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Mands for dogs

A few months back, I read an article by Jane Messineo Linquist for the IAABC about training puppies, Sit Does Not Mean Sit, which gave me palpitations and enormous food for thought. It’s a term she no doubt has been using for years. I was happy to come across it as it gave a name to a behaviour I’d been fostering in a number of my adult dog clients.

Definitely read her original before you go any further!

I apologise now to all my ‘normal’ readers… this will get geeky and it is a post meant for trainers and behaviourists, or even you great home schoolers who’ll see the practical applications for dogs under your care.

I also apologise that it took me so long to stumble on this term and technique but to be fair, I read a lot of dog stuff, and I haven’t heard anyone use this term or anyone talk about why the concept might just be the communications breakthrough for adult dogs with behavioural problems. I mean I had a major lightbulb moment. Seriously. It was, I am happy to say, something I was already doing, but reading more has very much crystallised my thinking. It’s reached a point where it’s good to share, even. I’m sure that like me, your dogs may also be using mands all the time.

The word ‘mand’ comes from BF Skinner, the father of behaviourism. He talked about it in many speeches and wrote about it in his book, Verbal Behavior. As you can tell from the title, it was a word he used for a verbal behaviour, so you’ll be forgiven for wondering what the hell it has to do with dogs. The linguistic skills of dogs? Surely not. I both apologise to Skinner for what I’m about to do with his word, and thank him too for giving me what has come to be a much fuller toolbox. He’d either hate the way I’m about to abuse it, or agree with it fully. Who knows? I’m going to explain more detail what I think the term mand means to me, and in the next post, how I use it with aggressive and fearful dogs.

You’d also be forgiven for thinking Pavlov is our guiding father when it comes to behaviour problems, with a little help from Watson. Conditioned emotional responses. Counter conditioning. Gradual Desensitisation. In fact, there’s been such a backlash recently against ‘training’ for aggressive or fearful dogs that many behaviourists will be rolling their eyes that Skinner, oh he behind clicker training and both conscious and unconscious learning, could be mentioned in the same breath as aggression or fearfulness. We’ve been about the relationship, about the bond. About security and wellness. About being more relaxed and reading body language to help make decisions.

I still think that is a huge part of the process for many dogs. Most of it. I will say, though, that I have never found obedience or any other form of training to be mutually exclusive with building relationships. For me, those activities are as much about a partnership as dance or jiu-jitsu or capoeira or sailing a two-person yacht. The activity can be a way to build a relationship as much as anything else, but I definitely understand why people might say you can’t ‘train away’ fearfulness or aggression. Pavlov may well be on one shoulder, though, but Skinner is always on the other.

But what I’m about to discuss flies in the face of the ‘less training’ and ‘more relationship’ mantra that seems to be flavour of the month.

It also, and I want to get this clear right now, flies in the face of dominance-based training. Completely. It hands the reins back to your dog. In fact, think of it less as one of you being in charge of what happens and more like one of those dual brake pedal cars that instructors have, where you’re kind of letting the learner take over, just with some safety mechanisms. Mands let your dog make conscious choices about what happens.

So it’s about time I explained myself, and to do that I want to go back to the source. Skinner. Verbal Behavior 1957.

Skinner was writing about a type of communication that he called a mand. He used the term to mean verbal behaviour that is reinforced by a particular consequence or response. I don’t want to use the word ‘request’ because they are more than requests. It may also be a command or demand. It could be a summons. It can be information. It can compel you to do something. It could be a countermand. It may be mandatory, or it may not. You can see why Skinner liked it, as its Latin roots give us many words related to saying or doing something that compels a response in another. If you’re at all interested in British politics (because who isn’t!?!) you’ll have heard about mandates so often recently you’ll be familiar with the concept of giving power to someone to act on your behalf. Reprimands also… all things we do to influence the responses of others – or at least try to. So mands are more than requests. They can include commands or demands. Mand is the root that links them all. It’s a behaviour that says I want something or I’d like something or even that I insist on something, and that, in directing it at you, I feel you can help me.

But enough with the waffly theory. Let’s get practical. Let’s talk dog.

Dogs are one of the only species that mand with humans. They may not speak but they behave in purposeful and conscious ways to impact us or the things around them.

This is Heston. Most of Heston’s mands relate to play. A dropped toy at my foot is his mand to me to play. Not insistent. Not abusive. Not a command. Just a ‘Let’s play?’ His mands are delightful questions, offers, requests.

And if I reinforce it, those mands increase.

Let’s play, Monkey.

A mand can be an invitation, as this is.

Heston is not my champion mander, though. That was Tilly.

She became an expert at using me as a tool for her own ends. One of those lovely Dognition games was to put a treat in a sealed box and see how long it takes your dog to look at you for help. Heston didn’t look at me once. He just gave up. Tilly? 4 seconds.

Help, Monkey. My tupperware is stuck.

She was so good at it that if a sandwich fell down a well and needed rescuing, Lassie would be a second division Mander in comparison.

As you can see here, she’s quick off the mark to engage me as a tool to get exactly what she wants.

