.

I also write down SMART targets starting with the end point at a 6 month date. I think of where we are now and where I want to be. And then I work out where I need to be at 3 months, 6 weeks, 3 weeks and 10 days from my starting point. Imagine I’ve got a dog who is reacting to cars at 100m, but unreactive/noticing at 150m. This would be my rough plan.

In 6 months’ time, the dog will walk without reaction alongside fast moving traffic

That means in 3 months’ time, the dog will wait without reaction as fast-moving traffic goes past

That means in 6 weeks’ time, the dog will wait without reaction as fast-moving traffic goes past 20m away.

That means in 3 weeks’ time, the dog will wait without reaction as fast-moving traffic goes past 50m away.

That means in 10 days’ time, the dog will wait without reaction as fast-moving traffic goes past 100m away.

Small, measurable, achievable, realistic targets that I can adapt if I need to. I’ve not got a rat in a maze pressing a button for food, I’ve got a dog in real life with a biological button releasing good shots of dopamine for chase behaviours.

That said, when I’ve broken it down like this and I’m regularly practising, I’ve never found myself getting to 6 months. But I go at the pace the dog dictates.

This kind of learning moves from the Pavlovian association of cars = food to cars = hand touch = food then to cars = hand touch = occasional food. This may be where you’ll need a trainer to explain intermittent vs fixed rate reinforcement schedules and it all gets arse-numbingly boringly science-geeky.

The main things to remember are:

  • we’re working to put some ‘thinking’ steps in between a visual trigger and chase behaviours
  • we’re working to break habits, and if your dog has been practising them for X amount of years, be prepared to put the same amount of time in to teach them to stop
  • most people understand how to form associations but they are far too close and work far too quickly
  • most people are miserable when it comes to payouts – this is worth more than dog biscuits
  • this can work with ‘real’ prey but your dog’s visual cortex is pretty likely, instead of going ‘ignore that machine’ to say ‘that’s a hare, dude, go get it!’ so working with livestock (and people) can be a little different and is dependent on their emotion, the context and their motivation

Partly the success of this method – whether for chasing or for fearfulness – relies on gentle, gradual, planned habituation to moving machines. I’ve used cars as an example, but I’d use the same processes for bicycles and scooters or lawnmowers. Start far enough away that the moving object is noticed but not that near your dog is straining towards it. Your dog will partly be learning just by repeated exposure, over and over again, to things they want to chase – just at a mild enough level that they get used to it. For Effel with the lawnmower, that involved me being off the mower and letting someone else ride it. We started much closer than I would have liked to as my garden is not that huge, but it took a bit of work for him to be around the mower simply because it had been so enjoyable when he did it the first time.

Another part of the success of this relies on pure science stuff where a trainer who has a lot of practical experience with conditioning will be a real asset. If you’re not exactly sure on how to set up a counter-conditioning programme or a gradual desensitisation programme, get in touch with a local behaviourist and ask them to help you out.

Barrier Frustration and Barrier Aggression

You may well have seen this video doing the rounds

I confess not to know all the ins and outs – there’s some body language from dogs on all sides that suggests punishments unseen – whether from the past or via collars/threat of punishment (can you see all the slinking away and lowered posture/lowered ears?) but it was a video that reminded me of something that happened last week, and paid into a conversation I had last night…

So last week… Lidy and Levis. My two favourite maligators at the shelter. They’re housed in a kennel together, and although there’s some tension and conflict, most of the time they get along pretty well. Normally when I go into the kennel, all hell breaks loose in a gator kind of way. There’s a lot of over-excitement, and that’s just me. No, it’s a frenzy of delight and bouncing and leaping and headbutts. Levis, in the mêlée last week, managed to get out of the kennel gate as I was coming in, and a weird thing happened…

As soon as he was on the other side of the barrier, Lidy went nuts. Like he was some random strange dog she didn’t know at all. She behaved as she does with all dogs on the other side of the barrier – with anger and aggression. She does this with people too. We can have been for a walk with Levis and whoever’s walking him, 30 or 40 minutes sometimes, and when we go back, things change. Things are fine as long as the person is on the Lidy-side of the gate, but as soon as they are on the outside, she treats them as if she doesn’t know them at all and as if they’re her mortal enemy.

It doesn’t end there.

If you see her on the ‘inside’ where the kennel gate is, you’re likely to be faced by head-height jumping and ‘grr-grr-grr’… go say hi to her by the outside fencing and she’s all ‘hi there!’

So thinking back to that video, I don’t want to speculate about behaviours as I’ve seen some pretty weird behaviours myself.

But it’s not just fences. It can be being behind glass doors or windows. It could also be being in a car. And it can also be being on lead.

Anything that prevents your dog making contact with a human or animal on the other side has the potential to change their behaviour.

Ultimately, that seems to come down to two things: aggression or frustration. I’m going to call it barrier frustration rather than lead or car or fence frustration, simply because dogs with one habit may well have the others. And it’s not so much about being in the car or on the lead as it is about being unable to get to a target because something is stopping you.

What’s the difference between them, then, and does it matter?

Barrier frustration is borne out of the need – the belief, even – that you absolutely must go and interact with this dog or that dog. It may look exactly the same, but barking tends to be more high-pitched than their usual barking, and you may find they whine or cry as well as pulling forward. It’s pro-social behaviour borne out of the need to interact. It’s usually also from a dog who has had lots of interactions with dogs off-lead and actually thinks they have a divine right to go and greet all dogs.

My thoughts are that this comes out of poor early socialisation (prior to 16 weeks) in that we do our best to socialise all our pups, because the books say we should, and so our 12-week-old puppy thinks it has an absolute right to interact with every dog. Not a right, maybe, but when you have a 100% interaction track record, where you have interacted with 100% of dogs you’ve ever met in your life, you’re going to think that’s what you do.

Not only that, we have had the nasty habit of socialising our puppies with social dogs, playful adult dogs or other puppies, so most interactions result in a Jolly Good Time. We don’t tend to take them round to meet our neighbours’ grumpy old spaniel because who’d do that, right?

However, when they grow up with a very narrow experience of canine behaviour, is it any wonder our puppies grow up thinking they have the absolute right to interact with other dogs because it’s 99% likely to be Jolly Good Fun?

Worse still, we let our puppies meet loads of other puppies.

It’s the equivalent of letting our children grow up in a world that’s filled with other children. Do you think they’d ever learn how to be good adults?!

So our 20-week-old puppies arrive into the park with a 99% track record of thinking other dogs = fun. They haven’t met grumps or shy dogs, and they rampage over to all dogs as if those dogs are also puppies who probably also want to have a Jolly Good Time. They’ve never met dogs who just ignored them. They’ve never met dogs who growled at them and turned on their heel.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that the way we’ve been socialising our puppies with other dogs is leading to frustration when they can’t interact with other dogs. I think it leads to poor play behaviour as they have never learned how adult dogs play, and I think puppies who only meet pro-social dogs or other puppies never, ever learn how to be around older dogs who haven’t got the slightest desire to interact. I think we compound that with that lovely behaviour known as ‘Go say hello!’ whereby we almost force our dogs to interact with every single dog they ever meet.

To identify barrier frustration, I ask one simple key question: what would your dog do if they weren’t on lead/behind a fence/in a car?

If the answer is they’d run up rather boisterously and try and engage play or rudely start investigating the other dog, then it’s most likely frustration rather than aggression.

In fact, I’m pretty sure a lot of people with barrier-frustrated dogs let them off lead more than they should because the charging up and over-the-top greetings are a bit like ripping a sticking plaster off: painful, but over relatively quickly. Whereas standing there with an on-lead dog who’s going nuts is embarrassing. Also, if the dogs who get charged – on-lead or off-lead – don’t like our own dogs’ poor manners, we get to say ‘your dog’s got some right issues!!’ as if their dog is the arse.

We get to say, ‘Did you see that aggressive dog? That guy should have the thing in a muzzle! Fancy walking it out in public!’ when our dog has done the equivalent of what Donald Trump would do in a crowd of women.

But it’s easier to be judgemental of others than stand there with a 40kg crazy dog on a lead.