And another. You see also how Heston barks? Another mand. Barking is so peculiar to dogs (rather than other canids) and it is so much more frequent that I think sometimes we get lost in the fact that barking has a purpose. Unlike adult cats who do not meow at other cats, dogs do bark at other dogs, but barking definitely falls into that ‘human-directed communication’ that meowing does too. I suspect Heston’s bark here is just in recognition of the excitement Tilly has stirred up. He has no idea that she thinks there is something on the mantelpiece that she can’t get, and she needs my monkey assistance.

I don’t have videos of Tilly’s other mands, but she would also stick her foot in the water bowl and rattle it if she was out of water, and thump the door if she wanted to go out.

Tilly’s mands were very much about her physiological needs.

I mean, just imagine… a girl who came to me aged 5 with no house-training at all, and she learns how to tell me that she needs to go out! Mands are all about the dog teaching us to have their needs met.

Yes, you trainers may scoff as you may have done similarly, using bells or such like for dogs to say they want to go out. But that was you teaching your dog. Here, Tilly taught me. All I did was open the door and thus reinforce the behaviour.

With Heston, that mand to play was another one he taught me. Drop the ball or toy at the monkey’s feet and she’ll most likely give you a game.

For Amigo, that was so much more purposefully shaped by me. He had two behaviours to elicit contact from me. One was pawing me (always pretty hard) and one was resting his head on my knee. I consistently reinforced one with touch and not the other. He finished with a way to tell me that he’d like contact, please. But without leaving me with claw marks.

So it got me thinking… if dogs can mand for biological and social needs – indeed, we can even teach them to communicate their needs with us through operant conditioning and shaping – then why can’t we teach them to do so for their emotional needs too?

To be honest, I think that we have been. I think the industry as a whole has been moving towards helping dogs more effectively communicate their emotional needs in socially acceptable needs. The whole force-free husbandry movement with things like chin rests, consent tests, Bucket games and asking the dog a question (Chirag Patel) has been very much about teaching dogs to signal their desire to continue or not. I think mands are a part of this. We’ve been very much about consent and choice. We’re definitely getting better. But I think mands are going to help us bridge the final gap between what dogs want or need and ways to express that to us. A true partnership.

With mands, we step away from just passively watching dogs’ body language. Don’t get me wrong, I like watching dogs’ body language. It tells me a lot. BAT and Turid Rugaas’s calming signals have practically revolutionised my understanding of dogs non-verbal communication. Even their energy levels are so communicative.

The problems with watching this way and making choices for the dog are twofold as I see it. Firstly it’s very passive. It depends on us to have good skills to explore dogs’ unconscious behaviours. Secondly, it’s done TO the dog – we make the decision for the dog. By and large, I think we are better at reading dogs, especially as they get near to threshold, but the dog still depends on humans to make a choice for them without an active understanding of how that works. Also, it means dogs are perhaps left feeling uncomfortable until the moment they unconsciously make a signal like a lick lip to say they find a socially-mediated aversive stimuli unpleasant. Manding means the dog is actively communicating and making a choice – exactly what we love about the Bucket Game – in a conscious and deliberate way. They have all the power to tell us “Not today!”

How amazingly empowering must that be for an animal who has perhaps found themselves submitting to unpleasant stimuli because they had no choice? Just like dogs who have full bladders and no way to ask to go outside, dogs may have been feeling quite overcome by aversive emotional reactions to the environment without any way to say, unconsciously depending on an emotionally illiterate or temporarily unreceptive human to meet their needs. The way I see it is that once dogs begin to understand how to work the human world, it can’t but be hugely empowering.

Some dogs I work with have been so regularly ignored (often inadvertently) by their humans or have had to get by on their own initiative that it can be hard to learn to work with humans again. I feel sure from reading the notes from Tilly’s veterinary behaviourist before she came to me that nobody had ever asked Tilly what she needed or wanted. Her needs had been largely ignored for 5 years. Most of her most troubling behaviours, including guarding food and toys, stem from that sense of powerlessness, I feel quite sure. But Tilly learned. Or, rather, I learned to listen to what she was saying and in the end, she was a marvellously expressive little dog.

The same is true of Flika. She had had 14 years of fending for herself both physiologically and emotionally. Her ‘coping’ skills for separation anxiety are hugely destructive. This is a dog who fends for herself, who steals food items, who opens doors for herself and whose only mechanism for coping with loneliness was to bark and destroy. It’s quite sad that she never really asks for anything as experience has taught her there is no point.

So back to mands for dogs… really I just wanted to clarify what they are in this post, and follow up with how to teach them. I thought it was worthwhile outlining the principle and theory rather than the practice.

Whilst Skinner may have used the term ‘mand’ for verbal behaviour, it was quickly integrated into work with non-verbal humans. From teaching babies to sign and non-verbal children and adults to request, mands have a 40-year history of use in Applied Behaviour approaches that have helped humans communicate their physiological and emotional needs.

Where mands have been particularly effective is in the reduction of aggression, destruction and injurious behaviours. That was something the original article for the IABBC touched on, and something that gave me enormous food for thought.

Why it gave me food for thought was because I’d already been doing this as part of my rehabilitation programmes for the dogs with problematic behaviours and it gave a word to that practice. For the first time, it moved beyond instinct and into theory, with lots of practical guidance.

Unlike me, who’d stumbled on mands by accident, it should be a lot more clean – and my subsequent practice has been exactly that. It needs to start with a functional behavioural analysis (that’s a whole post in itself if you haven’t come across this) exploring the antecedents, motivating operations and consequences in order to consider the possible function or purpose of the behaviour. For most of my clients, that behaviour is very much about creating distance. But it’s not true of all dogs, for sure. One of the good things about a functional behavioural analysis is that it can certainly help you unpick the function behind behaviour that may appear uniform, like barking and biting, but also other things like compulsions or other ‘nuisance’ behaviours.

Once you have your functional behavioural analysis complete, you’ve identified the conditions in which it occurs and the consequences that keep the behaviour alive, you then need a behaviour from the same behavioural class – ie a different behaviour that serves the same function. You can see now why you need the analysis: if you don’t understand why the dog is barking or biting, then trying to replace it with a different behaviour that has the same purpose is impossible.

Dogs ‘mand’ all the time. Most dog owners will come to know instinctively what their dogs want, from Amigo ‘s very gentle reminder that it was dinner time to Tilly’s rather stylish bowl bashing to say, ‘Hey Monkey… Water!’. Some of us will be more used to those signals as we deliberately train them into service dogs for the blind and deaf, to signal in Search and Rescue work, to indicate presence of substances in scent detection, to work with us in many, many different environments. Whether dogs arrive at it through accidental shaping by owners or through purposeful operant teaching of a signal, the concept of manding is nothing ground-breaking.

But within the world of functional communication for socially unacceptable behaviours, that was an application that many of us were doing anyway, but that nobody had really put a name and theory to. That’s where I felt it broke new ground.

Within this milieu, mands are the dog communicating purposefully, consciously and intentionally with us to effect an environmental change.

There will no doubt be some backlash from those who think it is not a dog’s place to mand. In language, mands are commands (Go!) and subjunctives (Be still! I suggest that we go now) and interrogatives (Can we?) and optatives or wishes (Let’s…) and lots of other types of utterance. A dog’s behavior needn’t be seen as pushy if we think of it like this, and linguistically at least, it is collaborative and optional.

That for me is the cherry on the cake: mands build a relationship between those who issue them and those who help them meet their needs. It’s true collaboration (okay, for Tilly, I was just her extendable grabber, I know) but it builds trust. Because dogs learn through manding that they can operate us, and we have the ability to operate doors and can openers and things in tupperware, to make u-turns and to make scary stuff go away, the most

In the next post, some of the places where you can build mands with dogs so that they can make requests about their emotional needs. Then on to the how tos!

HELP! MY DOG BARKS ALL THE TIME!

It can be hard when you’ve got a barker – especially one that barks at a number of things for a number of reasons.

Isn’t that right, Flika?

This is Flika… Barking was literally her job for at least three years. Like a number of shepherds in France, she was kept for her fearsome presence (yes, really) and her ability to bark at stuff. A dog barking “There’s a dog in here!” is a regular deterrent for French businesses who often keep dogs for that very purpose.

The first thing to know is what the dogs are barking at. Flika, for instance, barks at traffic that’s going too fast (she’s literally the traffic police – or she thinks she is) or traffic going too slow. Noisy traffic also. She barks at my neighbours if they leave their cars idling as well. She also barks at noisy low-flying planes.

The only other time she barks is when she sees or hears me and can’t get to me. She stays in the office when I’m at the shelter, and if she sees me going past or hears me, she’ll happily remind me I’m there.

The vet the other week said, “Who’s that dog with the broken bark?”

You’ve guessed it… Flika in the office telling me she was fed up and she knew I was near. She has literally broken her bark – I can only guess by doing it so much. It’s not unusual in old dogs with separation anxiety who’ve been left to guard warehouses on their own all night, I suppose.

So, your first job is to make a list of all the times your dog barks. Be objective. Just say when and where and, if you know, what at.

I’ll show you for my other Ronnie Barker, Heston. Remember, target, place, time.

  1. At nothing in particular when he first goes into the garden when we get up.
  2. At me in the house or garden when we are getting ready to go for a walk.
  3. At cars that stop outside the house especially the post van.
  4. At people who come to the gate.
  5. At stuff that spooks him.
  6. At shadows, noise or movement passing the back fence mainly when I am also in the garden, but occasionally when I am not.

Most of those behaviours are to make stuff stop or go away. A bark is more efficient than a bite at clearing the garden of foxes, martens, hedgehogs and badgers as we have here.

Sometimes there’s a disconnect because the dog barks but the going away is accidental or incidental – the post lady and those wretched people who pull in to my driveway entrance to answer mobile phones go away eventually of their own accord. Even so, it’s become superstitious behaviour and both Heston and Flika do it anyway.