To identify barrier aggression, I ask the same simple question. The answer would be different, though. The answer would be that the dog would engage in a fight or in confrontation. There’s an element of frustration to barrier aggression, but ultimately, this behaviour is designed to see the other dog off. The barrier – be it a car window, a window, a glass door, a lead or a fence – is simply preventing other forms of aggression.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if I get the right ‘diagnosis’ at the beginning – the treatment programme is practically the same until we get to the final stages. It matters also in what we’re teaching the dog.

For a frustrated dog, our objectives are simple: to teach a dog better greeting manners and to help them understand that they don’t have the right or need to interact with all dogs they meet. Our aim is to teach them that, should they learn how to approach nicely and without overreacting, they MAY get the chance to interact, if all parties are amenable.

Frustrated dogs would benefit enormously from a good dog trainer and a copy of Jean Donaldson’s book Fight! Read the chapter on Tarzans and on play skills deficits as well as on compulsive fighting. You can also use Grisha Stewart’s excellent BAT 2.0 which will be your best 20€ of downloads ever. Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell would form my Holy Trinity of great guides to help you overcome barrier frustration.

What your frustrated dogs need:

  • some counter-conditioning around dogs at a distance so they don’t lose their nut
  • a taught behaviour that they can do when they see another dog
  • to learn that approach may be an option if they’re not behaving like a goon
  • an emergency U-turn behaviour
  • a taught ‘watch!’ signal so you can get your dog’s attention on you
  • to learn that 95% of dogs they’ll see, they won’t get to interact with

Asking them not to get excited is like asking them not to get goosebumps though. It’s a physiological response that can be REALLY hard to master.

Start small and start far enough away that your dog can see the target dog but isn’t reacting and you have their attention. Teach them ‘watch’ and ’emergency U-turn’ in easy situations, like the house and the garden, until you’ve REALLY got it – and bear in mind that may take months to master.

For barrier aggression, the overall aim is a little different. It depends actually whether they’re just generally aggressive or if the barrier is causing the aggression. I suspect that for some of our dogs, the aggression is associated with barriers and they wouldn’t be aggressive in other circumstances. Lidy has a real thing about gates and barriers. Heston too. It’s nerve-wracking (and irresponsible) to put that to the test by removing the barrier, which is why you might do some work on seeing dogs when the barrier is in play. Ultimately, though, your aim may just to be that your dog-hating dog can tolerate the presence of other dogs when the barrier is in play – you may never have the end-goal of occasional interaction at all.

Just as a final note: if you have a frustrated, reactive or aggressive dog whose behaviour is based lead frustration, do yourself a favour and switch to a harness. Perfect Fit or Ruffwear are my go-to harnesses simply because you can also attach another lead to the front to help with emergency U-turns, although I would say that if your dog is at the point where you’re having to coerce a U-turn, then you’re putting them in too challenging a situation. For those occasional day-to-day accidents where a dog suddenly appears over the horizon, though, having a super secure harness is an absolute bonus.

My reason for saying this is that there are two places in which we use choking in real life, other than walking dogs. One is human sex play and the other is human torture. If you’re expecting your over-aroused dog to be LESS aroused when their breath is restricted and where their circulation is interrupted because the flat collar or choke is putting pressure on their arteries and their larynx, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. Choking and strangulation will never, ever lower arousal.

In fact, for one over-aroused dog who was redirecting and biting her handler (a real consequence of both frustration and aggression when restrained) switching from a slip lead to a harness reduced practically all of her aggression. Not saying that’s how it is for all dogs, but the brain is efficacious and when less blood or oxygen is available because a) the dog is stressed and b) these things are interrupted by a tight collar, the available blood and oxygen go to the emotional bits rather than the logical thinking bits. Being realistic, we can’t expect our dogs not to pull towards a target in real life, but when they can make the choice to skip on without feeling constrained as a certain Miss did yesterday when confronted by a hairy Bouvier, you can bet your bottom dollar being choked whilst seeing your mortal arch enemy certainly isn’t going to make you feel any better. A harness just reduces a dog’s list of ‘things pissing me off today…’

What your aggressive dogs need:

  • to be counter conditioned to the barrier itself
  • to learn that pressure on the lead means to back up, not to pull forward
  • to move with you rather than against you
  • to trust that YOU’ve got this as the handler
  • to learn a fluid emergency U-turn and Let’s Go!

Remember: when you start working with your dog, you need them ‘under threshold’ – that means in a state where they are not reactive, but they have noticed the thing that causes their poor behaviour. Sometimes that means being a long distance away.

Kikopup with a great lead handling video

Another great video here showing how to take it at your dog’s own pace. Notice the sniffing and the visible relaxation in the dog as they turn away at the end… And also notice how, even though he’s aroused and pulling slightly, he’s far enough away that he’s a long way from being over-aroused.

And another one

I’m imagining a lot of work has gone into this back-away to get her to this point where she can walk off when a strange dog approaches. I suspect Mya, from the description, was more frustrated than aggressive, but does she look frustrated here?

And one more with a great dane

If you’ve got a dog who is frustrated or aggressive on the lead or behind a barrier, you can go it alone of course, especially if you’re armed with plenty of good resources, but having a good behaviourist work with you will speed the process up no end.

Some other posts that may help

  1. Keeping your dog safe on walks
  2. Loose-lead walking
  3. Over-excitement before a walk
  4. Teaching your dog to deal with triggers

Problem Behaviours: Poor Socialisation

Sometimes it feels that the universe is pointing you in a particular direction… today’s post about poor socialisation in dogs, and how to rectify it, feels like there is something in the global zeitgeist. The shelter accepted a 5-month-old chihuahua to rehabilitate a couple of weeks ago. Mr Putchy’s main problem? Poor socialisation! I’d also posted an article from veterinary behaviourist Dr Jen Summerfield, “Socializing Your Puppy: Why Later is Too Late” which ended up causing controversy for one person who didn’t like recommendations of the article. And this week, I’ve been spending a lot of my shelter hours with another young lady whose main problem is… you’ve guessed it! Poor socialisation.

Socialisation in itself is a word that can be confusing and often misused. So before I start, I’m going to clarify what I’m talking about for the purpose of this article.

Socialisation refers to the way in which a young puppy is introduced to the world around it. That includes but is not limited to: dog-dog exposure; dog-person exposure; dog-other animal exposure; dog-world exposure; dog-home exposure. Socialisation usually means the way in which a young animal gets to experience positively the world around it. When we talk of socialising a puppy, what we mean is that we are going to introduce it gradually to the world around it so that it is familiar with and can cope with the world in which it will live.

Socialisation in itself is a minefield. It is supposed to be a gradual process by which a young dog can get used to all the things in life that it will need to in order to function as a great, well-adjusted adult. However, many people fail to do this at all because they are worried about exposure to diseases, or they don’t realise what a puppy needs and the short timetable in which this has to occur. Or many people do it badly and end up over-exposing the dog to the world around them, so that the dog develops a fear response or an aggression response to the world rather than one of a confident dog who feels comfortable in the world.

Our dogs pay a heavy burden for our human lives. We expect them to cope with strange monsters like hoovers, sieves, coffee machines and snowmen. We expect them to get on with every single other dog they meet (even the arsehole spaniel down the street who likes to hump anything that moves, and lots of things that don’t…) and we expect them to accept babies, toddlers, people on bikes, people moving on skateboards, sheep, cats, kittens, postal workers, cars, chickens, horses, cows, stairs, doors, gates, French windows, mirrors, noises, storms, fireworks, gunshots, engine noises, lawnmowers … the list of things that might not make sense to a dog is enormous. They’re all things that we need to introduce our dogs to.

And extensive research tells us that the best time to do that is generally between 3 – 13 weeks. Some say 16 weeks. Some say 11 weeks. Some say it’s breed-specific. But nobody says it’s 5 months. And nobody says a year. 3 to 4 months is around the cut-off point for what is called the “socialisation window” where dogs will greet things without fear. They will then enter into a period of heightened sensitivity to stuff that can last a good couple of years, where their reactions may well be very extreme indeed. Add hormones, growth and a bunch of other stuff to that equation and you can see why so many owners miss this critical period or it ends up going catastrophically wrong and teaching a dog to be afraid.