Some of the behaviours are for other reasons. Flika barking in the office is not designed to make me go away, but to bring me closer. Heston’s barking before a walk is not because he is scared or annoyed but because he is frustrated and excited.

So once you have your list of the times and places your dog barks, and what they are barking at, you can start to unpick why they’re barking.

You might have a long list, but it’s worth noting that not all barking is the same. It may be very different depending on the circumstances, and have very different sounds or emotions as well as purposes.

What’s the function? To make stuff go away? To bring things closer? I’ve even known a blind dog who barked as he stood up – and the only purpose seemed to be a form of locating where the other dogs were and where I was, since we all moved when he did it.

For each thing on your list, try to think about whether the purpose is to engage other creatures (including us humans) or whether it is designed to make them stop or go away. Then try to think about the underlying emotion: excitement, happiness, joy, (I’m thinking of Heston before a walk) sadness (I’m thinking of my girl Tilly howling and barking on her own) anger or fearfulness (I’m thinking of one of my dogs who barked at snowmen, and Tilly barking at a tall sunflower, as well as Heston barking to warn things off) or even frustration (like Flika in the office or Heston before a walk).

Once you have those, you have a clearer way forward and different treatment plans based on each kind of barking.

The first thing to do is stop freelancing. What I mean by that is there are a lot of dogs who think it is their job. For Flika, it literally was her job.

Even if she falls asleep on duty!

You can see she’s even choosing places to rest where she can do her job if needed… right near the gate.

What you need to do here is manage the environment to make it less likely they can freelance. That might mean restricting access to their preferred barking spots unless you’re there to supervise…

See… not on guard quite so much when we’re all just chilling in the garden.

But on the other hand, not the same for Heston who barks more frequently when I’m out there with him, so he has something to keep him busy… be that something to chew, something to keep in his mouth or something to lick.

Hard to bark (not impossible, let me point out!) when you have a mouth full of toys. I also like to use fetch as a good way to move him away from the source of grievance. Like it or not, we bred dogs to stand their ground rather than move away when things annoy them – sometimes they need encouragement! There’s been a Fetch! backlash this last year or so, but for me, as long as it isn’t obsessive, as long as it is under stimulus control (ie the behaviour happens because you invite it, not because the dog is demanding it all the time and can’t cope without it) then having a mouth that is already busy is a sure-fire way of reducing problem behaviours. You know what they say about the Devil making work for idle fingers? The same is true for some dogs and their mouths, I’m sure! I jest partly, but I also spent 20 years in classrooms with kinaesthetic children, with children with ADHD and other ‘socially undesirable problems’ with movement, and I think that when we’re immersed in conscious movement, we see fewer ‘problem’ behaviours. Just my thought.

So fetch, hold and play should form part of your anti-barking strategies if the barking is outside, if it’s driven by excitement or frustration, and can be used inside of course if you don’t have a big dog and a small house or you’ve tidied away your ornaments.

In fact, one of Heston’s very nuisance-y barkings – the before-walk bark – was completely eradicated by him choosing a toy. I left the toy box outside the door one morning, he happily picked up a squeaky toy and as long as he has things to throw around and raggy ropes, he manages his excitement very well.

One thing that is hard with barking driven by excitement and frustration is that often, solutions are to calm or settle the dog before. To be honest, I had limited success with this as when you’re asked as a rational, sensible human being with some ability to rein in your emotions, asking you NOT to be excited about things is kind of frustrating and kind of impossible. Imagine you are about to do something huge and fun, and then being told to calm down. You’re a grown up, so you might be able to. But imagine asking a child? I think if we’re constantly asking our dogs to calm down and settle, we’re actually just punishing their excitement and suppressing it rather than helping them express it in more socially acceptable ways. That said, if a dog is dangerously ramped up and biting is a preferred behaviour other than barking, I’m probably going to do a lot of work on calming them down beforehand, on breaking my own behaviour chains and helping them chill out a bit. A very simple thing is a quick game of Sprinkles or a handful of very small treats on the floor as long as your dogs don’t squabble. You can see in the video, Flika is momentarily less crazy 15-year-old Malinois Lady when she finds a bit of dried tendon that Heston has missed.

This behaviour, by the way, is one Heston chose himself. I just encouraged it by leaving a big box of toys near the door and telling him what a good boy he was. It sure beats spending 15 minutes trying to calm him down. When we’re presented with two choices, we do the one that is most reinforcing. I think that’s why the barking became less strong.

I’m a big fan of mental enrichment for many reasons, but it especially works if you are dealing with excitement and frustration. There was a great article this week in the Whole Dog Journal about some great food enrichment toys (along with their benefits and drawbacks) that are great for dogs who are set on a hair trigger where emotions are concerned. 45 minutes of good enrichment certainly helps ‘reset’ a dog who’s living on the edge.

Let’s get to barking related to stranger danger and alerting. Mostly, that’s at moving stuff outside the perimeter, but you may find it too with inanimate things that freak your dog out. From sieves to stone crosses, fertiliser bags to big sunflowers, snowmen to strangely shaped rocks, I’ve seen a lot of spooked barking.

Here you’re seeking to reduce the behaviour. That could be the intensity of the behaviour, the loudness or duration. It could be a change in pitch. Heston uses pitch perfectly – his deep bay is intimidating, his high-pitched excitement barks are completely different. I might be seeking a less deep bark or less of a volley. I’m not looking to suppress barking all together. If I get rid of my dog’s right to communicate by barking, I’m either going to see it continue when I’m not here (fun for my neighbours) or my dog not bother telling me. Let’s be clear: I LIKE Heston’s bark under the right circumstances. It is loud and offensive, sure, but it is an unambiguous signal that people take note of. It means he never needs to go to air-snapping or biting. But I do not want him to be in a frenzy every time the post lady appears. That’s not nice for him or for her. Being fearful or aggressive does not feel nice, which is the primary reason I want to change how dogs feel and address the deep-seated emotional need to bark.

How I do this is by pairing the bark up with something lovely. Before the barking is needed, I’ve practised a behaviour that gets the dog away from their ‘holding’ position and is 100% reliably reinforced by something marvellous. My go-to is the fridge. When I say ‘thank you! Good job!’ we go to the fridge. I may go to the fridge at other times, but unless I say ‘thank you! Good job!’ nothing comes out for the dogs (otherwise I’m going to get a lot of disappointment, frustration and anger around that fridge opening). It’s really important that it only happens with a cue otherwise you’ll have a problem on your hands!

When I say ‘Thank you! Good job!’ we move away from the bad stuff, the bar is open, the magical treasure trove of goodies for dogs opens, good stuff spills out, the icky stuff goes away and over time, annoying stuff outside your house becomes a) a cue that marvellous stuff will happen, like me when I hear an ice-cream van and b) nothing to feel bad about.

I can use ‘thank you! Good job!’ any time – with treats in my pockets, freeze-dry stuff I keep on my desk and mantlepiece, in the car with freeze-dried stuff or dry treats or on walks from my treat pouch. I usually add all kinds of silly stuff my dog has saved me from because it makes me laugh and it stops me feeling tense and annoyed, which also sends a message to my dogs.

It takes time but if you work on a 6-month SMART plan, you should find a significant reduction in barking. It might be less long, less loud, less frequent, less numerous, less deep in pitch. It should become much easier to end with a ‘Thank you! Good job! You saved us from being burgled yet again by that wretched postwoman’

So if I notice Heston barks usually from hearing the noise until it goes away, I may want to work towards barking twice at a fairly low volume and perhaps a single growl rather than a bark in 6 months’ time instead. That would mean in 4 months, planning back, that I want him to stop barking within 8 barks when I say ‘thank you!’

Back further, in 3 months, I want 16 or fewer barks after I’ve said ‘thank you!’

Back further, in 2 months, I want 30 or fewer barks after I’ve said ‘thank you’.

Just to be clear, he never barked THAT much! It’s just to give you an idea of how to plan for your own dog, working towards a target with planned, manageable, scaled goals. What I mean most to say is don’t ask for or expect a complete reduction: barking serves a purpose for your dog to tell the universe to be less scary. But you can turn it from frenzied mania and “PANIC! PANIC! I THINK WE ARE ALL GOING TO BE MURDERED IN OUR BEDS BY THIS CRAZY PAPER-LEAVING PSYCHOPATH!!!!!!!!!” to “The Post is Here!”

You can also, as I have, turn frequent, predictable moments of barking into an alarm clock telling you to go somewhere else and do something fun. Our post coming means we get to go down the garden and play tug with the favourite tug. We only do it when the post lady comes. You wouldn’t believe how quickly that turned the post lady from being the Bone-Crunching Paper-Leaving Psychopath into “Oh Goodie, we can play tug now!”

I would also add that if it is impossible to interrupt your dog and choose fridge time over barking menaces, you’re asking your dog to do something too hard. That is especially true the longer they have practised. I don’t ask Heston to stop yelling at his terrier enemy when his terrier enemy goes on a walk right past our garden. It’s too hard. I just make a note that my neighbour walks his dog first thing in the morning and I keep Heston inside. If it’s too hard, pick your battles. Start with the least difficult stuff, the low-hanging fruit if you will. Don’t ask your dog to choose a cheap dog biscuit over warning off his arch-enemy. You’re destined to fail. When you look at the list, you’ll see the ones that you can manage by forbidding unsupervised access to the space they bark at (like Flika sitting by the gate to act as traffic police). You’ll see the ones you can use play with instead. You’ll see the ones where some appropriate enrichment might be more appropriate as the dog is just freelancing and you’ll see the ones where you need to intervene with moving away, thanking the dog and bringing in some high value food or toys instead.