Not only that, a puppy is not a “blank slate” when they are born. Breed has a strong influence on behaviours. Parents also do. Fear and aggression are known to be inherited traits, but they aren’t the only other behaviours that are. If you have a dog who is a naturally suspicious breed by nature (think of all those breeds for livestock guarding and protection work!) then it’s extra important that they have the right socialisation. If you have a dog who is naturally nippy, then it’s vital that their socialisation includes really, really good bite inhibition. Trying to do that with a five-month-old is much less reliable. Trying to do it with a three-year-old and you have a long and lengthy battle for something that will never be entirely reliable. In-utero experience can also cause a puppy to be born fearful. So if you have a naturally fearful breed coupled with fearful parents and a mother who was releasing lots of cortisol during her pregnancy, then you have your socialising work cut out. Patricia McConnell did a great ASPCA webinar about resilience in dogs, that bounce-back-ability. She says that dogs have a ceiling for what they can be, a potential. If the most well-rounded, well-adjusted dog was a ten, then some dogs are only ever going to have the potential to be a six or a seven. For some of our shelter dogs, although many have great potential, there are occasional dogs whose potential is perhaps a two. If you were born in a barn to fearful parents and never socialised, your potential is incredibly limited. Likewise if you were born of suspicious stock and taken from your mum at two weeks, your chances of ever being more than a two or three out of ten are very limited. Those dogs are rare though.

So some puppies come into the world with a ‘confidence’ or resilience potential of perhaps a six or seven at best. Good socialising experiences will get them to a seven. Poor socialising experiences can keep them at a three or a four. As with any Nature vs Nurture debate, sometimes there are people who think it’s all in the genes. Other times, people think it’s the result of experience. Scott and Fuller’s trials in the 1950s and 1960s are the most detailed information we have about the effect of socialising: it is their work that defined the ‘critical period’ for a puppy.

For that reason, anything beyond 16 weeks is remedial socialisation and can be a long, hard slog. This is just as true of real-world life experience socialising as it is of dog-dog socialising. For the sake of this article, I’ll be talking about dog-dog socialisation. Everything else in one post is just… a bit much!

Anyone who tells you that your antisocial dog can be easily socialised around other dogs is telling you porkies. Forget what people say about introducing dogs to enormous packs, and how dogs will quickly integrate when there’s X amount of dogs, or how ‘canine communication’ classes can allow dogs to teach each other. At best, they may work. At worst, the potential for physical damage or even death is absolutely massive. For some dogs whose lineage includes those bred for increased aggression towards other dogs, this ‘in at the deep end’ approach can have serious consequences. It makes me very sad when I hear of dogs introduced to enormous groups and the line “we just stick a muzzle on them”… essentially, you’ve got a dog who’s been ‘hobbled’ and what happens is not socialisation, it is learned helplessness. Adult dogs who have increased suspiciousness, increased gameness and increased pugnaciousness in their genes, coupled with a real lack of socialisation in their puppyhood will need a very realistic target for ‘social’ behaviour indeed.

Some dogs may be afraid of other dogs. You may find that they are fearful around them, cowering back into you, or rolling on their back passively. Others prefer the tactic of attack first, ask questions later. Barking, growling, airsnapping or even biting are common with dogs who have little experience with others. You may even find that some dogs have lost their way to communicate effectively with other dogs, or they’re rough. This post about different types of dog  and how to socialise your adult rescue dog outlines six different types of dog. Whilst some dogs come on too strong, others prefer space. There are also dogs who get a rise out of targeting a specific dog (or type) and those who have no demeanour-shifting skills, meaning they’re always the chaser and never the chasee. Then you have your resource guarders and also your habitual fighters.

Don’t forget too that aggression can be caused by many medical issues, so a trip to the vet should always be your first port of call. Whether it’s a hormonal thing or an age thing, there can be many reasons your dog may be less friendly with others, particularly if your dog is generally okay with other dogs or you’ve noticed a change in behaviour.

So how do you manage your anti-social adult rescue dog?

Firstly, you can manage their environment. Little Miss Playful who I was working with this morning would be perfectly happy in an environment with no other dogs at all. We have lots of dogs like that. There are plenty of dogs who have no desire to meet others of their species and who are too far down the anti-social dog route to be comfortable coming back from it easily. For these dogs, keeping them away from other dogs as much as possible until you can manage a careful programme of rehabilitation is a reality that most dog owners choose. If the dog doesn’t need to accept the presence of other dogs, you may well find that it is the easiest route. You will find that you can avoid other dogs on walks if you walk in antisocial hours, or you can even engage a friend to redirect a dog behind a fence so you can pass quietly. Taking walks where you deliberately avoid dogs behind barriers can avoid a ot of the problems.

You can also do this in a selective way. For instance, I know my foster dog is okay with bigger dogs, but with smaller dogs who run, he needs a very careful on-leash introduction. The first moment a dog takes off, he’s after it. One of my own dogs, Heston, is okay with smaller dogs or bigger dogs. Amigo likes shy dogs. Tilly is okay with smaller male dogs. Tobby was okay with everything except for hormonal uncastrated young male hounds. That’s a fairly specific environment to manage and it was easy enough to make sure he didn’t ever meet any off-leash teenage hounds in the cusp of manhood.

That said, managing the environment is a prevention, not a cure.

You may choose to deal with it head-on and train a better response. One of the ways you can do this is to listen to what your dog is telling you. Most dogs are communicating much more than we know before they even get to the growl or the bark. You can see quiet changes in their body language way before they get to their ‘threshold’. For many dogs, they stop and stare, focus hard on the dog in front of them. You can see their body hard, their neck high, their eyes focused. If they are afraid, their ears may be back. If they are aroused, their ears may be forward. By looking for the small changes in your dog’s behaviour, you will be able to tell when they are in the ‘training zone’.

Grisha Stewart’s Behaviour Adjustment Training  is a programme that I use with reactive dogs. I teach lots of other things too, such as the emergency U-turn and the automatic check in. The emergency U-turn, from Patricia McConnell’s book Feisty Fido is a way to avoid confrontation by putting some space between you and another dog. This needs a rock-solid ‘sit’ and ‘focus’. I also teach ‘wait’ and ‘down’. For Hagrid, a very airsnappy shelter boy, we worked from his sit to focus, then to wait and then to down. I taught him an automatic check in – he looks back at me and I move away. Working in that green ‘under threshold’ area, even 300m away from dogs, I can see if problems are about to occur and move away.

You can see Donna Hill doing an emergency U-turn series here.

Most of these things are just basic obedience training, but I find they give your dog a structure that helps them know that you are working as a team together. It allows them to put their trust in you and know that you will make decisions that don’t make them feel uncomfortable. For many shelter dogs, they don’t display affiliative behaviour with volunteers or shelter workers. They don’t see you as a leader or a partner, just the person on the back end of the leash. That makes it very hard for them to trust you. When a dog trusts you to read them, to back off, to move away, never to put them in situations in which they feel uncomfortable, they are immediately less reactive. I don’t just do a sit-focus-down-focus-wait sequence when other dogs approach – it is a staple of my training. They get treats or play and I get a dog who can manage their behaviour better when others pass.

Another technique I teach reactive dogs around other dogs is the ‘up-down’ game, explained here. Leslie McDevitt (whose DVD is excellent, by the way) explains the way pattern games can help a dog overcome reactivity

You can also teach flip finishes (and there are some great Youtube videos with Malis doing flip finishes!) as well as the “side-side” game.

Another thing you can teach is the automatic check in. This has enormous benefits for dogs who are unsure. When they look back to you, when they look to you for guidance, capture and reward it. You’re teaching the dog to look to you as the decision maker and check in with you when they’re unsure. When you act on that and reward the dog by making a choice that works for them, you’re helping them make good choices. It also allows you to gauge how interested they are in the environment. A dog who doesn’t check in is a dog who is over-stimulated by the environment. It’s easy to teach just by sitting with the dog or moving about their enclosure. When they look at you as if to ask where you are going, mark and reward them. Doing it for the best check-ins over a period of time and then giving occasional jackpots is a good way to get their undivided attention. A dog whose attention you can get in one place, but never offers an automatic check-in in others is a dog who has not yet made the connection between auto-check-ins and your presence (i.e. you’re just the person holding the lead) or is a dog who is over threshold and needs you to dial the environment back a bit. For dogs not used to doing this, use high-value rewards at first. 

You will find you’re using a lot of rewards at the beginning, and high value ones too. That’s okay. You won’t always be using them. For this reason, I work on Roger Abrantes’ principal that a third of the dog’s diet should always come from training, a third from searching and a third from the bowl. In fact, for a reactive dog, I’d say half-search and half-rewards. You have zero need for a bowl with a reactive dog. All those free ‘wages’ for a dog being given away on a silver platter. I also have a handful to spread over the floor for emergencies. A dog who is happily rooting around in the grass for sausages won’t notice a herd of elephants going past if done right. I can’t tell you the number of times that this has helped me deal with an emergency dog appearing in the distance. Plus, it teaches the dog to sniff the ground. This activity is often called a calming signal – if done as a displacement by the dog. To a dog in the distance, a dog sniffing the ground looks like a calm, non-reactive dog. They don’t know he is looking for sausage. I can’t tell you how many dogs are way calmer when passing an under-threshold dog. It diffuses so much. They’re calmer. Your dog is calmer. You are calmer.

That’s just some of the methods I use with a highly-reactive dog as remedial socialisation. When it gets to the point that the dogs can accept another dog in the vicinity without incident, it’s time to move it up to off-leash stuff. You should have worked your way through a number of stooge dogs and any trustworthy friends with well-socialised dogs. At this point, it’s a really good idea to have a structured support programme like Grisha Stewart’s, or the programme outlined in Jean Donaldson’s book Fight! Off-leash introductions are a whole new level of challenge for a dog and remedial socialisation past this point will need to be absolutely spot-on.

You’ll find other information about counter-conditioning and teaching new behaviours in my post about socialising your adult rescue dog.

In the next post, I’ll look at some ways that you can deal with a range of biting issues that your dog might present with.

Problem Behaviours: Chewing

Or… perhaps I would be better to say inappropriate chewing since most of us would be pretty alarmed if our dogs gave up chewing altogether. I know my dogs sometimes seem to inhale their food, but there is a small degree of mastication involved in the eating process, depending on what and how you feed. A dog that never chewed anything would be as alarming as one who chewed everything.

Like other destructive behaviours such as digging and trashing, there are many reasons why dogs chew. Why they are chewing and what they are chewing has a lot to do with how you stop it, too. This post is also about dogs who eat stuff that they really shouldn’t. I dare not tell you the disgusting things that Tilly has unearthed from the trash. But inappropriate consumption of hot kitty turds… that’s Tilly. A litter box is just a hot food buffet for that pretty little monkey.

If you’re interested in stopping your dogs chewing things they shouldn’t, or avoiding costly trips to the vet to extract an army of plastic soldiers or a kilo of pebbles, it’s important to understand why dogs do this crazy stuff.

For a dog, chewing can be an age-related thing. Chewing is one way to explore the world. Where human babies want to touch and grab things, puppies want to chew it. A lot of that chewing is just pure investigation as to what is good to chew. Too hard stuff is not good to chew. Flat stuff that doesn’t have a corner or edge is not good to chew. It’s all a process of elimination to a puppy. To chew or not to chew, that is the question. At this age, many puppies can be little land sharks, running around and sinking their teeth into everything just, you know… because… well, why the hell not? They haven’t tasted your sofa cushions yet and they just might make an excellent chewtoy.

Chewing can also relieve toothache when teething, so you’ll see it when your puppy ages as well.

As your dog ages, you may find that youthful exuberance manifests in chewing. A young dog who doesn’t get enough stimulation and has too much access to the world around him will quickly work out that chewing is an effective way to while away the time. You might turn to Netflix or gaming to fill your hours, your dog might turn to chewing. For many dogs, dissection is a part of their predatory motor pattern. It’s an innate desire to shred, destroy and dismantle. For dogs with a strong desire to dissect, it’s going to be really important they have robust chews and that they do not have access to things with stuffing. Leave a terrier with a cushion and you may wonder what happened, but for dogs with strong urges to dissect, that cushion is a fabulous substitute for a small furry critter.

Chewing, like many other behaviours, is also reinforcing for a dog. It can release stress-busting endorphins too. Believe it or not, that’s also true of self-mutilating chewing. Tilly does this. She nibbles her feet compulsively. It doesn’t harm her and she can be stopped, but when she goes to bed, she nibbles her feet. I noticed her doing it when I did a video of my dogs home alone recently. A minute of self-grooming is not an issue, but for dogs like Diabolo and Lucky at the shelter, those tail-biting times have led to severe self-mutilation. It doesn’t seem logical that pain would release endorphins, but it’s as true for humans as it is for dogs. This is why you might notice your older dog starts chewing at their paws. Arthritis or old injuries can cause issues. For Gaven, who’d nibbled away a lot of his fur on one of his rear paws, an xray revealed an old fracture and some necrosis in the tissue, as well as arthritis. Antibiotics cured his chewing. Nibbling the undercarriage, tail or rear end can also be a sign of anal gland issues, particularly if your dog is a ‘scooter’, so a vet check will help rule out medical reasons for self-mutilation.

Self-mutilating chewing and another specific chewing behaviour can also be signs of psychological factors that you might need to check out. If your dog is chewing or destroying exit points when alone, you may want to explore further whether they have separation anxiety or isolation distress.

If your dog is self-mutilating, it’s really important you seek out the help of a trained behaviourist or veterinary behaviourist who can help you deal with these issues. Every programme will be adapted specifically to your dog.

Another reason your dog may be chewing is dependent on what they are chewing and whether they’re swallowing. Chewing is one thing and can be annoying or lead to damaged teeth and mouths, but swallowing is another ball game completely. Dogs are happy to self-medicate in some circumstances, and it is not unknown for dogs to develop pica. If your dog is eating turds (their own, other dogs or other animals) they could be following a happy pattern of many dogs of the past who may have survived from eating human waste – including our most personal and intimate physical waste. For females who’ve had a litter of puppies, they may find it hard to put aside their maternal instinct of cleaning up canine fecal matter. Puppies, in turn, can learn this behaviour from their mum. But if your dog is seeking out specific things to eat, like they’re mincemeat of the plasterboard, you may want to check out vitamin and mineral supplements. Parasites can also be a reason why a dog might consume things that it’s not supposed to. A vet check would be a good starting point.

Most destructive chewing when alone is not a sign of anxiety, however, but a sign of boredom and access to too much space or too many resources. If a dog is chewing when you’re present, remember that you telling them off is giving them attention. A dog doesn’t care much if your attention is positive or negative. If they chew and you say, “Ahhhhh, Nero, you bad dog!”, your dog will quickly learn that they have a magic way to get you to stop looking at the television or at your phone and look at them instead.

Once you’ve thought about why your dog is chewing, it makes it a lot easier to get them to stop. As always, rule out medical reasons first with an appointment with your vet.

For puppies, removing every single item you don’t want them to chew is vital. Managing the environment is key here. This is why pens and crates are great when you are not actively supervising your dog. By that, I mean your eyes must be on the puppy ready to intervene the moment before it starts looking at your computer wires. It also prepares them for adolescence when destructive chewing can reach epic proportions especially if you have a high-energy dog. Teaching your dog how to deal with your absence (and those ‘passive supervision’ times when you are present physically but occupied mentally) will stop them ever developing bad habits in the first place. If habits have developed already, it also stops your dog getting a fix of something that is very rewarding and reinforcing.

When you are actively supervising your dog, you can use the switch and trade method to teach them what you want them to chew. Have a range of really interesting toys in different materials and allow your puppy to decide whether it wants to chew on a chewable strip or whether it wants to suck on something softer. Making sure your dog understands what it is acceptable to chew and making sure they always have access to these things (and no access to your prized possessions) can help.

As your dog ages, it’s important to make sure they are occupied in your absence and that they have access to many chewable things. Kongs are a gift and you can make all sorts of wonderful chewable goodies that help your dog use up its chew-time wisely. At adolescence, it’s vital they don’t develop preferences for things. Counters and table tops should be clear so that your dog doesn’t learn to counter-surf to find contraband chewables. You can also help your dog out by providing lots of mental and physical stimulation, especially before absences from the home. If your dog has a strong innate desire to dissect, soft furnishings are nothing but fun substitutes for a rabbit or rat, so keep delicate toys and soft furnishings out of reach when you are absent. For power chewers, it’s going to be really important that you have a robust chew toy. Even my Ralf who could dissect a can of dog food if he felt like it didn’t manage to break a Kong Safestik. Be careful with chews and think of your dog’s teeth. Slab fractures are more common than they should be. The rule is that if it’s stronger than a tooth, it is too hard. Weight-bearing bones are not good, neither knuckle bones of bigger animals. Some soft horns may work along with softer uncooked bones, but these are things to discuss with your vet. Tendons often make good chews, where hooves and horns can be too hard for many dogs. Rawhide may seem like a good option, but often it is treated and you need to be careful about the chemicals that have been used in the process. Supervision is also important, which is why not all chews are things that a dog should be left with.