Pay attention also to trigger stacking and make sure you’re giving your dog plenty of rest, mental stimulation and sleep. Remember too that noise sensitivity can be a signal of pain, so it’s worth a vet check. But keep a note of your starting point. How much, how intense, where, when and who at? Keep the reinforcement at 100% for a much longer period than you might normally and maintain a realistic goal about behaviour reduction. Then celebrate the small wins along the way. If you keep it up, you’ll see progress much more quickly than you could ever imagine.

If you’re not sure why your dog is barking, if it seems not to have start and stop points, if you can’t interrupt it and you can’t see any change, consult a behaviourist.

Above all, avoid punishment.

Not only are bark collars often ineffective and a complete waste of money but we owe it to our dogs to treat them kindly when they’re emotional. Spraying them in the face may work, but I hope you never need to use a pulveriser spray for anything else such as anti-flea treatments or cortisol application. What usually happens, though, is you end up with a dog who’s wet through or scared of the environment and in the case of sprays, raised voices or other punishments, a dog who thinks YOU are the bigger threat.

After all, I want my dog to feel safe in a threatening environment, not to feel like I’m a threat as well.

As you can see in this video, the proof is in the pudding…. two barky, shouty dogs who aren’t even fussed about early morning disruption all around them. I did this video between chainsaws, tractors, roofing, shouting and all kinds of comings and goings. What should have been a very noisy day was nothing worth raising your voice over.

Building resilience

RES·IL·I·ENCE : the ability to become healthy, happy or strong again after a setback, illness or other problem; the capacity to recover from difficulties.

No matter how we try to keep our dogs safe, life often has other plans.

Only a few months ago, for example, another volunteer and I were the first cars on site at a motorway crash, having watched it all happen in surreal slow motion. The worst was watching two dogs come stumbling out of the back of the van and into the path of speeding wagons. The van they were in had rolled, and during the impact, the back door had broken. Luckily, despite the speeds involved and the damage, both the dogs and the driver were okay.

Physically, at least.

A fractured skull, but no other broken bones. It could have been so much worse.

Resilience is how we cope with the crap that life throws at us. Like car crashes in the driving rain on a Friday night.

It’s about how quickly we bounce back. It’s how we cope and how we respond to things. Resilience, from a biological perspective, is how quickly we move back from fight-flight modes into homeostasis. You know… how quickly we go from fight or flight to rest and digest, feed and breed. Resilience, as far as your body is concerned, is how quickly you go from “Incoming!!!!” to “When’s lunch again?”

You can see resilience in action.

This is Lidy. Lidy, when I first met her, was a hot pink mess of 11-month old whirling dervish snaggle-toothed dragon. Her resilience was poor and she was permanently in fight-or-flight mode. She was super-sensitive to flooding her sink and trigger stacked to the max. She never really recovered from each and every episode.

She was on a “Bite First – Ask Questions Later” protocol.

We’ve come a long way, Lidy and I. To the point where, when an off-lead mental, barky over-aroused spaniel ran full pelt at us and Lidy coped. Within 30 seconds, she was rooting in the bushes.

It did NOT take me 30 seconds to recover, let me tell you. I still have flashbacks and nightmares.

Or when the shelter director’s chi-chi, Kiki (formerly known as ‘Killer’) ran up to us to tell us in his best Mexican that he didn’t appreciate her, Lidy recovered in less than 30 seconds. Kiki still had a barking head attached to his snack-sized body.

So resilience has a physiological timer we can watch for that manifests in behaviours. How long does it take us to go from Tarantino Film Extra to Normal Services Are Resumed – Nothing To See – Here?

But it’s not about being 100% laidback 100% of the time. There are ‘bombproof’ dogs – I’m sure you know one or two – that can cope with every single thing that happens. I’ve seen dogs thrown from windows, thrown out of cars, hit by cars, shot… dogs who cope with things you and I would find ourselves a quivering wreck over. Resilience doesn’t have to be this. You meet a dog called Lucky and I bet you’re looking at a resilience role-model. In fact, I’d largely argue that if you don’t have a bomb-proofer to start with, you’ll probably never get one. You’re born Lucky or you’re not so Lucky.

What you may get is a dog whose reactions are milder, less frequent or shorter – a dog who takes 30 seconds to bounce back rather than 3 days – when they’ve learned to be more resilient.

But I don’t think anyone would promise you a bombproof dog if that’s not what you’ve got already.

Resilience can be preventative. It can be built. We can build it in young puppies to inoculate them against stuff happening in life. We call that socialisation and habituation. We can build on the genes that we get, or those we don’t, to help our puppies prepare for the world.

There are lots of really great Puppy Culture groups that will help you with that. There are plenty of great books, like Steve Mann’s Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy, Puppy Start Right by Kenneth and Debbie Martin, or Life Skills for Puppies by Daniel Mills and Helen Zulch. There are online courses too. You can also find great puppy classes, but be careful it’s not just a puppy maul – you could end up killing off your young dog’s resilience before you can blink.