Don’t forget that if you have a persistent problem with a dog eating other dogs’ turds, or snaffling things on a walk, a muzzle can help. Muzzles are not a long-term solution but if it’s a very specific problem and a habit that is entrenched, a muzzle is certainly an option to consider, although not something that I would leave on an unsupervised dog. For a dog who self-mutilates or nibbles, see your vet and a behaviourist in tandem. For a foot or tail-nibbling habit, it’s vital you break this endorphin-producing habit and have plentiful access to more interesting chews can help stop the self-soothing and transfer it to a more appropriate chewable.

For dogs who chew or eat inappropriate things, managing their environment is crucial to preventing habits and breaking habits. Giving them lots of appropriate alternatives will help them refocus that energy. Muzzles, pens, supervision, leads and crates are your friends here. For dogs who can’t manage alone, this is especially vital. Rule out anxiety-based reasons and make sure your dog has been exercised before your absence as well as having zero access to contraband as well as bountiful access to the stuff you do want them to chew. When you’re present, a trade will help your dog understand what they should be chewing or eating.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at ways that you can deal with poor socialisation with other dogs

 

 

My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

When I started volunteering here in November 2013, there were two types of dogs here: long stay and short stay. There were almost 100 dogs who had been here more than three years in 2014, almost half of our residents. With growing links in the wider community, a network of amazing people means that we have one dog – one dog! – who has been here since 2014. That’s Kayser We have twenty-seven dogs who arrived in 2015. I think that is seriously cool. I mean – just wow. Think about it. Not one single dog who was at the shelter when I first arrived is still there.

Most of our long, long-term residents left in 2014 and 2015. Smoke, with 11 years of shelter life under his belt. Ufo, with 7. Dalton with 6. Nichman with 5. Paulo with 5. One by one, those dogs found homes. When we started 2016, Douggy was our longest-termer, with five years to his name. Elios was not far behind, with four years. It’s not going to surprise you that their names are on the list.

The dogs on the list are some of our longer residents, dogs who waited a long time for their home. They’re also some of the most difficult adoptions, with complex behavioural difficulties. Some of the dogs are just those who touch your heart because they’re such sad cases. They’re the adoptions that have really made me pinch myself because I couldn’t quite believe it was true. I confess that I wait, holding my breath, those first forty-eight hours and cross my fingers that there aren’t any problems.

This is a list of the adoptions this year that have really made me smile. They’re the adoptions that give you faith in people and give you that fuzzy, warm feeling that is so vital when you’re involved in rescue. They’re also the adoptions that represent the work that we do and the dogs who come to us, be they old or young, in good health or poor. They represent the destinations of a lot of our dogs too, be they adopted in France or elswhere. I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick out only ten!

#10 Brook

Brook was found wandering the street. This gentle, sweet old lady was clearly so attached to people and to find her on the streets in such neglect was really sad. Despite some early offers of adoption, someone in a neighbouring area thought Brook was her dog that she’d lost over three years ago. Problems with transport meant that Brook had a wait for the lady to come and identify her, but it was not to be. Happily, one of the couples who’d originally contacted me for Brook came a couple of hours to come and get her. Although there are other oldies on the list, what touched me most was that the couple had not long since lost an old dog themselves. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye when people, despite their grief, choose to pick up another oldie whose life expectancy is perhaps not so good.

#9 Jet

Arriving at the refuge as a puppy in summer 2014, Jet was unceremoniously returned here as a two-year-old. What chance was there for this poor dog who had been given little by way of training and had suffered as a result of a change in circumstance in the house. Luckily, his good looks won over his adoptant, and although he has still a lot to learn about walking on a lead, he’s doing superbly well. I know I must drive people crazy with my naggings when they adopt a puppy – but there’s nothing worse than getting a puppy back when they’ve had their best chance at life stolen from them.

#8 Dawson

This is one of my favourite adoptions, because Dawson was such a lovely guy – so overlooked because of his age. For our dogs between 7-10, they are neither fish nor fowl: not young enough for those people who want a juvenile, and not old enough for those who want an oldie. As a result, our diamond dogs wait an eternity. I can’t tell you how hard it was watching Dawson ageing at the refuge, even though he was only here 14 months, those months took their toll on this sweet, sweet dog. Dawson went to a partner shelter in Germany where he was adopted within hours. Happy New Year, Dawson!

#7 Carlos

Carlos was another diamond dog like Dawson who suffered for his middle-age manners. Another of our boys to go to Germany, he was quickly adopted and we get regular photos of this wonderful dog enjoying life to the maximum. His son Tyron was adopted locally and we get lots of lovely updates from his family too. Good to know these boys are treasured as they should be. Carlos was one of my twelve advent calendar dogs in 2015. The advent calendar seems to bring lots of luck, although I never heard of anyone adopting one because of it! I like to hope it gives them all a little Christmas magic.

#6 Guapo

Arriving with his sister who was quickly adopted, Guapo suffered the fate of many of our young, big, energetic dogs: an endless wait. Loved by all the volunteers, he was quick to come for a cuddle, glad for any affection and a dog that seemed destined to stay for a long time. Happily, 2016 brought him a forever family. Seeing him bouncing on the trampoline or sitting in front of the Christmas tree no doubt brought a tear to every volunteer’s eye. He even has a husky neighbour who’s virtually identical!

#5 Ushang

One day in summer, a landlady brought in a transport crate with an animal inside it that had been left by one of her former tenants. At that point, we couldn’t even tell if it was a cat or a dog, and it took some attempts to get the dog out. Ushang was chipped, having been registered in Réunion, but his owner had died some years before, leaving her apartment and dog to her son. He’d run up debts and done a runner, leaving the dog behind. Ushang clearly hadn’t had any care for years. He was blind and deaf. This poor little guy found the refuge enormously stressful and we knew we needed to get him out of there urgently as he wasn’t eating. But who would adopt a blind, deaf dog? Luckily, a very kind family stepped in and Ushang went to his new home. After a couple of big operations to clean up his mouth and teeth, Ushang, now renamed Truffles, is living out his retirement in the most marvellous style with his Weimeraner girlfriend.

#4 Loulou

Poor Loulou was another one, like Jet, adopted as a puppy, brought back at 8 months, adopted again, brought back. In the end, he had three failed adoptions behind him, and all because – guess what – he’s a dog! His penultimate adoption was vetted carefully. She had experience with terriers, liked Loulou, heard all about what he needed. However, she failed to heed that advice, let him off lead within 5 days of having him and then was upset when he chased a deer. Loulou is another of our dogs who went to a smaller shelter in Germany, where he was subsequently adopted – hopefully by people who either use a lead or don’t mind the odd Dear Hunter moment.

#3 Teddy, Zakari, Zouzou and Zoe

In 2015, the refuge was called to take seven dogs who’d been kept in unsanitary conditions, suffering from neglect and very poor socialisation. The seven included six spaniels. Suzette and one of her daughters were quickly adopted, but Zakari, Teddy, Zouzou and Zoe went on to rack up some hard adoptions and returns. In the end, despite the fact it would make them difficult to adopt, the refuge decided they could only go as pairs. To cut them off so completely from the world they knew was divorcing them completely from any sense of safety. Zoe and Zouzou were adopted first, in April 2016, and their progress was slow but steady. Zakari and Teddy were adopted by one of our regular volunteers who really understood exactly what they needed. It takes a very special soul to adopt such damaged dogs, and although you count progress in minuscule steps, these four can finally begin to live for the first time.

#2 Elios

Despite his lovely nature, Elios had chalked up over four years of refuge life. Despite being okay with males and females, he was lost in among all our other black labradors. This boy saw over 2000 other dogs adopted before him, countless changes of companion. Finally, a family came for him and it was his turn. I can’t tell you how hard it is to return a dog to an enclosure when their companion is adopted: to do it as many times as we did with Elios was just heartbreaking. I don’t have to tell you that the video of him playing Fetch was the best thing I saw all year. I could watch that video a hundred times. An amazing, amazing dog who was just so long overlooked. I’m sure life must be strange now without any companions at all!

#1 Cleo

Along with Elios and Carlos, Cleo was another of my twelve advent dogs for 2015. He was also the oldest of the three. He was quickly reserved to go to Germany, but a skin infection turned out to be more complicated and we couldn’t let him travel without a clean certificate of health. So Cleo waited. As the year dragged on, spending his time with a shy dog meant Cleo too took on a little of that reticence. He withdrew into himself and his smiley, happy face, even for a treat, was rarely seen. Trip after trip went off to Northern Europe. Cleo was never on it. Finally, just before Christmas 2016, Cleo’s truck rolled up. He was adopted directly and seeing his photos now, I can see his happy face has returned.

Some of these dogs have been adopted in France, some by English-speaking residents and some in Northern Europe. It goes to show that we depend so very much on an international group to help us home our dogs. It takes a lot to go from so many long-term residents and it has involved a huge amount of international marketing, promotion and advertising. Our staff and volunteers work constantly to find homes for our dogs – gone are the days when dogs spent years waiting for a home. It’s not just marketing. The staff and volunteers at the Refuge de l’Angoumois also work hard to ensure that our dogs are promoted to the people who arrive at the shelter looking to adopt. So many people form the beating heart of the Refuge de l’Angoumois that it is impossible to single any one out individually: we work because there are so many of us who are tireless in our efforts for the dogs (and cats!)

I think that is truly worth celebrating.

I’ve not included any post-adoption photos – if you want to see how our dogs are getting on, come and join us in our Facebook group Refuge de l’Angoumois, Charente 16 where you can see videos of Guapo on a trampoline, Cleo on a couch, or Elios playing fetch.

I think as we move forward into 2017, it’s important to remember how far we have come, that we are far from the days of Smoke and Ufo, of the big scary boys at the top of the block, of Nichman, Dalton, Wolf, Darius, Salma, Alaska, Fairbanks… names that all our ‘old’ volunteers know by heart. I love it that our new volunteers fall in love one week and I have the happy job of telling them that the dog has been adopted next time they come to walk our dogs. I feel very proud of our shelter and what we do here. 2017 may bring sad dogs and traumatised dogs, thousands of kittens and hundreds of stray cats. It may bring disappointing legal victories and new prosecutions filed.

I hope that 2017 brings adoptions for our remaining long-stay dogs: Kayser, Hagrid, Estas, Amon, Aster, Junior, Pilou, Dede, Diabolo, Kody, Doggy, Sam, Gaston, Jafar and Fifi. Although with twenty new dogs on the books to photograph this afternoon, I’m always sad to see places filled as soon as they are emptied. Thanks very much for your support in 2016 – our dogs depend on it. These ten adoptions are by no means the only ones that make my heart swell with joy. The adoption of every single animal, whether they are here for a day or a year, helps fight the tide of neglect, abandonment and abuse. On behalf of all our adopted animals, thank you.

Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool

punishment

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.

punishment

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.

How to manage a multi-dog household

multipledogs

One reason dogs can be surrendered to the refuge is that the dynamic in the group is hard to handle. It’s also a source of a good number of calls post-adoption trying to negotiate pack issues, as adoptants try desperately to ensure everybody rubs along okay. Often, it’s not a problem with their new dog either, or it’s a combination of issues with their new dog and a resident. You can, of course, read up on how to introduce dogs to established groups here and here which should help you a little with that.

The hardest thing for people who have adopted a rescue dog rather than buying a puppy is that you are dealing with dogs who have already established preferences for things but dogs who may have had as little training as a puppy. They come to your home with their baggage about what home means to them, and a set of rules that have been lost in transit. They come with an unknown level of training, too.

You take them from the relative routine and security of a shelter and it’s hard to understand that, often, your new home is WAY more stressful for a dog than a shelter in a range of diverse ways. Shelters don’t have couches. They don’t have five other dogs hanging around you at feeding time. There might not be a squabble over beds, resources or affection. Get a new dog into your canine family and you’ll soon find yourself with dynamics that you just don’t understand. If you’re lucky, there’ll be relatively few teething problems. For most people, though, they’ll find themselves trying to referee issues they really don’t always understand.

Take yesterday, for instance. I spent the day at an event with one of my foster dogs. He’s been here for twelve weeks. There’s been one scrap in that time, but it was all noise and posture. At various points in the day, the dogs are split up. Yesterday, I got back and there was an almighty growling session that lasted a good couple of minutes. It’s hard with your own dogs to remember that growls and grumbles are their way of sorting out their own battles. Sometimes, intervening can make the problem worse, not better. It’s worth seeking advice about how to help out persistent growls and grumbles though.

It is hard to accept as well that dogs have preferences for each other. Although Mim and Fefelle arrived as a pair, they are certainly not a bonded pair. They don’t actually seem that interested in each other. Amigo and Tobby seem to have an easy friendship and never squabble, but they never get cuddly. Tilly and Heston have a tenderness that is quite touching.

We have this vision, however, that dogs are 100% or 0%, or that they have types they prefer. They’re either social or they’re not. They get on with big dogs or they don’t. Both of those things can be true, of course. There are dogs at the shelter who we have consistently been unable to pair up with another, be they male or female, big or small. There are little dogs that we’ve been able to only pair up with giants, and there are big dogs who look at little dogs like they’re the next meal.

The truth is that for most dogs, it’s somewhere in between. Tobby is great at social encounters, except for that one time he wasn’t. Amigo is reserved in social encounters, except for the eight weeks he hated Heston. Heston generally does okay these days despite the fact I spent a good two years of his life thinking he couldn’t tolerate male dogs, and then under the misnomer that it was to do with castration or not. The truth is that he’s as good with boys as he is with girls as long as they’re cool with him. I’ve seen him playing with uncastrated males and castrated males, big and small. So why won’t he play with Féfelle, despite all of Feff’s play overtones? And why do I even care? Is it not enough to say: “He just doesn’t like this dog.”

Sadly, the number of people who expect their dogs to play with each other or even like each other means that there are very high expectations placed on dogs and we don’t always do our best to manage a multi-dog household. We also have high expectations of the level of training of a new introduction, and their lack of training sometimes means we might blame them for problems that are really nothing to do with their behaviour, per se. The first step is to truly accept that dogs, like people, have preferences. You don’t know why that is. None of us do. Until dogs can explain stuff to us, we’re not likely to know, no matter how much we study them or how well we know them. The second step is to accept that it’s not easy to understand what’s going on between dogs. The new dog isn’t always the problem.

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My baseline is expecting dogs to tolerate each other. If you start with that as your baseline, you’ll feel much more confident about their progress. Accept too that fights may seem loud, violent and dramatic, but know that your dogs could, if they wanted to, have killed the other. I’d advise you to seek out help if your dogs have had a fight, especially one where there were wounds, but know too that many dogs go on to live peaceably with each other if they are carefully managed afterwards. Most dogs’ scuffles don’t escalate, but I really recommend you get a professional opinion if your dogs come to blows.

Be aware that your other dogs may well have joined in, and that they won’t always side with the established pack member. Dogs have remarkable social talents (better than we know or understand) and a strong sense of social justice within a group. It’s not uncommon for dogs  to intervene to keep the peace or to tell off the dog who’s crossing boundaries, even if that is a dog who’s been with you for years!

What follows are ten things you can do that will make your multi-dog household easier to manage. It’s a great reminder each time a new dog joins your group, even if you are a seasoned fosterer with a high volume of dogs through your home each year. You may not need to do all the things on the list: it depends on your dog family.