You can – and I’d argue that you should – continue to build on resilience through life. Make novelty fun, build in routines to cope with life’s unexpected spaniels and chihuahuas, bicycles and car horns. Once, I walked with Heston through a Venetian carnival by accident. Capes, masks, flappy things, music, feathers, costumes and instead of having flashbacks about the time a guy with a plague doctor mask bent to pet him, it just became one of those things in life that contribute to your resilience in the future. When novelty is safe and dogs have choice whether to engage or not, life’s scary stuff can be a learning experience. To steal from Ken Ramirez, instead of it being a tornado, the animals in your life will just be thinking, “hmmm…. now what are the naked apes up to today?”

Whilst resilience can be preventative, it can also be well and truly buggered up by some of the things in the big old jigsaw puzzle that contributes to the adult.

Graphical model of factors contributing to an adult dog’s  behavioural profile from (Dietz et al. 2019)

As you can tell from this amazing “soup” of factors, there are so many things that influence the adult our dogs become and their resilience to stress that it can be difficult to pull one from another.

The toughest cases for me are those dogs who live in a semi-permanent state of stress. Bad genetics, lack of resilience in both the maternal & paternal line, exposure to in utero cortisol, birth order, even things like the mother’s feeding position all contribute to a lack of resilience.

Animal behaviourist Patricia McConnell says resilience is on a scale, like 1 – 10. Some dogs are born in life with the potential to only ever be a 3 or a 4. They are never going to be cadaver dogs, bomb detection dogs, SAR dogs, sniffer dogs, take-down dogs. Breed, heritage, maternal and paternal lines, in utero experiences and early socialisation up to 7-10 weeks or so means that their capacity to bounce back is going to be pretty low.

Some dogs, like Mabelle, may only ever be a 1 or a 2. She’s a 1 now. I never saw a dog as shut down as she was in a number of supposedly therapeutic events. Traditional methods to reassure dogs and build resilience are slow and hard work. You can put hours and hours in with her only to see the smallest progress.

Still, that’s not to say you shouldn’t try.

It’s not all about what they’re born with, or those first few weeks in a dog’s life. Resilience can be damaged by life. You can’t tell when you’ll run out. I have had three car accidents in my life. The first was fairly serious: I was shunted into a junction by a lorry going 40mph when I was stationary. I bounced back. The second was a fender bender. The third was relatively minor on the scale of things but it left me unwilling to drive my car for months. I still don’t drive in towns if I can absolutely help it. My resilience took a beating that it has not recovered from.

The same is true of dogs, too. I think that’s especially true of working dogs who are surrounded by stressful events. You don’t know what will be the one event that will mark the end of the career of an explosives dog.

It’s not just a lifetime thing, it’s a day-to-day thing too. Resilience runs out and we need rest and recuperation to rebuild. It’s why some days, we run out of spoons and find we need some time to recuperate. I know my resilience globally is pretty good (she says, having experienced lengthy periods of depression!) but my daily resilience can be depleted and then I end up ranting at politicians on Twitter.

The problem is that how humans build resilience is often through talking therapies, through cognitive discussion, through yoga, through mindfulness training, through tai chi and lunch with our friends.

Not so easy to work with a dog on those.

Maslow, good old Maslow, had his wonderful hierarchy of needs

Simply Psychology

You can even find animal versions of those out there. Some are wonderfully complex and detailed.

But we forget that there’s a big old need in the first layer that will interfere with all the others. Here, it says ‘shelter’, but I would replace that with ‘safety and security’. Safety, for me, is an emotional state. Security is a physical one. I can be secure, lock my doors and buckle up, but still not feel safe.

When we don’t feel safe in acute stress periods, we can’t drink, eat or sleep. When we don’t feel safe in chronic stress periods, our eating, drinking and sleeping get messed up out of whack. Feeling safe, for me, underpins all physiological needs.

That’s why we can’t use food with dogs who are panicking. It’s just not that important to eat a tiny piece of ham when you literally think you are going to die. But it’s also why we need to be careful with using food with dogs in chronic stress… it can form part of a coping mechanism.

Now I love using food. It’s how I turned Shouty Snaggle Toothed Dragon into a fairly polite dog who doesn’t over-react to as many things as she once did. We’re only beginning to understand the effects of food on our emotional wellbeing, investigating things like serotonin diets. Food is my friend. It’s how I work with all the anxious dogs and help them feel safe around me.

It’s also how we know a dog isn’t suffering acute stress. This moment is often the beginning of our relationship with traumatised dogs and it can be really powerful when it’s the dog’s choice. I am a firm believer that dogs who’ve suffered traumatic experiences or who are anxious need regularity and peace to eat, not having to overcome a great big fear of humans just to have something to eat.

But I also know that sometimes it’s an absolutely necessary step because a dog who can’t cope with anything in life is a dog who is utterly, totally and completely miserable. Sometimes, it’s an ethical choice we make to use additional food in ways that we know aren’t particularly comfortable for a dog just so that we can help them make the first steps to a future resilience.

If you aren’t thinking about the ethics of using food in your work with fearful dogs, you should be. There’s no ‘no’ or ‘yes’ in my opinion, but I think we should always be conscious of what we are doing instead of mindlessly proposing gradual desensitisation protocols using additional food that are a tacit way of forcing the dog and removing their choice. Go into it with your eyes open.