The ten things you can do to manage your multi-dog household

  1. Manage food! Food is such a flashpoint for a lot of dogs. If your dogs are working on tolerating each other, feeding separately can help. Eating requires you to be relaxed. You can’t rest and digest if you are stressed. Imagine trying to eat if you’re sitting next to someone you think is a serial thief out to steal the most important thing in your day. It’s a situation that is edgy and confrontational. Space is your best friend here (and you can use the 3Ds from the last post to bring bowls into the same room). If you want your dogs to get along, don’t force them to eat near each other until you know how much they will tolerate it. No matter how comfortable I am with the tolerance levels between mine, I never, ever leave them unattended whilst they eat. With new dogs, they eat in a different room and there are always two doors between them. I gauge the dog’s food reactions before using those 3Ds to bring bowls closer over time.
  2. Manage treats. If you have resource guarders, those habits will be intensified in a multi-dog home. Treats should be instant and go from your hand to their mouth. We’re at the rawhide stage here, where they will tolerate longer chews, but if there are dogs who haven’t finished, it’s grounds for bickering. So two have weenies. Four have bigger treats. And I do a trade-swap and take every single treat off those guys before they’ve finished, rewarding with a high-value quick treat like a piece of ham. It’s up to me to read the situation and know who is bored and likely to need to move on, causing the inner guarder to erupt in those who are enjoying their chew. Again, the 3Ds will help you to move from ‘Can’t stand the way that beast is eating his treat’ to easy respect.
  3. Manage toys. Again, toys are a valued asset. Many people think it’s really sad that my dogs don’t have free access to toys. I am not. I am very glad that I have a home without jealousy and bloodshed. And a home without Heston dropping toys at my feet when I’m teaching, attempting to engage me in a bit of play. We have toys. We have supervised play time every day. Tobby is allowed to walk around with his toy – as long as I have other dogs who tolerate that. Sadly, no toys for Tobby when I have new dogs, especially puppies. I’ll reintroduce them gradually, but under supervision. Toys can quickly become flashpoints with over-excited playful dogs.
  4. Manage beds. If anything causes agitation here with new dogs, it’s the “where do I sleep?” question. Couches are a privilege here, not a right. You only get on a couch if you will get off it when asked. You’re allowed to have a preference as long as you don’t grumble at others who bother you. I’m happy to move newbies out of my own dogs’ spaces if it’s bothering them. I choose where they sleep those first few days, and I do that by asking my dogs to stick to their favoured places so that the new arrivals can make their own choices. Crates can help that if your dogs are crate trained, but crate training can be difficult and time-intensive. Having more than one dog is not a reason to put them all on lock-down. I always think it’s my goal to facilitate their comprehension of each other. I’m not doing that if they’re on lockdown permanently. A bit of Goldilocksing is okay at the beginning, but a dog who bullies another for a bed or a ‘dog in a manger’ who starts lying in another dog’s bed for kicks when they never have before are both situations that need a bit of managing.
  5. Manage space and alone time. When a new dog arrives, I don’t leave them with my own dogs. If I have to lock a door and use the two-doors-between-them policy, I will. I also like my dogs to feel happy with themselves and picking their own space. Every dog should be able to get away from the others. For instance, when we’re in the garden and I sit down, there’s some good distance between most of them. Many dogs appreciate their own space (which is why crates can work in a multi-dog household, but separate rooms can work just as well.) Let’s face it: you’d fall out with people who you were with 24/7. That’s not healthy at all. Neither, though, is it viable for dogs to have to live separate lives. They want to be with you, and to deprive them of that contact because you have to split your time between warring factions is neither necessary nor healthy. A behaviorist can really help your Kramer vs Kramer dogs if it’s really not working.
  6. Manage doorways. Doorways and narrow spaces can cause real conflict. Corridors, landings and stairways can also be flashpoints because they are so enclosed. Yes, I forgot this yesterday. I got back with one of my fosters after a day out and we unlocked the door to two minutes of growling and snapping. I should have managed it better. It’s worth bearing in mind that reintroductions of dogs can be fraught with tension, which is why I would not recommend those separate rooms for very long times. I like my dogs to be able to choose to go into another room and settle down, or go outside if they want, but bear in mind that constantly splitting up and reintroducing two dogs who have a hard time tolerating each other can make it way, way worse. That is tripled if you do it in a small space.
  7. That said, have alone time with each of your dogs if possible to encourage their preferences and build your bond with them. That can be cuddles on the couch, a walk in the park, a ride in the car, a grooming session, a nap in the garden, games, treat sessions, agility training, obedience training or other activities. Don’t expect all your dogs to enjoy doing the same things, especially if they are diverse breeds and ages or health levels. You don’t have to split them up to do this.
  8. Spend time working with them as a group and getting them to do group things, like “sit” or “wait”. When you have 180kg of dog as I do at the moment, the last thing you need is dogs who can’t wait or who barge you. A group “wait” is vital. A group “sit” can start that off. A group “all eyes on me” can also help them take their minds off each other and focus on you. And, let’s face it, if time with you and other dogs is highly rewarding, it won’t take long for grumbles to cease.
  9. Teach “Enough” to those dogs who compete for affection or attention, and be prepared at the beginning of your newly-formed group to have to reduce petting to a minimum as well. I’ve found that calling a dog who is greedy for affection, or going to them when they are calm or quiet is great. Teaching “Enough” will also stop them coming and sticking their dirty great heads in when you’re petting others. Guess what? The 3Ds work here too! Pet your dogs separately and build in petting if you have a dog who is greedy for affection. In this case, you are their resource and it does you no favours to oblige them every time they demand love. Neither, though, does it do you any favours to punish them or completely ignore them. Don’t accept impatience or bad manners. Adult dogs do need to be taught that all good things come to those who wait if you want them to be patient and polite. Don’t just expect it, or put it down to ‘jealousy’. It’s just something they haven’t learned yet.
  10. Practise walking on leash all together. Someone asked me how I walk all my dogs… well, we know where we walk! And although we often go places where we don’t always need to be on a leash, I practise anyway. My own dogs know where they walk and although it takes a bit of time to walk with a new dog as well, we manage. I like to walk my dogs. I appreciate there are times when I might have one or two on the leash, all four off leash, or times when I need all four on leash. Guess what? Those times when I need to put all four on leash are times when they’re highly reactive, stressed, excited – blah blah. The last thing I need is to have four dogs who are uncontrollable on the leash. Any reputable dog walking business will give you great guidance on how to do that.

You will also find lots of great guidance in two of Jean Donaldson’s books, Fight! and Mine! as well as with Patricia McConnell’s book, Feeling Outnumbered.

Knowing these ten simple things and reminding yourself of them can be the difference between a hostile, tense household and one that is calm, relaxed and at ease.

5 common canine illnesses and diseases in France

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At the refuge, with so many dogs living in one space and over a thousand animals through our gates every year, we see more than our fair share of illnesses and diseases. Many of these can be fatal if undetected. Worse are those which can be fatal even if detected. Saddest are those which are completely preventable with a common vaccine.

Some of the diseases and ailments we see at the refuge are not common in the UK and knowing their symptoms can save your dog’s life.

Dogs in France are routinely vaccinated against canine distemper (maladie de Carré) infectious canine hepatitis (hépatite) parvovirus  and leptospirosis. Many dogs are also vaccinated against rabies, and this is a compulsory condition for all Category 1 and 2 dogs.  If your dog is often in kennels or social doggie surroundings you can also vaccinate them against kennel cough. Vaccines are also being seen for piroplasmosis (babesia canis) and Lyme disease which are often contracted through tick bites. Although at the refuge we do not see many cases of distempter or hepatitis, we see parvovirus frequently, as well as kennel cough.

Parvovirus

Parvovirus is a highly contagious viral illness seen in two main forms. The first form is the one we see most commonly at the refuge. It is characterised by vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, fever or low temperature, a rapid heartbeat, engorged lips and eyes, a painful abdomen and a loss of appetite. Symptoms can appear rapidly and are often extreme. Dogs may not present with all symptoms. Lack of fluid and nutrients is a major issue for dogs with parvo, and your vet may recommend keeping them in at the surgery and putting them on a drip to keep them hydrated and give them the nutrients they need. Parvovirus can be transmitted by direct contact with an infected dog, or by fecal-oral transmission (Rover sniffing another dog’s business). It is resistant to many cleaning products, can live for up to a year in infected soil and is very difficult to get rid of, which is why there are outbreaks in shelters that can be hard to get rid of. Sadly, this means that weaker, older or young dogs who have not been vaccinated arrive at the pound and do not have the antibodies to fight off the virus. The survival rate for dogs is good if they are given intravenous nutrients and antibiotics, but there is no medication that can treat a virus: your vet can only support your pet in fighting off the infection themselves. This is why it is particularly important that vulnerable dogs are vaccinated.

The second strain of parvovirus is seen more in puppies and young dogs. This attacks the heart and is often fatal for young puppies.

At the refuge, we see both types. With so many dogs in weak conditions, it can be fatal. All dogs are routinely vaccinated, but if they have caught the virus before they are vaccinated, the vaccine is ineffective.

What to look for: vomiting, diarrhea, blood in vomit or feces, fever, lethargy, reddened eyes and gums

Kennel Cough

Quacking-like coughs are often the first sign of kennel cough. Many dogs will get kennel cough at least once in their lives. Vulnerable dogs are more at risk. It can be caused by viruses or bacteria, and if your vet tests for bacteria, they may prescribe an antibiotic, although for many dogs, rest and hydration are sufficient to help them overcome the disease. Many vets will diagnose based on symptoms, such as coughing, retching, nasal discharge, pneumonia, lethargy or loss of appetite rather than prescribing antibiotics however. It is very rarely life-threatening and mostly clears up without medical treatment or intervention. As the name implies, it is often contracted by dogs in kennels, because like the common cold or the flu virus, it passes quickly in crowded surroundings. Kennel cough is not the only disease to have coughing as a symptom, so if you are worried or the coughing lasts more than a couple of days, see your vet immediately. As with vomiting and diarrhea, severity, frequency and duration are the key things to monitor.

What to look for: a quack-like cough or repeated, nagging cough, shortness of breath

Demodetic and Sarcoptic Mange

Mange is a common condition of a small number of animals brought to the refuge, evidenced by scaly patches, hair loss and sometimes skin lesions. It is caused by overpopulation of the mites which live in the hair follicles of a dog. It can be localised or found all over a dog’s body. Another form of mange is sarcoptic mange which kind of the doggie equivalent of scabies. Both kinds can be passed from mothers to their offspring, so it is often seen in puppies. Sarcoptic mange is highly contagious and it is advisable for you to keep your dog in quarantine if your dog has it. If you notice excessive scratching, hair loss and scabbiness, mange could very well be the reason. It is usually treated with regular medicinal shampooing or creams. Other infections can manifest themselves as ringworm (a fungus) which is most commonly identified through reddened skin, circular lesions, hair loss, itchiness and dandruff, or earmites, identified through ear scratching, stinky ears, a dark waxy substance and head shaking. Many forms of mange are highly contagious and although it is distressing for the dog, leading to complications with breathing, it is not usually fatal unless there are complications resulting from lesions. Most are treated with creams or medications.

What to look for: hair loss, itching, lesions, dandruff

Bloat and stomach torsions

A number of dogs die at the refuge every year as the result of bloat, leading to a stomach torsion. Bloating is always an emergency and one that is sadly very difficult to treat. Once bloat has started, it is very difficult to rectify without surgery. Prevention is more efficient than treatment. Bloat can affect dogs at any age and in any physical condition. It more commonly affects deep-chested dogs like Great Danes, Leonbergers and even large setters or pointers.

Preventing bloat relies very much on care with feeding and exercise. Dogs at risk should not be fed and exercised at the same time: exercising a dog with a full stomach can be one way that the gases build up in the stomach and cannot dissipate. You can notice bloat as the stomach is usually distended and hard. Excessive drooling, frothy spittle, light-coloured gums, a strong desire to regurgitate without the ability to do so and a weak heartbeat are also symptoms. Getting your dog to vomit can be effective – and the easiest way to do this can be through motion. A ride in the car to the vet’s can be effective – not only to see the vet but to induce vomiting. Excessive drinking can also cause bloat. This is why it is not a good idea to exercise dogs too hard during warm weather as they may drink too much and suffer from bloat as a consequence. Small meals fed several times a day rather than one meal can also help. Avoiding foods likely to swell in the stomach such as certain dog kibble or bread may prevent bloat, as will methods that force your dog to slow down when eating, such as specialist dog bowls. Bloat is known to affect not only certain breeds, but males over the age of seven, dogs that are only fed once a day rather than twice a day, dogs that eat rapidly, dogs who exercise immediately after eating and dogs who are anxious or fearful. If you think that your dog has stomach bloat, do not wait. Take them to the vet immediately. Even twenty minutes can be too long. In French, mention “torsion d’estomac” or “dilation de l’estomac” to your vet on the phone and they will no doubt meet you straight away at the surgery.

What to look for: frothing at the mouth, unsuccessful attempts to vomit, a swollen/hard abdomen (just below ribcage) light-coloured gums, lethargy

Parasites and worms

At the refuge, there are are many staff and volunteers who have become experts at poo inspections. Consistency, frequency and colour are often tell-tale signs of other infections. Although giardia may not be a word many are familiar with, it can also spread quickly among animal populations. This gastrointestinal parasite is responsible for explosive diarrhea, often very light in colour and with a very strong smell. The feces may also be greasy-looking or frothy. They contract the parasites through contact with other dogs and through oral-fecal contamination. As you can imagine, trying to keep dogs who live in kennels away from any contaminated spots can be very difficult. Treatment is usually effective but since many dogs lose weight rapidly with giardia, it may also cause further complications through weight loss. Dehydration and lack of nutrients need to be watched for, as they do with any prolonged period of diarrhea. If your dog has explosive diarrhea that has a very strong odor, but does not seem to be in ill health otherwise (perhaps weight loss, of course) then giardia may be the cause. Isolation and clearing up of fecal matter is vital, as is keeping coats clean. Many dogs will involuntarily reinfect themselves through cleaning their fur or licking themselves.

Worms are also another parasite that you may not take too seriously, treating easily and quickly with a wormer. For vulnerable animals, worms can be fatal. Many puppies (and kittens) who arrive at the refuge have already picked up worms through their mother’s milk and if their mother has not been wormed or has worms herself, these worms can quickly be fatal. They are uncomfortable for the animals, causing intestinal cramps and pain, as well as bloating, diarrhea and respiratory problems. They can also cause blockages, which are often fatal. Many times they are easy to identify in young animals as they have a distinct ‘pot-bellied’ appearance. Roundworms are particularly persistent little beggars and their eggs can live for years meaning that you don’t just need to administer a wormer but keep the environment clean too. Eggs are dropped in poo which even if cleaned up properly can easily be trodden in by another dog. All it takes is a lick of the paws and the worms have found their new host. For this reason, it is vital that young pups are kept in a sterile environment and wormed regularly. Worms don’t just live in the intestines: they can pass into the liver and lungs. One wormer might not do the trick for those that have been living outside the intestines: a repeated dose after a short interval should pick up those that drop into the intestine the second time. Tapeworms are the recognisable worms we see in feces, looking like a small grain of rice. Heartworms are a rarer parasite but can be fatal to animals. It is passed by mosquito bites, like leishmaniasis is spread by sandflies.

What to look for: diarrhea, respiratory problems, bloating, “pot-belly”, pain on pressing the abdomen

Conclusion

A good worming and vaccination programme, regular treatment with a flea, fly and mosquito repellent and an eye on what your dog has their nose in will usually keep most of these illnesses and diseases at bay. With a little care and attention, none of these common ailments need be an issue for most dog owners.

It is not easy to keep your dog’s nose out of whatever may take their interest, or to ensure they are not walking through environments rife with all kinds of health threats, so there will undoutedly be times when your dog has diarrhea or vomiting. There are many times when dog owners worry about diarrhea and vomiting, which can be frequent occurrences in a dog’s life. You know best when either is a sign of something more serious. If blood is present in either, seek immediate medical attention. It may only be that your dog has burst a blood vessel in their stomach through repeated vomiting, or that they have a lower intestinal bleed as a result of more frequent or painful bowel movements, but blood in vomit or feces is the first reason to visit the vet. If in doubt, pay the vet a visit. The internet is neither veterinarian nor pharmacist, and hearing of someone “curing” a newly-adopted dog’s diarrhea with a dose of gaviscon because they’d read about it on the internet not only could have caused many complications but also led to the dog being removed from the home. As most pet owners understand, you cannot take risks with medication and treatment and your vet should always be your first port of call.