Like with Lidy. She didn’t like people and wasn’t resilient around them. I didn’t mindlessly engage in a counter-conditioning programme with her. I knew that the training I was doing, super-mild as it was, was changing her in ways that would not have been her choice. I think we owe it to animals to recognise we compromise their choices and to weigh up the benefits of doing so.

So, safety is a big factor in resilience. And that means providing a safe, regular, routine. It means minimising sensory stress, especially odours and sounds. It means sometimes providing other dogs. Social support is a big factor in resilience and in feeling safe.

We rehome a lot of hounds at Mornac. Many go to specialist associations who understand these dogs very well. The problem for dogs like Leyla (in the photo above) is that they only feel safe in groups. BUT… they then use the group to protect themselves from human caregivers, finding anonymity in the group. That means, again, sometimes being mindful that a dog’s choice of safety will sometimes impede their pathway to more resilient behaviour. It’s not a ‘don’t’ or a ‘do’, more, “just be mindful of…”

The benefits of a canine friend should not be overlooked for less resilient dogs (like the setter here) and having wonderfully chilled out dogs like Habby (the anglo in front) can really help many dogs build resilience.

Play is enormously useful in building resilience – either dog-human or dog-dog. Play encourages you to keep going, to keep trying. Play is also not a possible thing to do when you are in fight-flight mode. I’m hugely interested in how chiens référents (sorry – I don’t have a good translation for that, but I’d say ‘anchor dogs’ or ‘mentor dogs’) can help aid a dog’s recovery and build resilience. Social support is not just about the human caregiver or human companion: dogs learn so much about resilience from other dogs. Lidy, by the way, is a different dog with some male friends.

I call them her bodyguard dogs. Confident, laid-back dogs who model behaviours. I work quite often in kennels with the dogs, and it’s amazing how much watching and learning is happening.

You can see Leyla here with her much more confident boyfriend who is approaching an unfamiliar volunteer. Leyla, bolstered by her familiar humans and a mentor dog can take her time to make up her mind. Curiosity is fertiliser for resilience. Choice is a super-strength booster as well.

That is absolutely crucial. Choice. I’ve become more and more convinced of this as time has passed. The more autonomy an animal has (even the feeling that you have a choice, not necessarily the fact that you do) the more resilient they are. When you realise you can control the universe that’s pretty cool. Of course, dogs also may feel they are controlling the universe by negative emotional actions, the ‘Bite First – Ask Questions Later’ or the flight that Leyla so desperately would have chosen when she first arrived. But controlling the world in positive, mindful, controlled ways is a cornerstone of resilience. People with OCD aren’t resilient. It doesn’t feel good. It’s dysfunctional and yet it leaves them feeling strangely in control. When you have true autonomy, it feels good. It’s a field I’m exploring more and more with dogs I work with.

And of course, none of this would be possible without complementary therapies or pharmaceutical support. For some dogs, the road to resilience is never going to be possible without these. In France, vets rarely prescribe psychological pharmaceuticals without also prescribing a course of behaviour modification. I’ve only known a medical prescription for an older dog that didn’t come with a prescription for behaviour modification. The two work effectively together to rebuild a little resilience. Other therapies can also help. From Ttouch to groundwork, diet and dietary supplements, acupuncture and medicine for health issues, herbal supplements to massage, there are so many things that can help a dog on their journey. Flika had a bad day yesterday. It was 41°C and she was having both arthritis flare-ups and Tenor lady moments. She was uncomfortable, fidgety and stressed. An anxitane pill, an anti-inflammatory, some reggae and a half-hour of massage turned my girl who’d run out of spoons into a girl who was able to rest. No rest and you’ll find resilience disappears. Heston’s soothing is grooming and chewing. 30 minutes of brushing and a good half-hour with a bit of tendon to chew on and it was like he’d done an hour of yoga. We carry stress in our muscles: make sure you give your dogs time to recharge their batteries and discharge their muscular as well as their mental stress.

In all, if you’ve got a 5 or a 6 out of 10 kind of a dog, rather than a bombproof 10 out of 10, make sure you keep those resilience banks topped up with intervals between stressful events (both positive stress like fun walks and negative stress like things they don’t like). Give your dog plenty of proper rest – I know lots of homes where the TV is on right next to the dog bed for 14 hours a day or more! Build in physical contact and care protocols from massage or gentle grooming to Ttouch and acupuncture. Treat underlying aches and pains. Ensure your dog has security and feels safe. Seek out your vet or a behaviourist if necessary. Always factor in social support – both human and canine. Give choices and build your dog’s ability to say both no and yes. Plan for the future and keep that resilience going in careful ways, or you’ll watch it ebb away just as your dog needs it most for vets and medicines and their own life changes.

After all, resilience is like a muscle. You may have been born with the genes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the ability to bench-press three times your body weight, or you may have biceps like Twiglets, but you can work at it always. Then, when your world turns upside down one Friday evening in the driving rain, it won’t zap your resilience for good.


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.